The Priests’ Sabbath Rest

The concept of a “day off” for a priest is not foreseen in the Code of Canon Law. From there, one can find many reasons against it: “one doesn’t get a day off from being a father”, “you’re just buying into the American therapeutic mindset”, “you’re probably being selfish”, etc. Those and many more reasons can be brought against a priest who chooses to take a day off with any regularity.

Granted, there are some priests who may treat their days off as sacrosanct: their most devout parishioner might be on his or her deathbed… and he or she must wait until after the day off to receive a priest’s attention. Cases like that, which apparently do happen here and there, are a gross failure of priestly ministry; it’s easy enough to point out such disastrous hypocrisy where it happens.

In an age of a general shortage of priests, though, many of us are in the category of feeling a need for a day off but often not feeling “free” to take one. Many priests face burnout: they know they need more “personal time”, but they fear taking it because they don’t want to be seen as selfish, self-involved, “soft”, etc. — or, they fear the workload that will pile up if they take a day off and life continues in the meantime.

Well, the institution of a “day off” might not be in Canon Law, but it is a tradition at least in this country. More than that, I recently came across this article, which speaks of the concept of sabbath rest in connection with a priest’s day off. The Christian sabbath, of course, is Sunday – one of the busiest days of the week for most priests: besides the various Masses (and some priests have to celebrate in more than one language, with multiple homilies also, etc.), there is often a lot of visiting/socializing with parishioners, youth group meetings, PSR visits, adult ed, and the like. It can be a very tiring day — one that doesn’t feel very sabbath-like from the priest’s personal perspective!

It occurred to me when I read the article, which has several good points about constructive uses of the time of rest, that I had never considered a priest’s day off within the framework of God’s design for creation: we all need to rest from our labors. It’s so easy to set aside taking a day off, in favor of “trying to stay caught up” or at least “not falling further behind”, or even for worse reasons such as feeling that one is indispensable, or in the cases where some priests have trouble “letting go” of day-to-day control of things. This article is good food for thought for those who struggle with taking a day off.

Of course, ultimately, one cannot take a day off from being a father, and so every priest must be ready to rearrange his schedule as needed to meet reasonable requests and more urgent priorities as they arise. The main thing for any priest is to take the time that he truly needs, even if it’s in smaller chunks or spread out over more than one day out of necessity. And Canon Law is clear about the amount of vacation to which a priest is entitled; priests who struggle with taking all their vacation (a struggle I have never had!) should even be challenged by their parishioners to do so.

I share this article here for any brother priest who may struggle with the idea of taking a weekly day off, even as he feels the need to take one. Many of us are feeling rather acutely the effects of the clergy shortage, as we try to maintain the same schedules our parishes have always had with less help than in the past to do so. Actually taking that time and then using it constructively, in pursuit of true leisure, may do more for our priestly ministry than continually wearing ourselves down as we power through extended periods with no meaningful rest — as is exceedingly common for many priests nowadays.

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The Physical Presence?

Is Jesus physically present in the Holy Eucharist?

This not the teaching of the Church. I would challenge anyone to find such a concept in the Church’s magisterium.

Let us consider some of the implications:

  • If Christ were physically present in the Holy Eucharist, then the priest, who consumes a larger host (approx. 3″ in diameter), would receive more of Jesus than the faithful, who only receive a 1.25″ host. But the Church does not teach this.
  • If Christ were physically present in the Holy Eucharist, then Protestant protestations of Catholic cannibalism would be hard to refute.
  • If Christ were physically present in the Holy Eucharist, then somehow the quantity and volume of consecrated hosts throughout the world should not add up to more than the mass of his physical body — which is manifestly not the case.
  • If Christ were physically present in the Holy Eucharist, then fracturing the host would be dividing Jesus into parts.
  • If Christ were physically present in the Holy Eucharist, then any loss of the Eucharist (for example, through desecration or even through simple mistakes/human weakness) would cause him to be imperfect and incomplete.

Consider, in contrast, the Church’s teaching on the doctrine of concomitance: Christ is present whole and entire in each and every part of the consecrated species. Those who receive under one sacramental form (host or chalice) do not receive more of him than those who receive both. No, we may not speak of his presence as “physical”.

We can speak of the physicality of the sacrament: we engage in the physical act of eating and/or drinking; the sacrament itself has a certain physicality, quite obviously.

But we may not speak of his presence in that way.

No, the Church defines that presence, rather, as Real, True, and Substantial. This is the Church’s perennial teaching. Very precise terms are needed for so great a mystery.

