Thoughts From the Road

One of the best things about being a one-man show behind the scenes of a website is that everything flows through you; the articles, the design, the videos, the editorial tone and policy – it offers a fine degree of control in service of your vision as content producer.

One of the worst things about being a one-man show behind the scenes of a website is that everything flows through you; if you can’t get to a computer, it all comes grinding to a stop.

In other words: I am the weakest link. 

That’s why right now, I’m writing this from the passenger seat of our family van somewhere near Pittsburgh. Today is the first chance I’ve had to even open my laptop – and that’s not a bad thing. Since I arrived in Steubenville on Monday evening, it’s been non-stop. I’m still processing all of it, and attempting to do so on very little sleep. But there are some thoughts I wanted to share with you, some of which I will no doubt develop further later on down the road…no pun intended.

The Steubenville Surprise

For those of you who’ve never read my bio, you may not realize that I’m an alumnus of Franciscan University of Steubenville. It often surprises people, considering my liturgical and theological opinions, but it shouldn’t.

Yes, Steubenville has a well-earned reputation for being a Catholic charismatic community. Yes, many of their liturgies and sacred architecture leave a great deal to be desired. But that’s not the whole story.

The theology courses I took at Steubenville played no small role in leading me to where I am now. Professors who have taken oaths of fidelity to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church are still capable of getting it wrong, are still subject to the overwhelming modernist influence in contemporary theological thought, but they are, on an essential level, men who are seeking to discover the truth about God, to impart it to their students, and by so doing, to draw closer to the inner life of the Most Blessed Trinity in love and adoration. Any earnest, honest search for truth will lead at least some of those who participate in it to even the deeper and more difficult to discover truths that have lain hidden beneath the post-conciliar debris.

I began my time at Steubenville this week by attending a lecture given by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College. It was an unapologetic paean to the ancient liturgies of the Church — most especially the Traditional Latin Mass — and it did not shy away from the diminution and spiritual malnourishment (the analogy used was bread and water vs. a great feast) that is inherent in the Novus Ordo Missae.

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The talk was well-attended. There were not only students in the audience, but professors (including Scott Hahn) and one of the Franciscan priests. Uncomfortable questions were asked — and answered — and when the talk was done I found myself feeling somewhat stunned.

What I had just heard, I can say without qualification, could not and would not have happened when I was a student there from 1997-2001. I know this from experience since, in the April 27, 2001 issue of The Troubadour — the Franciscan University student newspaper — I was taken to task by Fr. Dominic Scotto, TOR, for making some similar points to those featured in Dr. Kwasniewski’s lecture: In his response to the controversial column I had written on belief and praxis in the liturgy (PDF link), the university chaplain expressed profound dismay:

I must say that I was shocked, not only by the confused and mistaken theology expressed, but mostly by the judgmental dogmatism of the author. He stated many things well, but then abrogated them by carrying them to erroneous conclusions. Above all, it was a very subjective article, devoid of sound specifics and filled with generalities and purely personal opinions. When he does rarely quote from some document, it is done in a cafeteria style of pick and choose.

Since the attack on my “judgmental dogmatism” came in the final issue of the newspaper with no warning, I had no opportunity to respond. I graduated under a pall, as it were, and the sting of such an unfair and procedurally unanswerable rebuke stayed with me over the years when people would ask me about my alma mater. Dr. Kwasniewski’s talk, in my view, showed a profound alteration of the old paradigm, a shattering of the autocratic insistence on less-than-inspiring “novusordoism” as the one and only liturgical ideal that wold be tolerated on campus as more than a quiet, personal opinion.

I was, in a word, proud of my university. It was a sort of homecoming that made me feel as though I belonged more than I ever had before.

But this was just the beginning…

Pontifical High Mass With His Eminence, Cardinal Raymond Burke

DSC_5065For those who think Steubenville and tradition don’t mix, the college has several on-campus TLMs a month. On the particular and quite special occasion of Cardinal Burke’s visit, a Pontifical High Mass was also arranged at St. Peter’s, the local parish. Professor Nicholas Will, who teaches Sacred Music, played the organ in a style that would impress even the most demanding Frenchman, and he also directed the Schola Cantorum Franciscana in the Messe Solonnelle by Louis Vierne. In general, I respect and appreciate the organ as a liturgical instrument, but my preference is for the human voice, sparsely adorned.

And Oh! Those human voices! It was an absolutely stunning performance. The Kyrie and the Sanctus in particular were incredibly moving. Many of the students who come to Franciscan are musically talented, but not all of them are limited to softly strumming guitars and Christian contemporary ballads. I do not overstate the case when I say this was the most powerful vocal performance I have ever heard in all my travels – including Rome, Vienna, and Salzburg.

