November

november_branchesA branch wields its way
toward the grey haze of an icy sky
stripped of its leaves,
with a golden pile of garments
at its base, shrivelling dry.

The branch is empty to be full –
barren, still it reaches,
still it forks its twigs upward
like a waiting hand,
to catch the flurries of December,
wet and heavy in the promise
of a splendor received, not produced.

But first there are the empty days
between foliage and flurries,
the windswept silence of winter afternoons,
the waiting for more than vacancy…
the outstretching toward the promise
of a gift, unknown.

the virtue of hope

SpeSalviLately I’ve been thinking about hope: in particular, hope as a theological virtue. Given all of the sexual, financial and theological scandal in the Church in recent months, and all of the political scandal in the culture, many of the temptations I face today are temptations against hope. The recent popularity of the movie Joker, for example, impressed me as a troubling bellwether of a climate of despair. And in the Church, even in quarters in which the virtue of faith seems evident, often a corresponding hope is not manifest. Sins against charity are usually easy to spot, but sins against hope tend to be more subtle. The days are dark, and the temptations to let the light of hope be extinguished are legion.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope (and defects of hope) as follows:

2090 When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God’s love and of incurring punishment.

2091 The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:

By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy

2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

In order to explore the topic of hope more deeply, in the coming weeks I’ll be returning to meditate on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”), which was released on November 30, 2007.

In 2008, I hosted three evenings of discussion of Spe Salvi. All three discussions were audio recorded and edited (roughly!) and are available as audio podcasts:

  • Spe Salvi, paragraphs 1-12: Introduction; Faith is Hope; The concept of faith-based hope in the New Testament and the early Church; Eternal life – what is it?
  • Spe Salvi, paragraphs 13-31: Is Christian hope individualistic?; The transformation of Christian faith-hope in the modern age; The true shape of Christian hope
  • Spe Salvi, paragraphs 32-50: “Settings” for learning and practising hope: Prayer as a school of hope; Action and suffering as settings for learning hope; Judgment as a setting for learning and practicing hope; Mary, Star of Hope

the harvest

Here’s a short story I wrote in college; the assignment was to write on the theme of death for a younger audience.

Copyright 2012 Cian FentonAs Kevin stepped out of his family’s two-story Victorian home on Auburn Street, bright red maple leaves were soaring across the blue October sky like sparks from a roaring campfire. Kevin felt a tinge of sadness on this crisp Saturday morning. Although he enjoyed the colorful shower of leaves, he knew that it would soon give way to the bland skies and bleached earth of November.

After strolling seven blocks down Auburn, he turned right onto Melrose Avenue. The public library, a red brick building with a large clock tower, sat comfortably upon the curb of the avenue two blocks ahead. It was almost nine-thirty. Remembering that the weekly puppet show began at that time, Kevin quickened his pace and soon found himself inside the library’s main entrance. As he stepped inside, he noticed an unusual silence. Much to his surprise, the children’s corner of the library was vacant—no puppet stage, no puppets, no people. He hurried to the librarian’s desk.

“Where’s the puppet show today?” he asked anxiously.

“There is no puppet show today,” explained the librarian in an even whisper. “We have puppet shows all summer, but not in the fall. They’ll start up again next spring.” She smiled apologetically.

Disheartened, Kevin turned around and slowly headed home, kicking leaves off the sidewalk and secretly wishing it were summer again.

Suddenly, his eye caught sight of several orange pumpkins peeking out of a lush garden on the corner of Auburn and Melrose. An elderly man in red overalls with a white baseball cap was milling through a jungle of squash vines. There were many other vegetables in his garden—tomatoes, corn, cabbage, carrots, peas and potatoes—but Kevin’s eyes shot instantly toward the large pumpkins resting in the shade of their vines.

Pumpkins fascinated Kevin. Every October, his father would drive him and his sisters to a roadside stand outside of town to find pumpkins for Halloween. Without fail, Kevin would search out the largest and roundest pumpkin available.

The old man in the garden waved to Kevin and, noticing the boy’s interest, motioned to him to come into the pumpkin patch. Kevin was overjoyed.

“Hello, young man,” said the gardener, removing his cap to wipe some sweat from his brow.

