Thoughts of a Priest on the 30th Anniversary of His Ordination
Father Richard Cipolla was ordained a Catholic priest thirty year ago, after a journey to the Faith which included studying at Oxford University and serving as an Episcopalian minister. A scientist and a Latinist, Father Cipolla is currently the Chair of the Classics Department at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut. Father Cipolla is also parochial vicar of St Mary’s in Norwalk, where he gave the following homily on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his ordination as a Catholic priest.
Last week we heard the gospel from St John that recounts Jesus’ first miracle, the changing of water into wine. Today we hear of two more miracles performed by our Lord: the healing of the lepers and the healing of the centurion’s servant. The gospels in the season of the Sundays after Epiphany concentrate on the miracles of Jesus as the answer to the seminal, the basic question asked and answered in the gospels: who is this man Jesus?
These miracles are not offered as proof to the gospel answer to this question, that he is the Son of God, the Word of God and the Savior of the world. But they are offered— offered in a historical sense, not in some sort of symbolic sense—to point to the answer to the seminal question. Many who call themselves Christians have been having problems with these miracles for a long time, and they have done so because they have succumbed well over a century ago to a rationalistic and moralistic understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.
These people are locked into a totally outdated and false understanding of the physical world: they live in a imaginary Newtonian world in which surprise is absent. It is absent by decree, since there can be no surprises in a clock world understanding of the physical universe. One does not have to be conversant with the ins and outs of contemporary physics to know that physical reality is full of surprises and that these surprises happen with alarming frequency. The irony is that in an age in which science is seen to be the basis and the touchstone of what is real, most people, certainly including theologians, are locked into a view of reality that corresponds in no way to the mysterious and in a way crazy picture of physical reality that contemporary physics paints for us. And the verb paints is very apt, for physical reality is much more like a painting whose meaning can never be fully grasped than the rather boring view of reality that is like a Patek Phillipe watch: expensive, elegant in its own way, keeps good time, but in the end not very interesting.
There is no doubt that we are living through one of the worst crises the Church has faced in her 2000 year history. The roots of this crisis do not lie in yesterday. The roots have been growing for at least three centuries, some would say much longer than that, and these roots are firmly grounded in the soil of that radical and myopic view of reality that places the individual at the center of the universe and as the ultimate meaning of what is real and true and good. The cry of Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I can do no other”, finds its logical and inevitable consummation in the world in which we live, a world that loves to talk about ‘community’ only in terms of a reality that is totally circumscribed by a radical denial of what has formed communities in the past: family, friends, shared values grounded in something beyond the community, and a sense of the transcendent.
This is a world in which any objectivity in morality is denied, morality is defined in terms of the freedom of the individual to do whatever he wants, with the exception of hurting another person, and that hurting another person is seen in terms of making that other person “unhappy”. Even killing another person does not get in the way of this morality based on the self and a selfish understanding of freedom, as we can see in the painful example of the contemporary acceptance of abortion as a personal right.
And the crisis in the Church lies in her willful refusal to vigorously counter in an ecclesial way, based on the truth of the Gospel, this warped view of what is real, what is true and good. There is no doubt from a reading of Church history that the Church has succumbed at various times in her history to trying to make peace with the world by a deliberate forgetting of her role and mission given to her by Him who is the ultimate contradiction to the world. But in those times, there have always been those whom we call saints, especially the martyrs, who have seen through these dishonest attempts to come to terms with the world, and whose lives and death have the same effect as Jesus’ miracles: they point beyond and above to the God who is good, true and beautiful.
The Church has often had a hard time dealing with these people: like St Antony of Egypt who fled from the world to live in the desert; like St Francis of Assisi who embraced a terrible form of poverty to point to the reality of the radical nature of Christianity; like St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose understanding of the vocation of love that lies at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic brought her to such terrible suffering and in the end at her death a darkness that she perceived as a loss of faith. Or like St Thomas More, that very worldly and intelligent man, that eminent scholar and writer of superb even if mock Ciceronian Latin, that ambitious man who rose so high in political power and who found himself quite unexpectedly and not by choice confronting that choice that is at the heart of the Catholic faith and yet is denied by most Catholics, that choice between the world that tolerates only a tamed and impotent Christian faith and that faith which demands to choose contra mundum because of love of Christ who died pro mundo. And Thomas More chose for God in the context of defending the Papacy in the person of a Pope who was no great model for the Petrine ministry. The trouble is that these saints and most saints have been so pietized and hagiized and sentimentalized by Catholics that their meaning, who they really were, has evaporated. St Francis becomes a Disney character complete with birds and a birdbath. St Thérèse becomes a sweet pious French little girl holding roses. St Thomas More becomes a character in a Robert Bolt play who is reduced to a “man of principle.”
But this is all part of the history that has brought us to this time of crisis. A time when bishops refuse to condemn the warped worldliness of their flock holding prominent positions in government, those who dare to claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, dare to proclaim themselves as Catholics, dare to claim to be daily Mass goers, and at the same time support contemporary moral positions that deny the Lord of life himself. And all of this in the name of compassion, compassion redefined in the name of the freedom of the individual. And this is what compassion has been reduced to. So many Catholics do not know what compassion means: it means to suffer with another. It does not mean to excuse the faults of another. But it does mean to love the other, and to love some one means to be willing to suffer with that person, means to reach out to the other from the Cross of Jesus Christ.