The Mass itself was absolutely packed, despite the somewhat difficult time (Tuesday morning at 10:15AM) and the fact that from beginning to end, it clocked in at nearly three hours. In choir were quite a number of priests, including those from the local diocese, the TORs, the Institute of Christ the King, and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. It was like the United Nations of Liturgical Awesomeness, with any number of priests working together to effect supreme and sacred worship of The Blessed Trinity. (Go here for a brief video clip of the closing procession.)

Afterwards, Peter Kwasniewski and I shared notes, and found that at certain points we were both moved to tears.

The Intrusion of the Apostolic Letter and the Symposium on the Instrumentum Laboris

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The main event, the reason for all of the other wonderful things that have transpired in the past 48 hours, was the keynote lecture by Cardinal Burke on the topic of the Synod on Marriage and the Family and the panel discussion and Q&A that followed. Burke’s lecture drew an overwhelmingly positive response from the live audience as well as those watching it streamed live online. He once again resisted the Kasper agenda, reiterated the importance of natural law and drove home the the indissoluble nature of marriage. He made clear that the Synod has no authority to change doctrine, and that it also does not have the authority to change discipline in such a way that doctrine might be undermined. He stated that there is not so much a problem with the process of annulments, but with the procedures put in place by bishops who fail to properly train and staff their tribunals. There was a great deal packed into his hour-long speech, and I’m certain I’ll need to listen to it again, possibly several times, before I could say that I have truly absorbed it.

The video of the event, now available, breaks down as follows. (Click the time codes in the bulleted list below to open a new window to the video at that position):

  • 10:17 – Introduction
  • 17:22 – Cardinal Burke takes the stage
  • 1:22:00 – Panel begins presentation of essay abstracts
  • 1:45:00 – Q&A begins

 

It was particularly interesting that Burke gave so much attention in his talk to process and law; he did not know when he wrote the speech that the two letters “Motu Proprio” would be issued the very day of his speech, and he made the decision not to alter what he had written in any way in response to the news. I don’t know the reason for this choice, but he strikes me as a very cautious man, and if I had to guess, I’d say that he didn’t want to offer public comments on the latest developments in Rome until he had time to fully analyze them.

This is obviously a prudent course of action, but a difficult one. Before the Q&A even began, an announcement was made asking questioners to refrain from asking about this topic. With it so prominent on the minds of many attendees, this omission, though understandable, hung heavy over the proceedings. If ever there was an elephant in a room, this was it. Nonetheless, certain aspects of Cardinal Burke’s keynote seemed almost specifically designed to address some of the concerns already being expressed by those canonists and academics who were offering early analyses of the papal documents.

Following the keynote, eight panelists trained in theology or philosophy read abstracts of the essays they had prepared for the event – essays that will be combined into a book to be given to certain participants in next month’s portion of the Synod. Among these, several points stood out in my hearing:

  • Dr. Donald Asci, Professor of Theology at Franciscan University (and from whom I learned a great deal when I took his class on Christian Marriage) said something very rarely heard in the discussions on marriage: that divorce itself, independent of the question of remarriage, is an evil. Futher, divorce against the will of one of the spouses may actually constitute a sin against the abandoned party.
  • Dr. Michael Sirilla, Professor of Theology at Franciscan University, asserted that the Kasper position advocates false mercy, and endorses a process which would lead to the commission of several grave sins, among which are that of scandal and sacrilege against the Holy Eucharist. He also stated that in cases where a couple is ignorant of the sin in their irregular union, it is the duty of pastors to inform them in order that they may repent, and receive true mercy – the mercy that comes through repentance, a firm purpose of amendment, and absolution.
  • Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College, took the unusual approach in his essay of tying together the current deficiencies in the ars celebrandi of the Catholic liturgy — particularly in the Wedding Mass itself — and the high number of divorces even among Catholics. One point he made that garnered particular attention was the role of feminization of aspects of the liturgy in this unfortunate outcome in marriage.

On the last point, an audience member challenged Dr. Kwasniewski during the Q&A (see video at 1:59:30), asking how the alleged feminization of the liturgy could be related to divorce. Kwasniewski responded that the loss of all-male altar service and other feminizing aspects of contemporary Catholic worship are, according to his hypothesis, partly responsible for distorting the understanding of God-given gender roles and human sexuality that often lie at the heart of divorces among Catholic spouses.