“Hi,” said Kevin in a distracted tone of voice. “These are the hugest pumpkins I’ve ever seen. Did you grow them yourself?”

The old man smiled warmly. “Not really,” he replied. “I planted them, weeded around them when they were small and watered them, but God did the rest.”

Kevin stood in silent admiration of the pumpkins. Finally, he could contain himself no longer. “Can I have one?”

Laughing softly, the old man replaced his cap. “Sure. They’re not quite ready to be picked yet, though. In another couple of days they’ll be ready. Come back sometime next week and I’ll let you choose one.”

“Thanks! I’ll stop by after school sometime,” replied Kevin as he turned back toward the road.

The old man called after him. “If I’m not in the garden, I’ll be up at the house. My name’s Sidney.”

Kevin turned toward Sidney. “I’m Kevin. See ya later, Sidney.”

The days flew past like migrating geese and soon it was Wednesday. When class was dismissed that afternoon, Kevin hurried home to his garage, padded his wagon with some leaves and headed toward Sidney’s.

When he arrived, Sidney was out in the garden picking squash. The garden had changed drastically since Saturday. All of the vines had wilted into limp brown clumps and the colorful squash sat exposed atop the withered foliage. Kevin was horrified by the change.

Sidney stopped his work and greeted the boy. “Hi, Kevin.”

“What happened to all the vines?” asked Kevin. He surveyed the garden with knitted brows.

“We had a hard frost last night. The vines can’t handle that kind of cold weather. The chilly nights are right on time; they always arrive just when the pumpkins are ready,” said Sidney.

“You mean it’s s’posed to happen like this?”

“Yep. Every year it’s the same. God has a pretty good plan for growing things. He waits for the plants to finish their work and then he puts ‘em down to sleep.”

Kevin thought about this for a moment. “It’s sorta sad, though, isn’t it? I mean, the dying plants and the falling leaves.”

“It all depends on how you look at it, Kevin. Look at this pumpkin here, for example. The pumpkin seed I planted last spring had one thing in mind when I put it in the ground; its task was to grow into this pumpkin. All summer long, it grew into vines to absorb the sun and water so that it could produce a pumpkin. Then, when the pumpkin was ready, the vine was no longer needed. So the cold weather came and took the vine away so that everyone could see the beautiful pumpkin. So it’s not really sad, Kevin. The vine did its job and the pumpkin is the result of its hard work.”

Kevin thought he understood what Sidney was saying. He had another question, though. “But why does the vine have to die?”

“Vines aren’t meant to last forever. Although they grow and spread through the garden, they’re mostly interested in making a pumpkin. That’s the important thing. When the pumpkin is ready, the rest of the plant isn’t needed anymore.”

Satisfied with this answer, Kevin began to survey the pumpkin patch. He soon discovered his favorite pumpkin; naturally, it was the largest. Sidney helped him twist the pumpkin from its vine and put it gently into the wagon.

“You sure know how to pick ‘em,” said Sidney. “Why don’t you come inside and have a cup of cider and some cookies? Then you can meet Judy, my wife. I told her you were coming, and she baked a batch of cookies yesterday so I’d have something to give such a hard-working pumpkin picker.”

Kevin had no objections. As they entered Sidney’s house, the aroma of cinnamon and apples wafted through the door to greet them. Judy, a kind woman with a face full of smiling wrinkles, greeted them as well. The old couple chatted with Kevin about the garden and the neighborhood and pumpkins. “If you’d like to help me plant my pumpkins next year, I sure would appreciate the help,” said Sidney. Kevin thought it was an excellent idea.

Soon, Kevin remembered that he had homework waiting for him. He thanked the old couple for the snack and stepped out onto the porch. “Stop by any time,” Sidney offered. “Enjoy your pumpkin.”

As autumn turned to winter, Kevin made regular visits to Sidney’s house. Sidney and Judy treated Kevin like a grandson; they had no grandchildren of their own, so they always enjoyed his company. Whenever Kevin visited, Judy would bring out a set of finger paints and then Kevin would create a masterpiece for the front of their refrigerator. By Christmastime, the refrigerator was covered with his artwork.

One day in February when Kevin stopped by, Judy came to the door and told him that Sidney was sick and couldn’t get out of bed. Kevin asked if he could see him. “Well, since he’s not asleep, I don’t see why not,” replied Judy.