In the Holy Eucharist we really receive Jesus Christ in his body, blood, soul, and divinity. We truly receive him. We receive his substance. But we do not physically receive him — which would reduce his presence to something finite and possibly imperfect.

His presence is mediated to us through a sacrament, and may not be described in purely physical terms.

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The Placement of the Corporal – and the Hands

There is a lot that can be written about the corporal — the square piece of linen that is folded and unfolded in a very particular way, set beneath the chalice and paten during the celebration of Mass. In the older form of the Mass (Extraordinary Form), the host that is consecrated is placed directly on it; therefore, the corporal is even scraped with the paten after communion, to ensure that any particles of the host that may have remained are reverently collected and consumed. In the newer form of the Mass (Ordinary Form), the host is not placed directly on the corporal, but remains on the paten the whole time. Still, the corporal is important to catch any particles that may go astray — and that can happen.

The word “corporal”, of course, comes from the Latin “corpus” — “body”. The Body of Christ is placed upon it.

Today I would like to speak of one important detail connected with the corporal’s use: namely, exactly where it is placed upon the altar. Determining where to place it flows from considering not only its use but also certain other gestures during the Mass.

  • Unfolding it right to the very edge of the altar is not a good idea — much less having it hang slightly off the edge. In this way, any particles that it may have on it could fall to the floor and be trampled. Or it could get snagged by a vestment as the priest moves around and pulled off entirely.
  • Having it too far “in” (away from the edge) could result in its not fulfilling its proper function of possibly catching particles. For example, if it were a few inches in, and I were not careful when I received communion to lean that far over the altar in order to be right over the corporal, a particle could fall off the host onto the altar cloth instead of onto the corporal.

As usual, the old books provide sensible guidance. Here is what O’Connell says:

The corporal should be placed, if space permits, about an inch from the front edge of the table of the altar, so that the celebrant in turning during Mass will not catch the corner of it with the chasuble or maniple and so pull it out of place; and also so that when he lays his joined hands on the altar, he may not have the fingers resting on the corporal, which is forbidden. But the corporal should not be put farther back than this, as the celebrant is to place his hands on it when genuflecting between the consecration of the host and the purifications. (page 222)

This directive refers to some gestures that are not stipulated in the Ordinary Form of the Mass. The rubrics of the Ordinary Form/Novus Ordo don’t say anything, in fact, about where the priest is to place his hands when he holds onto the altar while genuflecting, for example. They also say nothing about joining one’s hands on the edge of the altar (as in the photo above); in general, just as it is silent on what do with one’s eyes, it is also largely silent about the hands.

That’s not to say that the priest may not use the particular hand gesture of joining his hands on the edge of the altar. There are two places in the Novus Ordo that correspond with when he would do that gesture in the older form: when he says the prayer “In spiritu humilitatis…” (With humble spirit…) before the lavabo (when he washes his hands during the offertory), and when he does the preparatory prayers for communion after fracturing and commingling the host.

For the “With humble spirit…” prayer, the rubric in the Missal simply says, “…the priest, bowing profoundly, says quietly…” (rubric # 26). Later, for his preparation before communion, the rubric in the Missal says, “…the priest, with hands joined, says quietly…” (rubric # 131).

Bowing profoundly in the one case and joining one’s hands in the other does not preclude bowing over the altar and joining one’s hands on the edge of it, according to the rubric of the older form of the Mass. In fact, this is a fitting thing to do, given the general vagueness of the rubrics in the newer form, and what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal itself directs in # 42:

Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice.

Knowledge of the older rubrics can bring our celebration of the modern rite into greater continuity with tradition.

Therefore, it is a good idea to ensure that the corporal is about an inch off the edge of the altar, so that when the priest joins his hands there (again, see photo above), they will not be on the corporal itself.

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A Story about Devotion to St. Joseph

The holy death of St. Joseph

An Italian blog that I follow, Cordialiter, regularly posts excerpts from pious writings. I am happy to share this story from a book by Fr. Giuseppe Tomaselli on devotion to St. Joseph, in my translation.

Though it may be easy to shrug off pious stories like this as flights of fancy, yet they can teach us a valuable lesson: in this case, that things are not always as they seem – and that we should always consider the good that God can draw out of otherwise difficult occurrences. It’s so easy for us to give in to grief and even anger with God when a loved one “dies young” (according to our way of measuring things); this story teaches us that dying young could be the better way to go in some cases. We need to trust more in God’s providence. And devotion to St. Joseph, as part of that, couldn’t hurt, either.

Here is the excerpt, again, in my translation from Italian:

A prosperous man had been married for many years and had been gifted with three sons by God. He was devoted to St. Joseph and, each year on March 19, celebrated solemnly his feast, begging the saintly Patriarch’s blessing on his children.

