WILLIS A. BOUGHTON – A Reminiscence

In my misspent youth I was helped along by a remarkable man.  In the 1960’s, he was a youth group counselor for the MYF (Methodist Youth Group) at St. Andrews, a neighborhood church in a working class area of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Willis A. Boughton was born in 1885, so when I met him he was already in his 70’s; quite a contrast from the millennial hipsters so common in today’s church youth ministries (see babylonbee.com for more info on the type.)

He was a retired research chemist at Harvard, living alone in a downtown cottage filled with books.  He came to our weekly meetings (Wednesday evening, if memory serves) and to Sunday School.  And we were always welcome to stop in at his home for a visit. 

His hobby, outside of counseling youth, was photography.  If there  are any photos of me from those days, he took them.

But his great passion was the gentle friendship and counseling of youth, particularly young men.   He owned a small, rustic “summer camp” on a lake in Maine (consisting of a single-room cottage with attached room for himself and a small dorm room for the three or four of us), and drove a carload of us up there for a few weeks each year. 

We boys must have been around 14, because Mr. B (as we called him) drove all the way himself (which was somewhat harrowing – he was not a great driver). On the way up, we stopped in Boston for a tour of Harvard and the Freedom Trail, and a dinner at Durgin-Parks. 

Did I mention the camp was rustic?  There was water only from an outside pump, and a kind of camp toilet which required daily emptying and burning in an outdoor firepit.  But there were canoes and hiking trails and firewood chopping and reading and just plain hanging about on a warm summer day.  And across the lake was a classy (by comparison) resort, Chase’s Camp, with adult guests and charming young girls working summer jobs.  Pretty young Maine girls just about our ages, and just a short hike away. (The canoes were not used for this purpose, as our approach would have been spotted by the girls’ adult chaperones.)

So it was a great summer.  After we got back to Florida, Mr. B would start off with the next crew.    

Though he rarely shared it with us, he had another side as a poet, writing and self-publishing over 30 books.  When I finally got around to reading some of them, I found them well-crafted and often very moving.  (He was obviously influenced by A. E. Housman and Robert Frost, to whom he introduced me.) You can find them occasionally on Used-Book sites.

Mr. B was a phase in my life, deeply enriching but totally unappreciated by me.  Soon after those idyllic Maine days, I was off to college and my new career, starring in the movie of my amazing life as a moody young radical intellectual, smartest guy in every room.  I never saw him again.  He died in 1977, when I was 30 and he was 92. 

I now find that his story, retold in our decadent modern world, sounds like the buildup to a criminal case of a pedophile homosexual abuser grooming innocent young men, all the while masquerading as a kindly old churchman.   But there was never a breath of scandal about him. Mr. B was truly loved by everyone, because he was what he appeared to be: a generous, kindly, gracious Christian old man giving whatever he had to the necessary business of helping to turn young barbarians into men.   

Now, when I am as old as he was when I met him, I finally understand how much I miss him.

Here is one of his poems, from Many Candles (1950).

NOCTURNE

Across the silver lake the moon dies;

The night is touched with crowded solitude.

Deep in the distant shore the loon cries

                In evening mood.

From tamarack and pine drop faint scents.

The afterglows of red and silver fade.

The wood retreats into its dark tents,

                And stars are made.

Now from the thicker dusk rise night sounds,

A steady pulse of evening quietude

Spreading beyond the sight it still bounds,

                While shadows brood.

Soon to the waiting heart comes free peace.

Places of argument seem dim an far away,

And love beguiles the sense with surcease

                From the bright day.

THE CRUCIFIXION NEVER ENDS

AN EASTER THOUGHT

In church today for the Easter service, I found myself swept up in the joyous spirit.  The music, the liturgy, the homily, al so spirit-lifting! But I had one disturbing thought as I looked at the crucifix: it seemed out of place, jarring and untimely.  We were celebrating the risen Lord, but the unavoidable centerpiece of the church was the crucifix, graphically displaying the dying Lord.  Didn’t the crucifixion end? Hasn’t Christ risen?  Then why, on this most joyous day, are we faced with death – His death? His gruesome, ugly, pathetic, painful death?

On Holy Saturday, commemorating the day when Jesus was in the tomb, the crucifix was covered, removed from sight, signifying His terrible absence from us.  But on Easter Sunday morning, He is back. We welcome Him home…but He is still dying!

