Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The One Heritage of Peter and Paul

When I was a language student in Rome during the Jubilee Year of 2000 (What star was I born under?) I made a point of taking in as many religious and cultural sights as I could. Fortunately the superior of the FSP student community urged me to get my fill, knowing that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I didn’t need any prodding.

In keeping with the best of their tradition, Italian cultural organizations and, at times, civic circles collaborated with the Vatican on a number of outstanding projects for residents and Jubilee pilgrims alike. One of my favorites was Pietro e Paolo, an exhibition of epigraphs, objets d’art, and archaeological artifacts related to the story, cult, and memory of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome during the first four centuries of the Church’s existence.

Sr. Anne Joan (Nunblog) and I made the excursion together. After soaking up everything in sight, I spoke about the exhibition at school a few days later, announcing that I had every intention of making a second visit. One of my classmates, a young Buddhist from Japan, asked if she could go with me. She was just as impressed with the exhibit and told one of her friends, who wanted to go too. So I went a third time! It was gratifying to watch the first student explain the exhibit to the second. Not knowing Japanese, I had no idea what they were really saying, but (at risk of projecting) I bet Peter and Paul were pleased. The young women couldn’t get enough. We ended up traipsing to sites nearby that are connected with Japanese Catholicism: the Church of the Gesù and St. Francis Xavier’s reliquary, then to the Church of the Holy Apostles, where St. Maximilian Kolbe used to serve Mass when he was a student at the Gregorian University. Peter and Paul have spawned centuries of missionary ardor and show no signs of letting up.

The way in which these two Apostles hover over the Eternal City, the degree to which they infuse its character, defies description. Faith and culture even among non-Christians reflect their influence. One of my language instructors, a self-declared unbeliever in his thirties who specialized in art and iconography, groused about how tourists can’t seem to grasp the gravitational pull of the Apostles’ faith on Romans’ daily life, especially when it touches the papacy.

In the U.S. even many active Catholics unintentionally try to rupture this symbiosis of life and devotion, usually at Paul’s expense. They equate fidelity to the Church with adherence to Peter (and Peter’s successor) and give a nod in Paul’s direction almost as an afterthought. It’s not like that in Rome. For example, in the mid-third century, for reasons not entirely clear, Christians began gathering on June 29 at what later became known as the catacombs of St. Sebastian, to honor the two Apostles with the traditional refrigerium, or Roman ritual meal honoring the deceased. This place of pilgrimage came to be called the Memoria apostolorum. The annual pilgrimage formed the historical basis for the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul that the Church celebrates today. I also discovered at Pietro e Paolo that since the fourth century, both Apostles have been artistically pictured together in the concordia apostolorum, symmetrically represented in various works of art as an expression of the unity between the Church—and empire—of East and West. The most famous of these is their embrace at the gates of Rome just before their martyrdom.

We know that both men were passionate about this unity of persons, faith, and life in the Church; they gave their lives for it. In addition, we have especially from St. Paul’s epistles some of the most fundamental teachings on this essential element of the Church. This unity covers everything, from belief, to liturgy, to morality, to ecclesial structure. It informed Paul’s evangelization and pastoral practice including, of all things, his approach to fundraising.

Probably the best known example was the collection for the Church in Jerusalem, mentioned in Acts 11:27ff. and alluded to in chapter 8 of his second letter to the Corinthians and in Galatians 2:10. Apart from the opportunity it afforded Paul to smooth the feathers he had ruffled in the mother Church over the argument on justification, it also clearly demonstrated in action the position he had always maintained: that gentile Christians were now co-heirs of God’s favor with Jewish Christians, united in a common faith and a common destiny. It gave the Christians of Asia Minor and Greece a chance, however symbolic, to give something in return for the riches of grace they had received through Jerusalem. Nothing provincial or parochial here. They recognized a need in a Church they would never visit and where they knew no one; yet they rose to the occasion, even at great cost to themselves.

The manner of Paul’s fundraising, too, expressed this same concern for unity. He preferred to accept a gift from a community, rather than one from an individual. He was not averse to accepting support, though it was a point of honor that he supplied his needs and those of his companions with the work of his hands (cf. Acts 20:34 and blog post of 1/26). As he affirmed, this practice of his in the community stemmed from his desire to be free from pressure to conform the content of “his” Gospel to any one benefactor’s sensibilities (cf. 1Cor. 9:12ff.)—a pitfall that many a thinker and teacher fell into in that period.

