Saturday, November 28, 2015

Keeping Advent 2015

We've turned the corner into the Year of Grace 2016 with the First Sunday of Advent.

With this comes the usual rants among my serious-minded colleagues who bemoan and decry the over-commercialization and secularization of the season, raising the spectre of the push for a "happy holidays" agenda and the supposed PC sanitization of the use of terms like "Christmas", questionable colors and symbols on coffee cups, or a protest over the appearance of Nativity scenes in the public square.

I'd like to offer a slightly different approach. Advent is a penitential and preparatory season in anticipation of Christmas. But I also think we as hard-identity Catholics need to infuse the season with the joy that our hope in and expectation of the Parousia brings. In other words, I put forth the notion of "keeping Advent."

Here are some ideas on how to "keep" Advent.

Have an Advent wreath with candles (three purple, one rose) in your home. St. Mary's had a wreath-making event after Masses several weeks ago. I can’t use real greens, as alas I’m an apartment dweller and am not permitted them due to risk of fire.

My tree goes up with white lights, but instead of Christmas ornaments, the tree is decorated with purple ornaments and some rose-colored ones.  Sometimes there are gold ones hidden throughout as a symbol of the anticipation. The tree is topped with a large purple bow. I also have a swag of greens with white lanterns and a big purple bow hanging over the chest where the Nativity set goes.

I abstain from listening to Christmas music at home, limiting myself to the few recordings of Advent music I own (a recording of the Advent Procession from St. James’ Episcopal Cathedral, Toronto, and J. Michael Thompson and his Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle singing Advent Lessons and Carols, called, ”Redeemer of the Nations, Come”).

On Gaudete Sunday I’ll make my Christmas cookies and write and post my Christmas cards.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, the purple and rose ornaments will come down and the Christmas decorations will go up on the tree and elsewhere in the apartment.

There are some who have a tradition of putting up the various elements of the Nativity in stages: the stable goes up on Advent I; the animals go in on Advent II; the shepherds on Advent III; the Angel on Advent IV; Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve morning, and the bambino on Christmas Eve. I put the Infant King in the manger when I get home from Midnight Mass.

I'm sure there are plenty of other wonderful ways of "keeping" Advent. Please share them here!

Friday, November 27, 2015

The New View and Disclaimer

On October 21, 2015, I became the new Director of Sacred Music and Organist at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in historic Marshall, Michigan. The new blog title picture is of the sanctuary taken from the choir loft. It's my intention to update this picture regularly to reflect the liturgical season.

So far, my experience in this new position has been nothing but positive. The parishioners are welcoming and kind, the staff is well-organized and hard-working, and the Pastor is one of the best priests I've had the pleasure of working with. This is no surprise since he's: 1) a convert, 2) holds a bachelor's degree in organ performance, 3) held a job as a Catholic church musician, and 4) worked in the private sector for a number of years before entering the seminary and becoming a priest. Not since my tenure at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Wyandotte have I enjoyed such a good collegial relationship with a priest, and it has restored my confidence in my vocation and the future of the Church.

The choir here is a mighty and determined bunch. I have 28 registered singers, and regularly have 21 at rehearsal and in the loft on Sundays. So far, they have risen to the challenge of learning the Elgar Ave Verum, the John Romeri arrangement of Goss's Psalm 23 (Anglican chant), and continue to show eagerness to learn Gregorian chant and the riches of sacred polyphony that is such an important part of our Catholic cultural identity.

Upon my arrival, the choir shared space with the religious education program in one of the classrooms in the former K-8 school that had been repurposed for the school of religion. At my request the director re-arranged the use of space so that the classroom could be dedicated exclusively to the use of the sacred music program. I set to the task of cleaning out the 12-plus years of accumulated "treasures" found throughout the cabinets, closets and shelves of the room, rearranging the furniture to create a proper rehearsal area and establish an office area in one corner while also creating a work space for a librarian to assist with the sorting and organizing of the choral library. The maintenance supervisor worked closely with another volunteer to see to the task of running ethernet cable below the floor of the building (through a series of small tunnels that house the plumbing for the forced steam heating system) into the music room so that I could have internet access at work. The room had never been used this consistently as an office and rehearsal space, and so the change was welcomed by the choir, who appreciated having a clean and orderly area in which to work.

