Saturday, September 16, 2017

Farewell, Benny's.

Some bad news from Southern New England: it was announced last week that Rhode Island-based retail chain Benny's will close all 31 of its stores and cease operations by the end of the year. A family-owned company still run by the grandchildren of the man who started the business in 1924, Benny's has long been appreciated by many residents of Rhode Island, Southeastern Massachusetts, and Connecticut as a friendly, community-oriented alternative to large and impersonal corporate retailers. In recent years, Benny's advertised itself as "Your Favorite Store," a title that accurately reflected the sentiments of many customers. As New Bedford Standard-Times columnist Jack Spillane recently wrote, these warm feelings made the news of the chain's demise a particularly bitter blow:
It takes a lot in a cynical newsroom to send folks into shock. Even more to send us into dismay.

When we found out Benny's will soon be gone, a lot of us were in dismay.

Because there was a time when all stores were like Benny's. The old five-and-dimes, the Main Street hardware stores, the corner drug stores.

But they’re all long gone now. Except for Benny's.
In spite its undeniable place in the hearts of many Southern New England residents, Benny's can also be difficult to classify given the eclectic yet often highly specific nature of its inventory. Signs on the outside of the building tended to identify Benny's as a "home and auto store," but that isn't really an adequate description; for many loyal customers, Benny's was the sort of store that one would visit for slightly obscure items that were difficult to find elsewhere. Benny's was often the place where I would go to buy shoelaces and pocket combs, though when I was a kid I also went there with my dad to buy plastic models of cars, ships, and airplanes that we would assemble at home. Writing in the Standard-Times, Jack Spillane also picks up on the hard-to-classify quality of Benny's:
I'm not exactly sure what Benny's is. It isn’t exactly a hardware store but it has a lot of stuff that hardware stores do. It isn’t exactly a discount store but it has a lot of stuff that discount stores do.

Suffice to say it has a little of everything and it is cheap. Consistently inexpensive, not like the national chains that raise the prices just to lower them "on sale." Not like the big corporate boxes where they want all your personal data — name, rank and serial number — just so you can find out where the good buys are.

No, Benny’s seems genuinely inexpensive and intentionally full of good stuff that people wanted to buy and can't always find easily.

Need a good quality spigot for your hose? Benny’s has it. Need leaf bags because you’re half way through raking and out of them? Benny’s has them, and a quarter cheaper than everybody else.

How about a Keurig coffeemaker? Or patio furniture? Tennis balls? A corner table? Mulch for the garden? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

The amazing thing is that Benny's has a wide variety of goods but the stores aren’t that big. Unlike a mega-store, you can easily see from one end to another. There are very rarely more than one or two cash registers (do they even call them that anymore?) running.
I think Spillane hits the nail on the head when he observes that Benny's was "full of good stuff that people wanted to buy and can't always find easily." Part of the appeal of Benny's was the sense in which it offered rare but important goods that weren't always easy to find elsewhere, particularly before the advent of the Internet. Where I grew up, Benny's also featured in a common rite of passage insofar as it was a place where many families went to buy bicycles for their children; I'm not sure that I ever rode a bicycle that came from Benny's, but I know a lot of other people who did.

Shopping at Benny's in recent years during visits home, I was also struck by the time-warped quality of the place: it always seemed to look exactly the way it had when I had visited as a child in the 1980s, with everything in the same place and the same signage, the same florescent lights, and the same floor tiles. The apparent timelessness of Benny's helped to evoke a sense of nostalgia that contributed to its appeal, and this nostalgia helps to explain why I'm sorry that I'll never have the opportunity to shop at Benny's again. The loss of Benny's also means the loss of a part of the distinctive identity of the region where I grew up, and that can only be a source of regret. AMDG.

Friday, September 08, 2017


In my last post, I promised to write more about my recent visit to the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Rocamadour in southwestern France. Today's Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary seems an apt occasion for a post on a Marian shrine so ancient that its origins are shrouded in mystery; the founding of Rocamadour is usually attributed to St. Amadour, a figure sometimes identified with the publican Zacchaeus mentioned in Luke’s Gospel but more likely a hermit who lived in the early Middle Ages. Tradition maintains that Roland of Brittany (later celebrated as a model of chivalry and valor in the eleventh-century Chanson de Roland) visited Rocamadour in 778, when it was apparently already a place of pilgrimage. Rocamadour became a major pilgrimage site in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with figures as varied as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Dominic, St. Louis of France, and King Henry II of England all coming to pray before the enigmatic figure of the Vierge Noire (a statue that is also the subject of various legends, with varying accounts given of its age and origin). Just as it did centuries ago, this complex of chapels carved into the side of a cliff continues to captivate Christian pilgrims as well as more casual visitors.

