Thursday, February 25, 2010

Realizing the Sacred

The National Gallery of Art in DC this weekend opens a very interesting exhibit of Spanish religious painting and sculpture from the 1600-1700s. Under the title “The Sacred Made Real” the exhibit includes a series of delicate, dramatically telling and brutally real pieces from the Spanish master painters and sculptutors of the time: Velázquez, Zurbarán, Ribera, Ribalta, De Mena, Montañés and others.

Many of these works of art, created to move the soul and to elicit a deep connection to the divine, had never before left the walls of the churches, convents and chapels that usually house them. It is a marvel in and of itself that they are here—London and Washington being the lone engagements for the exhibit before returning them to the faithful who still so revere them—let alone, that they are exhibited outside of their natural habitat: the houses of prayer.

I must acknowledge that to eyes such as mine, so accustomed to seeing these images in the context of the baroque setting of the Catholic Churches of the time, some of these paintings and polychrome sculptures seemed almost naked and out of context. The exhibit, however, provided a rare opportunity to appreciate each image and the sacred message they represent with new depth.

The ambiance the organizers have created— half museum, half church —helps the curious eye appreciate the artistic value of the pieces while at the same time relishing a respectful atmosphere for meditation that might elicit a quiet prayer in more than one soul.

Kudos to Xavier Bray, curator of the exhibit, and assistant curator of 17th and 18th-century Spanish and Italian paintings at the National Gallery in London, who in his first solo exhibit has assembled a remarkable collection of works representing the masters of Spanish realism and hyperrealism in the Spain of the Counter-Reformation.

At a time when Spain and most of Europe seem to be turning away from its Christian roots, this exhibit seems to ironically take pride in that heritage and represents the nation’s rich cultural and spiritual wealth. More so, it is presented on the occasion of the Spanish Presidency of the European Union and with the support of the Ministry of Culture of Spain.

A word of warning: sensible souls unaccustomed to raw representations in religious art of human suffering or spiritual ecstasy (see the face of Saint Francis painting by Zurbarán) are in for a shock … or a treat! And who knows, they might even, all of a sudden, realize the divine.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Newest Numbers

Yesterday's double appointment saw new bishops named in the vacant dioceses of Scranton, Pa. and Ogdensburg, NY. Scranton had been waiting on a new bishops since the August 31, 2009 resignation of Bishop Joseph Martino (and auxiliary Bishop John Dougherty). Ogdensburg has been in wait mode since April 21, 2009, when Bishop Robert Cunningham was appointed bishop of Syracuse.

One notable aspect of yesterday's appointment was that both new bishops were, in effect, already overseeing the day-to-day operations of their respective dioceses as administrators. (Bishop-elect Terry LaValley of Ogdensburg was a full administrator while Bishop-elect Joseph Bambera of Scranton was the delegate of Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, the actual administrator, but that's beside the point.)

Also notable about the appointment is that it reduces the number of vacant U.S. dioceses to three:
  • Springfield, Illinois -- since the June 3, 2009 appointment of Archbishop George Lucas to Omaha
  • Harrisburg, Pennsylvania -- since the November 14, 2009 appointment of Bishop Kevin Rhoades to Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana
  • La Crosse, Wisconsin -- since the November 14, 2009 appointment of Archbishop Jerome Listecki to Milwaukee
As Rocco Palmo and others have noted in Church circles, this is a historic low. Also low are the bishops serving past their retirement age, which still stands at four:
  • Bishop William Higi of Lafayette, Indiana -- age 76
  • Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle -- age 76
  • Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington -- age 75, soon to be 76
  • Archbishop Eusebius Beltran of Oklahoma City -- age 75
There will be no new additions to this list until April, when two more U.S. bishops turn 75.

Hat tip to David Cheney.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lenten Disciplines: One Reporter's Journey

A few Lents back, I was still working as a reporter at the diocesan level. One of the challenges of diocesan reporting is to continually find new angles to stories that come up on a pretty cyclical basis, and Lent is no exception. That year, I decided to talk to a handful of everyday Catholics and get their personal take on what the season of Lent -- and its disciplines -- mean for them and how it plays out in their daily lives.

My hope was that I wouldn't just have a series of articles cataloguing what half a dozen people had given up that year -- chocolate, TV, foul language, interrupting. But what I ended up getting from my interview subjects was far better than I'd hoped for; it was an impressively diverse cluster of reflections that are still providing spiritual encouragement years after the fact.

There was Joyce, a parish RCIA instructor whose job was to guide people into the Church year after year, culminating in Lent and Easter. Against this backdrop, she encouraged candidates and catechumens not to look at the Lenten discipline of fasting as simply giving something up, but of discarding something about oneself that causes separation from God.

On some level, this is just a minor change in perspective. "I'm giving up excessive Internet browsing because it makes me fat and lazy" vs. "I'm giving up excessive Internet browsing because it detracts from time that could be spent in prayer, etc." Both acknowledge a form of gluttony. One is more focused on how the relationship with God fits into it.