Society of St. Paul, Daughters of St. Paul, and friends on
SSP grounds, Staten Island, NY, 2009
It follows that the Pauline Family would also want to be marked by this free and united spirit in our life, our mission, and our very structure. Nine institutes and the Association of Pauline Cooperators comprise the Family: several charisms, or gifts for building up the Church, within the one Pauline charism. There’s the point. To “edify”—using Paul’s word—doesn’t mean to impress, but to build up in unity. Whether we pray, minister, lie in a sickbed, or study, whether we spend our days working within our own community or collaborating with each other’s institutes, whether we raise funds for our needs or those of the mission, the purpose is to build up the Church for the blessing of the world.

Today as we contemplate these two pillars of the Church, our prayer could be to re-commit ourselves to the Church’s unity in all aspects of our lives, even the seemingly most mundane. With the grace that comes through that prayer, together we can all be the sign of unity in Christ that God intends for the healing of our often fragmented world.
If you're in New York on August 7, join us for the first annual St. Paul Friends & Family Fest! A Mass, barbecue, games, and prizes are planned so your friends and family can meet ours. Click the button at right for details.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

St. Paul Alive Today

As promised two weeks ago, Brother Aloysius Milella, SSP, is my guest blogger again this week. Brother Al's insights on St. Paul the Apostle offer a glimpse into his love for Paul—and he would say, above all—Father Alberione’s. Just in time for the Church’s celebration in honor of the Apostle next week. You and all our friends and donors are being remembered in prayer by all of us Paulines during our novena in honor of St. Paul.

In searching for the best guide for conveying Christ’s full mystery toward the salvation of contemporary humanity, our Founder discovered St. Paul.

He made himself one of the most ardent disciples and imitators of the Apostle in modern times.  In fact, there are very few (if any!) who can be said to have personified and preceded today’s intensity for “a new evangelization” as the likes of St. Paul and Blessed James Alberione. 
Dec. 8, 1936

It was through the latter’s multi-form institutions and the technical ingenuity of media communication used as an apostolate, that he strove to revive within the Church the extraordinary figure of the Apostle of the Gentiles. He asked himself: What would St. Paul do today?  How would he love Christ in today’s milieu?  What would he do to announce the message to people of our time? Thus St. Paul became the patron of two of his Congregations, a countless number of churches and chapels, hundreds of book and media centers, film agencies, Web sites and blogs, and innumerable related media efforts, which he meant to be nourished and sustained with the great openness and courage of the Pauline spirit.
Cardinal Montini, archbishop of
Milan, the future Pope Paul VI,
(5th from L) visits the pressroom of
the weekly Famiglia Cristiana 1952

Shadowing St. Paul’s dynamism, Alberione’s commitment to the promotion of the Gospel in today’s public square was extremely constructive to the Church of our age.   Knowingly or not, people needed and hungered for this. And under the aegis of the Founder, it evolved into the twin commitment of: 1) making the Gospel media intelligible, 2) bringing it to people where they were. 

In a way, it’s easier for us to grasp something of the person and scope of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles than in his Letters.  Acts isn’t so much a study of Paul’s thought as it is the recounting of his adventurous, challenging and far-flung missionary activity.  Here we meet Paul the passionate Christian communicator, the praise-of-God contemplative, the gifted organizer, the fearless defender of his flock and protector of its maturing faith.  And we sense his ambitious and suffered yearning to enrich every culture with the knowledge and truth of the Risen Christ.  For this we must delve into the clarity, insights and teaching power of his own Letters.  It’s here that the Gospel hits the ground running. 

To be noted is that while Paul’s teaching and formation of the Word among the early Christians was all-engrossing, it nearly always took place in the context of Liturgy, of the re-enactment of the paschal mystery.  Invariably connected to acts of worship and prayer, it brought about in these fledgling believers an attentiveness to the living presence of the Lord among them.  So under Paul they were ready to learn, they were open to learn. They were also ready to adore. 

This aspect of evangelization is never to be minimized. And it makes Paulines reflect: doesn’t the Eucharistic centrality in the apostolic heart of Father Alberione mirror Paul also in this?

Keep in mind that the earliest written account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament is that of St. Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians.