As a recent convert (and long-lapsed Protestant), I have thought much about crucifixes. These depictions of our Savior dying on the cross adorn most (sadly not all) Catholic churches.  In this, we are (as far as I know) unique. Protestant churches usually have crosses behind the altar, but rarely are the crosses occupied.  Protestants tend to see the crucifix as needlessly maudlin. (Perhaps an appropriate word, if we remember its origin in the person of Mary Magdalene.)

The empty Protestant crosses are analogous to the empty tomb. The crucifixion, the death, the burial, all are in the past.  We move on.

But Catholics present the cross complete with the body of Jesus. The “corpus” may be symbolical or impressionistic, often bloodless, all in consideration of modern sensibilities about bloody, tortured bodies. But they are still painful to see.

Theologically, I don’t know why Catholics embrace the crucifix rather than the cross. But I have always found the crucifix a useful reminder that now, as in the past, every sin hurts God. Every sin requires an atonement.  Sin is not just an internal, private or inter-personal matter between me and anyone I injured with my sin. Every sin hurts God.

And so, the crucifixion never ends. It continues as long as sin does – that is, as long as I sin. And it is a great blessing to be reminded of that fact every time I step into a church.  Even on Easter.

FAITH, HOPE, LOVE, all tangled up

St. Paul famously articulated the theological virtues: “Now abideth these three; Faith, Hope and Love.”

While he went on to crown one of them above the others (1 Corinthians 13:13, “the greatest of these is love”), he otherwise left this trinity of virtues unclarified. How are they related? Is there a connection between them?  Aren’t faith and hope the same thing, kind of? Did he separate them just to have three things in the list?

Elsewhere we read that “faith is the substance of things hoped for”, which certainly suggests a strong linkage between those two. The continuation of that passage (in Hebrews 11:1), “and the proof of things unseen”, fits our modern definition of faith more closely. But the link between faith and hope seems to want further consideration.

More modern translations suggest somewhat different meanings. The NAB calls faith “the realization of what is hoped for”. The NIV has “faith is being sure of what we hope for”.  The Jerusalem Bible reaches further, with “only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for”.  The Greek text uses the word “hypostasis” which elsewhere is usually translated as “substance,” so I stick with the RSV or KJV.

Faith, then, is the underlying reality of our hopes. But I am still confused about this “F-H-L” trinity.

Trying to untangle this knot in my mind, I tried subtraction.

Can there be hope without faith?  Or faith without hope?  And the real clincher, can we have love without faith or hope?

Hope without faith? This one comes up first and has troubled me for a long time.  Before I found faith in God, I faced what seemed to me to be a world and a future without hope.

Throughout my (almost-seventy-year-long) youth, I always had faith.  Faith in myself, in my wisdom. Faith in the basic goodness of others (“People Are Basically Good”, or PABGoo). Faith in historical and political progress. Faith in Marx and Hegel and Comte and Nietzsche.  Humanist faith: faith in humanity.  (Like Blanche Dubois, I always relied on the kindness of strangers.) And so I always had hope.

One thing linked all these faiths together: they were all as false as false can be.  And they all failed.

They failed because they could not stand exposure to reality, nor survive their own confrontation with the real world. 

(If you, dear reader, still have faith in these things, then pass on. If you are in doubt about them, I can suggest a reading list. Or you can simply reflect on the state of our world today.)

Yet we need faith, of some sort, faith in something or someone.  Why do we need faith?  Because we need hope, and we cannot have that without faith.  (The worldly, humanist faiths I listed above seem rather embarrassed about this fact, and avoid it by re-labeling hopeful faith as “optimism.”)

So we may conclude that hope without faith is impossible.

What about faith without hope? Are there hopeless faiths? I don’t know of any; do you? Our need for hope seems to be a basic component of human nature; hopelessness is the door to suicide.  And only faith can supply hope.

The need for faith is therefore downstream from the need for hope; faith flows from the need for hope, but hope flows from faith.

Perhaps this is a form of understanding faith as the substance of things hoped for. We hope for peace and joy; and faith gives us the substance of peace and joy.

But what about Virtue Number 3, “the greatest of these”?  To clarify, we are talking about love for others in the broadest sense, including but extending far beyond sexual or romantic love, beyond love of family. We are talking about love for others, for strangers. The Greek word is agape, as distinct from eros. Charity is a common English synonym.

Can there be such love without faith or hope?

The answer is yes. Of course, yes.

Love without hope, hopeless love, is a staple of romantic and tragic literature.  

