Casoli Days

Fruits of earth, vines, and the work of human hands.

Part I: Roots. When I was a child (I was born during World War II) each September when I returned to school I inevitably received an assignment to write about what I had done during the summer. As the grandson of Italian immigrants and the son of a blue collar bricklayer, I did not have much to describe save for two weeks at the Jersey shore and a list of the twenty books or so books I had read (I left sports to my three brothers) and that I had dabbled in arts and crafts at the local public playground program in urban, ethnic, Catholic South Philadelphia (home of the cheese steak). I’m certainly far beyond receiving assignments about my summer experiences but I thought I might give you an idea of my summer 2014 situation.
Monday, June 9, I flew with my mother from Philadelphia to Rome from where we were driven by relatives to the Ciferni ancestral village (Casoli di Atri in the Province of Teramo in the Abruzzo region of Italy – go to goggle images for a look). Few Americans save Italo-Americans of Abruzzese ancestry know about this region that begins east of Rome and extends through the highest Apennine Mountain in the boot (Il Gran Sasso – again go to goggle images) to the magnificent beaches of the Adriatic. There are few tourist buses here, no great museums or textbook architecture though there are little treasures everywhere: the robust strength of Romanesque abbeys built by Benedictine monks from Montecassino who ministered in these mountains for centuries, weathered cathedrals and parish churches and in them frescoes, sculptures and panel paintings of simplicity and strength.
I grew up thinking that Abruzzese immigrants peopled many parts of the USA, only to learn that the Abruzzese have reportedly been the smallest group of poverty stricken nineteenth and twentieth century southern Italian emigrants who came by the hundreds of thousands to our shores (men, women and children from Naples, Sicily, Bari and Calabria). The Abruzzo (and its breakoff region, Molise – google maps) is sparsely populated because it is almost all mountains (now national parks) that descend to a line of hills that roll down to magnificent beaches and that’s where you’ll find the stranieri – be they northern Europeans seeking sun and warmth or Americani returning to their roots.
I have had the good fortune to be in touch with these roots since 1965 when I arrived in Rome to begin my theological studies at the Jesuit Gregorian University. A day after my arrival in the Eternal City I was on a train through the mountains to Pescara and then on a train that ran north along the Adriatic to Roseto degli Abruzzi (google images) where my relatives were waiting for me. With the sea to my back and looking up to the hills I had the deepest sense of having been here before. My grandfather (Domenico Ciferni – Dominic is my baptismal name; Andrew my name in the Norbertine Order) left the Abruzzo during World War I. In South Philadelphia he met and eloped with Olga Pecoraio who had emigrated there as a teenage girl with all her family from the village of Montepagano across the nearby Vomano River and up the opposite hill from Casoli di Atri. My father Emidio, named, as was the custom, after his paternal grandfather, was born in 1917. His sister Gelsomina, named after her paternal grandmother, was born in 1919 and soon after this little family returned to Casoli for two years. I’ve never learned why. Domenico (called by the diminutive “Mimi”) returned to Philadlephia not oinly with his wife and children but also with his younger brother Giuseppe. Five years later Giuseppe died at the age of 27 to be followed by my grandfather who died in 1930 at the age of forty, leaving a 33 year old widow with two teenage children.
The widow Olga never remarried. To support her family she worked in a tailor shop sewing button holes by hand. Emidio (called “Bucky” by his friends) and Gelsomina (called “Jessie” by hers) were taken out of school after the eighth grade so that they could help support their little family of three. But over the decades Olga never ceased to stay in contact by mail with her husband’s relatives in Casoli. When I, her first grandson, was born I was named after her husband and photos of me and then later of my brothers went across the sea to Casoli year after year. When this Dominic (aka Andrew) stepped off the train that September day of September 1965, his waiting relatives had in hand photos of Mimi’s 23 year old grandson. And I have come home to these roots time and again over the last 49 years. In 2003 I introduced to the paese my brother Amadeo (Sonny) who bought and renovated a house about 100 yards down the street from the house where our grandparents, father and aunt lived in their two-year return to this place where la famiglia Ciferni can be traced back to 1810.
So this summer from June 10 to 27 nipote Domenico is back in Casoli with his mother Emilia “Millie” (her Pasquini-La Morgia family story is rooted in the same region but from another province and in Italy that makes a difference!) is for another day. On Saturday June 14 she celebrated her 95th birthday with flowers from friends and relatives; in Mass celebrated and preached in Italian by her son Andrew Dominic in the Chiesa di Santa Marina where Cifernis have been baptized, wed, and from where they have been buried for at least two centuries, and in the first of what will be a series of pranzoni featuring gastronomic delights as specific to this province of Teramo as are the dialects of these hill towns: scripelle (paper thin crepes sprinkled with pecorino cheese and pepper and rolled up like Cuban cigars then drenched in homemade chicken soup (Google scripelle); and mazzarelle (not to be confused with mozzarella), julienned slivers of lamb hearts, liver, lungs and prosciutto tightly wrapped in leaves of wilted romaine lettuce and held together by tight bands of the lamb’s small intestines – if you were raised on it you’d love it! Google mazzarelle teramane).
I’m writing this the day after Millie’s birthday – Sunday, June 15, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity – and I am off to preside and preach again in Italian in the church of the grandfather I never knew. I will preach about the truth that, because we come from a God who is all family, all relationship, all connection across all time and space, we are all connected. Some of us have this privileged blessing of knowing our roots and being in touch with them in a way that gives us a sense of connectedness with every creature of God past, present and to come.

