Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis

Like the rest of the worldwide Catholic community, I was glued to my television on Wednesday, March 13, as we awaited news from the papal conclave, into its second day of voting. Black smoke emerged early, reflecting TWO ballots, not one. Newscasters observed that this was an indication that the field was narrowing, and that white smoke might emerge at 11:00am (Pacific Time). I was sitting on pins and needles as that hour loomed.

White smoke! “Habemus papam!” I strained my ears as the cardinal MC announced the name of the new pope from that iconic Vatican balcony.

“Francesco! Francesco!” the crowd started echoing back. Was it possible? The new Vicar of Christ would be known as Pope Francis!

Francis of Assisi! The iconic holy man beloved by people of all faiths, and even of no faith, for his simplicity, his love for the poor, and his love for animals. Saint Francis, who renounced his wealthy inheritance and embraced poverty. Saint Francis, who heard the command from God to “rebuild my Church!” Francis would be the name of the new pope!

And then he appeared on the balcony, not dressed in the red papal regalia of his predecessors but in a simple white cassock. He departed from the script and greeted the enthusiastic multitude at St. Peter’s Square with a simple, “Good evening.” He led the people in an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary.” And then, before he blessed the world, he bowed humbly and asked for our prayers.

As I watched this unfold on television, an interesting personal reaction: my eyes welled up in tears. I am not one to cry easily, and here I was, overcome with emotion and, yes, hope. I grew up a child of the Second Vatican Council whose influence, I have observed with increasing dismay, was receding with each passing year. And now, the new pope is a champion of the poor who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, visited the sick, rode to work on a bus with his people, and cooked his own meals.

For me, Vatican II can be summarized in two words: social justice. It’s not about being liberal or conservative. Frankly, who cares about such polemic labels? Vatican II’s legacy is “the fundamental option for the poor.”

The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men [sic] of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well…

-Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World

Pundits and bloggers are already pontificating (pardon my irony) on Pope Francis’ record as an archbishop. He is “too conservative” on the hot-flash issues of today’s world. Or he’s “too liberal” when it comes to liturgy and tradition. Oh, come on! The man just got fitted for his white cassock. At least give him a chance to try it on for size.

Pope Francis, or any pope for that matter, is not going to suddenly undo centuries of dogma or the interpretation of it. The Catholic Church is a millennial organization that moves at a glacial pace, in marked contrast to a modern society that is accustomed to instant change and lightning-speed action. Ecclesial change and reform lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Painful as the glacial pace is, today’s generation can begin to lay the groundwork for change that will eventually benefit future generations. After all, Saint Francis could only rebuild that old ruined church brick by brick.

For today, I just want to bask in this rare uplifting moment for the Church. Pope Francis gives me hope. Yes, the road ahead is challenging and will be filled with inevitable setbacks and disappointments. But today, the burden of that long road became a little bit lighter.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Next Vicar of Christ

It is the world’s oldest spectacle. On Tuesday, March 12, the College of Cardinals begins their conclave to elect the new pope. The process has essentially remained unchanged through centuries of coups, uprisings, revolutions, and constitutional changes on every continent. The Shoes of the Fisherman will be filled through an elaborate and secretive ritual that confounds a 21st century media accustomed to instant and transparent dissemination of the news.

I admit to being amused by how the media doesn’t get it. Notice how quickly they posted lists of papabile “candidates” after Pope Benedict announced his resignation, as if the cardinals were going into a smoke-filled caucus room, brokering deals on platform positions like an American political party convention. Fiery candidate speeches? There are none. Ear-catching campaign promises? Nada. Duke ‘em out debates? Sorry, wrong country. And wrong process.

The Successor to Saint Peter will be chosen not by a hard-fought campaign but by the Holy Spirit. Wolf Blitzer or Brian Williams would be hard pressed to try and explain that on television. Heck, even I am having a hard time explaining it to my non-Catholic friends.

The American presidential election is a drawn out and long-winded process that involves millions of campaign dollars, months of slogan-driven rhetoric, and 24/7 media saturation. Candidates pick sound-bite issues that fire up the electorate, whether those issues are truly important or not. Victory is assured when a candidate wins over the majority, however slim, by dragging his opponent in the mud.

In contrast, the College of Cardinals sequester themselves from the world and rely on the Holy Spirit to inspire their choice for the next Vicar of Christ — without a formal nominating process. The pope is the spiritual voice of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He can address the leaders of nations on equal diplomatic footing and challenge them as a moral voice for peace and justice. In light of this powerful influence, is it not haphazard and even reckless to rely on such a seemingly random election process?

To those who don’t understand faith, yes. But to those who believe, no. The X-factor is the Holy Spirit, who has guided the Catholic Church through the centuries, despite the sinfulness of its very human leadership and membership. In Matthew 16:18, Christ said to Peter:

"I declare to you, you are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it."