Kevin entered the bedroom quietly. “Hi, Sidney.”

“Well, it’s Kevin!” Sidney exclaimed weakly. “It’s nice of you to stop by. How are you?”

“Okay,” Kevin replied. “Are you real sick?”

Sidney smiled. “Oh, it’s not so bad. I went out to get the mail without my coat on last week and I think I just caught a little cold. If I rest up, I should be healthy again in no time.”

“You look awfully white, Sidney. You sure you’re all right?”

“I think so. I went to see the doctor yesterday and he’s supposed to call me if it’s anything serious. Hey! Guess what? I’ve got a surprise for you,” Sidney said, reaching for a small wrapped package in the top drawer of his nightstand. He handed the present to Kevin.

Kevin unwrapped the present recklessly. Inside, he found a package of pumpkin seeds. “Mammoth pumpkins!” Kevin exclaimed after examining the label. “Wow, I bet these’ll be huge!”

“I guess we’ll find out next summer,” said Sidney. “I’ve never tried that kind of seed before.”

After visiting for a little while, Kevin returned home. He could hardly wait for the arrival of spring when he could plant the seeds. Arriving in his bedroom, he stowed them safely in his sock drawer.

Later that week, Kevin went back to visit Sidney again. This time he brought some of his mom’s chicken noodle soup. Judy greeted him at the door. She took the soup graciously and gently placed it on the stove. Her wrinkles looked different today, Kevin thought—they were stretched more tightly, almost stretched into frowns.

Sidney was still in bed, and he wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, he told Kevin that the doctor had asked him to go to the hospital where doctors could take better care of him.

Kevin sat in frightened silence for a moment. “Are you gonna get better?” he asked with a quivering voice.

Sidney paused for a moment. “I’m not sure,” he said softly. “I’m getting pretty old and I don’t fight off sickness like I used to. I’m sure they’ll take good care of me at the hospital, and maybe I’ll be coming back home real soon.”

Kevin winced, trying to hold back tears.

“Kevin, it’s okay if you want to cry. I cry sometimes too.”

Kevin was sobbing uncontrollably now. Sidney reached out and embraced him.

“You know, I’m not too worried about going to sleep and not waking up again. You know why? Because I’m sorta like that pumpkin plant I was telling you about. God planted me one day and has taken care of me for seventy-five years. While I’ve been here, I’ve branched out to see many things and meet many people, including you. I think maybe God’s getting ready to harvest me, though. He’s been waiting a long time for me, and I think maybe I’m just about ripe.” Sidney chuckled gently through the tears that were now in his own eyes. “When I’m ready, God’s gonna take me up to his house and I’ll be up there with him forever. So I’m not worried about dying.”

“I’m gonna miss you if you go,” Kevin blurted out between sobs.

“I’ll miss you too, Kevin. But we’ll be together again one day. Someday you’ll be ripe and God’ll pick you and bring you up to his house too. Until then, though, enjoy being like that pumpkin vine. Spread out your branches—meet other people and enjoy the things around you, and never forget that God’s your best friend. It’s an exciting thing, growing up. Scary, sometimes, too. God’s taking care of you and one day you’ll be with him for always.”

Kevin sat back and wiped the tears from his eyes.

“I want you to promise me something, Kevin. If God harvests me before next spring, I want you to go ahead and plant those pumpkins anyway. You’ll do a terrific job. Is it a deal?”

“Deal.”

Kevin continued to stop by Sidney’s house to see Judy and bring drawings for Sidney that he had made at school. One day when he arrived at Sidney’s house, Judy didn’t answer the doorbell. Turning back toward the street, he saw a car pulling slowly into the driveway. It was Judy.

As she approached on the sidewalk, Kevin noticed a thin smile on her face. “Hello, Kevin. Have you been standing here long? I’m sorry. I just got back from the hospital. Come in.”

Once inside, Judy brought out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, without saying a word. Kevin knew that something was wrong.

“Is Sidney okay?” he asked anxiously.

“Kevin,” she said quietly, “Sidney didn’t wake up today.”

Kevin didn’t know what to say. He felt his stomach plummet—the way it would in a car speeding over the top of a steep hill. Staring blankly at the refrigerator with all of his paintings on it, he started to cry.