Everybody loves, to some extent and in some way.  It is built into our human nature, as is the need for hope.  And everybody has faith, in something or other.  But, as we have seen, false faiths produce false and feeble hopes.  They also produce feeble loves.

Faith in humanity is ultimately faith in oneself. And self-faith is self-worship, leading nowhere good. Moreover, self-worship requires willful blindness to one’s weakness.  If you are your own god, you are doomed to perpetual disappointment.

Yet the false faith in humanity is still compatible with love for others.  Why is this?

And even the most hopeless person can feel love.  How can this be? 

To the Christian, the answer is clear.  We are created to love. The God who created us is a loving God, and we are therefore made, designed, blessed with the ability to love.  That is a part of what it means that we are created in God’s image.

What about those without faith or hope?  Or, more correctly, those with only false faiths and therefore false hopes (since, as we have seen, everyone has faith and hope of some kind)?

They, too, love. Indeed, the apostles of humanity-worship are often the loudest in their claims of love for all, and not all of their claims are mere posturing.  We all know many folks who scoff at the Bible, but still are generous in helping others, open-handed in charity and open-hearted in volunteering.  They do it because they know it is right.

But they do not know why it is right. 

Love, like faith and hope, is an inherently and universally human thing.  But unlike the other two, love for others does not seem to confer evolutionary advantage (except in the case of love for family and offspring), while truly hopeless individuals are at a distinct disadvantage in the Darwinian struggle for survival.  Science has made some half-hearted attempts to explain love in genetic terms (beyond love of children or self-love of genes), but without much success.  And, as in the case of hope/optimism, a certain embarrassment with the biblical terminology has required the coining of a new term: “altruism”.

 NOTE: I have written elsewhere about hope and its particular difficulties: The Little Girl Hope, Hope is the Hardest, and Hope Without Faith. Let me know what you think about any or all of this.

Shape-Notes and Psalms

Have you heard of Shape Note Hymn Singing? I hadn’t until recently.

It is a traditional form of protestant hymn-singing, experiencing a small resurgence in parts of the country. Variously called “Fasola”, or “Sacred Harp”, it is beautiful, striking, sometimes boisterous and even raucous, and weirdly haunting. If you are not familiar with it, check out this clip. Going Home Mountain Shape Note singing – YouTube

The style (and many of the hymns) arose out of poor, rural, musically illiterate Appalachian communities, and are joyous celebrations of release from hard lives. They often follow the line of what were once called Negro spirituals (and are now properly African-American spirituals). Compare “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” or “Deep river, my home is over Jordan”, with “I’m glad that I am born to die, from grief and woe my soul shall fly, and I don’t care to stay here long!”  They all speak from hard lives of misery, poverty and oppression, and they look forward to rest and relief in heaven.  Even putting aside the extremity of suffering that slavery added to poverty, the common themes are striking.  Life is hard but heaven is near; and so we turn to God.

This theme is also reflected in the Psalms, the ancient hymnal of the Jews.  Many psalms are prayers to God for relief from external attack by enemies, as in Psalm 70: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord.” The voice of misery that opens Psalm 22 is so strong, asking “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, that Jesus himself cries it out in his agony on the cross.

But what about those who do not suffer from external oppression?  In our modern lives of prosperity, security and comfort, what about those of us who suffer only from the burden of our own sins?  One of the most moving of the psalms for me has always been Psalm 130, (the De Profundis): :”Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.…If thou should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”

Many psalms embody the trust we can and must place in God as we navigate the uncertainty of life. Psalm 46: (“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the sea.”)

All the psalms include elements of praise, some of them as their primary thought, like Psalm 8 (“O Lord our God, how excellent is thy name in all the earth”). Others incorporate thanksgiving and praise, such as Psalm 66 (“Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands.”)

And my favorites are the ones that praise the Lord for the beauty and wonders of the world He has made. Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows forth his handiwork.”  This one is particularly apropos for those of us who find the beauty of nature to be a roadmap to its divine origin. (See my various postings of NASA photos of the galaxies and nebulas.)

What are we to conclude from all these variation, all these different subject matters and tones of voice?  Simply this: there are many paths to God. They vary only according to our needs.  

But ultimately all paths lead to God, if followed with open eyes and heart. (And, for me at least, my ears.)