I have been busy creating email "blast" lists for both the St. Mary (adult/mixed) Choir and the Young Voices of St. Mary (the boy's and girl's choir), using these "blasts" as a way of communicating with members on a regular basis. I've also begun making use of the Facebook page that had been set up as a contact point for parishioners, by posting the lists of music for upcoming Masses, funerals and other events.

I'm looking forward to the ongoing work of developing and advancing a solid sacred music program here. The people seem genuinely interested and eager to undertake the work and while they do occasionally get discouraged, they "screw their courage to the sticking place" and work hard to master the various challenges I put before them.

I'm also looking forward to reestablishing this blog as a place to communicate information about my efforts both at St. Mary's and in the greater sacred music community as well as take the occasional opportunity to make observations or post "rants" about important issues impacting our Catholic identity.

To that end, I'm publishing, as I've done previously, the following disclaimer:

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the author, and in no way reflect those of the Pastor, staff or parishioners of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church. Comments on the blog are moderated, and as there have been problems with certain individuals in the past, I reserve the right to block people who use veiled or open threats, profanity or engage in "troll" behaviors.

Please visit regularly, as I will be posting new things several times a week.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The View is Obscure

You may have noticed that 1) I've not been posting much, and 2) the photo at the top of the blog is gone.

Several weeks ago, quite unexpectedly, I was presented with a request to resign from my duties at Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I had no warning.  I wasn't prepared.  In fact, I was very hurt.

But, as my friend Wendi is fond of saying, "God's plan is perfect,  even if we don't understand it."

And I think she's right.   In fact, I reworked that little bit of wisdom, and this his how I put it to my Facebook friends:

God's plan for us, from the economy of salvation to our life in this world, is always perfect, even if we are unable to always apprehend it.

We never know what twists and turns in the road may appear. The quality of a man's character is not proved in how he behaves when he's in control, but rather when he's not in control. It is never a bad choice to take the highest moral and professional position in troubled situations, and to do so will speak louder than any words.

I have had a setback in my professional life, but I must believe that it has its purpose, be it to teach me something about myself and others, or to provide an opportunity to teach others by example.
We are often given these opportunities to reflect on things from our past, be it distant or recent, and put them in perspective.  I determined that God's love is proven by the fact that often the bullets we dodge are in reality mortar rounds.  When God whispers, "Duck", it's never a bad option to listen and do as He says.

So, I'm moving on.

I spent a wonderful week with fellow travelers on the journey toward Beauty, Truth and Goodness in sacred music in Indianapolis.  I sang countertenor under the estimable Horst Buckholtz, which is an experience I'm not likely to forget.  I shared adult beverages and collegial conversations with one of each and some you never thought of from the world of sacred musicians.

I have every confidence that I'll land on my feet.  After all, God's plan is perfect.  That's what Wendi tells me.

And she'd never lie.

As Red Green likes to say, "Remember, we're all in this together."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

True Beauty

I had a rough day today at church.  But I've been at this for many years, and I've learned to receive the repeated blows upon the bruise with a dull sickening and move on.

However, it is when I see others who are dispirited by a turn of events that I become circumspect.

I watch in almost transfixed dismay, not unlike how one might react to witnessing a fatal car crash, when I see people taking for granted what is at stake for those of us who are committed, unreservedly, to the work of restoring, reclaiming and advancing sacred music to our Catholic identity.

It comes down to this:

True beauty, beauty that has the power to redeem, the sublime beauty of music, takes hard work. Years, not hours, go into perfecting the craft of bringing to life music that is truly beautiful and transformative. One can accomplish a pale shadow of true beauty through imitation, but when put to the test this kind of sham aesthetic, put up for show and vainglory, fails utterly to transform either the performer or the listener. It is transitory, a false display of beauty whose underlying motivation is pride. Redeeming Beauty in music, a quality which is brought to life through a deep passion for that which is truly good, truly beautiful and possessing of the power to draw one's soul into a closer beatific vision, comes at a price. That price is a death to self, a sacrifice that one offers in union with the suffering of Christ who is the True Music of the Universe.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Polish By Adoption

I'll admit it.  I miss my "Polish family."

In years past on this day, I'd have taken my basket of traditional Polish foods over to Our Lady of Mount Carmel to be blessed, along with a children's basket (filled with candy, puzzles, games and a stuffed animal) to be donated to a family in need and a box of non-parishables for the local food bank.