Judy followed his eyes to the refrigerator. “Those are some beautiful paintings,” she said. “You know, Sidney’s just like one of those paintings. God painted him one day and put him in the world to dry. It took a long time, but God was really patient. As soon as the paint dried, God wanted to put him up on his refrigerator so he could see him all the time. And you know what? I think Sidney’s pretty happy there.” A tear slowly worked its way across her wrinkled face.

Kevin nodded in agreement.

On a crisp Saturday morning in late May, Kevin went over to Sidney’s old garden and planted his pumpkin seeds with Judy’s help. He took his gardening seriously: as soon as he had planted the seeds, he went directly to the library to check out a book on growing pumpkins.

Kevin visited the garden at least twice a week during the summer to water the vines, to weed around the plants and to spend time with Judy. The vines spread from one edge of the garden to the other, meeting the fence on one side and embracing the rock terrace on the opposite. One pumpkin grew to be especially large. Since it was Kevin’s favorite, he decided to name it Sidney.

Before long, the maple leaves were once again dancing through the autumn breeze like blizzard-driven snowflakes. Kevin watched vigilantly for the first frost to steal its way across the neighborhood, and when it had, he padded his wagon and headed down to the garden to harvest the pumpkins. After enjoying some cookies with Judy, he picked the pumpkins and gave them all to her—all, that is, except one. Kevin picked up one enormous pumpkin and put it in the back of his wagon.

As he hauled the wagon down the driveway toward Melrose Avenue, he waved toward the bay window where Judy stood watching him. Then, surrounded by a flurry of red and orange leaves, he turned the corner onto Auburn Street.

“Come on, Sidney,” he said to the pumpkin. “You’re comin’ home with me.”

© 1990 All rights reserved

false alternatives

Trojan Horse in the City of God by Dietrich von HildebrandGiven the theological puberty crisis we are currently living through in the Church, I highly recommend the following book for study and meditation:  Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Trojan Horse in the City of God, written in 1967, but as relevant today as then. Below is the first chapter of the book:

WHEN  ONE READS  the luminous encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI or the magnificent “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium)  of the Fathers of the Council, one cannot but realize the greatness of the Second Vatican Council.

False interpretations of the Second Vatican Council

But when one turns to so many contemporary writings – some by very famous theologians, some by minor ones, some by laymen offering us their dilettante theological concoctions – one  can only be deeply saddened and even filled with grave apprehension. For it would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.

On the one side, we find the true spirit of Christ, the authentic voice of the Church; we find texts that both in form and content breathe a glorious supernatural atmosphere. On the other side, we find a depressing secularization, a complete loss of the sensus supernaturalis, a morass of confusion.

The distortion of the authentic nature of the Council produced by this epidemic of theological dilettantism expresses itself chiefly in the false alternatives between which we are all commanded to choose: either to accept the secularization of Christianity or to deny the authority of the Council.

The true meanings of conservative and progressive

These drastic alternatives are frequently labeled the progressive and conservative responses. These terms, facilely applied to many natural realms, can be extremely misleading when applied to the Church. It is of the very nature of Catholic Christian faith to adhere to an unchanging divine revelation, to acknowledge that there is something in the Church that is above the ups and downs of cultures and the rhythm of history. Divine revelation and the Mystical Body of Christ differ completely from all natural entities. To be conservative, to be a traditionalist, is in this case an essential element of the response due to the unique phenomenon of the Church. Even a man in no way conservative in temperament and in many other respects progressive must be conservative in his relation to the infallible magisterium of the Church, if he is to remain an orthodox Catholic. One can be progressive and simultaneously a Catholic, but one cannot be a progressive in one’s Catholic faith. The idea of a “progressive Catholic” in this sense is an oxymoron, a contradictio in adjecto. Unfortunately, there are many today who no longer understand this contradiction and proudly proclaim themselves to be “progressive Catholics.”

Conservative and progressive are false alternatives

With the labels conservative and progressive they are in fact requiring the faithful to choose between opposition to any renewal, opposition even to the elimination of things that  have crept into the Church because of human frailty (e.g., legalism, abstractionism, external pressure in questions of conscience, grave abuses of authority in monasteries) and a change, a “progress” in the Catholic faith which can only mean its abandonment.