———————————————–

“I’M GOING HOME” LYRICS

Farewell, vain world! I’m going home!
My savior smiles and bids me come,
And I don’t care to stay here long!
Sweet angels beckon me away,
To sing God’s praise in endless day,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

I’m glad that I am born to die,
From grief and woe my soul shall fly,
And I don’t care to stay here long!
Bright angels shall convey me home,
Away to New Jerusalem,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

For more on Shape-Note Singing, see Sacred Harp Singing – YouTube

For more AFRICAN AMERICAN SPIRITUALS, see African American Spirituals Lyrics

I’m No Optimist, but…

Optimism is always a delusion, a belief that things will somehow work out OK. It is based on the notion that People Are Basically Good (PABGoo, in short).  In other words, it is a complete denial of reality, as evident throughout all human history and clearly visible in every day’s news.

Optimism is a pseudo-scientific, secular substitute for Hope, which is a Christian virtue based on faith in a loving God.

Fortunately, when we look carefully, even in these dire days, we can find hopeful things in the news. Even hopeful news about the state of our Church occasionally pops up. Recent days offered some.

Archbishop Jose Gomez, President of the US Council of Catholic Bishops, issued a public statement on the inauguration of President (and “devout catholic”) Joe Biden. 

“I look forward to working with President Biden and his administration, and the new Congress. As with every administration, there will be areas where we agree and work closely together and areas where we will have principled disagreement and strong opposition.

“Our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.”

Unsurprisingly, this provoked an outburst from Democratic spokesman (and Archbishop of Chicago) Cupich, who called it “ill-considered”.  It is also no surprise that the Knights of Columbus, slandered as extremists by our new Vice President, stood firm in support.

Gomez’ statement also stimulated an outpouring of responses from other Catholic Bishops (see HERE), most of it strongly supportive.  

Imagine! Straight talk from the USCCB!

HOPE!

Cadaver Impeachment Indeed

I see that Mr. Hans Moleman has just posted a wry reflection on the race to  impeach nearly ex-President Trump before he leaves town.  Hans (I call him Hans because we are good friends) calls this “the Cadaver Impeachment”, referring to the Cadaver Synod that tried and condemned the rotting corpse of former Pope Formosius, in the ninth century AD.  They also repealed all his acts, including his ordinations of bishops. 

 

You can read it at mistermoleman.comHans doesn’t post very often these days (he’s quite old), but when he does it is worth a look.

Suffer the Little Children

Church and State on Divorce

[I posted an earlier version of this essay, which I have now removed. I had erroneously criticized the Catechism for ignoring the suffering of children of divorce. A wiser voice corrected me. My only excuse is that I find the Catechism much harder to study than St. Thomas Aquinas.]

[This essay, as updated, has been published on Catholic Insight (catholicinsight.com), an excellent website in Canada. Its editor, John Paul Meenan, is the “wiser voice” that corrected me. I encourage you to take a look.]

            In Mark 10, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees (“to test Him”) whether divorce is lawful. As He admits, the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 24 and elsewhere) permitted divorce under some conditions. But Jesus argued more broadly, basing His words on the second chapter of Genesis, “the two will become one flesh.” Therefore, Jesus says, “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

            The Mosaic Law on divorce is complex, but the overriding sense is that it is at best a necessary evil caused by unnecessary (and worse) evils. (As Jesus explained, “For your hardness of heart Moses wrote you this commandment.”) Adultery and abuse were the commonly accepted justifications. Remarriage of divorced persons was permitted in some cases and prohibited in others.

            Throughout the Bible, many aspects of divorce are addressed: Matthew 19:12 echoes Mark. Malachi 2:16 is strong: “For I hate divorce, says the Lord.” Luke 16:18 condemns re-marriage. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 even addresses serial divorce-and-re-marriage! But one omission is glaring: there is not a word about child custody. The impact on the children receives no more consideration than it does in a modern American courtroom, where children are an afterthought at best.

            In biblical (especially New Testament) times, the concept of family meant a father, a mother, and their children (along with any dependent grandparents). The idea of an intentionally childless married couple did not exist (perhaps because effective contraception did not exist). Children were valued as workers in support of the family, as caretakers in parental old age, and as inheritors. Many other reasons probably factored into what was in all likelihood not a conscious decision (to procreate) at all.