It happened that one of his sons died exactly on the feast day of St. Joseph. The next year, precisely on March 19, the second son died. Yet the pious father did not cease to honor the saint. Nevertheless, whenever the anniversary drew near he would be most afflicted with grief, fearing that his third son would die also.

One day he was in the countryside and, though absorbed in sad thoughts, was given the grace of an explanatory vision. He saw two young men hanging from the branches of a tree; then, an angel appeared to him and said, “You see these two young men hanging by a rope? Your sons would have faced that fate if they had reached a mature age! But inasmuch as you have been devoted to St. Joseph, he obtained from God for you that they should die young, to save you from affliction and dishonor and to save them from eternal damnation. Therefore, do not omit to celebrate the saint’s feast day, for you owe him also for another grace: your remaining child will have a holy life and one day will be a Bishop.”

After the vision disappeared, the good father regained his composure. And the things that followed took place like just the angel had said.

Good Saint Joseph, pray for us!

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More on Communion Rails

I had resolved to avoid getting into a rut of posting on the same topics continually (as was happening at one point recently), but someone forwarded this article to me today. It is well worth sharing, even if I recently said something about communion rails.

(I have several other things I want to post about, but not enough time to write on them. Hopefully soon.)

Fr. Pokorsky writes on The Communion Rail and Complementarity at The Catholic Thing. Perhaps the title of the article doesn’t immediately give a clear sense of what it is about, but believe me when I say it is worth reading from beginning to end. Here is a very fine point in excerpt:

When there isn’t a Communion rail, the people approach the Communion station and, after receiving Communion, hurriedly depart.  A panoramic devotional view of a beautiful sanctuary, like the splendor of decorations adorning a wedding feast, is thus unlikely.  The reception of Communion is individualistic, not communal.  The priest stands still distributing the Hosts; the people hustle to and fro.

Read the article HERE. Many thanks to Fr. Pokorsky!

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Where do the candles go in a procession?

Worship is not a DIY affair; we can all come up with ways to make it more interesting or “meaningful”, but that is not our place, for we receive it from the Church and her tradition. In recent years, of course, there has also been the question of liturgical continuity: in light of the rediscovery of our tradition through developments like Summorum Pontificum, which clarified that the older books may also be used and were never abrogated, many priests and concerned laypeople are striving for that “mutual enrichment” of the sacred liturgy, of which Pope Benedict wrote.

One detail, in particular, that more recently came to my attention, concerned the order of the liturgical procession (in and out of Holy Mass, for example). I’ve seen in many places where, if there is no incense, the processional cross is the first thing carried in a procession. (Whenever there is incense, it goes first.) There is a certain logic to this order: the cross is our “royal standard“; we preach Christ crucified. “Lift high the cross…”; etc.

Old illustrations, like the one above, however, call that idea into question. Here, also, is a photo of some contemporary Vatican ceremonial, showing the candles just ahead of the cross:

An article I recently read from a liturgical scholar, Msgr. Marc Caron, helps us to understand the traditional Roman practice in this regard. Here are a couple of excerpts, with my commentary:

Two servers holding candles lead the procession, walking side by side. An instituted acolyte or another server may hold the processional cross between them, walking with the candle bearers side by side in one line. It is not traditional for the candle bearers to walk several paces behind the processional cross since their purpose is to the light the way for the procession. If the pathway of the procession becomes too narrow for the three servers to walk side by side, the candle bearers walk ahead of the cross for as long as needed since their purpose is to light the way for everyone following them. [my emphases]

Although most of our churches today are well-lit, we can think of the old churches in Europe, lit only by natural light and often quite shadowy. Before the advent of electricity, candles had a real function beyond merely symbolizing the light of Christ in the sacred liturgy: to help the ministers see what they were doing. One liturgical manual I have (I think the Tremolini) notes how a priest may have a candle near the Missal in order to be able to read the prayers — noting carefully that it should not be in the same form as a similar candle used by a bishop for that purpose (called a Bugia)!

Msgr. Caron continues:

If a sufficient number of servers is not available, it is possible to omit the processional cross and retain the two processional candles. In fact, this was formerly the common practice at any solemn Mass celebrated by a priest. Historically, the use of the processional cross was reserved for Masses celebrated by a bishop or to Masses celebrated by a priest which involved some kind of special procession as on Palm Sunday or at a funeral. [my emphasis]

Here again we see that the traditional Roman practice may run a bit counter-intuitive to how we think today about the primacy of the cross in a liturgical procession. I’ve often seen it happen that when there is not the proper number of servers on hand, the candles are omitted entirely in the procession — only the cross is carried in. But again, following the principle that the candles light the way, it makes more sense to retain them and to omit the cross when necessary due to low number of servers.