PART II: Eating local. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
Yesterday Aurelio, a distant cousin, and his wife Lolita drove la mia mama Millie and me to the shrine of San Gabriele about an hour’s drive from here (Casoli di Atri) by way of twisting roads that wind over hill and dale and come ever closer to Il Gran Sasso, the highest mountain in Italy’s Apennine Range.
San Gabriele (Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, 1838 – 1862) was a Passionist seminarian who died in the monastery of that order here in the Abruzzo. He is a major patron saint in the area and the church originally built over his tomb is now overshadowed by an enormous contemporary one that holds his body in its crypt. This shrine draws pilgrims from all over the world and on Sundays its sprawling parking lot is covered with buses and cars.
Our visit was on a weekday and we saw few pilgrims and could take advantage of the quiet to pray and “lift our eyes to the mountains” (Ps 121, 1). By noon we were ready to head back to Casoli. It was, of course, almost time to eat the main meal of the day, il pranzo. Aurelio knew just where to do that – at Agriturismo Gran Sasso. Agriturismo (cf. plays a large role in Italy’s tourist industry (cf. And why not? Though some agriturismo establishments sell themselves as spas or simple bed and breakfast accommodations or simple country eating places, what they all have in common is that the food and drink they serve is local — no soft drinks, no outside the terroir wines with fancy labels, no processed food, no fruits or vegetables out of season, no bread not baked that day, and no meat not purchased from a local contadino.
Agriturismo Gran Sasso sits by a large stocked fishing pond off the old road to San Gabriele. It has no website and doesn’t need one. Friends introduce you to it. Local workers eat there frequently during the week in the small indoor space off the kitchen and they bring their families there on Sundays to eat under the broad white tent near the water. In the same small indoor eating space the children of the owners/cooks are coloring their school books while their mothers tell you what’s on for the day (here is no menu) and take your order while through swinging pine doors la nonna [grandmother] can be seen doing the cooking. Our fare of the day began with an antipasto of local cured meats, pecorino cheeses (some of them battered and fried), sundried tomatoes, zucchini and funghi in olive oil and small bits of lamb in a light tomato sauce – accompanied by bread and the fatto in casa vino bianco. Choices for the primo course were spaghetti alla chittara col sugo or tagliatelli con funghi or tortellini in brood, rigatoni alla matriciana or tortellini in brood (go to google images). For the secondo, grilled baby lamb chops with fried potatoes and a green salad. By the time we had started our antipasto the little dining room had filled with local men (not a woman among them) eating, drinking and engaged in loud conversation. Many of them were still there as we left after having finished off with an espresso and a digestivo of limoncello – we declined dolci but were given a little box of chocolate cookies to take home. For four adults, 70 euros ($ 98.20) plus a 5 euro ($6.80) mancia. Then home for major siesta!

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Be Not Afraid

Be Not Afraid

“Be Not Afraid” was the opening song for the last Common Prayer at the Sacred Hour observed every Wednesday morning from ten to eleven here at St. Norbert College. The last Common Prayer of the 2013 – 2014 academic year was led by several seniors who shared memories of their past four years and some of their dreams for the years ahead. Perhaps it was one of them who chose the St. Louis Jesuits’ lyrics and music for this bittersweet day on which these seniors spoke of first year fears, the making of lifelong friendships, the shaping of hearts and minds by professors, peers and parents. It was a celebration marked by both laughter and tears.

I have found the season between Easter and Commencement to be much busier than I had expected: awards events for students and faculty, celebrations of ministry and service, final exams and grades, meetings in preparation for the next academic year, and lunches and other receptions to close the year approaching its end. At one of these celebrations of graced accomplishment I found myself wondering why the honoring of students, faculty and staff doesn’t occur throughout the year the way it does in the spring. The answer came to me during the senior-led Common Prayer. These rites of acknowledgement and thanks have their power precisely because they come at the close of the year. Just as we only canonize holy men and women after their deaths have sealed their virtuous lives, so we bestow laurels upon our colleagues and students only after they have run the course and completed their work with honor.

And while administration, faculty, students and staff have been gathering, nature has been trying to raise the curtain on spring. It’s been a difficult curtain to raise. After a wearying winter of double-digit-below-zero temperatures for days and weeks on end, May has had more than its accustomed share of gray, chilly, wet days. The fragrance of cherry blossoms may wafted the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC but here in northeast Wisconsin many trees are only now beginning to bud. The College’s grounds crew was everywhere in evidence on the campus in the week before commencement as they attended to the damage done to grass, shrubs and trees by the long stay of the arctic vortex. Below and beneath my room at the Priory only four of the hundred or so geese of the fall have returned. One pair has nested and hatched the goslings that we expect will be chased away later in the summer by the newest member of our College-Priory community, Abbey, the black lab pup being cared for by Fr. Jay Fostner. Meanwhile, the weekend roar of boats on the river gives evidence of reluctant spring morphing into the sun and skis of summer.

In the past week I’ve had the opportunity to journey to the sites of Norbertine roots in the southern part of the Badger State. Fr. David Komatz of St. Norbert Abbey was good enough to be the guide and driver for me and novices Jordan Neeck of St. Norbert Abbey and Sam Fulginiti of Daylesford Abbey. We visited the Belgian Peninsula parishes where Abbot Pennings and his Dutch confreres first began the “American Mission.” Their humble and austere beginnings gave birth to St. Norbert Abbey and the College. Similar long term success did not grace the work of the Wilten Abbey (Innsbruck, Austria) Norbertines who labored in the second half of the nineteenth century in the vineyard of the Lord just north of Madison, the state capital. We four spent a spring morning visiting their first parish (St. Norbert’s in Roxbury) and praying at the grave there of Fr. Adalbert Inama, the founding pastor.

These are quiet days here at the College. Good days to attend to blessed memories and hopeful plans. “Be Not Afraid.”

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Christus Medicus, St. Dympna and Marc Chagall

Christ the Physician, St. Dympna and Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall’s Jacob Wrestling the Angel and IV pumps, Jesus as Christus Medicus (Christ the physician) on 3rd and 4th Century Roman Sarcophagi, Jewish Sources and Empathic Patient Care….!

I’m just back from the Third Annual Conference on Medicine & Religion organized by the Director and Faculty Scholars of the University of Chicago’s Program on Medicine and Religion whose theme this year was Responding to the Limits and Possibilities of the Body. And well you might ask what Andrew the liturgist and aficionado of things Norbertine was doing at such a gathering. Well, one of the organizing Faculty Scholars, Dr. Abraham Nussbaum, Director of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, is a man I’ve known since his birth. More than a year ago he invited me to write for and present at a similar conference, Walking Together: Christian Communities and Faithful Responses to Mental Illness, sponsored by and held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas just a little more than a month ago (February 6 to 8). Abraham suggested that I submit the abstract of that presentation to the organizers of the Medicine and Religion Conference and it was accepted. So what might Andrew the liturgist, at Abraham’s request, have had to offer to the physicians, scholars and ministers of religion at these two events? Here it is:
Abstract: From Crazed Father to Families of Healing: Host Families in Geel Belgium. Geel is a village famous for its centuries old practice of deinstitutionalized psychiatric care based on the placement of patients in families of the town. This practice dates to mediaeval times when the mentally afflicted were brought to Geel for healing at the shrine of St. Dympna. My presentation studies Geel’s traditions from pre-Christian and ancient Christian practices to modern times.

For three days I was privileged to be with 160 or so Jewish, Christian and Islamic academics, medical professionals, and pastoral caregivers gathered in the Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile to speak with, listen to, reflect upon and discuss the often contested relationship between religion and the healing arts. Professor Arthur Frank, working from an image of Marc Chagall’s Jacob Wrestling the Angel, opened the conference by setting out some contemporary perspectives on the relationship between medicine and religion: isolated from one another (each sees the other as unrelated to their concerns), and/or antagonistic (each sees the other as a corrective of the other). These stances can create asymmetric relationships (unequal partners) that either do harm to the patient or do not bring the healing that is possible when both medicine and religion, not unlike Jacob and the Angel, engage in a “wrestling” that can be a blessing to the sick and dying whom both physician and pastoral caregiver seek to help and heal.

I was inspired by these men and women. They are a band of seasoned academics and professionals who brought with them many of their student collaborators who themselves did some of the most engaging presentations of these days. In introducing myself before my presentation I explained how much I was out of my element in this area of study. I was, however, able to explain that medicine and liturgics share at least one common concept, embolism. In medicine it’s a problem (a blockage) to be eliminated. In the liturgy it’s the extension of a prayer, e.g., “…and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Is immediately followed in the Catholic Eucharist by the prayer “Deliver us, O Lord, from every evil….” I left Chicago buoyed up by the hope that what I experienced among these healers will extend deeply and widely among their peers, collaborators and students for the wellbeing of all afflicted in body, mind and spirit and for the life of the world.

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Homily for Ash Wednesday

Homily: Ash Wednesday (5 March 2014).Notre Dame de la Baie Academy. Green Bay, WI

readings: Joel 2: 12 – 18; 2 Cor 5: 20 – 6:2; Matt 6:1 – 6, 16 – 18

Ashes. Cold in a fireplace they may be a reminder of cozy warmth on a cold Wisconsin Saturday night with friends. Ashes. a black and gray circle of charred wood at a mountain campsite. Ashes. the remains of houses burned to the ground after a raging forest fire. Ashes. an urn filled with what remains after a human body has been cremated. Ashes. the scorched earth of a village raided and burnt to the ground by an enemy. In almost every way we experience or know about ashes they are the remains and a trigger of memory for what has been. Ashes are about the past. And that’s true today. Traditionally the ashes with which we are signed come from burning the palms or other branches blessed on the previous Palm Sunday. In every case the burning process cannot be reversed. But the ashes can be a trigger of memory.

In ancient Christianity people who pledged themselves to enter into a period of renewal in preparation for the annual Holy Week celebration of Jesus’ passion and resurrection would enter into a forty day periods when they wore sackcloth (the itchy very unfashionable clothing of poverty) and would pour ashes on their heads. They publicly marked themselves as penitents, people renewing their relationship to God and the community until Holy Week that begins with Palm Sunday and the blessing of branches as Christian communities recall Christ’s entry into Jerusalem five days before his arrest.

And that might give us a hint that perhaps there is at least one situation in life where ashes are not just the end of a process but also a beginning. We are marked this day with ashes because they are also an entry like Palm Sunday. The entry today is into a period of forty days of prayer and special practices that are designed to bring us back to God and to one another.
Traditionally those practices have been fasting, alms and prayer.
Fasting: refraining from something good in order to make us more mindful, more grateful for good gifts that we often take for granted; to create a situation where swearing off one thing will be a reminder of something else.
Alms (charit): when we refrain from something we have more available and we are able to give more to those who have less.
Prayer: giving our fasting and charity a direction. We’re not slimming down but coming home to God and moving more charitably toward one another.

Except for fashion and fitness we are not in a culture that deprives itself of food and you are probably at the age [teenagers] where you are eating more than you ever will in the future. So the challenge is one of training for a life open to greater possibility, the possibility of coming to know God who is already alive and well and working within you. The practices of Lent are meant to open doors of the body, mind and spirit to get to know, welcome and love God and one another. To take ashes is to in some small way say that we are willing to consider the possibility of allowing God the time and space to make new palms and spring branches and new life from the ashes of the past year.

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Snow and Ashes 2014

Snow and Ashes 2014

“All these [romantic and artistic] visions and versions of winter take place at the pressure point where indoor warmth meets the frozen window.” In his essays on winter the Canadian-raised American writer, essayist and commentator Adam Gopnik suggests that it was the domestic installation of plate glass windows and central heating that moved human beings from the experience, perception and artistic representation of winter as a perilous time of the year to a more romantic one that takes expression in painting, poetry and music and in our ability to venture out to winter sports, secure in the belief that we will return to a warm lodge where we can eat raclette and drink Irish coffee seated by a picture window looking out towards snow blanketed mountains and frozen lakes.

This long hard Wisconsin winter has me at my own “pressure point” where at three large windows overlooking the Fox River the relentless double-digit below zero temperatures meet my very warm second floor room in St. Joseph’s Priory on the campus of St. Norbert College. For the first time in my life I have the blessing of living beside and overlooking a body of water. My desk and computer put me in a place where the river and its banks are always in my sight lines. I use the long window ledge as a shelf for what I take out of my pockets and for little books. So I spend a good deal of time observing life on the river and the furred and feathered whose home it is.

The fall and early winter was the time of the one hundred or so geese that sit on the bank that under the east side of the Priory slopes to the river. The geese mark this territory as theirs and those who venture to walk there will know that from the soles of their shoes! The geese seem to have seasonal schedules. In the fall when the sun first rose over the river I would see them quietly at rest on the water close to shore. As the sun rose higher they would come up onto the riverside lawn and move from south to north eating the grass. In the afternoon they might settle down. But I was not sure where they were in the long dark cold nights that came upon us very early this year. People say that Canadian geese don’t fly south for the winter as they once did. I believe that ours do. Winter came early and once the river began to freeze the geese moved elsewhere. I know not where. I know they will return.

Then there are the few squirrels in the big tree just to the south and very close to my windows. They seem to be at peace with the geese but perhaps not so with the lone long large red-tailed hawk that I could find every morning sitting in the old apple tree directly east of my windows. This hawk is patient and unmoving until, when its wings take it aloft, I suspect it has a target mouse in sight. The squirrels seem to live their winter lives between two trees for there are no other signs of their foraging anywhere else in the snow. And – perhaps a sign of spring’s approach – now the hawk has a companion. They sit motionless for hours on the lowest large branch of a tree beside the frozen river. From time to time one will fly off – perhaps to catch lunch or dinner – while the other remains at their post.

But I have not seen the waters of the Fox since before Christmas. The meteorologists report that this is the coldest winter in Wisconsin in thirty-five years. Those born and raised here say that it has “never” been this cold for so long. A newcomer at my “pressure point” windows might well believe that the sloping bank outside my window levels out into a long wide flat playing field that extends to the row of homes on the other side of the pitch. But it is, in fact, the Fox River frozen solid and covered in snow for months. Predictions are that this hard winter of white will last well into the end of March.

But this week, like the flecks of black feathers on the otherwise all white plumage of the snowy owl that’s been seen flying over the campus these weeks, we will be marked with smudges of black ash to mark the beginning of Lent . Ashes tell us that something has happened that cannot be restored: the remains of a cremated friend, a black circle at a camping site, and the charred remains of a cabin caught in the path of a raging forest fire. Our Ash Wednesday forehead crosses and smudges are all that’s left from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem five days before the Triduum of his passion, death and resurrection. Unlike so many other ashes as “the end”, ours are a new beginning, an entry into forty days of practices of restraint (fasting), generosity (charitable sharing), and prayer (clear intention about what we’re doing and why) that create the conditions for the possibility that God will rise anew in and among us with warm brightness that will restore the flow of the river, fresh new growth and new life for all.

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A Candlemas Homily

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple
February 2, 2014 Old St Joseph’ Church at St. Norbert College(De Pere, WI)

Readings: Malachi 3: 1-4; Psalm 24; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40

The Van Wickle Gates at Brown University are opened twice a year: at the opening of each new academic year for incoming first year students and as the last act of the annual commencement ceremony for departing seniors. Similar rituals of solemn formal passage abound in academic institutions around the world. We have our own variation here at St Norbert College when the robed faculty line up to applaud the process ion of first year students coming through the Third Street portal together for the first and only time.

Physical passage through gates, portals and doorways, especially monumental ones, are often markers of important life passages. In the liturgy of the Catholic Church today’s responsorial psalm (24)about the passage of the King of Glory recurs in feasts which celebrate some passage of Christ from one condition to another, e.g., at his Ascension. It celebrates his entry through the gates of Jerusalem into the week of his Passion, Death and Resurrection and today it celebrates his first entry into the Temple forty days after his birth.

In the Byzantine tradition this feast is not called Candlemas (because it’s not marked by the blessing of candles) but the Meeting or the Entry. There is the meeting of Jesus, Mary and Joseph with Simeon and Anna. And there is the entry that fulfills the prophecy of Malachi:
“and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek.” But it is a quite ambivalent entry because what is seen as fulfillment is also an ending. It’s like our calling graduation (an ending) commencement.

In their book, A Portable God. The Origin of Judaism and Christianity, Risa Levitt Kohn and Rebecca Moore make a case for Judaism and Christianity as sibling religious traditions. That is, rather than seeing Judaism springing from the Israelites and Christianity from the Jews, they see that Judaism and Christianity are sisters because they both, in the same era, come to the knowledge of “a portable God,” a God without a Temple.

The Lord whom we celebrate coming through the east gate to the Temple in Jerusalem on this feast made the Jerusalem Temple and every temple – including this church — unnecessary. The perfect fulfillment of presence in the Temple made all temples optional; except of course for the temple of his body and ours both individual and corporately.

“Lift up, o gates, your lintels; reach up ancient portals,
that the king of glory may come in!”
We are the meeting place and the meeting. By God’s grace we make Christ’s entry into the temple of the human heart an event TODAY. Every human heart has yet unraised lintels, gates that can be raised higher for the yet more glorious fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi.
Every human heart has yet unraised lintels, portals that have not yet reached up high enough:
our ancient great and little addictions to substances,
unhealthy relationships or even to our work;
our prejudices about political policy, ethnicity, age and religion;
our resistance to silence, prayer, and spiritual discipline.

But by God’s grace we are empowered to raise higher each day the lintels of our hearts by lifting those of others: by simple unearned, unmerited and undeserved words and gestures of affection, freely given quality time, giving and receiving gifts in response to request rather than demand, acts of service, and fearless witness to our own Faith, Hope and Love.

Our truest voice keeps knocking at the doors of our hearts:
“Lift up, o gates, your lintels; reach up ancient portals,
that the king of glory may come in!”
May the prophecy of Malachi be fulfilled anew this day.
May Jesus enter in and be met in the temples of our hearts this day.
May our portable God enter in
and carry us out with him for the life of the world.

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getting to know you again

getting to know you again

A student recently asked me if anything had happened in our Norbertine Order between the death of our founder St. Norbert in 1134 and the arrival from Holland of St Norbert College’s founder, Father Bernard Pennings, in 1893. He knew of course that there had but the 759 years between those dates gets short shrift in our exposure to Norbertine history unless one is lucky enough to take part in one of the Norbertine Heritage Tours to Europe. For American Norbertines modern travel and electronic means of communication have made getting to know our Norbertine brothers and sisters abroad an experience formerly had almost exclusively by those sent to Rome for theological study or for those elected to take part in international meetings. But until the fall of Communism in 1989 our getting to know one another has been restricted almost entirely to our communities in western Europe, especially in Belgium, The Netherlands, France, German and Austria. But the demise of Communism has been and continues to open up for us in central Europe a re-acquaintance with our communities whose role in our history is of prime importance.

The Protestant Reformation in Saxon Germany and England, the French Revolution and the secularization of religious communities throughout Europe in the first quarter of the nineteenth century almost totally wiped the Order of Prémontré from the face of the map. After the expulsion of the Order from the motherhouse of Prémontré in 1790 there was no operational international system of Order governance, no supreme moderator (abbot general) to call the abbots of the few remaining abbeys together. And by 1835 all those remaining abbeys were in the Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian houses of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Even in those lands the Enlightenment policies of Emperor Joseph II (1764 – 1790), nicknamed “the sacristan” for his intrusions into Church policy, saw the close of hundreds of monasteries, some of them Norbertine, that Joseph did not deem “useful.”

It was the convocation of the First Vatican Council in 1869 that gave rise to the beginning of the revitalization of the Order as we know it today and that new beginning sprang from the strong presence of the Order in the Empire. The first convocation of abbots since the French Revolution was held in Vienna where the abbot of Strahov Abbey in Prague (Jerome Zeidler) was elected the first abbot general since the close of Prémontré. But he died during the Council and another gathering of abbot to elect an abbot general did not take place again until 1893 when again the abbot of Strahov (Sigismund Stary) was elected as supreme moderator of the Order. During his administration the Order’s missionary activities in Africa, Brazil, and the United States were launched from the newly revived and flourishing houses of the Order in Belgium and The Netherlands, e.g., Berne Abbey’s mission to the Diocese of Green Bat in 1893.

But the first quarter of the twentieth century saw a shift of center in the Order from Central to Western Europe. The abbeys of the Low Countries revived in the middle of the nineteenth century flourished and expanded in influence. In Central Europe the splendid baroque monasteries of considerable wealth and influence were all located in the nations defeated in the Great War. Monarchies became republics and abbots who had sat in the parliaments of empire found themselves in more humble states vis-à-vis their governments. The Nazi takeover of Central Europe brought expulsion and resettlement of confreres based on ethnic cleansings and in the wake of World War II Communist takeovers saw the secularization of all monasteries and the conversion of their buildings into army barracks, insane asylums and state museums. The confreres went underground. We in the West knew little, if anything, about them from 1950 until the brief Prague Spring of 1968 and again from then until 1989 and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
These days we are trying to plan more activities in our central European houses. The third international gathering of Norbertine Associate will take place in Teplá Abbey (Czech Republic) in July of 2015. Ten days ago Fr Ted Antry and I took part in the work of our Order’s Commission for the rewriting of our Constitutions that was held in the abbey of Jasov (Slovakia).
That monastery was turned into an insane asylum by the Communist government (1950 – 1990). The state of the monastery buildings will demand years of rebuilding and restoration but the abbey church is in very good condition and is one of the most superb Baroque churches in Central Europe.

Fr Ted and I made our way to Jasov by way of an overnight at Prague’s Strahov Abbey where the body of St. Norbert rests in a side chapel of the abbey church. We also spent an overnight with the community of seven priests of Strahov who minister in twenty-three churches around the ancient Norbertine abbey of Milevsko From there we went to the smaller community of four Norbertines of Strahov who serve the Marian shrine and parish of Svaty Kopeček It was from there that we drove to Jasov. On our return we visited the motherhouse of the Norbertine Sisters in Trnava and, finally, a quick stop at the abbey of Želiv where we had a short tour of the abbey’s microbrewery and a sample of its product!

Like the ancient phoenix these communities are rising from the ashes of devastated buildings but the forty-year long hidden life of these Norbertine men and women exhibits a vitality belied by the condition of their houses. It is good to be getting to know them once again and add to our sometimes scanty knowledge of centuries of Norbertine history between 1134 and 1893.

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Many Homes for Christmas

I’ll be home for Christmas and, then again, I won’t be. By the age of seventy-one a Norbertine priest can feel at home in many places, especially for the celebration of this very family-centered feast of the year. I’d could be at home in Casoli di Atri (Provincia di Teramo), the ancestral village of my paternal grandfather,  in the Italian Abruzzo where after the Midnight Mass (yes, Virginia, in some places the Christmas Midnight Mass is still celebrated at midnight!) the paesani gather in the cold piazza in front of the church to share hot wine and panettone. Or I could be at home in Naples, Florida with my Mom and the families of two of my brothers as they gather for the Christmas Eve Vigilia of spaghetti with anchovies, bacala, smelts, and the American additions of crab and/or shrimp cocktail, and shellfish (we never knew that we were restricted to seven sea creatures). Or I could be here in De Pere where I celebrated four Christmases of my life as a Norbertine seminarian (1961 – 1964). St. Norbert Abbey is a place set apart to celebrate the Masses of Christmas and I will never forget the splendor cultus of Christmas pontifical high Mass when Abbot Sylvester Killeen presided and preached. But I will celebrate Christmas at home, my “ground zero” home, Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, PA, in the church of my profession and in the circle of my Norbertine brothers and the Abbey assembly of men and women who have supported us over the last fifty years. There are still a few of them alive who trudged through knee-high snow for the first Mass celebrated in our then spanking new church – Christmas Midnight 1966. Father John Neitzel, the superior of the community was trapped by the snow in a neighboring parish. So Father Hubert Beaudoin presided at the Mass with this little band of resident Norbertines and young parents and children who had walked through the snow to the church. The A-shaped stained glass windows above the altar of the church were still not installed and the opening was covered with plastic. During the Mass the howling wind forced some snow through the edges of the plastic and glittering flakes of white descended on the sanctuary.

Though after-the-fact depictions of the first Norbertine Christmas (1121) give the appearance of high splendor at Prémontré (France), it could not have been so. Norbert had only settled in his band of followers at the site the previous spring. This band of brothers and sisters (the narrative recounts about 24 to 40 priests and several hundred lay men and women – it was a village as much as a monastery!) meeting for prayer in and around the ruins of the chapel of St. John the Baptist in the woods of St-Gobain would have undoubtedly been weathering the cold in wooden houses. Prémontré 1121 was much more like Christmas 1777 at Valley Forge than Christmas 2013 at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere or Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, PA (just a few miles away from Valley Forge). Despite what must have been severe cold and their vegetarian diet, they had their love to keep them warm. They had the love of Christ to bind them one in heart and mind together on the way to God. And so, at the preparation of the bread and wine in the course of the Mass, they came forward one by one and read the text they had written earlier that day: “I, name, in offering give myself to the Church of St, Mary and St. John the Baptist at Prémontré and I promise

This giving of oneself to a church is the particular branding of canons regular, the class of consecrated religious to which Norbertines belong. We promise to stay put for all our lives serving the people of the local church. There were 569 Christmases at Prémontré before it was closed down by the French Revolution. Christmas 2013 will be the 892nd Christmas celebrated by the sons and daughters – priests and nuns, lay brothers, sisters and associates – of St. Norbert. We’ll be singing of Christ’s birth in and among us at l’Abbaye de Mondaye in Normandy, France; at Kinshasa in the Congo, at Heeswijk (Berne Abbey) in The Netherlands and in her daughter houses in De Pere, Wisconsin; Jamtara, India; and Windberg, Germany. The song of the angels intoned at Bethlehem and echoed at Prémontré continues to be song in melodies ever ancient, ever new.

So I’ll be home for Christmas but my mind and heart and prayers will be at the many homes I have. I will be thinking of and praying especially for and with the home I’m back at here at St. Norbert College where fifty years ago this year I celebrated the 842nd Norbertine Christmas across the Fox River at St. Norbert Abbey.


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Christ the King Sunday

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King 24 November, 2013
St. Norbert Abbey. De Pere, WI

readings: 2 Samuel 5: 1-3; Colossians 1: 12-20; Luke 23: 35 – 43

July 22, 2013. On that day occurred one of the top news events of the past year: the birth of George Alexander Louis Windsor, prince of Cambridge, son of Prince William and Kate Middleton. In our country founded on the overthrow of prince George’s royal ancestor, King George III, our attention to the pregnancy of Lady Katherine and her delivery of this heir to the British throne seems ironic. We want no monarchy yet we are fascinated by this most enduring royal bloodline. And bloodline may be a key to understanding our fascination with families royal. They are “of the blood.” Presidents and prime ministers come and go. Occasionally a family will, by virtue or crook, dominate politics for a generation or two but they need be voted in or out or overthrown. Royalty, in fact, can also be overthrown. But, especially in constitutional monarchies, where prime ministers and parliaments rule while the king or queen reigns, are of lasting endurability. Their reign passes from generation to generation through the blood line. Kings and queens come from blood.

When the Lord God of Israel wanted to give the people a sign of abiding presence and protection it came through the bone and flesh of David and his blood line – unfaithful as that line would eventually become and so disappear. But God is always faithful and so there was raised up for the life of the world a king who both reigns and rules. He is of David’s bloodline but he is the universal king not because of the blood he received but because of the blood he shed, the blood he gave, the blood that gives birth to the church.

We celebrate this day with great solemnity. In some ways we mimic the rituals of the throne room. But the Scriptures will not let us rest too comfortably in solemn gesture and big sound – appropriate as they may be. The gospel we proclaim is that of the king whose throne is the tree of the Cross, a seat of forgiveness for the sinner. And what makes this king different from all others is that he enthrones and crowns all his subjects with him. We are a royal people. On the day of our baptism we are anointed as kings, priests and prophets. This means that sooner or later it will be revealed to us that we too reign from the Cross. That like King Jesus we can only bring reconciliation can only make peace in and through our own blood. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews (9:22), “without blood there is no forgiveness.”

Now I am a man afflicted with a vasovagal response. I turn white, go into cold sweats and have been known to faint at the sight of my own blood. But I think that all of us who reign with Christ have a certain vasovagal response to the shedding of the blood that we do not see, the letting go of past hurts, the giving of our time to people who don’t fit our categories of acceptance, the opening of our ears in attentive listening to our opponents, the stretching out of our arms and hands to the poor and others who look to us in their need. We live and die participating in a perpetual blood drive.

I am reminded that fifty years ago today – and it was also a Sunday – I with the young men of this community (and we were many then) hurried from the Sunday solemn high Mass back to our places in front of the TV where we had been glued since the previous Friday afternoon when we learned of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. We hurried back to see the solemn procession of the president’s body from the White House to the Capitol. We did see it but we saw first in real time the killing of the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, by Jack “Sparky” Ruby. Blood upon blood, a shedding that changed our world in a loss of innocence rooted in a refusal to seek reconciliation rather than revenge. This was not the free giving of blood for forgiveness but the violent shedding of blood that we have seen and continue to see as a shameful dimension of our culture.

But this past Friday was not only the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. It was also the fiftieth anniversary of the acceptance by a vote of 2,1147 bishops to 4 of the Second Vatican Council of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. One of the most dramatic changes made possible by that document was the restoration of the cup, the reception of consecrated Blood of Christ, by all the faithful – not just the clergy. It is perhaps one of the most powerful, if misunderstood and undervalued, symbols of the renewed Eucharist. For in taking the cup we are joined with the King in Gethsemane who accepts the cup of his passion so that, as we have just heard in the letter to the Colossians, through the blood his cross all things on earth and heaven might be reconciled to God. In every Eucharist he makes our blood his own. He renews our royal status. Given our common throne and crown,
the reign to which we are called, we might well be tempted to abdicate. But we can no more drain ourselves of his reconciling blood than we can of that which flows in our veins.

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mors et vita duello

Mors et Vita Duello: recollections and reflection after 50 years

The story, as I have heard it, is that on the evening of Friday, November 22, 1963, several American clerics, promoters of liturgical reform present as experts at the Second Vatican Council, were joyously celebrating in a Roman ristorante that day’s proceedings in the second session of the Council. That morning the Catholic bishops of the world had voted on the first document to be handled by that supreme body of the Church. It was the Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. After months of discussion, reflection, floor speeches, behind the scenes negotiations and compromises, the document had come in its final form to the floor of the Council and was approved by a vote of 2,147 “ayes” to 4 “nays.” These celebrating Americans, pioneers of the liturgical movement in the USA – scholars and pastors both consulted and reviled – that day witnessed the fruit of their life’s work come to fulfillment (or at least the beginning of it). Others at nearby tables could not help but remark on the joy of these men and the fact that they were Americans. We stand out in any crowd abroad even while speaking the native tongue! Finally, one of those at a tableflanking the long table of the Americans approached them in consternation and asked whether they had heard the news that just a few hours ago President Kennedy had been shot dead. Transatlantic phone calls in the early sixties were expensive, often difficult to arrange, and just as frequently poorly connected. It would take hours for these men and the many other American bishops, priests, seminarians and men and women religious in Rome to gather with other American expats to console and support one another as they experienced the isolation of being far from home in those days when our nation was deeply united in mourning.

November 22, 2013 is again a Friday. Publications both religious and secular, TV specials and You Tube Clips (see St. Norbert’s, the performances of music commissioned in JFK’s memory, memorials both religious and secular bring us elders back to the most searing national experience of our youth. Friday, November 23, 2013 is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
This year, as it was fifty years ago, even those of us finely attuned to the inner workings of the Catholic Church will pass over in virtual amnesia the other great event of that day, the acceptance by the bishops of the Church of the document that would change the shape of our sacred spaces, what and how we sing, the way we relate to and even think about one another in prayer, and the way we think about, pray to, and strive to journey toward the God we worship.

So it was then. I was a senior here at St. Norbert College, a Norbertine seminarian moving back and forth each day, with about forty other Norbertine students at the college, between St. Norbert Abbey and its intense common life, prayer and study on the east side of the Fox River and classes at the college on the west bank. That fifty-years-ago early Friday afternoon we “fraters” were walking through the long cloister walk that led from the abbey church where we had just prayed one of the “Little Hours” of the Divine Office to our recreation room. On that afternoon one from among us came running toward the rest shouting that the President had been shot. In those days we had no daily television but one was wheeled in for special events, e.g., Sunday afternoon Packer games! Within minutes the TV was brought in and we could watch an emotional Walter Cronkite announce that the President was indeed dead. From that Friday afternoon, through the weekend, and until late Monday afternoon our lives at St. Norbert Abbey oscillated between church and television. On Sunday morning, fresh from chanting solemn high Mass in the abbey church, we once again went to the TV to watch the procession of the President’s coffin from the White House to the Capitol – only first to witness in real time the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the President’s suspected assassin, by Jack “Sparky” Ruby. On Monday we followed intently Cardinal Cushing’s celebration of the centuries old Roman funeral Mass and the procession to Arlington Cemetery where JFK was laid to rest. Three days later we would celebrate Thanksgiving Day.

Only in the week following would those of us more finely attuned to Church affairs turn our attention once again to the Ecumenical Council being held in the Vatican and to the great good news of the passage of the long awaited document on the liturgy. The events of Friday, November 22, 1963 deeply altered and continue to shape our lives as a nation and a church and as citizens of the world.

Mors et vita duello Death and life in conflict

conflixere mirando: in an awesome duel:

dux vitae mortuus Life’s leader dead

regnat vivus. yet reigns alive.

(From the 11th century Victimae Paschali laudes,

the sequence for Easter Sunday morning Mass)

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