Now, it may be demanding to understand Paul through his Letters, because his thought is deep and vibrant, full of spiritual and theological erudition, but at times, in volcanic agitation when the logic and purity of faith is misinterpreted or maliciously misrepresented.  But Paul’s person is always steadfast, as if driven by an unconquerable love of Christ, ever a work in progress in his great soul.

Be convinced: the key to understanding St. Paul and how he arrived where he arrived in bringing the Gospel to the then known world is that he encountered Jesus — and came to grasp, know, love and be drawn into the wholeness of Christ, the Master, way, truth and life…as few others in all of salvation history. 

“I live now, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”  We miss the whole point of Father Alberione’s total love for St. Paul if we have not understood this.

Important and interestingly enough as well, even if St. Paul writes and teaches magnificently of the cross, he attaches himself to the Risen Christ, to the living Christ he met on the way to Damascus, to the Christ of today. Over and over, the Founder echoed a parallel refrain to his religious sons and daughters: “we are to be this St. Paul alive today.”

This dictum of Father Alberione recalls the splendid oration that our Holy Father gave during the Solemn Vespers that opened the epochal Year of St. Paul, June 28th, 2008, in which Pope Benedict pointedly and memorably summarized Paul’s life. The Pope recalled that when Paul was in prison facing death he exhorted Timothy: “with the strength that comes from God bear your share of hardship which the Gospel entails” (2 Tm 1:8). No doubt, Benedict says, these words hearken back to the beginning of Paul’s mission, back to his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, back to his forced retreat in blindness following that moment, and back to the visit of Ananias, who heard the Lord say of Saul, the now subdued persecutor and the future Apostle to the Gentiles, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15f).

“The task of proclamation and the call to suffer for Christ’s sake are inseparable,” Pope Benedict states, since this proclamation calls for a profound relationship with Christ who redeemed us through his suffering. “The one who desires to avoid suffering, to keep it at bay, keeps life itself and its greatness at bay; he cannot be a servant of truth and thus a servant of faith.” On the other hand, suffering transforms and purifies love for true freedom. The Holy Father concludes by reminding the Church that the Eucharist we celebrate is born from the suffering of the cross, from the love that gives itself so we may have life. This love is the source of our courage and strength, and we know that “in this very way our life becomes great and mature and true.”

Brother Aloysius Milella has been a Pauline for 65 years. He has had various editorial assignments in Pauline publishing and media sectors, as well as directive responsibilities in vocation promotion and community offices. He is currently the administrator of the Dearborn, Michigan Pauline Community.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ninety-Six Years Young

First profession of vows, 1922. Teresa Merlo, later, Sr. Thecla,
co-foundress, is third from the left.
  Wish us a happy birthday. Ninety-six years ago today the Daughters of St. Paul were born. Ninety-six years in the arc of time is not terribly impressive, especially when we consider that about 220,000 people in the world today are older than we are! Still, we like to think that our founding is something the whole world can rejoice in. A religious community participating in the mission of the Church, by being and sharing the Good News of Jesus with the means of today in the various media cultures of today is a gift from God by any standard.

Dated 1917. One of the earliest extant photos of the
future Society of St. Paul. Fr. Alberione is seated at
the left corner of St. Paul's picture.
In Alba, Piedmont, a region of northern Italy, Father James Alberione had begun the Society of St. Paul just ten months before in 1914, under the name, “Little Worker Typographical School.” It consisted of a handful of boys who had enrolled to learn the printing trade. Gradually, though, they came to understand something of the magnitude of what they had embarked upon. In 1917 five of them would make first vows as Pauline religious.

From the outset, and even before then, Alberione envisioned women working alongside the men to sow the seed of the Word in the minds and hearts of millions through “the good press.” So in June 1915 when he came to know first, Angela Boffi, and then Teresa Merlo, he saw the hand of Providence guiding the project.

World War I had just begun as well, so the two young women contracted with military suppliers to sew shirts for the soldiers at the front. This work quickly came to an end, though, especially when “the Theologian,” as Fr. Alberione was called sometimes even outside the community, found that besides his commitment to his boys and the spiritual direction he continued at the seminary, he was being repeatedly consulted about shirts. Together he and the young women established a sewing school, called the “Feminine Workshop,” and within eighteen months, their prayer “to do the work they [the boys of the School] are doing now” was answered: They began collaborating with the Typographical School to produce catechisms at an affordable price. In addition, they taught religious education classes at their parish, but soon stepped into staffing their own “New Bookstore” and, with the assistance of two boys at the School, sold books at the doors of churches.