It’s interesting to note that, where there is the space, the candles walk beside the cross. If not, slightly ahead. The latter will be more common in most of our churches, with a central aisle just narrow enough to make it difficult for three altar boys to walk side-by-side while carrying things. Also, honor guards (as those provided by the Knights of Columbus on occasion) further narrow the aisle for some liturgies.

This imagery of lighting the way is really quite a lovely detail from our tradition. Even if we don’t need candlelight to see where we are going now, the symbolism still remains. Our processions proclaim the entrance of Christ into the holy sanctuary: yet he also “goes before us” (Matthew 26:32) and meets us as we arrive. He is the principal actor in our worship, offering himself to the Father for our salvation. We take part in that action, each in different ways, according to our state. And this is another reason why it’s so good for us to recover our traditions rather than making things up: because it’s not about us, but about Christ, who established his Church to extend his incarnation through time, until we go to take our part in the heavenly liturgy.

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Blessing of Holy Water

There are major differences between the blessing of holy water in the more modern or “Ordinary Form” of the liturgy and the older or “Extraordinary Form”. In the older form, salt and water are mixed — after they have both been exorcised and blessed.

In the newer form, there is either a simple rite (with a simple blessing of the water and a rather verbose prayer) or a more elaborate rite (mixing/blessing salt and water — but with no exorcisms).

There are many anecdotes about the efficacy of water blessed according to the older rite. It is a more powerful sacramental. The exorcisms remove it from the sphere of the devil’s influence. The blessing then confers on it the power to be a channel of divine grace. Holy water blessed “the old way” is, objectively speaking, better; it’s the way I generally bless holy water in my parish.

One of the challenges most priests face in this regard is that the various ritual books span this blessing over multiple pages, and it’s inconvenient to turn the pages mid-sentence or otherwise mid-prayer. It’s nice to have everything on a single page. Therefore, I have made a resource with all the prayers on a single page.


Moreover, many priests today have not studied Latin or their Latin is very weak. To use these old prayers it is not necessary to understand Latin. But it is useful at least to know how to pronounce it properly. To this end, I have made some recordings that, notwithstanding the fact that I have a “voice made for print”, will perhaps be of use.

If you download the PDF linked above and follow along, I’ve made three separate recordings at a reasonably moderate speed:




Then, if you want, at a faster — let’s call it “more natural” — speed, I have the whole thing:


These resources may be helpful for those priests who wish to use the older form and might struggle a bit with the Latin.

The basic approach to Latin (for those who don’t really understand it) involves three steps:

  1. Figure out the system of pronunciation (more or less, the same as Italian — not complex, you just have to get used to it);
  2. Look for the written accents and put the emphasis on those syllables accordingly;
  3. Practice, practice, and practice again, until you get it “in your mouth”.

It gets easier. Just keep at it.

Pronouncing the Latin accurately is preferred for the efficacy of the sacramental and, therefore, the confounding of the devil. Many exorcists have reported cases where the devil mocked them for not pronouncing this or that Latin prayer accurately. It’s a sacred language and he doesn’t like it. The better we pronounce it, the more it bothers him. Even better is when we also understand what we are pronouncing, such that our minds and hearts are fully engaged with what we are accurately pronouncing.

It’s important to note a couple of other things: traditionally, a priest is vested in cassock, surplice, and purple stole for this blessing. Second, it’s useful to have a small dish with some salt in it. After saying the prayers of exorcism and blessing over the salt and then the water, the priest can pick up a “pinch” of salt from the dish for each of the three signs of the cross that he makes with it over the water. Any remaining salt in the small dish may either be kept for later or may be sprinkled outside in the garden or poured into the sacrarium of the sacristy. Or eaten, for that matter.

Deacons may not do this blessing, unfortunately. (I have previously written on this topic here.)

Incidentally, there is a poetry and beauty to these prayers that is simply not translatable into English. I always find it very consoling to pray in the Church’s official language, made sacred by centuries of use and handed down to us in the noble simplicity of the Roman tradition. I know many priests have experienced this, the more they learn/embrace these things.

Perhaps some priests will want to print this PDF in color and then have it laminated. (For that matter, it could be a nice thing for you to have done for your priest, if you think he would use it.) It would be a useful card to keep on hand in the sacristy for the many times when he will need to bless holy water and will not want to have the tedium of flipping through the pages of the ritual while doing so. I hope it is of use.