The appeal of Rocamadour even to the irreligious is seen in Michel Houellebecq’s provocative 2015 novel Submission, whose protagonist, a jaded atheist academic named François, makes an unlikely pilgrimage to the Black Virgin. Seeking a temporary respite from ennui and personal frustration as well as political turmoil in Paris, François visits the shrine on the advice of a friend who insists that "at Rocamadour you’ll see what a great civilization medieval Christendom really was." Sitting in the small chapel at the heart of the shrine, François muses on the figure of Our Lady of Rocamadour:
Every day I went and sat for a few minutes before the Black Virgin – the same one who for a thousand years inspired so many pilgrimages, before whom so many saints and kings had knelt. It was a strange statue. It bore witness to a vanished universe. The Virgin sat rigidly erect; her head, with its closed eyes, so distant that it seemed extraterrestrial, was crowned by a diadem. The baby Jesus – who looked nothing like a baby, more like an adult or even an old man – sat on her lap, equally erect; his eyes were closed, too, his face sharp, wise and powerful, and he wore a crown of his own. There was no tenderness, no maternal abandon in their postures. This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power – of intangible energy – were almost terrifying.
As François comments later, the Black Virgin expressed something beyond human efforts to interpret the devotion that inspired countless pilgrims to visit the shrine: "What this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier's manly courage; not even a child's desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly, and royal ... The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power..."

Considering the words of Submission's protagonist and reflecting on my own experience at Rocamadour, I found myself thinking of something Martin Mosebach once wrote about how the Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila saw Catholicism not merely as "one of several Christian confessions, but as the great collecting tank of all religions, as the heiress of all paganism, as the still living original religion." It's easy to regard Rocamadour as emblematic of the "collecting tank" character of Catholicism: a Christian shrine so ancient that its origins have been lost in the haze of history, a place centered on the veneration of "a strange statue" that "seem[s] extraterrestrial" and emits a mysterious "spiritual power." In contrast with a place like Lourdes, which bears witness to the unexpected manifestation of the divine before unsuspecting and even skeptical moderns, Rocamadour speaks to a natural and primordial faith. And yet, like Lourdes, Rocamadour is also a place touched by miraculous associations: reports of miracles that came about after prayers before the Black Virgin helped account for the shrine's popularity in the Middle Ages, and the many modern ex votos that can be seen at Rocamadour today are a reminder of favors more recently received.

Ancient and mysterious, Rocamadour is also a living place of pilgrimage. In contrast with the millions who visit Lourdes annually, pilgrims to Rocamadour can be counted in the tens of thousands (supplemented, I must note, by many more tourists drawn by the village's history and its medieval architecture). The pilgrims I saw at Rocamadour were mainly French, in contrast with the mix of nationalities one finds at Lourdes; the sense of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour as a national rather than universal figure remains palpable. Though the shrine is very old, it has a young heart: a striking aspect of the place is the presence of the bénévoles, French Catholic volunteers in their teens and twenties who spend the summer at Rocamadour welcoming pilgrims and helping to maintain the site. In this video, you can hear some bénévoles leading the daily rosary in the small chapel at the heart of the sanctuary. For me, it was inspiring to see enthusiastic young Catholics praying and working at one of the oldest shrines of an ostensibly secular and post-Christian nation. The blue polo shirts worn by the bénévoles bear this slogan: L’Espérance ferme comme le roc – "Hope solid as a rock." This is the message I took away from Rocamadour, and I suspect that the same message will lead me to return during my sojourn in France. AMDG.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Litanies à la Vierge noire.

Earlier this month, I made a pilgrimage to the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Rocamadour two hours northeast of Toulouse. Reputedly visited in 778 by Charlemagne's nephew Roland of Brittany shortly before he was killed in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (an event immortalized in the medieval French epic poem Le Chanson de Roland), the village of Rocamadour is home to an ancient Marian shrine that has welcomed untold numbers of pilgrims over the centuries, including several French kings as well as Saints Dominic, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Anthony of Padua. I have been meaning to write something here about my visit to Rocamadour and still hope to do so. In the meantime, though, I would like to share something about a notable twentieth-century visitor to Rocamadour, the French composer Francis Poulenc.

Poulenc visited Rocamadour at the age of thirty-seven, two decades after he had abandoned his Catholic faith as an adolescent. When he arrived at the shrine on August 22, 1936, Poulenc was badly shaken by the recent death of his friend and fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud in an auto accident. As Poulenc later recounted, "Thinking about the frailty of the human condition, I was once again attracted to the spiritual life. Rocamadour served to lead me back to the faith of my youth." Enchanted by the antiquity of the shrine as well as by its rustic beauty, Poulenc underwent an apparently spontaneous conversion. "Alone, facing the sinless Virgin," he would later say, "I suddenly received the indisputable sign, the stab of grace right in the heart."

As an act of thanksgiving for his conversion and as the artistic fruit of a profound spiritual experience, Poulenc produced the Litanies à la Vierge noire, a work that can be heard in the above video. Poulenc would place several later works under the patronage of Our Lady of Rocamadour, notably including the opera Dialogues des carmélites, but Litanies à la Vierge noire nevertheless stands as the indispensable monument to the experience that brought Poulenc back to the Catholic faith.

I hope to produce another post on Rocamadour in the next few days. Until then, peace and good wishes to those who read these lines. AMDG.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Ours on St. Ignatius' Day.

As I've noted here before, I have been fortunate to celebrate the Feast of St. Ignatius in various circumstances in Jesuit communities on three different continents. Some of these celebrations have been very grand: I think especially of the experience of spending St. Ignatius' Day in Innsbruck and in Santiago de Chile, where the feast was observed with solemn Masses in Jesuit churches followed by sumptuous banquets. In other years, I've marked the feast in quieter ways. One year, for example, I spent St. Ignatius' Day in Toronto with two other Jesuits; the three of us were busy working on theses and dissertations and didn't have the energy to trek out to the regional Jesuit celebration of the feast day, so instead we celebrated a quiet Mass in our community chapel and had dinner in a nearby restaurant. No matter where I've celebrated St. Ignatius' Day, I always look forward to the opportunity to celebrate the bonds of brotherhood that I enjoy with my fellow Jesuits and to give thanks for the gift of our shared vocation.

This year's celebration of St. Ignatius' Day was a quiet one. I'm currently in Toulouse for the summer to brush up on my French before beginning doctoral studies in Paris in the fall, so I celebrated the feast day with the small local Jesuit community. The eight of us gathered for Mass and dinner and once again honored the memory of our founder and the legacy that he left us, a legacy that we all try to continue in admittedly imperfect ways. As always, I pray today not only for the gift of my own vocation but for that of my brother Jesuits, that the Society of Jesus may be for all of us a help to salvation and a means of doing God's will. Borrowing from the words of the formula that we all recited at the time of our First Vows, I pray that God who freely gave us the desire to make this complete offering of ourselves may also give us the abundant grace that we need to fulfill it. AMDG.

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Prayer of Ordination.

This weekend I was in Milwaukee to witness the priestly ordination of twelve of my Jesuit confreres; video of that event is available (at least at this writing; I'm not sure for how long) on the Midwest Jesuits' website. As I pray for my brothers as they begin their priestly ministry, I also remember my own ordination two years ago. Doing so, I was reminded that I've been meaning to post something here about the prayer of ordination which, together with the imposition of hands by the ordaining bishop, forms an essential part of the rite. Like some other prayers, this one strikes me with even greater force since I've been ordained. The text, recited or chanted by the ordaining bishop with hands outstretched over the ordinandi, reads as follows:
Draw near, O Lord, holy Father,
almighty and eternal God,
author of human dignity:
it is you who apportion all graces.
through you everything progresses;
through you all things are made to stand firm.

To form a priestly people
you appoint ministers of Christ your Son
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
arranging them in different orders.

Already in the earlier covenant
offices arose, established through mystical rites:
when you set Moses and Aaron over your people
to govern and sanctify them,
you chose men next in rank and dignity
to accompany them and assist them in their task.

So too in the desert
you implanted the spirit of Moses
in the hearts of seventy wise men;
and with their help he ruled your people with greater ease.

So also upon the sons of Aaron
you poured an abundant share of their father's plenty,
that the number of the priests prescribed by the Law
might be sufficient for the sacrifices of the tabernacle,
which were a shadow of the good things to come.

But in these last days, holy Father,
you sent your Son into the world,
Jesus, who is Apostle and High Priest of our confession.
Through the Holy Spirit
he offered himself to you as a spotless victim;
and he made his Apostles, consecrated in the truth,
sharers in his mission.
You provided them also with companions
to proclaim and carry out the work of salvation
throughout the whole world.

And now we beseech you, Lord, in our weakness,
to grant us these helpers that we need
to exercise the priesthood that comes from the Apostles.

Grant, we pray, Almighty God,
to these your servants
the dignity of the priesthood.
Renew within them the Spirit of holiness;
may they henceforth possess this office
which comes from you, O God,
and is next in rank to the office of bishop;
and by the example of their manner of life,
may they instill right conduct.

May they be worthy coworkers with our Order,
so that by their preaching
and through the grace of the Holy Spirit
the words of the Gospel may bear fruit in human hearts
and reach even to the ends of the earth.