Father—later “Blessed”—Timothy Giaccardo, who recorded the early history of the Daughters, stated that this “experiment…was destined for widespread development and was meant especially to help the parish priest in the formation of the religious spirit in the parish.” Later he added, “The priestly character of the Good Press penetrated [the women’s] spirits also by way of the heart. For the souls belonging to Jesus, they did at the doors of Jesus’ ‘houses’ what the priest does from the pulpit or from the altar….”

Clearly such an enterprise required a profound spiritual formation, as well as intellectual and professional training. While these latter two requirements were acquired gradually, from day one no effort was spared for the former. Without spiritual growth and without the prayer to support it, the “experiment” would have been nothing more than a house of cards without a foundation or a future.

Not everyone shared their enthusiasm. By early 1918, Fr. Giaccardo recalls, “only the first one to enter remained; all the rest left, either because their relatives had no trust in the newly founded house…or because they found the idea of women printers too unorthodox, and therefore unfit for their daughters. In the end, only four of the group remained.” Teresa’s brother, Costanzo, a priest of the archdiocese of Alba, was ridiculed also by other priests, because his sister was associated “with the Theologian.” Teresa commented, “There were moments when everything seemed so dark that we understood nothing. For my part, however, I was never afraid, despite all the talk and the crosses [to bear in] the house.

“Criticism from people was not lacking. Everybody wanted to know….How many times they came to the bookstore and asked endless questions. We had to study how to answer….There were those who asked questions and expressed approval; others (and they were the majority) criticized and ridiculed us.

“With God’s grace, their disapproval only had the opposite effect on us. We confided everything to the Theologian. Just a word from him was enough to keep us serene.”

Within six months, an invitation came from the foothills of the Alps: The bishop of Susa wanted to resume publishing the diocesan paper for the Susa Valley, and he called on Fr. Alberione for his help, who in turn, asked the young women if he should accept in their name. They were painfully aware of their limitations, but they trusted that God would compensate for those, either directly or through the knowledge, resources, and goodness of others. After the sudden, heartbreaking death of 26-year-old Clelia Calliano, a victim of the Spanish flu following the war, Angela, Teresa, and three girls prepared to leave, saying that now they had only God to rely on. Teresa wrote:

“At the moment of departure we all gathered around the Theologian….We knelt and he blessed us: he was visibly moved, and we were in tears. What a solemn moment! How much courage that blessing gave us! I still seem to feel its effects….

“To this day I remember the words the Theologian spoke to us before we left: ‘Go to Susa; you will stay there for three or four years hidden and in silence; you will grow in strength and later on you will launch out to do good elsewhere….’”

At Susa. Young Teresa Merlo is
seated at right in the first row.
In subsequent years he often said that “our life in Jesus Christ is always begun as Jesus began—in the manger.” Fr. Giaccardo wrote that “The Daughters of St. Paul had an even more humble and hidden beginning than the Society of St. Paul. They too were born without a name, without a home, and without anyone’s notice”—just a burning desire to dedicate themselves to the good press. In fact, by 1918 the tiny community called themselves the Sisters of the Good Press. However, witnessing the utter trust they had in St. Paul, who protected them from one mishap after another, the people of Susa referred to them as “daughters of St. Paul,” and the name stuck.

With wisdom beyond their years (Teresa and Angela were only in their early twenties) they did not feel constrained to defend themselves or justify their existence. They were transparent and free, free to be who God called them to be. Their prudence, whether intentional or dictated by their situation, was measured, but not born of fear. With profound trust in God who called them together, their conviction and their passion for Jesus, his Gospel, and “the new means” empowered them to establish their community in the Church with joy. By 1922 Teresa Merlo, became Sister Thecla,* the first superior of that community.

Silence is the cradle of communication. Far from passivity, it’s an active listening. It certainly was for those pioneer Paulines. They testified, for example, that when “the Theologian” broke the bread of the word for them, they devoured it. But then what? “We remembered [his words], repeating them now and then to each other….” Because the word they consumed couldn’t remain in the cradle of silence forever, they shared that word with each other, allowing it to take even deeper root within and among them. In this way, their communication came of age, and when they spoke to others outside the community, it was a word and work of faith.