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Lenten Abstinence for Vegetarians and Vegans

The law on abstinence, which applies to Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent, requires us to abstain from eating any meat on those days. Under current law, broths made from meat may be taken, as long as there are not bits of meat in them. (Laws have varied in this regard over time.)

What about vegetarians and vegans?

Those who habitually abstain from meat — usually done as a lifestyle choice and not for penitential reasons — already fulfill the letter of the law. We may not have meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent; vegetarians and vegans already do not eat meat those days or any other day. Done.

But there is also the spirit of the law. The majority of us, who do eat meat, do so because we like it. Some folks really like seafood also, so perhaps having that instead of meat is not such a big deal. But many people do not like seafood, or it’s at least not their first choice. And then there is the psychological factor: on a day when you’re told you may not eat something, it may well be the case that you crave it more than other days. And whether or not giving up meat on a particular day is all that hard, it’s what the Church has assigned us, so that we make a sacrifice as a community.

So how can a vegetarian or vegan keep the spirit of this law also? They already fulfill the letter. I would suggest that to fulfill the spirit, they should consider giving up something they commonly eat and enjoy.

For many, this might most easily be fulfilled at breakfast, since many people eat the same breakfast most days. So maybe a vegetarian has toast with peanut butter each morning and rather enjoys it. Maybe a vegan has gluten-free toast substitute with foraged free-trade almond butter (I tease) each morning and rather enjoys it. That could be a good thing to “give up” on days of abstinence, choosing something else instead.

It’s so easy to reduce Lent to a list of rules. As I said in my recent sermon, which I posted here on the blogwe do well to connect our sacrifices — including those imposed on us by the Church — to our spiritual lives, and not just approach them as “a list of more or less difficult things that I have to endure for 40-something days”. Examining the spirit behind our rules and laws is a helpful way more effectively to connect them with our spiritual life and really profit by them. For any vegetarians or vegans out there, I hope this will help.

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Quinquagesima Sunday – Choosing Our Lenten Penances

The vestment I used for Mass today in the Extraordinary Form. It really triggers some people. (The colors in the photo aren’t quite right — it comes off as more thoroughly “purple” in real life.)

Today, “about 50 days” before Easter, is traditionally known as “Quinquagesima” (Latin for “50th”). We had a guest priest at the Cathedral, so I did not celebrate Mass here; rather, a priest at a neighboring parish was kind to let me celebrate his Low Mass in the Extraordinary Form, while he heard confessions during the Mass.

Today, March 3, 2019, is also my twelfth anniversary of diaconate ordination. On this day in 2007 I entered the clerical state, promising celibacy and assuming the other obligations of this state in life, including that of praying the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office.

Today was my first time celebrating Quinquagesima ever. Kind of neat.

I hope that the Pre-Lenten Sundays will be restored in the modern form of the Roman Rite some day — hopefully during my lifetime. It is such an important season, as I have written recently. There is certainly a resurgence of interest in them.

In any case, here is the sermon that I gave, in which I offered some guidance on how we should go about deciding on our Lenten penances. I hope it will help all those who still have not decided on what they will do this Lent.

* * *

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This Sunday is Quinquagesima – roughly fifty days before Easter and the Sunday just before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the holy season of Lent. I hope that you have all been using the pre-Lenten time well since Septuagesima, not only to think about what you will give up this year but also how you will seek greater union with our Lord thereby; thus, prayer and works of charity also figure in to this time of grace. It is so easy to fall back on standard penances like giving up chocolate or coffee-creamer; but the Lord calls us to a heroic level of sanctity, which we must pursue in earnest. If you have not yet worked out what you will do for Lent, there are still a few days left, and I pray that our Lord will make it clear for you during this Holy Mass. Let us not come before him empty-handed.

This Lent, it is especially important that we offer up our sacrifices for the purification of Holy Mother Church. Without wanting to dwell on this unpleasant topic for long, I will at least remind you of the fact that the solution – always! – depends upon authentic sanctity. In every period of crisis in the Church’s history – and there have certainly been many clamorous crises before – it was the saints who preserved the true faith, who offered their sufferings to God, who helped pick up the pieces. This is a time of judgment: the Lord is sifting his Church and chastening us. Each one of us has a part to play in this terrible drama; for most, that role is of suffering – and of offering those sufferings to God. And as we will hear in the gospel of Ash Wednesday, “thy Father, who seeth in secret, will repay thee”.

The Epistle for Quinquagesima reminds us that whatever we offer to God is worthless, unless it flow from charity. St. Paul said, “…if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing”. But how do we know if we have charity? We read in St. John’s gospel, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love”. Charity is a virtue that we received from God at Baptism; it remains in us as long as we strive to do God’s will, which necessarily involves keeping the moral law. The presence of charity in us is thus connected with the life of grace. If I am in the state of grace, then I have the virtue of charity; thus, there is a value to the good that I do. If I am not in the state of grace, no good work of mine has any lasting value.