Together with us,
may they be faithful stewards of your mysteries,
so that your people may be restored by the waters of rebirth
and nourished from your altar;
so that sinners may be reconciled
and the sick raised up.

May they be joined with us, Lord,
in imploring your mercy
for the people entrusted to their care
and for all the world.

And so may the full number of the nations,
gathered together in Christ,
be transformed into your one people
and made perfect in your Kingdom.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God forever and ever.
You can hear the prayer in its entirety in the video below, taken from my ordination two years ago. The ordaining prelate, then-Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis (now Cardinal Archbishop of Newark), impressively chanted this very long prayer (and, in fact, sang much of the Mass).

For a deeper look at the theology of this prayer and an explanation of its various scriptural allusions, take a look at this post by Msgr. James Moroney, rector of St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. More importantly, though, please join me in praying for this year's ordinandi, that God may grant them much grace and consolation and that their ministry may bear much fruit. AMDG.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Rick Yoder on Flannery O'Connor, Philip Neri, Julien Green, and more.

Posting here has been infrequent here in the last little while, mainly because I've been busy enough as a priest and a graduate student that I haven't had much time for blogging. Though my writing here has slowed to a thin trickle, I'm stubborn enough to stick with it even if posting is likely to remain infrequent. I am grateful to those readers who have expressed appreciation for what I write, but I'll also admit that, like many other writers, I ultimately write for myself: this blog is essentially a kind of commonplace book where I record things that I want to remember and also don't mind sharing with a broader public.

In the absence of much new content from me, I would like to commend your attention to a relatively new blogging venture by my friend Rick Yoder, The Amish Catholic. I referenced Rick's work here a few months ago in a post on The Young Pope. Since then, Rick has been churning out excellent posts on topics as varied as the seven sacraments in the work of Flannery O'Connor, Benedictine resonances in the life of St. Philip Neri, and writer Julien Green's relationship with the University of Virginia. Having recently graduated from UVA, Rick will be heading to Oxford this summer to begin graduate school. I wish Rick well as he begins the next stage of his academic life, and as he moves on I hope that he will find time to continue to update his blog. If you appreciate the content that I try to post here from time to time, you may also enjoy The Amish Catholic. AMDG.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Ratzinger Revolution.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI turned ninety on Easter Sunday, marking his birthday today with a quiet celebration in Rome. Pope Benedict has had a profound impact on my life as a Catholic, as a Jesuit, and as a priest, and I proudly identify as a member of the Benedict Generation even though I came of age and entered the Jesuits before he became pope. Pope Benedict's decision to vacate the Chair of St. Peter was a spiritual trauma from which I have not yet fully recovered, and the efforts that some have undertaken to dismiss or to undermine his legacy have often rubbed salt in the wound.

Given the pain that the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI still provokes, I took some comfort from an article by Tracey Rowland published on Good Friday in the Catholic Herald. Looking at "the brave new world of 21st-century Catholicism," Rowland argues that Ratzinger's theological output "will form a treasury to be mined by future generations trying to piece together elements of a fragmented Christian culture." According to Rowland, Ratzinger's work could serve as a precious resource for young people trying to get their bearings in societies increasingly divorced from their roots:
Today we cannot even presume the existence of the baptismal certificate. Members of the millennial generation find themselves in a situation where they have rarely experienced a fully functional Christian social milieu. To find out about Christianity, especially the Catholic version of it, they watch documentaries and films. They interrogate older Catholics, and google information about the saints, liturgies and cultural practices.

The cultural capital that should follow as a natural endowment upon their baptism has been frittered away, buried and in some cases even suppressed by previous generations. They are like archaeologists. They discover fragments of the faith which they find attractive and then they try to work out where the fragment once fitted into a Catholic mental universe.

When a new generation arises in full rebellion from the social experiments of the contemporary era, craving a human ecology that respects both God and nature, and wanting to be something more than rootless cosmopolitans, Ratzinger’s publications will serve as Harry Potter-style Portkeys, giving creative young rebels access to the missing cultural capital – indeed, access to what Ratzinger calls the memoria Ecclesiae.
Having encountered Ratzinger and some of his interlocutors, from John Henry Newman to Henri de Lubac, Rowland hopes that "a generation tired of the banality of cheap intimacy and nominalism gone mad may rediscover the buried capital of a civilisation built on the belief that the Incarnation really did happen. They may also gradually learn to distinguish a secularised Christianity that hooked itself up to whatever zeitgeist wafted along from the real mysteries celebrated in something called the old Christian calendar." I hope and pray that she is right, and that future generations who did not know the pontificate of Benedict XVI at first hand might come to know and appreciate Joseph Ratzinger through his writings. AMDG.