How often we object when asked to share the faith we hold: “I’m not called to that! I don’t know what to say!” Believe it or not, Fr. Alberione used to hear the same thing from some of us. His answer? “How can [you] say, ‘I don’t know what to write about’ when the world is starving for the crumbs of what you know?” He could say the same to every informed believer today. In his mind, after sufficient study and prayer, it was time to hit the streets, the pressroom, the editing table, the air waves, and today he would add, the digital highway. As with Paul the Apostle and every evangelizer since, the word would mature as it was shared. As the saying goes, if you want to learn, teach.

Even so, at least initially, God had to practically push them out into the public eye. In Susa, their poor dwelling and workshop caught fire early one morning. After rescuing them, the people of the city continued to respond to their needs: some took them in until they could make their house habitable again. Others gave or lent them what they lost. In the process, the community shared its ideals and joy with those who assisted them, giving them insight into who they were and what they were about. Sr. Thecla wrote, “I think the Lord permitted all this in order to make our Susa community better known, for until then little was known about what we were doing.” God, without willing disaster, is a master at using it for good. These first sisters may not have had a developed knowledge of Catholic philanthropy, but they experienced what Paul had also touched with his hands—that when people come together for the Gospel, everyone gains.

The now Venerable Thecla Merlo, who died in 1964, is still often the hands of that same loving care of God. One of our novices just shared this with us:

“For a few years, we have been praying for my little sister Gloria, now seven, especially through the intercession of Mother Thecla. She was diagnosed with dermatomyositis in 2008, and underwent intense and extensive treatment. She’s been doing very well, but has continued to be on medication and under medical supervision for the past three years. Last week my mom e-mailed to say that the doctors have declared her cured! This has been a beautiful experience for my family, because they, and particularly my mom, have really felt the presence and intercession of Mother Thecla. Now my mom sends Mother Thecla prayer cards to all her friends who need prayers!” (Sr. Emily Marsh, FSP novice)

Even though it’s not a “miracle” in the official sense of the word, I would never argue that with Mom Marsh. If you, like her, would like a supply of those prayer cards, e-mail me at Let Mother Thecla be Good News for you, too!

* "Sister" was not used at first, but Maestra, or teacher, in honor of Jesus the Divine Master and to better highlight the teaching vocation of each sister in the community. "Mother" was never used, but is common now when referring to Thecla Merlo, out of popular usage in the Church when referring to foundresses.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Paul—“Example to Those Who Would Come” (1Tm. 1:16)

     In the Pauline Family, we take our cue from the rest of the Church in honoring St. Paul at the end of June. But—no surprise here—we’re not satisfied with just a day or two; we give Paul the whole month! Brother Aloysius Milella, SSP—“Br. Al” to us Paulines—is my guest blogger twice this month. In this article, first he remembers what Paul meant to our founder, Blessed James Alberione, whom John Paul II has called “the first apostle of the new evangelization.” (Br. Al would remember: He spent eighteen years in Rome as a general councilor, passing a portion of that time during Fr. Alberione’s last years, privileged to assist at his death.) Second, he cocks his ear to catch some of what Paul might be saying to all of us today.

St. Paul constantly strove to make Jesus known and to evangelize people. He seems to have mirrored the Gospel story of Emmaus: offering the most convincing insights about the Christ and then discovering him in the same way as the disciples (in listening to his word, in the “breaking of bread”). He evangelized street people, the great mass of common folk open and disposed to the touch of grace. 

Our community apostolates in the media and the marketplace are geared to do the same.

In St. Paul, Father Alberione, found the hero his yearning and gifts begged for. For one thing, Paul’s love for, and extraordinary understanding of, Jesus struck a deep chord within him. For another, Paul’s creative and energetic commitment to making the Way, Truth, and Life of Jesus known by all stirred every fiber of his being.

Father Alberione wrote: “Without an apostle, there is no apostolate.” The founder expanded on this: “The whole secret of St. Paul’s greatness lies in his interior life. In vain do we ask God for the grace to become heroes before people. Our first need is to ask for the grace that will make us dear to God and only then for the grace to become apostles in the midst of the world.”

Under the tutelage of the Divine Master, Paul grew and made himself all things  to all people. He accommodated himself to every culture, convey that whatever its particular history or ethos the Gospel “belonged.” Nor did he ever nest in one place, in one approach, in one technique. The goal was to reach as many and as far as possible, wherever and however in the then known world. For him, a heart for the Gospel was synonymous with learning, determination, availability, and adaptability. Always, in whatever circumstances, he knew in whom he trusted (See 2Tm. 1:12).