In other words, he didn’t back away from what was a transparently controversial thesis. I felt a certain tension as he spoke, wondering about the audience reaction. But instead of murmurs of disapproval from the crowd of 800 people in attendance, his answer was rewarded with spontaneous and vigorous applause. It was, in fact, the only applause during the entire Q&A session!

Again, this was an epiphany to me. This was not the Steubenville of my youth. The academic freedom to have this discussion, the openness to the reality of a crisis coming from within the Church that needs to be addressed, the airing of viewpoints aligned fundamentally with Catholic “traditionalism,” the liturgical and theological undertones to the event that resonated with antiquity and drew large crowds – these are not, in my estimation, things that could happen at any other Catholic university in America today. 

Something unique and special is happening at Steubenville. Despite its reputation among those who favor classical liturgy and theology, Steubenville, of all places, is becoming a center of resistance to the errors that have so infected the Church in our present age. It is doing so not only through the courage of theologians who are willing to take a public stand on unpopular subjects, but through an openness to reaching back and rooting the current debate in the deep, rich, organic traditions of the Church’s past.

The Burkean Bodyguard

As a friend of Dr. Sirilla, one of the principle organizers of this event, I was a trusted face in an encircling crowd, and thus found myself suddenly and unexpectedly tasked with escort duty for His Eminence, Cardinal Burke. One of the realities that accompanies His Eminence’s reputation as a lone voice crying out in the wilderness in favor of Christ’s teaching is an almost celebrity-level of popularity among orthodox Catholics. Exfiltrating him from a large and adoring crowd was no easy task, especially considering the sincerity of their petitions – even if it was only to take a photo with him. Eventually, we managed to spirit the good cardinal away behind the stage and down a little-used stairway, where I was at last introduced. I promised him I wouldn’t stop him on the stairs to kiss his ring, a consideration for which I suspect he was quietly thankful.

We wound through a labyrinth of unfamiliar hallways in the bowels of the building, emerging beside a waiting vehicle in which we took the Cardinal to a private reception. His exhaustion was evident, and no wonder – having traveled from Sri Lanka to Rome to Ohio in the span of just a few days. He politely acquiesced to a short stay at the reception in his honor, but before long he turned to me and said, “I think it’s time to go now,” and once again we whisked him away to the residence where he was staying so that he could get some much-needed sleep.

As we wished him a good night, I at last had the chance to pay him due reverence, and he expressed his good wishes on the birth of our seventh child, whom he had been told would be coming very soon.

Going into the evening, I had expected at most to exchange a few brief words with the Cardinal at the reception. As his impromptu escort/bodyguard, we didn’t have the opportunity to do much talking, but I nonetheless found it quite enlightening. Receiving the sincere praise and adulation of the faithful is more wearying (from my perspective) than I ever could have imagined. He never complained about it, and handled it all very graciously, clearly not basking in the compliments he received but not falsely demurring from them either. It occurred to me as I got a Cardinal’s-eye-view of this overwhelming attention just what a dangerous business being a man of his stature could be. Only the truly humble could endure it without it going to their heads. Fortunately, I’ve now seen with my own eyes that humility is a virtue His Eminence possesses in abundance.

Fellowship in Times of Trial

While everything I experienced in the past two days has been incredibly encouraging and uplifting, truly, the greatest delight was the simplest one. For two evenings in a row, after the day’s events came to a close, I was able to unwind on front porch of Dr. Sirilla, who, over the past two years, has become one of my dearest friends. It was there that I had the opportunity to get to know Dr. Kwasniewski, who I am happy to say is my newest friend. I’ve worked with both men since before OnePeterFive was launched, and their insight and influence has helped me immeasurably in the work we do here. Until this week, I had never met Peter, despite our frequent collaborations on work. In a reminder of just what a truly limiting medium the Internet is, I found almost instantly that the natural rapport we had with each other was much greater in person than I ever would have guessed, despite an already congenial working relationship. I was also reminded that there is no substitute for staring into the darkness, debating liturgy and theology over whiskey and tobacco smoke, hashing out the deeper significance of the truly important things with good and trusted friends. It is of incalculable benefit, and I cannot recommend highly enough that you do all in your power to find and cherish the same.

It’s really been an incredible two days — days, although I orginally (mistakenly) wrote “weeks.” It feels like weeks. So much was packed in. So much now needs to be unpacked.

This was a good event. It was an important event. It may, quite possibly, be a milestone event.

It’s time to stop for lunch now. Thanks for reading.

 

Editor’s note: this post has been revised and updated for spelling, grammar and clarity, which were lacking in the first draft, insofar as it was written in a bouncing van full of loud children. It has also been updated to include video of the event as it became available.

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