Another take on this perspective is that an ungodly part of a person dies during Lent so that the person may be resurrected anew.

Of course, along with death and resurrection as recurring Lenten themes come sacrifice and suffering. These elements came to the fore when I interviewed Justin, a recent college graduate who'd majored in religious studies.

Justin's thinking on Lent was closely tied to his admiration of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. He cited an essay that describes the love of Christ as a love that went all the way because it refused to return violence and instead poured itself out completely. In the sacrifices of Lent, we learn to show God a love that weathers sacrifice. And again, we die and rise again. In short, Lent is learning to love like Christ.

By this point, Lent sounds like a great opportunity to completely reinvent oneself ... "I'm going to take all those petty, indulgent, sinful things about me, and I'm going to purify myself by casting them off! Sure it will hurt, but the suffering unites me with Christ and allows me to love more perfectly!"

And that lasts about two days.

When I spoke to Father Joe, a local pastor, he raised the point that Lent is also about coming to terms with one's own weakness and dependence on God. So often Catholics head into Lent with great intentions of penance and self improvement, but they get discouraged by their inability to adhere to their own commitments.

Father Joe said he urges patience with oneself as part of the Lenten discipline. Just as the very act of fasting weakens us and reminds us of our need for nourishment, the challenges of Lent remind us that only by the grace of God can we do anything.

The frustrations of Lent came to light in an interview with Charity, a high school senior and aspiring photographer. She catalogued her own Lenten complications of years past, such as woefully underestimating her addiction to coffee or the question of what a vegetarian is supposed to do on a Lenten Friday. In spite of these troubles, the themes of Lent still loomed in her life. Several of her friends had met early deaths, and this suffering had prompted her to make her own deaths and rebirths.

Charity's approach to Lent itself was novel. She took it upon herself to reach out to her fellow students, the marginalized and friendless. They would look back on high school and remember that at least one person was nice to them, she insisted.

At first, this seemed to fall outside the realm of typical Lenten disciplines. She wasn't exactly fasting from something. But then I realized that Charity had somehow managed to leapfrog to a different level of Lenten observance. After all, if the sacrifice of Lenten disciplines are supposed to unite us with Christ and help us love more fully, then it follows that we would act on that love by reaching out to other people with charity.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What I Learned About Haiti Today

Staff at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had the opportunity today to spend their lunch hour learning more about the human situation on the ground in Haiti and the work the Catholic Church is doing there following the devastating January 12 earthquake.

Msgr. David Malloy, General Secretary of the USCCB, Father Andrew Small, OMI, Director of the National Collection for the Church in Latin America, and Natalie Lummert, Associate Director for Children's Services for the USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), all spoke to staff on the conditions currently facing the country, the Church and the people of Haiti.

Msgr. Malloy, who traveled to Haiti with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, spoke of the excellent work of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) -- the humanitarian relief organization of the U.S. bishops -- in Haiti. Archbishop Dolan, who chairs the CRS board, represented the U.S. bishops at the funeral of Haitian Archbishop Joseph Miot and surveyed the work of CRS firsthand.

Helping to rebuild churches, seminaries and Catholic schools in Haiti will be partly the work of the National Collection for the Church in Latin America, and Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, who chairs the collection's subcommittee, also traveled to Haiti for Archbishop Miot's funeral. He was accompanied by the USCCB's Father Andrew Small, who spoke to fellow USCCB staff about how it's even difficult to calculate the extent of the devastation in Haiti because completely accurate counts of schools, parish enrollment, etc. weren't kept even before the earthquake.

Father Small also shared some images of the devastation via Web videos shot as he and Bishop Wenski traveled through Haiti. He noted that conditions in Haiti (poverty, corruption, etc.) were so bad before the earthquake that the eventual goal isn't to rebuild Haiti exactly as it was, but to find a way to rebuild it so that it works.

Natalie Lummert of MRS addressed issues facing children in Haiti, particularly human trafficking, which she noted had been an issue prior to the earthquake, but was now even worse. She shared details about the MRS program for unaccompanied refugee minor program, which has been geared largely toward Haitians. She also mentioned that the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recently granted to Haiti by the Obama Administration is something the U.S. bishops have urged for years.

Other troubling details to emerge regarding Haiti included that gang activity is rampant in some areas, with Haitians being robbed of the food they receive from rescue workers. Additional aftershock tremors are expected for months, maybe even years, meaning the rebuilding process itself could be undone in a matter of minutes.

USCCB staff asked questions about issues including the relationship between Haiti and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, how hurricane damage from the last decade has further complicated matters for Haitians, and whether or not Haitian seminarians might be able to study in the United States.

It was an informative lunch hour that on one hand made clear just how daunting and tangled so many of the challenges facing Haiti actually are. But it made equally clear the deep concern, and continual dedicated work of the Catholic Church to meet those challenges.