St. Paul spent more time in forming, building up, and deepening faith communities than in any other apostolic concern. Because our Pauline media outreach was to grow out of vowed faith communities, the Founder  matched him in bedrocking them in the temper of faith that carried Paul.

Now, as disciples of Jesus and fashioning our lives to his with all of its palpable concern for the good of humanity, so often we find ourselves naturally drawn to shield and protect others from whatever might bring harm, disfigurement, or outright evil to their lives. We find this preoccupation prominent in all of the saints, but especially in St. Paul. He was more than a father and educator in faith to so many. But once, through the Lord’s grace, he birthed anyone in the Gospel, he was more than determined that the precious gift of faith, however new, fragile, or immature, be utterly upheld, safeguarded, deepened…at whatever cost to himself.

And so we have his letters and the unparalleled witness of selfless outreach and a prayerful, devoted keeping of watch and ward over Jesus’ flock, however threateningly frightful the opposition.

How much Father Alberione patterned himself—and his sons and daughters—on this Paul. How much the infrastructure of the members’ apostolic life and apostolate reflected this vibrant and effective Paul in serving the Church, the Body of Christ.

Serving the media in opportune missionary outreach, our charism (the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes us Paulines) has found these media to be blessed tools in effectively communicating all that Jesus taught. It has also found itself challenged and mightily overrun in recent times by those who use the same media instruments in wide and hostile disaccord with elementary Christian faith and morals. 

For this, our venerated Founder had foreseen the need for unsparing prayer in support of the media as positive apostolate, while at the same time beseeching the mercy of God for those who would use these powerful means in harm, divisiveness, and outright evil. For this he inspired this Pauline Offertory prayer:

O God, in union with all those who today celebrate the Eucharistic sacrificial banquet as a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, I offer my own poor self with our Lord:
—To make amends for the error, deception, and allurement to sin spread by the media of communication;
—To beg your mercy for the people who often allow themselves to be led astray by indiscriminate use of the communications media, and who thus turn away from the love of your fatherly heart;
—For those who knowingly reject your Son, the divine Teacher, and use the media of communication with malice to obscure his will for their neighbors and impair his life within them;
—That all may hear and follow him alone whom, you, heavenly Father, in your boundless love gave to the world saying: “This is my beloved Son, hear him”;
—That our use of the media of social communication may help others learn and believe that Jesus alone is the perfect Teacher—the truth which gives light to the mind, the way to be followed, the pre-eminent example of holy living—and that only through him the supernatural life of God is communicated to each person;
—That there be a great increase in the number of priests, religious and laypersons who, by prayer, example, and professional work, are devoted to the Christian apostolate of communications, helping Christ’s teaching become more widely known, understood and acted upon;
—That all those who work with the media of communication may strive to become holy, knowledgeable, and proficient in their efforts, full of wisdom and zeal, for the glory of God and the ultimate good of others;
—To fervently ask you that the specifically Catholic endeavors in communications may fulfill their role in society, realizing all dimensions of their rights and responsibilities, thriving with artistic and professional quality, yet obvious to all that they are but means which God uses to develop his relationships with people;
—That we come to know our strengths and weaknesses, and your love which alone makes us worthy to call upon you as our Father, urging us to kneel humbly before you, imploring your light, compassion and mercy.”

Brother Aloysius Milella has been a Pauline for 65 years. He has had various editorial assignments in Pauline publishing and media sectors, as well as directive responsibilities in vocation promotion and community offices. He is currently the administrator of the Dearborn, Michigan Pauline Community.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Praying With the Media

One of our sisters tells of a survey she once conducted for a media literacy project not too long ago. Among other questions, she asked people if they ever thought of God while they watched movies. One woman’s answer was more than honest: “Never! What kind of a question is that?”

I wonder if she thought of God in any other settings in her life outside of church. Paul VI commented that the divorce between culture and faith is one of the great tragedies of our time. That applies not only to haute couture, but to pop culture as well. On the upside, a growing number of people are searching for a reconciliation of the two, with the hope that faith-life will become more credible and culture will maintain its soul.