These are false alternatives. For there is a third choice, which welcomes the official decisions of the Vatican Council but at the same time emphatically rejects the secularizing interpretations given them by many so-called progressive theologians and laymen.

True renewal calls us to transformation in Christ

This third choice is based on unshakable faith in Christ and in the infallible magisterium of His Holy Church. It takes it for granted that there is no room for change in the divinely revealed doctrine of the Church. It admits no possibility of change except that development of which Cardinal Newman speaks: the explicit formulation of what was implicit in the faith of the Apostles or of what necessarily follows from it.

This attitude holds that the Christian morality of holiness, the morality revealed in the Sacred Humanity of Christ and His commandments and exemplified in all the saints, remains forever the same. It holds that being transformed in Christ, becoming a new creature in Him, is the goal of our existence. In the words of St. Paul, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Thess. 4:3)

This position maintains that there is a radical difference between the kingdom of Christ and the saeculum (world); it takes into account the struggle between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of Satan through all the centuries past and to come, until the end of the world. It believes that Christ’s words are as valid today as in any former time: “Had you been of the world, the world would love its own; but as you are not of the world, as I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you” (John 15:19).

This is simply the Catholic position, without further qualification. It rejoices in any renewal that enlarges the establishment of all things in Christ – the instaurare omnia in Christo – and that brings the light of Christ to added domains of life. This is in fact a specific encouragement to Catholics to confront all things with the Spirit and Truth of Christ – in season and out of season – regardless of the spirit of the present age or any past age. Such a renewal follows the admonition of St. Paul: “Test all things; hold to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). It appreciates reverently those great gifts of previous Christian centuries which reflect the sacred atmosphere of the Church (for example, Gregorian Chant and the admirable hymns of the Latin Liturgy).

The Catholic position maintains that these gifts should never cease to play a great role in our Liturgy and that they have today as in the past a great apostolic mission. It believes that the Confessions of St. Augustine, the writings of St. Francis of Assisi, and the mystical works of St. Teresa of Avila contain a vital message for all periods in history. It represents an attitude of deep filial devotion to the Holy Father and reverent love for the Church in all its aspects, the true sentire cum ecclesia.

It should be clear that this third response to the contemporary crisis in the Church is not timidly compromising, but consistent and forthright. It is not retrospective, nor does it anticipate a mere earthly future, but it is focused on eternity. It is thus able to live fully in the present, because real presence is fully experienced only when we succeed in freeing ourselves from the tension of past and future, only when we are no longer imprisoned in a frantic propulsion toward the next moment. In the light of eternity every moment in life – whether of an individual or a community – receives its full significance. We can do justice to the present age, therefore, only by regarding it in the light of man’s eternal destiny – in the light of Christ.

The response that we have been describing involves grave concern and apprehension over the present invasion of the life of the Church by secularism. It considers the present crisis the most serious one in the entire history of the Church. Yet it is full of hope that the Church will triumph, because our Lord Himself has said: “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

Nine days of prayer to Saint John Paul II begin October 14

jp2_and_maryThe details are over at the news site for The Christopher Inn International.

From October 21-25, 2019, the Christopher Inn International (CII) will host its next program of priestly renewal.

Therefore, the CII team will begin a 9-day novena of prayer on Monday, October 14th, asking for Saint John Paul II’s intercession on behalf of this developing apostolate at the service of bishops and priests. The novena will conclude on October 22nd, the feast day of Saint John Paul II.

It was from Saint Louis de Montfort that Saint John Paul II adopted the phrase “Totus Tuus” (“totally yours”) in reference to Mary. In fact, according to John Paul II’s personal secretary, these two words were likely the last ones that the Pope wrote… during Easter week of 2005.

For the next nine days, we will post excerpts from a book on Marian devotion called “33 Days to Morning Glory,” along with a prayer to Saint John Paul II.

We invite you to join in this time of prayer and deepening devotion to the Mother of God as we call out to her with confidence and love: “Totus Tuus.”

To learn more about the programs of priestly renewal that CI International hosts, you can watch this short documentary:

Birth of a Mission from christopherinn on Vimeo.

The pilot programs that CI International hosted in 2012 were very well-received by the Irish priests who participated. You can learn about their experiences here.

If you feel inspired to support this mission, please visit the How to Help page.