Thursday, March 8, 2018

Black Panther's Wakanda: a modern medievalist state

I see almost every Marvel movie in theaters within a week of its release out of habit, so it's no surprise that I caught Black Panther as well. But even all the hype about this particular release (which I was frankly a bit skeptical of, anyway) couldn't prepare me for the utter spectacle of the imagination that I had witnessed across the IMAX screen. There is, of course, so much to say about this movie as a story, as an expression of black culture, as and so on... but here, I'd prefer to write about an angle few others would be comfortable talking about. Today, in this relatively spoiler-free piece, I'll tell you what Black Panther teaches us about kingship.

The King is Dead--Long Live the King

Black Panther picks up where Captain America: Civil War left off. King T'Chaka is dead following a terrorist attack, and his son T'Challa automatically succeeds him as King of Wakanda, a fictional nation-state in sub-Saharan Africa which hides itself from the rest of the world for one reason. Wakanda is blessed by a mountain of vibranium, a near-indestructible metal with a host of other fantastical properties which make it the most prized resource in the Marvel universe. (Most notably, it's the stuff Captain America's shield is made of.) 

The armor of the King's Champion at Windsor Castle
Well... almost automatically! T'Challa is indeed his father's heir, but the Wakandans don't respect blood as the sole criterion for kingship. By tradition, on the day of the new king's coronation, the leaders of the other four tribes are asked if they wish to challenge the new king's right to rule. Most decline out of respect, but should a challenger appear, the new king is obliged to drink a serum that strips away his superhuman strength to allow him to fight in ritual combat as an ordinary man.
Those of you familiar with medieval English history might find this somewhat reminiscent of the tradition of the King's Champion. For centuries from the Norman Conquest onward, the festivities of each coronation ended with the King's Champion riding into Westminster Hall in full armor, throwing down his gauntlet and challenging anyone who would question the new king's right to a duel. Such a ritual was only natural in an age when a king's right to rule was de facto established by conquest or strength of arms, but as the Middle Ages gave way to the modern world, monarchies increasingly gave up on the idea of an interregnum (period of transition between the old king's death and the new king's coronation) in favor of automatic succession after the old king's death. The phrase "the king is dead, long live the king" is the summation of a doctrine which upholds the stability of birthright above all. The tradition of the King's Champion throwing down his gauntlet was last seen at the coronation banquet of King George IV in 1821. His successor, William IV, eliminated the coronation banquet in order to cut costs, and by the time of Victoria's coronation in 1838, the tradition was permanently discontinued.

Every king a warrior

By no means does ascending the throne mean T'Challa is now too important to continue fighting on the front lines. On the contrary, kingship consummates his identity as a warrior. By taking on the mantle of the Black Panther, T'Challa assumes the burden of a lifetime of personal combat. Wakandans are still very much medievalists in this regard: they will only respect and follow a king who shows martial strength and the bravery to lead his armies in battle. They're not scandalized by the idea of their monarch sneaking out at night in costume to play as superhero: they expect it!

The exercise of kingship throughout the Middle Ages was intensely personal. Without the bureaucracies and communications networks of later periods, the best way for a king to keep his kingdom was by constantly reminding his subjects of his existence. As such, medieval kings spent more time on the road than in their capital cities, making circuits around the country, holding court in different castles. This had the advantage of ensuring that ordinary people, who might never travel more than a few miles away from home their entire lives, might have had a chance to see the king in person. It also meant the king had a real knowledge of the lands in his domain.

But above all, the medieval king had to be a warrior. A crown prince still trained in arms and was dubbed a knight like his vassals. He didn't necessarily fight on the front lines, but he at least rode with the army on major campaigns to show his willingness to fight and die alongside his men. Richard III, sometimes reckoned the last medieval King of England, was fittingly also the last English king to die in battle, at Bosworth Field in 1485. King Henri II of France famously died from a wound suffered in a jousting accident in 1559. This was simply the cost of doing business. But a king who proved his prowess on the field could more than make up for his absence at home. King Edward I ("Longshanks" of Braveheart fame) was so renowned as a crusader that, when his father died, he was able to continue fighting in the Holy Land for a whole two years before coming back home to be crowned, with full assurance that England would wait patiently for him without any insurrections or rival princes making a bid for the throne.

Prince Harry, in keeping with a millennium of family military tradition, served two tours in Afghanistan.
Times have changed, but a certain remnant of this legacy lives today. Almost to a man, male members of the British Royal Family still make a point to serve as military officers for at least a few years. And many Americans, myself included, find it harder to take a presidential candidate seriously if he never served in the armed forces in any way.

Technology and tradition

One of the greatest follies of modern man is the notion that advancements in science and observation somehow discredit matters of the spirit--like atheists in 1957 who proudly proclaimed that Sputnik couldn't see God out in space. I always found it fascinating, though, that sci-fi authors so often create worlds where a mostly irreligious humanity, governed by the most utterly boring governments imaginable, travels through space alongside other sentient species who unabashedly worship gods and conquer in the name of empires.