Two initiatives that have grown in response to this yearning in various parts of our U.S./Toronto province are the Movie Bible Nights and a related initiative we call “Cinema divina.” They follow similar formats. A Movie Bible Night pairs a Hollywood flick with the Gospel reading for the nearest Sunday, suggesting one or two points for conversation after the viewing of the film. Cinema divina, a spin-off of Lectio divina, the time-honored monastic practice of contemplating the Word, also focuses on a Scripture text through the lens of a parallel film, but aims at the heart: It allows people to prayerfully hear God’s personal message to them, then share aloud how they think God is calling them to live that message. In a Movie Bible Night, people can expound on how various characters or techniques highlight this or that concept in the Word of God. Or they can keep it simple, commenting on how the film gave them a new insight into the Word. Cinema divina makes space for quiet, individual reflection and spiritual conversation. Two approaches, two very powerful encounters with culture and the Word of God.

I first experienced the Movie Bible Night in Hollywood’s backyard—at our PBM (Pauline Books & Media) Center in Culver City. Depending on the film, the event typically draws 20 to 30 participants monthly. Many, though not all, are employed in the movie industry—reflecting 30% of L.A.’s population—or in the Church as faith formation leaders. Guidance for the reflection and conversation comes from Sr. Rose Pacatte’s three books, Lights, Camera…Faith! that cover every Sunday of the Lectionary’s three-year cycle. The year before last, Sr. Hosea started a similar initiative for intermediate-age children, Meeting Jesus at the Movies for Kids, which gathers a small group of about ten each month on the same day as the adults' meeting. Happily, their parents stick around for the film and the dialogue afterward. Sr. Hosea was able to test ideas for her new book on them, How To Watch Movies With Kids, with promising results. It might work at home, too, this summer: “Mom! There’s nothing to do!”

From September to June this year a Cinema divina evening was set aside each month at our place in Boston. Attendance really varied, from five to twenty-six. Word spread, though, and we received an invitation to conduct it at Boston College one evening this spring. Eighty students signed up to attend, and they still kept coming. People were turned away, because the rooms couldn’t legally hold any more. Since then, the Paulist Center downtown and the religious education director in Providence, R.I., have expressed interest in replicating the experience on their turf.

Usually four hours are set aside for the entire experience: dinner, introduction and a brief explanation of how we proceed, the reading of the Gospel text, the viewing of the film, a break with simple refreshments, and about 20-30 minutes of shared prayerful reflection. A simple leaflet that recaps the film connects it with the Gospel and adds a prayer or a commentary to assist viewers in applying both of these to life. The last one before summer will take place June 10. The movie: The Blind Side. If you're in the Boston area, sign up on Facebook.

In small ways both initiatives attempt to explore new possibilities for promoting a vibrant faith via communication. Clearly these go beyond simply moralizing about films and nudge us toward the deeper places in our lives where God can be found.

Yet one more approach to media is just as God-oriented, and I bet most of us do it at least once in awhile: praying with the news. How often we read an item or catch some striking broadcast—often tragic—and invoke God’s mercy on those involved. For those who go to Mass, this is often included in the General Intercesssions. Unlike the Movie Bible Night or Cinema divina, with their shared reflection or shared prayer, this kind of prayer is individual and private, yet paradoxically it opens us outward onto a broader reality. The classic example is found in the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. At the age of 14 she sneaked a peak at the newspaper, which she was forbidden by her father to read, and was appalled at the condemnation of the criminal Pranzini, who was apparently unrepentant. She became his prayer partner, and at the last moment before his execution, he asked for a crucifix and kissed it.
Staff at KENS5 news station,
San Antonio, TX

Our Pauline version of praying with the news also prays for those who “make” news at any phase. Like all media messages, "the news" is constructed reality, and carries a message even in the way it’s packaged. So we pray for producers, writers, artists, technicians, and disseminators, as well as for those who consume the news, and at times continue its stories. This is a prayer of the will and heart, that unites us in solidarity even with those who seem least deserving of our companionship in faith and love. Placing ourselves in God’s presence, reading, watching, or listening with God puts both massive world events and smaller local notices in the hands of Love itself.

It shakes its head at the incredulity behind a question from this woman who watched Into Great Silence, the startling cinema verité portrayal about Carthusian hermits in Europe: “How could such a rigid, controlled, isolated life have anything to do with the life of grace?” Immerse yourself in the poet's answer: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson).