Theology at the movies: an “Unorthodox” view from the diaspora

Guest column
By James Tomek, Ph.D.
How do we read “Unorthodox,” a recent four-part series on Netflix of a woman, Esty, who flees from a Hasidic community in New York in search of a new community in Berlin? Is the film about the problems of Jews to maintain their culture in the “diaspora” – the land outside of Palestine/Israel? Esty rebelling against the Hasidic culture? About how women are imprisoned in their religious cultures? Do we have the right to “educate” women and men who live “happily” in a culture that could be repressive? Ultimately, do we really learn anything specific about Hasidic culture other than seeing the stark clothing and witnessing devotions without understanding the words? Can we, in turn, question our Catholicism about some of its customs? We are all in the diaspora – “scattered” from our origins seeking security.

James Tomek, Ph.D.

In “Unorthodox,” Esty, escapes an unhappy marriage and flies to Berlin where she tries to fit in with a group of student-musicians. Flashbacks reveal how she was raised by her grandmother in a Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; entered into a prearranged marriage with Yanky Shapiro; was naive in the sexual facts of life; became pregnant, and at present, decides to flee the closed community to go to Berlin. Why? Her mother, excommunicated earlier from the community, had gone to Berlin where she now lives with her partner and works as a nurse.
The Hasidic (meaning pious/piety) form of worship started in the 18th Century in Poland. In the face of persecutions, the Hasidic Jews devoted themselves to preserve their form of worship. The black suits and head wear were ways of reminding themselves who they were, especially in the diaspora. The Williamsburg community people are more recent descendants of the Satmar community in Hungary, preserving their religion from the horrors of the World War II Holocaust.
Is Esty a descendant of the biblical Esther? Esty, like Esther, is a heroine in a foreign land. The book of Esther is about Jews living in Persia after the Exile in 486 BCE. The King chooses Esther, a Jew, to replace his first wife as Queen. Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, enrages the current Prime Minister, Hamon, who wants to annihilate all the Jews. Mordecai convinces the King of Hamon’s evil plot. The Jews are accepted and Hamon is executed. The Jews celebrate their victory over death in a foreign land with the Feast of Purim. The Talmud, ethical commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures (in a way, a Jewish New Testament), is ambiguous about Esther. It is a difficult book to love since it is about vengeance and with little or no mention of God’s providence.
Is our Esty a new Esther in a foreign land? She meets with musicians studying in a Berlin conservatory. In an early outing, she enters a lake, and joyfully, baptismally takes off her sheitel, a wig used to hide her hair when out in public. She has an intimate relation with one of the group and finally is admitted to take a test to enter the conservatory. She finally chooses to sing a Yiddish folk song for her audition. She is pursued in Berlin by her equally naive husband Yanky, and a relative, Moishe, who is equally at home in Hasidic ceremonies as well as in capitalistic casinos and bars. Esty refuses Yanky. Moishe, at first aggressive in wanting to bring Esty back, undergoes his own baptism as he seems torn between the two cultures, seen in his symbolic undressing and wading in the Spree.
Do we have a right to educate people who are happy in a culture or religion that may imprison them? The Jewish community in Williamsburg seems to be getting along very well. Is Esty being deprived of the freedom to grow? Do we have a right to “free” this woman from her religious community? Do we know enough about our own religion?
The Hindu religion has four ways to the divine – four ways of being religious: knowledge (jnana) [study], devotion (bhakti) [ceremonies], duty (karma) [good deeds], and meditation (raja) [prayer]. The Hasidic Jews emphasize devotion. The film succeeds in showing the appearances of this Hasidic community and how its marriages are arranged and the Sabbath celebrated. However, it is short on the “knowledge” part. Why the elaborate headdresses or stremeil for the men? The growth of side locks of hair? What is the meaning of the Yiddish folk song through which Esty wins over her audience?
I prefer the way of “knowledge,” so by that I mean studying why we do certain things in our devotions. Some enjoy the karma or duty – doing good deeds. Others find pleasure worshiping without questioning the whys.
The film “Unorthodox” succeeds in showing appearances of a Hasidic community. But, how do these showings reflect their memories? We are all in the diaspora – away from our origins. Our Catholic way of remembering is in the Mass – not necessarily in the priest’s vestments or shape of the church and altar – but in the scriptures read and the shared meal where we remember Jesus’s sacrifice.

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)

Called by name

In the past month I have visited several of our diocesan schools and I have had a great time getting to know the principals, staff and students at places like Cathedral School in Natchez, St. Aloysius in Vicksburg, Sr. Thea Bowman in Jackson, and St. Jospeh School in Greenville. I have fond memories of having priests as guests in the classroom when I was a Catholic School student, and I hope that my visits to our schools help give our children a firm grasp of what a call to the priesthood or religious life might “sound” like.

Father Nick Adam

I tend to highlight two important facts at any school or parish that I visit. I think these two points are unknown to most, and so if my audience remembers nothing else, I hope they remember Father Nick’s “two points.”
Point number one, the desire to get married and have a family does not mean that a young person’s discernment is over. It is a part of our very biology that we desire to love someone else in this world as fully as possible, and the Lord has raised marriage to the level of a sacrament so that a man and a woman can share that love in a fruitful way. However, Jesus reveals in the Gospel that some men and women are called to forgo that natural calling and say yes to a supernatural gift that comes forth in a celibate life. Jesus goes so far to say “…let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:19) So point number one reminds young people (and older folks as well) that Jesus asks us to give Him the first say, and if you are asked to choose celibacy with generosity, God will bring forth abundant love in your life.

Point number two, speaking to a priest like me about a vocation does not mean I am going to sign you up to fill in for me at the parish next week! In fact, even going so far as enrolling in the seminary or a house of formation does not mean that you are locked in for life! The church provides years of formation to men and women so they they can fully discern whether they are being called or not. I will never push someone into a choice they have not come to freely, but I do hope that more and more young people will take advantage of the church’s resources that allow them to pray, study, and have the support of a community conducive to good discernment. A person who feels they may be called to priesthood or religious life and is considering entering formation should be prepared to offer the Lord two years. If you can commit to two years of joyful discernment, then you can rest assured that the Lord will use that time well, and again, you can always leave if you discern marriage is the call for you!

As I say often, I am so zealous about spreading the word regarding priestly formation because after my first two years in the seminary, I didn’t want to leave! Being supported by so many wonderful faculty members and leaders of the church, and being in a community of like minded individuals all striving for holiness and pushing one another in a healthy way was an amazing experience.

Thank you for your continued prayers and support of our six seminarians, all of whom are doing well. Please pray for many young men and women throughout the diocese who are pondering the Lord’s call.
– Father Nick Adam

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Invitation to courage

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Courage isn’t one of my strong points, at least not one particular kind of courage.
Scripture tells us that as John the Baptist grew up he became strong in spirit. My growing up was somewhat different. Unlike John the Baptist, as I grew up I became accommodating in spirit. This had its reasons. I was born with what Ruth Burrows would describe as a “tortured sensitivity,” an over-sensitive personality, and have never been able to develop a tough skin.

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

That’s not the stuff of which prophets are made. When you’re a child on the playground you better have the raw physical strength to challenge a situation that’s unfair or you better let things alone so as not to get hurt. You also better develop razor-sharp skills at avoiding confrontation and in the art of peacemaking. As well, when you aren’t gifted with superior physical strength and challenging situations arise on the playground, you quickly learn to walk away from confrontation. On the playground the lamb knows better than to lie down with the lion or to confront the lion, irrespective of the prophet Isaiah’s eschatological visions.
And that’s not all bad. Growing up as I did didn’t make for the tough skin and raw courage it takes to be a prophet, but it did give me an acute radar screen, namely, a sensitivity which at its best is a genuine empathy (though at its worst has me avoiding situations of conflict). Either way, it’s hasn’t particularly gifted me with the qualities that make for prophetic courage. I want, habitually, not to upset people. I dislike confrontation and want peacefulness at almost any cost, though I do draw some lines in the sand. But I’m no John the Baptist and it’s taken me many years to learn that, admit it, and understand why – and also to understand that my temperament and history are only an explanation and not an excuse for my cowardice at times.
In the end, the virtue of courage is not contingent upon birth, temperament, or mental toughness, though these can be helpful. Courage is a gift from the Holy Spirit and that’s why one’s temperament and background may only serve as an explanation and not as an excuse for a lack of courage.
I highlight this because our situation today demands courage from us, the courage for prophecy. We desperately need prophets today, but they are in short supply and too many of us are not particularly eager to volunteer for the task. Why not?
A recent issue of Commonweal magazine featured an article by Bryan Massingale, a strong prophetic voice on the issue of racism. Massingale submits that the reason we see so little real progress in dealing with racial injustice is the absence of prophetic voices where they are most needed, in this case, among the many good white people who see racial injustice, sympathize with those suffering from it, but don’t do anything about it. Massingale, who lectures widely across the country, shares how again and again in his lectures and in his classes people ask him: But how do I address this without upsetting people? This question aptly expresses our reticence and, I believe, names both the issue and the challenge.
As Shakespeare would say, “Ah, there’s the rub!” For me, this question touches a sensitive moral nerve. Had I been in one of his classes I would no doubt have been one of those to ask that question: but how do I challenge racism without upsetting people? Here’s my problem: I want to speak out prophetically, but I don’t want to upset others; I want to challenge the white privilege which we’re so congenitally blind to, but I don’t want to alienate the generous, good-hearted people who support our school; I want to speak out more strongly against injustice in my writing, but I don’t want multiple newspapers drop my column as a result; I want to be courageous and confront others, but don’t want to live with the hatred that ensues; and I want to publicly name injustices and name names, but don’t want to alienate myself from those very people. So this leaves me still praying for the courage needed for prophecy.
Several years ago, a visiting professor at our school, an Afro-American man, was sharing with our faculty some of the near daily injustices he experiences simply because of the color of his skin. At one point I asked him: “If I, as a white man, came to you like Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and asked you what I should do, what would you tell me?” His answer: Jesus didn’t let Nicodemus off easily just because he confessed his fears. Nicodemus had to do a public act to bring his faith into the light, he had to claim Jesus’ dead body. Hence, his challenge to me: you need to do a public act.
He’s right; but I’m still praying for the prophetic courage to do that. And aren’t we all?

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted through his website

Culture of kindness

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
Have you noticed that kindness seems to be absent from our world today? It hasn’t always been like this. When I was growing up the world moved at a slower pace. We didn’t have computers or smartphones but we knew all the neighbors on our street. TVs were small, black and white models with no remote control, no cable, no dish. We wrote letters instead of texts. Most out-of-town trips were made by car.

Melvin Arrington

But in our modern, fast-paced society speed is considered essential in practically every aspect of life. We demand instant communication, whether it’s with someone across town or on the other side of the world. And if you’re going somewhere, chances are you’re looking to get there in a hurry. All these technological advancements that we take for granted have made our lives easier. But in privileging speed and comfort we have sacrificed some of the basic elements of human interaction, one of which is kindness (goodness, in some translations of Scripture), the fifth Fruit of the Spirit.
When I think of this virtue, I’m reminded of one of my cousins, a multi-talented artist who passed away a couple of months ago after struggling for many years with a debilitating disease. He was a wise and compassionate soul who inspired family and friends with his art and the way he lived his life. The phrase “be kind” was sort of a motto of his.
We ought to be kind to everyone, including those unable to do anything for us and especially to those we view as unworthy of our benevolence. Why? Because that’s the way God treats us. He looks on us and sees our unworthiness and showers us with all sorts of blessings and favors anyway. That’s the pattern we’re supposed to follow. It’s easy to say, “Yes, that’s right. I believe that.” The difficulty comes in putting it into practice.
Harold S. Kushner, best known for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, speaks succinctly to this point: “Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.” This means I should treat others with kindness for the sake of kindness, not in order to call attention to my good deed. We’ve all been beneficiaries of someone’s charity, and even if we’re unable to pay it back we can always pay it forward. If those we help pass it on, then goodness will never go away. As Sirach 40:17 tells us, “Kindness is like a garden of blessings and charity endures forever.”
The word “kindness” comes from a Middle English word meaning “noble deeds” or “courtesy.” My wife once told me one reason she married me was because she thought I was courteous and a gentleman. If I am those things, it’s because of my mother, who taught me good manners when I was young.
One particular lesson stands out in my mind. I was about five. I was playing outside with one of the neighborhood kids, a little girl. When we got thirsty, she and I dashed up the steps to my house to get some water. I remember forging ahead, but when I got to the door my mother blocked the entrance, telling me I should let the girl go first. That made no sense to me because I got there first. So, I plowed ahead, but my mother pushed back, and when she did, my friend slipped inside ahead of me. That little incident may have been my initial exposure to the commandment “love thy neighbor as thyself.” As a side note, I think I actually crossed the threshold first by “breaking the plane” of the doorway, to use the football term, but what I learned that day was much more important than football.
In our culture of expediency, fueled by self-interest, love of neighbor often gets shoved out of the way, like when I tried to push past my friend to get inside the house. According to the prevailing philosophy of our time, we should simply “let everyone fend for himself.” But what we need instead is a culture in which we prioritize the needs of others rather than just taking care of ourselves. In that ideal society everybody looks out for his neighbor, especially the poor, the sick, and the lonely. That’s what good neighbors do. That’s what Christians do.
Do I exhibit kindness in the way I conduct my life? I hope so. I hope goodness and common courtesy have been instilled in me to the extent that they’ve become second nature, like saying “hello” or some other simple greeting in passing another person on the street.
Several years ago, I was in the Newark, New Jersey airport waiting to catch another flight. As I was walking along the sidewalk headed toward the next terminal, I passed a police officer and, without thinking, nodded my head and said “Hello.” I’ll never forget his reaction. His facial expression darkened, and he gave me a look that said, “What do you want?” He obviously was not used to having kind words spoken to him. In Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God Romano Guardini wrote that kindness requires patience and a sense of humor. That’s something I discovered on my own that day in Newark.
Do we really want to recapture the mutual understanding, cooperation, love, and goodwill that have all but disappeared from modern society? If so, we’re going to have to slow down, be considerate and attend to the needs of the other person, and perform “noble deeds,” all in a spirit of self-sacrifice. We’ve all got a role to play in building the Kingdom of Heaven, and it really doesn’t matter who goes first.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of Oxford St. John Parish.)

Sacred time

By Ruth Powers
Christ yesterday and today,
the Beginning and the End,
the Alpha and the Omega,
All time belongs to him and all the ages.
To him be glory and power through every age and forever. Amen.
This beautiful prayer is said each year on the Easter Vigil as the Easter candle is inscribed with the cross and the numerals of the current year.

Ruth Powers

It reminds us of something very important: time itself is part of God’s creation and, as such, is sacred. Modern people tend to view time as an arrow, always moving into the future. Pre-Industrial cultures, however, often viewed time as an ever-repeating cycle of seasons tied to the natural world.
The church combines these two ideas. The great wheel of our liturgical calendar retells the story of our salvation each year, while at the same time moving us forward towards the promised fulfillment of time that will happen when Christ returns. If we want to become more conscious in our own lives of the holiness of time, what better way to do it than through the church’s yearly cycle of feasts and fasts?
You are probably familiar with major seasons and feasts of the liturgical year — Advent, Lent, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc., but there are other less well known feasts and fasts that are part of the traditions of the church. One such set of observances are the Ember Days. Four times a year, near each solar season, the church sets aside three days to ask for the blessings of nature, to thank God for the sacraments and to pray for priests. These days are times marked with prayer, fasting, and abstinence and are meant to serve as a kind of quarterly “spiritual check-up.” These days have been observed since the very early centuries of the church and remain part of her traditions, even though they were removed from the official liturgical calendar in the 1960s. The words “Ember Days” have nothing to do with embers or ashes but are thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon word ymbren, meaning circle or revolution, a reference to their ties to the cycle of the seasons.
Ember Days are observed on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following certain liturgical celebrations that are near the change of seasons. The choice of these days of the week is meant to remind us of events leading to Christ’s death and resurrection: Wednesday for the day of his betrayal, Friday for his death and Saturday for his time in the tomb. Thursday is skipped because it should be a day of celebration for the gifts of the Eucharist and the priesthood. In fact, at one time the Ember Days were the favored days for celebrating ordinations of priests.
These days also have a specific tie to our liturgy, as they also correspond to the times of certain agricultural harvests in the Mediterranean world that are of importance to our liturgical celebrations. The Winter Ember days take place in December after the Feast of St. Lucy on Dec. 13. This is the time of the olive harvest and pressing, and reminds us of the holy oils used in the sacraments. The Spring Ember Days are observed the week after the First Sunday of Lent at the time that bees again become active and beeswax is harvested to make the candles used for the Mass and for the Easter Candle used at the Vigil. Summer Ember Days are the week following Pentecost, and they mark the beginning of the grain harvest, yielding the flour for the Eucharistic bread. Finally, the Autumn Ember Days are observed following the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on Sept. 14, marking the grape harvest which yields the wine for Precious Blood.
So, the question arises, why revive the observance of these days? These days may seem to some to be a quaint relic of the “old” church, but I believe there are a number of reasons why the time may be right and beneficial to our spiritual growth.
First, many live lives that are disconnected from God’s creation in the natural world. We live in urban areas, tethered to technology almost 24/7. Most of our food arrives packaged in plastic, and we have no real idea of its origins. Our relationship to the weather revolves around how it affects our personal plans, not how it affects the farmers who provide our food. By pausing for a little while and acknowledging the change of seasons and the various harvests, we can refocus our thoughts on God and his Creation and our need to care for it.
In addition, the penitential focus of the 3-day observance can also serve as a mini-Lent: a time to step back from the concerns of our daily lives and turn our attention to our relationship with God.
Finally, our priests and religious need prayers to support them in their service of God and the church. We can use the Ember Days as special times to thank God for their devotion, pray for their continued strength, and pray for vocations.

(Ruth is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez. She has over 35 years experience as a catechist and theology teacher at all levels from preschool to graduate school.)

Call by Name

I received an email from Father Augustine Foley recently. Father Augustine is a Benedictine monk who teaches philosophy to the seminarians at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, Louisiana. Everyone who attends St. Ben’s (nicknamed that thanks to the Benedictines who run the place) know that Father Augustine is the monk who takes photos: photos of birds, deer, monastic liturgies, football games between the seminarians, etc.

Father Nick Adam

If something is happening on campus, Father Augustine is taking a photo of it. So, the email I received from Father Augustine was, of course, a photo. It was a picture of Grayson Foley (no relation to the photographer!), one of our newest seminarians, fishing the pond adjacent to the beautiful Abbey Church.
I was struck by the photo not just because it was a particularly beautiful shot of the Abbey grounds, but also because just eight years ago in August of 2012, I was Grayson. I was brand new at the seminary and struck by the beauty of the place. I loved the acreage that I could explore and the time I could spend speaking to the Lord by one of the ponds or running the trails through the woods. Grayson, and our five other seminarians, are all at different stages of their priestly formation, but all of them are getting the help that they need to make a diligent discernment, to confidently declare “yea or nay” on the question of diocesan priesthood.
It has been such a joy to see two new men have the courage to ask that question this year. I pray that their time in seminary is as joy-filled as mine was. If you look at the photo, you see a picture of peace. Peace comes to our heart when we finally stop trying to do everything on our own and we begin to allow the Lord to help us decide what we will do with our lives. Peace comes when we bring our sufferings and our joys and our fears and our triumphs to God and we see our life through the lens of the Lord. In short, peace comes when we put God first.

Grayson Foley enjoys a quite moment of fishing on the pond adjacent to Abbey Church at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, Louisiana. (Photo by Father Augustine Foley, O.S.B.)

As I have stated in this space many times, there are men and women who are being called to discern religious life in our diocese right now, I hazard to say many more than those who are currently in discernment are being called. If you want to find peace, give your life over to the Lord, give Him the time and space to work with you, mold you, form you and love you. As challenging as priesthood has been over the past two plus years, I would not change a thing. I am doing what I was called to do, and there is a measure of peace and stillness in my heart despite any disturbances that arise at the surface.
I ask the reader to seek to answer this question: have I placed God at the forefront of my life, have I even asked the question in prayer, Lord, what do you want me to do with my life? If that question remains unanswered, come speak with me. That’s what I’m here to do, to help faithful Catholics find that peace that comes from listening to God’s call and following his will in your life.

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Deeper things under the surface

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Imagine this. You are the dutiful daughter or son and your mother is widowed and living in an assisted living facility. You happen to be living close by while your sister is living across the country, thousands of miles away. So the weight falls on you to be the one to help take care of your mother. You dutifully visit her each day. Every afternoon, on route home from work, you stop and spend an hour with her as she has her early dinner. And you do this faithfully, five times a week, year after year.
As you spend this hour each day with your mother, year after year, how many times during the course of a year will you have a truly stimulating and deep conversation with your mother? Once? Twice? Never? What are you talking about each day? Trivial things: the weather, your favorite sports team, what your kids are doing, the latest show on television, her aches and pains, and the mundane details of your own life. Occasionally you might even doze off for a while as she eats her early dinner. In a good year, perhaps once or twice, the conversation will take on some depth and the two of you will share more deeply about something of importance; but, save for that rare occasion, you will simply be filling in the time each day with superficial conversation.

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

But, and this is the question, are those daily visits with your mother in fact superficial, merely functionary because your conversations aren’t deep? Are you simply going through the motions of intimate relationship because of duty? Is anything deep happening?
Well, compare this with your sister who is (conveniently) living across the country and comes home once a year to visit your mother. When she visits, both she and your mother are wonderfully animated, they embrace enthusiastically, shed some tears upon seeing each other, and seemingly talk about things beyond the weather, their favorite sports teams, and their own tiredness. And you could kill them both! It seems that in this once-a-year meeting they have something that you, who visit daily, do not have. But is this true? Is what is happening between your sister and your mother in fact deeper than what is occurring each day when you visit your mother?
Absolutely not. What they have is, no doubt, more emotional and more affective, but it is, at the end of day, not particularly deep. When your mother dies, you will know your mother better than anyone else knows her and you will be much closer to her than your sister. Why? Because through all those days when you visited her and seemed to talk about nothing beyond the weather, some deeper things were happening under the surface. When your sister visited your mother things were happening on the surface (though emotionally and affectively the surface can look wonderfully more intriguing than what lies beneath it.) That is why honeymoons look better than marriage.
What your sister had with your mother is what novices experience in prayer and what couples experience on a honeymoon. What you had with your mother is what people experience in prayer and relationships when they are faithful over a long period of time. At a certain level of intimacy in all our relationships, including our relationship with God in prayer, the emotions and the affectivity (wonderful as they are) will become less and less important and simple presence, just being together, will become paramount. Previous to that, the important things were happening on the surface and emotions and affectivity were important; now deep bonding is happening beneath the surface and emotions and affectivity recede in importance. At a certain depth of relationship just being present to each other is what is important.
Too often, both popular psychology and popular spirituality do not really grasp this and consequently confuse the novice for the proficient, the honeymoon for the wedding, and the surface for the depth. In all of our relationships, we cannot make promises as to how we will always feel, but we can make promises to always be faithful, to show up, to be there, even if we are only talking about the weather, our favorite sports team, the latest television program, or our own tiredness. And it is okay occasionally to fall asleep while there because as Therese of Lisieux once said: a little child is equally pleasing to its parents, awake or asleep, probably more asleep! That also holds true for prayer. God does not mind us occasionally napping while at prayer because we are there and that is enough.
The great Spanish doctor of the soul John of the Cross tells us that as we travel deeper into any relationship, be it with God in prayer, with each other in intimacy, or with the community at large in service, eventually the surface will be less emotive and less affective and the deeper things will begin to happen under the surface.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted through his website

The Mass of Holy Thursday

Spirit and truth
By Father Aaron Williams
Our study of the liturgies of Holy Week picks up in this edition with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday night. For the sake of these columns, I will save discussion of the Chrism Mass for a later issue since this Mass is historically new and deserves a fuller treatment. In older times, the ‘Chrism Mass’ was simply the Mass of Holy Thursday celebrated in the Cathedral church.
From an aesthetic and ceremonial perspective, the Holy Thursday Mass is the simplest of the Triduum lituriges. In many ways it resembles a ‘normal’ Mass, which seems fitting on the night which honors the institution of the Mass itself. From the beginning of the Mass, the overarching theme of the Triduum is put forward. The entrance antiphon begins, “Let us glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This same text is used as the entrance antiphon only on one other occasion in the year: Sept. 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
We tend to try to place ‘themes’ upon the Triduum liturgies, but the Church desires us understand these rites as a continual zooming in on the one Paschal Mystery. Holy Thursday should be understood as a Mass of the Passion, and retain the same somber tone that we would approach Good Friday. It is for this reason that the rubrics of the Holy Thursday Mass tell us that following the chanting of the Gloria, no instruments or bells are used until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. The remainder of the Mass is sung a cappella. All through Lent, the church gradually strips away the ceremonial surroundings of the liturgy, and this comes to a climax on Holy Thursday night.
The Gospel read, both in the modern from and in the traditional Missal, does not actually tell the story of the institution of the Eucharist. Rather, the Gospel of the foot washing from St. John is used. This is to underscore the theme of the Passion in the Holy Thursday Mass. The reading of the foot washing on Holy Thursday isn’t a disconnected moment from the Triduum. Those who return for Good Friday will find that the Passion reading at that service will pick up where the previous night finished — again to underscore the one continual mystery celebrated through the Triduum.
In the Holy Week rites before 1955, there was no foot washing rite at this point. The Mandatum, as it is known, formerly was a rite reserved for Cathedrals and Monasteries when new members would be added to the clergy or monastic community. The head of the community would wash the new member’s feet while the community chanted, “Mandatum novum do vobis … I give you a new commandment, love one another as I have loved you.”

Father Aaron Williams

Pope Pius XII gave permission for this rite to be celebrated after the Holy Thursday Mass. In the later reform of Holy Week in 1955, the Mandatum is inserted into the Missal as an optional rite after the gospel — which made this rite unique considering there is very little that is optional in the traditional liturgical books. The modern liturgical books maintains the Mandatum as an optional rite, but moves its location to after the homily, rather than after the gospel. The traditional chant is still provided as an optional text to be chanted during the rite.
When this rite is celebrated, it must be the priest to perform the washing (and multiple priests should not be used). The priest takes the place of Christ, strips off his chasuble, and puts on a linen apron (or an amici tied about his waist). He should go one-by-one to each person and wash and dry at least their right foot. Remember that the theme of the entire Triduum is the Passion, so the emphasis here is that the priest, representing Christ, is also representing how Christ’s sacrifice was made not simply for all of us, but for each of us personally, which is why only the priest must celebrate this rite. Christ personally offers himself up for each of us in his Passion.
The Mass continues from this point as normal. The First Eucharistic Prayer (the Roman Canon) must be used in this Mass, and it takes a special form where, prior to the institution narrative, reference is made to the fact that the Eucharist was instituted on Holy Thursday night.
Following communion, a ciborium (not a monstrance) remains on the altar. After the post-communion prayer, all kneel and the priest incenses the ciborium. Putting on a humeral veil, the priest carries the ciborium veiled around the church in a solemn procession with incense and lamps. It is appropriate that some members of the faithful follow this procession as at least a representation of the parish. The procession leads to a special altar which is richly decorated and prepared as the place of reservation for the next two nights.
This altar is traditionally called the ‘Sepulchre’ or tomb. Some modern theologians compare this altar to the Garden of Gethsemane, but traditionally it is understood as a representation of the tomb of Christ, since the Holy Thursday Mass is a celebration of the Passion and not simply of Holy Thursday night. In medieval rites, this altar had a significant role in the Easter liturgy, which we will visit at another time.
After the procession, the ciborium is placed inside the temporary tabernacle and the door is shut. Candles are left burning and adoration (without a monstrance) is kept solemnly until midnight. After that point, adoration may continue more simply, but the altar is to be left decorated through the Triduum — which is why it is best this altar be in another place than the church itself.

(Father Aaron Williams is the administrator at St. Joseph Parish in Greenville)

Pandemic spirituality and the grocery store “clicklist”

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
You can ask anyone who knows me, I love to cook. I love making wholesome and healthy meals and I absolutely love having people over for dinner. I love every minute of meal planning, shopping, meal prep, table setting, wine chilling, dessert making, and I love most the gathering of friends and family around my big country table. The pandemic has authoritatively terminated dinner parties and holiday gatherings since mid-March and will likely continue to scrub such activities for some time into the future. Not only have our gatherings been deferred but the glorious trip to Mother Kroger has been completely and utterly transformed.
Prior to the pandemic I never and I mean never thought I would utilize the “clicklist” shopping option at my local Kroger. Since the pandemic I use this option almost weekly and order my Mom’s groceries the same way. So, you are asking yourself, what do dinner parties and grocery shopping have to do with spirituality?
Here is the thing, as a society we have grown so accustom to having what we want, when we want. For most of us, we are a might bit demanding and our expectations for variety and quality are high. In a world of excess, it is easy to grow accustom to having what we want regardless of the season. But our present reality has made a mockery of our need for instant gratification and the best of the best. We have lost control of the things we have taken for granted like fully stocked shelves at the grocery store. The reality of having someone else shop for you means that you no longer control which bunch of bananas ends up in your cart. And we all know where we stand on the banana matrix of ripeness. If you are like me, slightly speckled bananas are considered over-ripe. If substitutions are made, you are not the one making that decision. On more than one occasion, I have found myself singing the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want” whilst unloading my “clicklist” groceries.
Therein lies the deeper lesson of this pandemic. This is a season of life marked by the destructive nature of an uncontrollable virus, but also marked by the opportunity to let go of our sense of control and seek God’s will. Ecclesiastes 3:1-5 reminds us, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them; a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.” This ebb and flow of life’s events recognizes a proper time for everything under the sun.
What has this time of pandemic been for you? In March, I thought we would shelter in place for a few weeks, beat down this beast called coronavirus and be back in business by mid-April. I saw an opportunity for a hard reset that would take us out of the unhealthy and all-consuming busyness of our lives. Five months into this gig and the unhealthy busyness is creeping back in. I do not want to backslide. So, I am making an effort to reprioritize how I give myself to God, my family and my work.
We will look back on this time in the years to come and think about the many ways our lives have been forever changed by the pandemic. Some of them are as small as giving up control of what tomatoes end up in our shopping cart. Some of them will be seismic shifts in how we live. Sorting out what gifts we take with us from this pandemic and what we leave behind might be difficult. Just like the parable of the wheat and the weeds we may need to wait until harvest time to separate what is life giving from the things that just are not that important anymore. For now, I am leaning in. I know there are important lessons to be learned in all of this. The pandemic and the Kroger “clicklist” continue to remind me that I will not always get what I want, what I get may be less than what I expect, and there is a season for everything.

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson)

Letting go of false fear

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Recently in a radio interview, I was asked this question: “If you were on your deathbed, what would you want to leave behind as your parting words?” The question momentarily took me aback. What would I want to leave behind as my last words? Not having time for much reflection, I settled on this. “I would want to say: Don’t be afraid. Live without fear. Don’t be afraid of death. Most of all, don’t be afraid of God!”

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

I’m a cradle Catholic, born to wonderful parents, catechized by some very dedicated teachers, and I’ve had the privilege of studying theology in some of the best classrooms in the world. Still it took me fifty years to rid myself of a number of crippling religious fears and to realize that God is the one person of whom you need not be afraid. It’s taken me most of my life to believe the words that come from God’s mouth over three hundred times in scripture and are the initial words out of the mouth of Jesus whenever he meets someone for the first time after his resurrection: Do not be afraid!
It has been a fifty-year journey for me to believe that, to trust it. For most of my life I’ve lived in a false fear of God, and of many other things. As a young boy, I had a particular fear of lightning storms which in my young mind demonstrated how fierce and threatening God could be. Thunder and lightning were portents which warned us, religiously, to be fearful. I nursed the same fears about death, wondering where souls went after they died, sometimes looking at a dark horizon after the sun had set and wondering whether people who had died were out there somewhere, haunted in that endless darkness, still suffering for what they’d had not gotten right in life. I knew that God was love, but that love also held a fierce, frightening, exacting justice.
Those fears went partially underground during my teenage years. I made my decision to enter religious life at the age of seventeen and have sometimes wondered whether that decision was made freely and not out of false fear. Looking back on it now however, with fifty years of hindsight, I know that it wasn’t fear that compelled me, but a genuine sense of being called, of knowing from the influence of my parents and the Ursuline nuns who catechized me, that one’s life is not one’s own, that one is called to serve. But religious fear remained unhealthily strong within me.
So, what helped me let go of that? This doesn’t happen in a day or year; it is the cumulative effect of fifty years of bits and pieces conspiring together. It started with my parents’ deaths when I was twenty-two. After watching both my mother and father die, I was no longer afraid of death. It was the first time I wasn’t afraid of a dead body since these bodies were my mother and father of whom I was not afraid. My fears of God eased gradually every time I tried to meet God with my soul naked in prayer and came to realize that your hair doesn’t turn white when you are completely exposed before God; instead you become unafraid. My fears lessened too as I ministered to others and learned what divine compassion should be, as I studied and taught theology, as two cancer diagnoses forced me to contemplate for real my own mortality, and as a number of colleagues, family, and friends modeled how one can live more freely.
Intellectually, a number of persons particularly helped me: John Shea helped me realize that God is not a law to be obeyed, but an infinitely empathic energy that wants us to be happy; Robert Moore helped me to believe that God is still looking on us with delight; Charles Taylor helped me to understand that God wants us to flourish; the bitter anti-religious criticism of atheists like Frederick Nietzsche helped me see where my own concept of God and religion needed a massive purification; and an older brother, a missionary priest, kept unsettling my theology with irreverent questions like, what kind of God would want us to be frightened of him? A lot of bits and pieces conspired together.
What’s the importance of last words? They can mean a lot or a little. My dad’s last words to us were “be careful,” but he was referring to our drive home from the hospital in snow and ice. Last words aren’t always intended to leave a message; they can be focused on saying goodbye or simply be inaudible sighs of pain and exhaustion; but sometimes they can be your legacy.
Given the opportunity to leave family and friends a few last words, I think that after I first tried to say a proper goodbye, I’d say this: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of living or of dying. Especially don’t be afraid of God.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted through his website