Blessing of Food Baskets at OLMC had to be done in 4 "seatings" from 1 to 3 PM in order to accommodate all of the families.  The sanctuary was a riot of brightly-colored baskets for the children on one side, and a mountain of boxes and bags of food for the poor on the other.  To one side, a long table was set up with all of the foods that had been prepared for the Ptak Family meal. (Fr. Walter Ptak was the pastor and my boss.  He grew up in the parish and had a huge family that still lives in Wyandotte.)  Fr. Ptak also displayed his sizable collection of lambs made of sugar, porcelain, pottery, wood and other materials, and some of his pisanki, which are brightly and elaborately decorated eggs, also made of wood, pottery or real blown eggshells.

I recently wrote to one of Fr. Ptak's sisters who each year generously gave me a loaf of płacek, a yeast-raised sweet bread with blanched raisins and a crumb topping, to put in my blessed food basket.  I told her how much I missed these traditions and the difficulty I was having locating some of the more important foods for a traditional food basket.  She said, "I think you must really be Polish and kidnapped at birth!"  I doubt it, but I will tell you that when the Poles take you into their own, you are Polish by adoption, and to have been steeped in that tradition (the village tradition as lived out by Polonia in Wyandotte), it really does get into your bones.

Just for memory's sake, here is a picture of the last basket I put together, along with an explanation of what is in it and how the blessing is performed.

From the top, you see a bundle with pussy willows, myrtle and a palmki bound with a red ribbon.  Each are a part of the tradition, pussy willows and myrtle both representing new life; next is the neck of a bottle of a Polish sweet table wine (the name of which I cannot remember, but it was purchased at Srodek's in Hamtramck); tucked underneath you can see part of the small round loaf of "blessing bread" and then the butter lamb, next is a ring of smoked kiełbasa; in the middle are small dishes of horseradish prepared with beets (called chrzon) and salt.  The eggs are died with onion skins, which produce a beautiful cordovan color and are 100% natural.  Then comes a small picnic ham, the sugar lamb I bought that year and finally a small portion of płacek.  The white cloth you see rolled up is a traditional linen basket cover with beautiful eyelet work in it.

For the blessing, tradition has it that a basket, filled with various symbolic foods that are eaten after attendance at the first resurrection Mass of the day, is brought to the church on Holy Saturday and blessed. The blessing begins with a traditional liturgical greeting, "Niech będze pochwalony Jezus Chrystus ; Na wieki wieków. Amen." There is then a brief explanation of the traditions, then three blessings: one for the eggs, one for the bread and one for the meat. The priest then processes through the church sprinkling the people and the baskets with holy water. He concludes the service by exhorting the people to continue in their prayers in preparation for the Great Vigil, and to continue abstaining from meat until after the first resurrection Mass on Sunday. The full tradition is that one fasts and abstains from meat on Good Friday, and continues to abstain from meat through Holy Saturday until after attending the resurrection Mass on Easter Sunday. The first food to be shared is the blessed egg, the symbol of new and eternal life. This is typically eaten with horseradish to remind us of the bitterness of Christ’s Passion. Then all other foods are fair game, including various meats and sweets. 

Next, I'll post pictures of my modest pisanki and sugar lamb collection.

The Francis Effect (tm)

Over the last year, I've been watching the unfolding of the Franciscan papacy with mixed thoughts and reactions.

Today I ran across a link to this article, and couldn't resist but to comment on it.

Here's a pull-quote:

"It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church."

Francis is not "dismantling" an edifice built by Benedict. And, that edifice of firm doctrine was not built by Benedict in a third of a century. It was established nearly 2000 years ago by Christ and remains a bulwark against the gates of Hell.

This writer, like so many in the liberal, secular press, believes that Francis is the Pope that will finally liberate the Church from it's perceived oppressive doctrine and become the "Newchurch" that so many desire; an edifice of Faith built to conform to their will, rather than an edifice that will conform their will to the Faith of the Ages.

There is nothing to read here. The press spent the Benedictine years feverishly "uncovering" every scandal they could, attempting to paint Benedict's papacy as one of oppressive doctrine and opulent liturgical excess. Now they want to paint him as a bitter old man who regrets abdicating and who is now trapped in a prison of contemplation while bearing witness to the destruction of the Church. Neither characterization is true.