            St. Thomas Aquinas comes at the divorce issue from an interesting tack: the natural law. This “intention of nature” holds our fundamental understanding of right and wrong (sometimes called the First Grace, followed by the Mosaic Law and finally Jesus’ Law of Love.) It is the law that St. Paul ascribes to all, even the gentiles, as innate in our humanity (in Romans and elsewhere). Here is St. Thomas:

“By the intention of nature, marriage is directed to the rearing of offspring, not merely for a time, but throughout its whole life…  Therefore since the offspring is the common good of husband and wife, the dictate of the natural law requires the latter [husband and wife] to live together forever inseparably; and so the indissolubility of marriage is of natural law.” (“I answer that…”,Supplement Q67. A1: my emphasis added)

            In response to the (very modern-sounding) objection that some couples are infertile, and therefore marriage cannot be directed primarily to offspring, Thomas patiently explains:

“Marriage is chiefly directed to the common good in respect of its principal end, which is the good of the offspring; although in respect of its secondary end it is directed to the good of the parties…Hence marriage laws consider what is expedient for all rather than what may be suitable for one.” (Reply to Obj. 4)

            Note that St. Thomas does refer to “the good of the parties”, sometimes described as the unitive principle; but he calls it secondary to the good of the children.

            It is also worth noting that this is from his Summa Theologiae, which is based on both revelation and reason. He could have based the indissolubility of marriage first and foremost on biblical grounds: Genesis and Matthew/Mark. But instead, he bases his answer on natural law. One would expect this non-theological approach in his Summa Contra Gentiles, in which he argues from reason and nature, without divine revelation, to attain truth; and one is not disappointed:

“Hence, as law is instituted for the common good, the function of procreation ought to be regulated by laws divine and human. Now the laws laid down ought to proceed on the basis of the dictate of nature…Since then there is in the human species a natural exigency for the union of male and female to be one and indivisible, such unity and indissolubility must needs be ordained by human law. To that ordinance the divine law adds a supernatural reason, derived from the significancy of marriage as a type of the inseparable union of Christ with His Church…” (Chapter CXXIII)

            His reasoning is consistent: marriage is a matter of natural law directed at the welfare of children, creating the future and thereby benefiting society. Revelation adds a secondary, supernatural reason, related to the unitive principle, based on scripture (Genesis).

            St. Thomas, were he writing today, might find that contraception (and abortion) has divided marriages into two kinds (or “species”, to use one of his favorite words): families with children and those (contentedly or intentionally) without: procreative families and non-procreative ones. His reasoning cited above about infertile couples would have to take into account the very large number of intentionally childless marriages.

            The problem is reflected in our terminology.  “Divorce” (from the Latin divorto, “to turn different ways”) is usually defined as a legal dissolution (or dissolving) of a marriage contract or covenant.  “Marriage” is defined as the legally or formally recognized union of two people. Two people: two adults. And the children? Collateral damage. Property to be divided.

            We don’t even have a word for a divorce where children are involved. Whenever we use one word to describe two very different events, things can get confused. Divorce of two childless adults can be many things, from tragic to trivial. But divorce involving children is another thing: innocent children are victims, always hurt, traumatized, brutalized. What they experience is the destruction of their family and their world; a destruction inflicted upon them by those same adults who brought them into existence and have the duty to protect them. For a child, divorce dissolves not a contractual relationship, but a world.

            Thus, linguistically we trivialize the suffering of these children. Separation of childless adults is properly called divorce; but divorce with children should be described as it is: family destruction and child abandonment. It is today the one form of child abuse that is not only tolerable but even respectable. (Transgenderist chemical, psychological, and surgical mutilation of children is a new and growing area, but that is for another conversation.)

            Despite our popular myth of the “amicable divorce”, children know better. How often a child must listen to the comforting words of the customary speech. “It’s not your fault. Sometimes grownups just grow apart. It doesn’t mean we don’t love you. I’ll still be your Dad.”   

            The importance of this issue cannot be exaggerated. The social pathologies that plague western society today may be traced to many causes, but one of the most obvious is the weakening of families.  Poverty in America is largely traceable to single-parent households, as violent crime is largely traceable to boys raised in fatherless households.  35% of American children are in single-parent households, 25% specifically fatherless.  And that 25% accounts for 63% of youth suicides, 90% of homeless and runaway youths, 71% of high school dropouts, 70% of youths in state institutions, and 75% of youths in substance abuse treatment. [source: Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kids Count Data Center]

            The enactment of “No-Fault Divorce” laws has been one of the accelerants of societal breakdown.  It has given men (and increasingly women) a free pass to abandon those most dependent on them, without stigma or rebuke. The first such law was adopted by the Russian Bolshevik government in its first months in 1917 (though it only applied to childless couples). In the U.S., California led the way in 1969. These laws, which some men whimsically describe as “get-out-of-jail-free cards”, totally reversed the nature of divorce proceedings. Previous law operated like employment contracts or laws permitting “termination for cause” or “for just cause.” “No-fault” divorce amounted to the analogue of “at-will employment”; the employer could fire an employee for no more reason than that she had become tiresome, or that he had found a replacement he found more appealing.

            The cascade of broken families resulting from enactment of “No-Fault Divorce” laws has been one of the principal accelerants of societal breakdown. It has given men (and, to a lesser extent, women) a free pass to abandon those most dependent on them, without stigma or rebuke.

            It goes without saying that there are legitimate reasons for divorce, abuse being the most obvious. The Church to its credit has used the annulment process to deal with marriages so fatally flawed. The Gospel of Matthew also defends divorce for adultery.

            Some argue that the institution of marriage is itself in the process of dissolution, so it’s no big deal. Cohabitation, “proud” single parenting, and unashamed male abandonment are making divorce irrelevant. One may ponder which came first, cheap divorce or cheapened marriage.  Like most such “chicken-or-egg?” arguments, it is pointless; both need serious attention. But easy, non-judgmental “no-fault” divorce has left marriage in a desperately weakened condition, and mainstreamed the society-wide tragedy of children psychologically crippled by parental abandonment.

            We come now to the current turmoil involving divorced/remarried Catholics. With the present papal incumbent moving to downgrade the seriousness, even the sinfulness, of divorce/remarriage, divorce appears to be viewed everywhere as less of a problem, even in the Church founded by Jesus. If the Church moves forward with “normalization” of divorce, it will only be making matters worse.

            What seems to be lacking is the natural law, which a return to St. Thomas Aquinas could correct. The Church should consider, in light of natural law, the difference between simple divorces and divorces with children. The Church must lead the way in this, given the extent to which our secular society has decided to act as if the children of divorce are invisible (along with society’s rejection of both natural law and Judeo-Christian morality).  The state could, of course, make a start by limiting no-fault divorce to childless couples. But that would require a state willing to confront what Christopher Lasch called “our ‘child-centered’ society’s icy indifference to everything that makes it possible for children to flourish and to grow up to be responsible adults.” [“The True and Only Heaven”]. But that will not happen.

            The Church can and should address the problem with St. Thomas Aquinas and the natural law, rather than normalize it with the confusions of Amoris Laetitia

Parish Priests, the Saints Among Us

St. John Vianney, the Cure d’Ars, the patron saint of parish priests, apparently believed that no parish priests ever became saints.   Fr. Walter Gumbley, O.P. wrote a little book, Parish Priests Among the Saints, (1947) in correction.

From Gumbley’s introduction, “It has sometimes been stated that, with the single exception of St. John Vianney, no parish priest has become a saint.  Henri Gheon, in his The Secret of the Cure d’Ars, relates that the holy man was ‘terrified to learn that in the long roll of the ages not a single parish priest had been raised to the Church’s altars as a saint.  Popes had been canonized, cardinals, bishops, religious and laymen; but of parish priests not one; not the shadow of one.’”

Gumbley goes on to demonstrate that this is erroneous, listing 31 cases (pre-Vianney) in refutation.  (There are probably additional relevant canonizations since 1947.) But none of his cases are particularly well known, and only a few were canonized for their display of holiness explicitly in the exercise of their regular parish duties. (Most clearly on point was St. Peter Fourier, who died in 1644, and was canonized by Leo XIII in 1897.  But since Vianney died in 1859, he would not have known of his distinguished predecessor.)  Gumbley also points to St. Ivo Hellory, who died in1303 and was canonized in 1347. Ivo was a canon lawyer and ecclesiastical judge, but gave up his law practice to serve as a parish priest (which by itself seems sufficient ground for canonization.)

So the Cure d’Ars was wrong, but not by much.   Parish priests are, to say the least, underrepresented in the lists of saints.  One might wonder why.

In the middle ages, parish priests were the proletarians of the clergy: lowly regarded, criticized as ill trained, lax, or corrupt.  Reform movements usually arose from monastic orders.

But with the rise of structured seminary education, parish priests are now well trained and dedicated, and work longer hours than any labor law would permit.   The expectations of today’s catholic parish priests are far higher than any other church’s pastoral duties.

So, maybe the shortage of saints among parish priests is simply because the basic job expectations are so high.  Exceeding those expectations really takes some doing.  (Underachieving, however, appears to be all too easy.)

There probably ought to be a lot more recognized parish priest saints.  There probably ARE a lot more than we will ever recognize, until we meet them in heaven. 

Until then, consider your parish priest.  If he seems to be genuinely Catholic (not a “progressive” modernizer), and he is as hard working as mine, he is probably a saint-in-the-making.  Remember to give thanks to God for him in your daily prayers.  And thank your parish priest, too. Do it often.

ADDENDUM

In the above post, I relied on Fr. Walter Gumbley’s 1947 book (Parish Priests Among the Saints) listing 31 parish-priest-saints.  I also noted in passing that “There are probably additional relevant canonizations since 1947.”  Unfortunately, I have been unable to find such an update.

But I have noted a relevant source on this matter.  Robert Royal’s 2000 book The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century is a remarkable collection of data and stories detailing a grim reality: the 20th century saw a worse slaughter of believing Christians, especially Catholics, than any comparable era in history.

He analyzes these mass martyrdoms in country after country.  Some are not unexpected: Communist China, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Turkish Armenia.  But the most striking are the Catholic countries in which “the appearance of virulent anti-Christian ideologies and brutally repressive regimes seeking to impose them…led directly to the widespread suffering and slaughter of religious believers,” including parish priests. 

The Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s is widely remembered as a heroic struggle against fascism.  In fact, it began with brutal attacks by communists, socialists, and anarchists against the Catholic Church.  In the first six months of the war (1936), 6,382 priests, monks, and nuns were massacred by the “Loyalist” forces.  Royal says “perhaps the greatest fury fell upon diocesan clergy” (parish priests). In cities controlled by the left, hundreds of priests were murdered: in Madrid alone, 1118.  Unarmed, unresisting priests murdered for doing their duty to their parishioners, their Church, and God.  Martyrs.

The Church has since recognized many new martyrs and saints from these cruel persecutions.  I do not know how many were parish priests.  But I suspect that they were all too well represented in the ranks of the sainted martyrs.

As I said before, “there probably ought to be a lot more recognized parish priest saints.  There probably ARE a lot more than we will ever recognize, until we meet them in heaven.

Efficacy of Prayer?

I am fully convinced of the necessity of prayer (after all, everyone prays), and of the benefit I receive from praying. My prayers change me, internally, in my soul.  St. Thomas Aquinas calls it spiritual refreshment of the mind, and I can truly feel it.

But does it do anything else?  Does it actually benefit or help those I pray for?  If so, why?

Note: I do not ask how; if God wants to grant my prayers, it is certainly within His power.

But why?  Do I have some special “pull” with God?  If I ask Him to heal my sick brother, will He do it because I asked?  Why not heal all who are sick?  Does He then withhold healing from those who have no brother to pray for them? That doesn’t sound like Him.

Aquinas vigorously defends the efficacy of prayer, citing ”impetration”.

“The effect of prayer is threefold. The first is an effect which is common to all acts quickened by charity, and this is merit. The second effect of prayer is proper thereto, and consists in impetration...the original intention, to which God looks chiefly, suffices to attain this effect…The third effect of prayer is that which it produces at once; this is the spiritual refreshment of the mind.”  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II Q. 83 Art. 13)

Impetration being an unfamiliar term, I had to look it up.  The online Catholic Dictionary (1910) says:

(Latin: impetrare, to ask and obtain a request)

(1) The begging of favors.

(2) Theologically, one of the fruits of good works and especially of the Mass and prayer; one of the four ends of the Mass, which regards man. Impetration accompanied by right dispositions and certain conditions will infallibly gain us every gift and avert every evil.

This seems to state that my prayers for my brother’s healing will be granted if I pray with the right dispositions and conditions.  So it depends on me.  But what if I fail to pray for my brother?   Shall he suffer for my sin?  What of those with no one to pray for them?  Suffering for the sins of others is the role of Christ; for the rest of us, Jeremiah’s “sour grapes” injunction (31:29) holds: “Everyone will die for his own sins.”

I know that the Gospels repeatedly and forcefully tell us that God will grant our prayers, if we pray in Jesus’ name.

So my questions all have the same answer.  Yes, prayer (properly prayed) is effective, because Jesus said so.  It is revealed.

Revelation is given to us for those things we cannot ascertain by reason alone.  But revelation should not violate reason; it is to go beyond reason, not to contradict reason.  That is the thrust of Fides Et Ratio, as well as Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture.  On the most basic level of non-self-contradiction, Christianity MUST MAKE SENSE.

I’d really appreciate it If someone can help me make sense of this. 

In the meantime, I’ll just keep on praying.

“Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Retirement And Its Uses

What is Retirement?  In one sense, it is a wholly negative term, defined by what it is not.  As darkness is the absence of light, retirement is the absence of work (at least paid work).  A void in time, created for both positive and negative reasons.  The upside is that retirement, if properly prepared for, allows one to live without earning a paycheck.  Savings, Social Security, and pensions can combine to make paid work unnecessary. The negative is that the aging process can reduce or destroy the worker’s ability to continue working.

So retirement is the non-existence of the need to work for pay.   Some continue working in “retirement”, or past the “usual retirement age” defined by Social Security eligibility, for various reasons: poverty (lack of savings), avarice (desire to accumulate wealth beyond need), or because they enjoy their work, or boredom (“what else would I do all day?”).

The “what-else-would-I do-all-day?” folks make an interesting point.  What do retirees do with their time?

They seem busy, but if you ask them what they are busy doing, you get confused answers; they’re not sure why they are so busy, they just are. (Spare me your senility jokes.)

(An enterprising sociology professor should get a big government/NGO grant to study this. An army of clipboard-armed grad students following old people around all day, noting their every move, would certainly liven things up in Phoenix or Broward County.)

All joking aside, the use of time is an issue for everyone; but circumstances push it to the forefront for retirees.

Some clever person has observed that “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”  Coronavirus lockdowns have made this an everyday problem for many.

Time is a difficult thing to wrap one’s hands around.  In old age we have lots of time on our hands but very little time left on earth.  How does one deal with that?  We are told that time is relative, and anyone who has watched the last two minutes of an NFL or NBA game knows that to be true.

Some treat retirement as an extended vacation.  Others maximize social activities or hobbies.  The new-old (younger and healthier) retirees can turn it into a re-lived or re-imagined high school. Their idols are restored classic cars from the 50’s and 60’s.  Retirement communities like The Villages in central Florida cater to all these themes.

So retirement can be like an extended vacation, an endless life of socializing after golf, or an eternal summer before their senior year. (Or a post high-school “gap year” of travel.)

Is there another way of looking at it?

Jewish theologian Abraham J. Heschel touched on an aspect of all this in his essay “The Sabbath: Holiness In Time”.  He posits a contrast between time and space.

“Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.

Every one of us occupies a portion of space…Yet no one possesses time.  We share time, we own space.

Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time… We suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look in its face… ”

For Heschel, the Sabbath is the focal point of the Jewish sense of holiness in time.  And while retirement is generally defined in negative terms (non-work), the Sabbath reverses this.

“The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.  Three acts of God denoted the Seventh Day: He rested, He blessed, and He hallowed the Seventh Day (Genesis 2:2-3).”

(This may appear similar to the conception of our modern week-end.  As an old song* had it, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” But that image of the weekend is closer to the high school model than to the Sabbath. Still…)

If the workweek is for the Sabbath, could that mean that the working life is for the retirement?

Prior to the last century, and even now outside the prosperous industrial world, it was and is certainly not the case.  Retirement, if it happened at all, occurred when the worker was no longer of any use in gainful employment, becoming an economic burden on his family (at best).

But here and now, retirement has expanded (even exploded) as a highly desirable, wealthy, and sustainable demographic.  Social Security in all developed countries provides an income floor.  Savings (often tax-sheltered) and private pensions add to the comfort level. The elderly are now, on average, among the most prosperous sectors of our society (there is, of course, a cohort of the elderly poor: but they do not predominate).  One has only to visit retirement communities in Florida, Arizona, or anywhere else warm, to see this.  Golf cart-accessible “villages”, boomer classic car gatherings (high school redux!), and second homes (for those who find Arizona too hot or Florida too muggy in summer) abound.

What’s wrong with that, one may ask? Nothing; but it is not the Sabbath.  It is not holy.

(Of course, modern retirement often resembles the customary modern secular sabbath, devoted to socializing and spectator sports.)

But can retirement be a time for awareness of and participation in the holiness of time?  If not “instead”, then at least “in addition”?  What would that look like?

Daily mass?  Morning and evening prayer?  Time with family?  Volunteering at the hospital, school, or food bank, to help those in need?

In fact, this describes the regular life of many good Catholics, even during their working years.  How much more so could retirement be?

Holiness in time: maybe  it isn’t just for Sundays anymore.

____________________

*1981 song by Canadian band Loverboy, containing the following:

Everybody’s working for the weekend

Everybody wants a little romance

Everybody’s goin’ off the deep end

Everybody needs a second chance,

The album was titled “Get Lucky”.