In our “do good”, “random acts of kindness” world, many have lost sight of these truths. Many have embraced the ancient Pelagian heresy that would have us believe that we could save ourselves by adding up good works. The pursuit of the good, in that case, is not truly directed at the love of God and neighbor, but at the love of self. Christ will speak to that on Ash Wednesday, also: “Amen, I say to you: they have received their reward”. We cannot save ourselves. St. John teaches us in his First Epistle that “we love, because he [– God –] loved us”. Charity is God’s initiative in us, and our keeping of the moral law is one of its fruits. It depends upon our living in his grace, not upon any work that we do. This Quinquagesima Sunday, we are invited to consider our life of grace and whether it is bearing fruit that will last.

This consideration, then, will hopefully lead us to ponder those Lenten sacrifices and other spiritual practices that will most help us to advance along the way of charity or love. We should all, of course, be going to confession on a regular basis. We should all be doing voluntary acts of penance and self-denial throughout the year, for they are part of the Christian life and necessary to pay our debt of temporal punishment due to sin. We should all be striving to overcome our inordinate self-love and to grow in our love of both God and neighbor, especially through prayer and works of charity. These are the basics. But what particular thing – on top of what we should be doing anyhow – will you take on this Lent? Giving up chocolate may well be difficult – and it may also not be the thing that will help you make true progress.

All of this to say, sacrifice is not to be pursued for its own sake. We do not take on Lenten penances as a test of endurance or just to see of what we are capable; much less, to check a box. Rather, whatever we do should be carefully thought-out and ordered to our own deeper conversion. May the Lord, in this Holy Mass, grant to us all or renew in us the profound conviction that we are called to be saints and that the Church’s reform is intimately caught up with our own.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

* * *

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Sundays in Lent – Both/And

My friend, Fr. Zehnle, posted something on Twitter today that I thought was very good:

I think he’s responding to the classic Catholic discussion on how the Sundays of Lent are not included in the Lenten season, because if you included them in the math, there would be more than 40 days of Lent. Moreover, Sundays are a “little Easter”. Therefore, etc.

I think our loss of the Pre-Lenten Season, which starts with Septuagesima, has caused us to lose sight of things a bit and we are actually grasping for reasons with such explanations as in the last paragraph. Let me explain:

Septuagesima Sunday — the word means “70th” — is three Sundays before Ash Wednesday. That was when, traditionally, as I have recently posted, the pre-Lenten season of preparation began, that more or less corresponds with the time of “carnival”. “Carnival” is a word that comes from Latin and means “farewell to meat”, and since in traditional Lenten penitential discipline there was little to no meat eaten during the sacred season, the time leading up to Lent was a time to clean out the larder. It was also a time to start preparing so that on Ash Wednesday, one would be ready to go full-speed ahead into the penitential discipline, having already been “warming oneself up” for it.

But Septuagesima is not exactly 70 days before Easter! The Sunday after is “Sexagesima” — 60th –, but not exactly 60 days before Easter. And the Sunday before Ash Wednesday (tomorrow, at time of posting) is “Quinquagesima” (50th) — yet, again, not exactly 50 days before Easter. In other words, the names are approximate: in common understanding, they meant “roughly 70/60/50 days before Easter”.

Well what about next Sunday — i.e., the Sunday after Ash Wednesday? It is known as Quadragesima — “40th” — and that’s where we get the concept of 40 days. Yes, there is also the biblical symbolism of “40”, including our Lord’s 40 days in the desert. But our 40 days are not exact. Indeed, next Sunday is about 41 days before Easter — and anyway, Lent begins five days before, on Ash Wednesday!

Incidentally, the Latin name for this coming Sunday is where the word for “Lent” comes from in the Romance languages — the Latin “quadragesima” is “quaresima” in Italian, “cuaresma” in Spanish, and “carême” in French — and that is what they call the entire season that we know as “Lent”.

In other words, the modern controversy over whether Sundays of Lent “count as Lent” is based — at least in part — on a mistaken literalism about the number of days of the season. I don’t think the Church ever understood it as an exact 40-day season. In the Mediterranean world such germanic precision was… well… Germanic — barbarous!

Now the title of this post has “both/and” in it – the classic Catholic approach to a large swath of reality. I agree with Fr. Zehnle that the Sundays of Lent are part of the season of Lent — he is correct. In fact, the liturgy itself shows that to us: no Gloria, no Alleluia, purple (penitential) vestments, no flowers, no instrumental music except to support singing, etc.