Meanwhile, they continually post photos, "Kodak moments" of Papa Bergoglio kissing babies and embracing those among the Faithful who have been horribly disfigured by disease. I'm a bit tired of the never-ending, breathless media coverage of Pope Francis.  You'd think he was the only pope to kiss babies or smile.

But the honeymoon may be over, or at least for some poor journalists who are confused by some of what Francis is doing, things that they perceive as being inconsistent with what this pope is supposed to be bringing to the world.

There is an article here with the telling headline "Why does progressive Pope Francis allow anti-gay bishops to preach hate?"In Benedict's first year, the press went on a breathless mission to track down every photo of young Ratzinger wearing his Hitler Youth uniform they could lay their hands on in an effort to convince people that he ate babies rather than hugged them. They're still on a campaign to characterize him as a gay-hating bigot.

If you do a quick "Google" search of Benedict, you'll find every hate-filled news article and photo ever produced regarding him. Photo-shopped pics of him made to look like the Emperor from the Star Wars saga, photos of someone standing right behind him make a stabbing gesture toward his back. Captioned photos of him in the famous red, fur-lined zucchetto called him the "Santa of Hate".

The MSM want everyone to believe that Francis is a progressive; that he's the "fluffiest pope evvvvurhh" (to quote Fr. Z). But in reality, Francis will not (indeed he CAN NOT) change 2000 years of Church Teaching. The sooner they realize that, the better. The more quickly we as serious-minded Catholics quit buying into the image the MSM is trying to project of him as a progressive, fluffy, baby-kisser the better off the Church will be, and the quicker those who think he's "all that" will realize that he's still the pope, and that he and Papa Ratzinger share a common lineage - the Vicar of Christ.

Meanwhile, this article captures the reality of the matter. Now people in the press are beginning to realize that when the rubber meets the road, Francis, like his predecessor, will stand squarely behind Church Teaching. But read carefully. They're confused. They don't understand how the "fluffiest pope ever, the one who kisses babies, the first pope to smile" could not come to Obama's aid, giving his popularity a boost by being seen with this great, progressive pope. Meanwhile, they can't resist to continue painting Papa Emeritus Ratzinger as a rigid old man obsessed with antiquated and oppressive doctrine.

When will the progressives both within and without the Church finally get it? 

Holy Week, Confession, Divine Mercy and Hard-identity Catholicism

I've not posted for a long time.  Too long, actually.  I'm sure that there are many who have visited the site disappointed that I'd not posted anything since back in December.

Much of my attention has been focused on getting through my first year at Sacred Heart.  I wish that I'd spent more time chronicling my adventures over the last months, but somehow as I'm getting older I'm finding that kind of public display of catharsis rather tiresome.

That said, I've had many personal spiritual struggles over the last year, and have finally managed, by the grace of God, to turn a corner and begin the long journey back out of the desert I've been wandering in all these months.

The first step on this journey is a return to the confessional.  Not an easy task, as it seemed that each time I tried to stiffen my resolve to go, my heart would become all the more flinty.  The sins, along with the sense of weighty guilt and shame, became too much to bear and so, after helpful prayer and encouragement from friends, I returned to the confessional.  What a relief.  A millstone was cast from my neck.  My penance was not an involved one, but a very helpful one - one in which I am still engaged as the priest insisted that I perform this particular penance every day for two weeks.  I immediately received Holy Communion - something I'd not done in nearly a year.

I've returned to daily prayer, which is also an important exercise, and am joining in with others on praying the Divine Mercy Novena.

My turning back toward God got some attention.  Attention of a demonic sort.

Make no mistake. We Catholics pray daily that God will send St. Michael to defend us in battle because the Devil and his minions prowl the earth seeking the ruin of souls. He does not discriminate in this matter. Indeed, what benefit is it to Satan to make use of pawns who are already separated from God? Rather, he finds those who are vulnerable within the Church, right in the local parish community, to vex and confound us, drawing our attention away from Christ on the Cross.

These are troubling times, and these Three Days are when the Church is most vulnerable - altars are stripped, bells and organs are silent, and after the Liturgy for Good Friday, all the tabernacles of the world will be empty.

I have experienced profound graces and mercy in the last several days, and Satan cannot abide it. He has already tried (and nearly succeeded) in thwarting my attempt to journey back to a state of grace, and between now and Holy Saturday Night (the Great Vigil of Easter) it will likely get worse.

Be sober and vigilant, good friends.