There is no other compassion than the compassion of Mary at the foot of the Cross. There is no other compassion than St Francis’ receiving the stigmata. There is no other compassion than St Thérèse suffering her dark death in the context of her vocation to love. There is no compassion other than St Thomas More’s terrible realization of what love for the world really means — dying on behalf of the love of Christ for all men, in a most ambiguous context. It means that there is no foundation for true compassion except in the infinite compassion of Jesus Christ for the sinners of the world.
But what has brought us to the particular depth of crisis the Church faces today? The difference between the crises of the Church in the past — and there were many of them — and the crisis besetting us now is this: the contemporary loss of the sacred, specifically the loss of the liturgy, of the Mass, as the binding force that was the fundamental context in which the Catholic life was lived through the centuries. It was, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, the fons et culmen — the source and summit of the Catholic life.
The Mass of the Tradition is the fruit of organic development whose words, prayers, gestures, music cannot be identified with any one culture, any one language, any one provenance. The Mass includes its roots in Judaism, in the Greek speaking world of ancient times, in the Middle East of Syria and Lebanon, in the city and empire of Rome, drawing from traditions far and wide, from Britain to Gallican France, to Spain, to North Africa, from what we call in general the East: all expressed in a common and unchangeable language that is foundational in the Christian world of the West.
This structure, this palace, this humble home, this house that everyone, rich, poor, men, women, children, educated, peasant could come to and be at home in, at home even if not intellectually understanding what all these rooms meant, coming into a place that was familiar and yet not common, the place that was always there, that did not depend on the fashion of the world, what was au courant at the time, that transcended time and space, that always pointed to what one could not understand but believed. This is so wonderfully captured in that scene in Graham Green’s novel, ‘The Power and the Glory’ when the Mexican peasants sigh with happiness as the priest, risking his life for them, says the Mass in a poor home, and when he raises the Host they sigh, and in that sigh they know, they know, despite the terrible reality of their lives, they know that God is with them again in the home of the Mass.
But there came a time, not too long ago, where this understanding of the Mass was shunted aside. And it was declared that the Mass was no longer the venerable place for people of all times and places of encounter with God, but rather, that it was an historical document, that it was a text that could be manipulated, in opposition to tradition and with a great deal of arrogance, brought up to date, to fit the needs of modern man who now demanded knocking down walls to create open concept kitchens with granite counter-tops, whose focus needed to be the family room with the huge TV. And this reform had to be entrusted to committees and experts, as if because scholars could identify historical developments in the Mass this gave them the right to correct what they did not like: once the contemporaneity of the Mass with eternity was forgotten: then the Church, in the name of relevance to engagement with the world, in the name of making the Mass more meaningful to her people — in this case, the people of the 1960s — then the touchstone of the Faith is gone, and there is nothing to hold back the godless face of secularism and relativism.
And once the priest became the center of attention in the Mass, often sitting a throne-like chair where the tabernacle used to be, once he became the facilitator and entertainer, once he faced his people with the altar as a barrier between him and his people, thinking that he was talking to them instead of to God, he forgot who he was. He forgot that the essence of his priesthood is to offer the Holy Sacrifice for and with his people and that this sacrifice demands the sacrifice of himself and that the center of his being must be Christ and Him crucified. This is why, in the words of Romano Guardini, the priest, amidst the joys of being a priest, always carries within his heart “la tristezza così perenne”, the sadness that is always in his heart, for as he offers up the Holy Sacrifice. his heart is rent by the knowledge that the Son of God had to die in such a terrible way for his sins and for the sins of the whole world.
And yet, what we are doing right now is the antidote to the crisis we face. The greatest gift given to the Church in the past fifty years has been Pope Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, giving back to the Church what was wrongfully and arrogantly taken away from her: the Mass of the Tradition of the Catholic Church. Benedict did this because he knew that the heart of the crisis of the Church is the parlous state of the liturgical praxis of the Church that has forgotten that the Mass is for God. It is the worship of God. It is the offering of the Holy Sacrifice, the re-presentation of Calvary. It is not a religious exercise for the people. It is not something for the priest to make up and to make relevant and to make the people happy. It is not an extension of religious education, a didactic exercise.
The Mass is where one enters the Holy of Holies and gives oneself over to the mystery and the love of God. When I was ordained a priest thirty years ago, I never dreamed that I would be celebrating this Mass surrounded by people of faith from all sorts and conditions of men and women. But God is good and faithful. And he has given back to his Church this source of grace and truth, this treasure, the ultimate treasure that is filled with the beauty of God in the distillation of time, of that time impregnated with the astounding event of God becoming man, becoming flesh.
And what else can we do on this day than be grateful and happy, oh so happy, oh so filled with joy? Especially in this parish church so beautifully made fitting for the coming of God under the veils of bread and wine! And what else can we do than before Holy Communion to echo the centurion’s words from the gospel: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed!
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Blessed John Henry Newman At Sea, 1833