It does indeed take a lot of faith to believe in the Rock of Peter, especially in these uncertain times. The Holy Spirit, as always, will send to us just the right person to steady the boat through the rough waters ahead. The jaws of death will not prevail.

Veni, Creator Spiritus!

+ + +

In this scene from the 1968 movie, The Shoes of the Fisherman, the cardinals are taking a break at the Vatican after their seventh conclave session failed again to elect a pope. During coffee, Cardinal Kiril Lakota (Antony Quinn) reluctantly takes the spotlight as he explains a moral dilemma he faced while imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp for 20 years. His candor impressed his fellow cardinals. In the scene that follows, Cardinal Kiril was elected by acclamation as the next Vicar of Christ.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Where does inspiration come from? The quick answer is the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean?

I believe in an incarnational God. The mystery of Jesus Christ is revealed to us through an awesome act of divine imagination: that God would walk in our shoes. Saint Iranaeus once said: “God became human so that human beings can become like God.”

One way we “become like God” is through our openness to the Holy Spirit who breathes within us. Inspiration is the way the Spirit allows us a glimpse of the everlasting Beauty who created the universe by speaking the poetic words, “Let there be light.”

Most artists spend years studying their chosen artistic discipline, mastering the tools of their trade, and learning from those who have created before them. This is incarnational and good. It means the Holy Spirit works through our human experience, our trials and errors, our joys and triumphs.

I was blessed to receive the spark of music when I was a small child. Starting in grade school, I played harmonica and sang in choirs. I learned piano in high school, studied music theory in college, and played in many, many bands. Most importantly, I learned to love the Mass and wanted to compose music for the liturgy. My first attempts were modest, but I learned and I grew. Only later in life, when I opened myself to the Holy Spirit, was I able to apply the music skills I learned and bring something worthy to the altar of God. Composing is now my life’s work.

Young musicians often ask me, “How do you write a song?” There is no easy answer. Each person will have their own unique approach to composing, based on their life experience, their talent, and the hard work they put into nurturing their God-given abilities. But I do have one piece of advice: Allow the Holy Spirit to work through you, and let your composing be an experience of prayer.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

O Mighty Deadline

Hello. I haven’t blogged for a while. Blogging was great when it first came out in the late-1990s. Published authors, wannabe writers, and ordinary people seemed happy to have this inexpensive and widely accessible platform from which to express themselves to the world. But bloggers soon found out that blogging was work that also required a fairly good grammatical sense and style. Eventually, the limited posting on Facebook and Twitter became the People’s Choice for easy Internet expression.

But popular social media, by definition, has limited content — in Twitter’s case, 140 characters. Blogging is truly a writer’s medium, allowing for the development of thought, plot, characterization or poetry in whatever stylistic format the writer chooses. Blogging is certainly good practice for a writer. I often read about how novelists or short story writers began their works from informal blogging that became their creative springboard.

Blogging requires a regular commitment of time — an increasingly rare commodity in today’s fast-paced world. As a freelancer, my time is divided between weekend liturgy work at my parish, music arranging and rehearsal during the week for my choirs, doing webmaster duties for my parish, recording my weekly Liturgy Podcast for, composing new songs, giving liturgy workshops around the country every couple of months, and writing a monthly column for Ministry & Liturgy magazine — not to mention my continuing research and interviews for the follow-up sequel to my first book, Keep the Fire Burning. Weighed against all these commitments, blogging definitely occupies a place at the bottom of the totem pole.

One writer I know places high priority on blogging. Sure, it seems like no one is reading your blog. But people will read it if you blog regularly. Sounds like the classic chicken-or-egg to me. What comes first?

It all comes down to the tyranny of the blank page, doesn’t it? My regular writing gig is Ministry & Liturgy magazine, with a deadline every 15th day of the month. I can’t tell you how often I promise myself that I will not be a last-minute writer, rushing to meet the deadline with an 11th hour frenzy of wordsmith madness. And yet, it seems like I sit and stare at my computer screen every 14th of the month, praying for inspiration to come up with something that will be publication-worthy.

Therein lies the secret of a writer’s success: the deadline, that relentless oppressor who breathes down my neck and forces my hand! Who was it that said, “Without a deadline, nothing would get done”?

So thank you, O Mighty Deadline, for keeping me on the writer’s path. And if I’m really serious about earning a living as a writer, I need to keep on writing. And writing. And writing.

See you tomorrow in the next blog! (Yes, that is a self-imposed deadline. Please hold me to it!)

+ + +

Image above: Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne (ca 1594-1632)
"Saint Paul, pray for me!"