But — and this is the “both/and” part — it is the case that Sundays and Solemnities are not traditionally days of penance. In fact, canon 1251 of the Code of Canon Law tells us that when a Solemnity falls on a Friday, we are not bound by the laws of fast and abstinence that day. As I posted earlier, there are few such Fridays in 2019, though none in the season of Lent this year. So I think that, in view of the fact that Sundays are not ordinarily penitential days and that they are, indeed a “little Easter”, it is common and permissible on the Sundays of Lent to relax one’s discipline a little.

But is relaxing things on Lenten Sundays a good idea? Here basic human psychology enters in: just as it was a great idea to have a Pre-Lenten season, so that we could ease our way into our Lenten discipline rather than trying to start cold-turkey on Ash Wednesday (and I encourage people to recover this tradition), so also, it’s probably not a good idea to have a “blowout” on a Lenten Sunday — even if we can argue for its permissibility. Monday will be that much harder — and this is how many people end up, well, blowing their Lenten resolutions. The Sundays of Lent are still days of Lent — so I encourage all to stick with their Lenten penances even on those days. It’s only six Sundays, and a little penance will do us all a lot of good.

Finally, let me take this opportunity once again to suggest that we all offer our penance this year for the continued purification of the Church!

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Month of Saint Joseph

March is the month of St. Joseph. I have commented on various occasions about how the Lord, in his providence, seems to cause certain saints to achieve greater prominence at certain points in history. St. Joseph is one of those — and that point in history is now. From having his name now in all the Eucharistic prayers (Pope St. John XXIII added his name to the historic Roman Canon in 1961 — the others were adjusted more recently), to just greater popular devotion to him in general (particularly in connection with the recovery of authentic masculinity), I think he has risen to greater importance in the life of the modern Church.

He is of course, Patron of the Universal Church. We should pray to him during this time when Catholics are more divided than ever; when there is great confusion; when evil seems to be getting the upper hand in so many sectors of society, with it also affecting the Church.

I was happy to be able to set up a votive candle in my parish, the Cathedral of St. Paul, earlier today, before the statue of St. Joseph. It will burn until a new bishop is installed in our diocese. Our current one, Bishop Robert Joseph Baker, S.T.D., will reach 75 years of age on June 4, 2019 and will have to submit his resignation to the Holy See. Presumably the process to begin identifying his successor will begin soon, if it hasn’t started already. In any case, I believe it will take a while for us to get a new bishop, because of the number of vacant dioceses at present and the number of bishops already near or over age 75, among other reasons. We’ll see. All the same, many people are worried about who we might get.

Recently, during my retreat, I asked the Mother Superior where I was staying if she and the nuns would pray for this intention. She said they would; she also encouraged me to entrust the petition to St. Joseph — then she proceeded to tell me a number of stories about how he had interceded for them in extraordinary ways over the years. The moment that she gave me that advice, the idea popped into my head that I should get a votive lamp for our statue, to burn for this intention. So I did. And I was able to set it up today.

The candles that we are burning in it are 100% beeswax — the best we can offer to God. May our prayers rise up to him through the intercession of St. Joseph, and may he grant to us a good, holy, faithful, joyful, and humble bishop to succeed Bishop Baker. Change is difficult — particularly in times like these, when many are worried. Our best response is prayer; prayer will also help our hearts to be ready for however the prayer might be answered. I especially recommend the Litany of St. Joseph.

Besides my personal intentions to St. Joseph, I have an official “secondary” intention for the votive candle that is now burning before his image: priestly vocations. We have a very long way to go. I meet many young men who have strong signs of a vocation. But it is difficult for many of them to respond with confidence. I am counting on St. Joseph to overcome, by his prayers, the hesitation and fear that some experience in responding in faith to the Lord’s call. I also pray that he will help me and the other priests of our diocese all to be more effective in identifying possible vocations and fostering them.

I do have a “vocational wish list” set up on Amazon so that I can have the “supplies” needed to help young men in their discernment: teaching them how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and giving them other helpful reading materials. Please consider if you might purchase an item on there. It is set up to ship to my address. Thank you!

St. Joseph, pray for us!

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Reflecting on Altar Rails

For me, one of the simplest arguments for having an altar rail along the sanctuary of the Church is an aesthetic one: it just looks better. It brings greater order to the division between sanctuary and nave; it sets off the area that is most sacred — the “holy of holies” — from the more common area; it is a visual reminder of boundaries, that we may not casually approach God. Think of Moses and the burning bush…

Well, obviously mixed up with all of that is a fair amount of subjectivity. It’s easy enough for someone to say the complete opposite and proffer their own personal reasons for it.

But another reason why altar rails resonate with me is because of my own childhood. We did not attend church, but “Church came to us” — the CCD classes came to our (public) elementary school, so the Catholic kids stayed after school one day a week for catechesis. That was how I made my first communion, which of course did require me to be in church a few times in the process of going to my first confession, probably a rehearsal for the first communion, then the big day itself. And I remember the rail. I also remember how the priest taught us very clearly that we were not to go in the sanctuary unless we had a serious reason to be there. He taught us boundaries. And as I recall, we received our first communion at the rail, by intinction. A couple of years later, a subsequent pastor would tear all that out and renovate the church. The church has since been sold and torn down.

OK, so now we have aesthetics and childhood nostalgia. Are there no other reasons?

This article from the National Catholic Register offers a theological perspective:

I was recently given another theological explanation of the action of receiving Holy Communion at the altar rail while studying the New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism with my daughter. And it blew my mind for about a week. We were in Lesson 28 on Holy Communion, directly following the lesson on the Sacrifice of the Mass, when I paused at this sentence: “At Holy Communion, when we go up to the Banquet Table (the altar rail), Our Lord comes to us.” I had always thought of the Banquet Table as the main altar where the priest makes present Christ’s sacrifice. It had never occurred to me that the altar rail was something more than a divider from the sanctuary, but that it is actually an extension of the altar—the people’s altar. It is the place where we bring our own sacrifices as we wait to be united in communion with Our Lord and with each other, the Church.

Such a viewpoint helps to explain the extraordinary detail and richness of the rail in the above photo, which I took in a church in the north of Italy — it is supposed to be as nice as the altar and made of similar materials, to emphasize the connection between the two.

An interesting phenomenon in recent years has been that of the spontaneous resurgence in interest in altar rails. Many of my parishioners have asked me if we could restore the rail in my parish — some have practically begged. Unfortunately, when it was torn out, it was done in a way that precious little trace of it remains; we would have to start from scratch to “restore” it.

Now these parishioners who are requesting this are not all traditionalists who would just assume go to a Latin Mass; no, they are from among all types of Catholics, young and old, convert and cradle. Yes, many of them are converts who used to kneel in their Lutheran and Episcopal churches to receive what was NOT the Real Presence of Christ — now they have the “genuine article”, but they may no longer easily kneel to receive! And some people do kneel anyway – on the bare floor, since we don’t have a rail.

I believe that it is a work of the Holy Spirit in our time, to bring about this increasing desire to kneel at the very moment when Christ comes to us in a most intimate way. Isn’t it otherwise incoherent, that we should kneel for the consecration but not kneel for holy communion? We kneel to pray before Mass and after in thanksgiving, but we don’t kneel to receive the very one to whom we are praying? (Yes, not all are able to kneel; clearly there are exceptions. I never cease to be amazed, either, how some consider the exceptional cases reasons to dispense entirely with what might be the norm.)

I was speaking with another priest recently who told of something that happened in his parish. There was an opportunity to kneel and several people took advantage of it. There was also a certain Mass here in my parish (daily, Novus Ordo, English) at which we still had a portable rail that had been brought in for a Latin Mass that I had celebrated the evening before; all but one person took advantage of the opportunity to kneel to receive at that otherwise ordinary daily Mass.

An interesting Lenten bible study topic would be to look at the postures of those who seek out Jesus throughout the gospels: many of them “fall down before him”, “kneel before him”, or show some other profound reverence in his presence.

I’m reminded of an experience of liturgical abuse I once had many years ago which, ironically, reinforces the sense that kneeling for holy communion is just so right. One summer I did the Crossroads Pro-Life Walk, and we were at a certain university campus, and the chaplain there celebrated Mass for us. He was from a religious order that was, let’s say, a bit more “progressive”. Liturgy was fairly flexible for him. But he was also extremely gracious to us and I think really just wanted us to have an experience of spiritual renewal. So he mentioned during the homily that he would kneel for the consecration rather than stand, because priests rarely get to kneel for holy communion. And that was how he did it. He said the Eucharistic Prayer while kneeling, and communicated himself that way. It was wrong, but I think we all readily forgave him…

But didn’t that (forgivable) liturgical abuse also reinforce the theological concept that I mentioned above? The rail is an extension of the altar. It’s normal to want to kneel to receive. Children especially seem to relish it — which says a lot to me. One of the most consoling things I encounter as a priest is the faith of children who have not yet been tainted by cynicism and ideology. May God keep them from it. May he help us all to become as children, also… for to such belongs the kingdom of Heaven.

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