The modern medievalist views technology as a tool of neutral moral value. They might give the ignorant more opportunity for idleness or destruction, it's true, but a modern medievalist doesn't eschew the printing press because it allowed more people to read and misinterpret the Bible, or refuse to use the Internet merely because his neighbor does nothing with it beyond sending his friends funny pictures of cats. 

An ideal "modern medievalist" state would see no contradiction between great material prosperity or scientific achievement enjoyed by a people who also adhere strongly to religious and cultural traditions. This is essentially what Wakanda represents: an Afro-futurist nation with medicine that can cure almost any physical condition and weaponry that can conquer the rest of the world... none of which blinds its people to the importance of maintaining its monarchy and calling on their ancestors for guidance.

Isolationism or imperialism?

This final heading isn't so much an assertion as an open question: is it more in keeping with a "medievalist" state to shun all foreign entanglements, embrace a hunger for expansion and colonization, or play at world's policeman?

The Wakanda which T'Challa inherits from his father has entered the 21st century posing as an obscure, third world country deep in the heart of Africa with nothing to offer the rest of the world. Indeed, without spoiling too much, much of the conflict in the film revolves around a growing sense of shame by Wakandans over having ignored the plight of their neighbors as they were carted off to slavery or divided by imperialist powers over the centuries... leaving them ripe for a change of regime.

My own observations of history suggest that a country which cuts itself off from all contact with the otuside world is certainly more likely to maintain its cultural and religious traditions--the textbook case being Japan, whose "middle ages" under the rule of the samurai lasted effectively until the Meiji era (the later 19th century). The price for cultural integrity was steep: the shogun deemed it necessary to crush Christian minorities with overwhelming brutality (as detailed in the movie Silence), and military technology stagnated until Commodore Perry's gunboats forced the country to open itself to trade.

Commodore Perry's ships arrive in Japan.
A somewhat more positive example might be Liechtenstein. A surviving relic of the Holy Roman Empire, Liechtenstein rests safely in the Alps with no need for a military, but it's not exactly an isolationist state. It entices foreign businesses to invest and set up shop there with low taxes to the point that it has more registered companies than citizens. Liechtenstein has a remarkably high rate of religious participation for a modern European state, and the Prince invites the entire population to his castle once a year to celebrate their national day with free beer.

I hope you enjoyed this excursion to the Marvel universe. Next time, I might write about a new video game set in medieval Bohmedia, circa 1403 which I've been playing, called Kingdom Come: Deliverance... which might also fittingly be called "Medieval Peasant Simulator". Until then!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Why do members of Parliament sit facing each other like a choir?

This past weekend, I sauntered over to the cinema to watch "Darkest Hour", a biopic starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill during his first month as prime minister. The film was marvelously moving, a perfect companion piece to last year's "Dunkirk". But I mention this not to invite anyone's iconoclastic opinions about Churchill's legacy in a comment (because, truly, I don't care), but rather to highlight the movie's frequent scenes in the House of Commons chamber. Much of the drama is, of course, in the tension between the two halves of the House: one side occupied by the "Government" (the dominant party), the other by the "Opposition" (the minority party). The liturgical viewer might feel that their seating arrangement is vaguely reminiscent of choir stalls in a Gothic cathedral or monastery... but rather than one side responding to other in harmony, Parliament is more like a choir of cacophony, an inversion of the heavenly choir. The choir of hell, perhaps!?

As many of my dear readers already know, the Commons chamber, as with nearly the rest of Westminster Palace, is the child of two eminent architects of the Victorian age: Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin. Following the fire of 1834 which destroyed the old palace, the House of Commons held a design contest, ultimately won by Barry. Parliament's mandate was for a design that would be either neo-Gothic or neo-Elizabethan, to emphasize a continuity with the nation's medieval and Tudor past. As Barry was no true Goth, he enlisted the help of the young, pugnacious Pugin: a zealous convert to Catholicism with a fanatical vision to steer England architecturally back to the purity of its Gothic (and, therefore, Catholic) patrimony. It's no surprise, then, that Pugin would have refashioned the hall where the most powerful group of men on earth in the mid-19th century gathered in the form of a chapel, even if this weren't already the established tradition.

As it turns out, the House of Commons had been accustomed to sitting in choir stalls for centuries prior to the 1834 fire because they regularly gathered in Saint Stephen's Chapel: the remains of what was once the king's royal chapel. From medieval times until Henry VIII, Westminster was primarily the home of the kings of England, not of Parliament. However, a fire (notice this recurring theme?) early in Henry VIII's reign destroyed the residential part of the palace, prompting him to simply leave Westminster entirely in Parliament's hands. During Westminster's prime as the king's principal palace, though, the crown jewel at the heart of the complex was Saint Stephen's Chapel. It began when King Henry III attended the consecration of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and desired to build a chapel of his own to outshine the Sainte-Chapelle's brilliance. We can never know exactly what the chapel looked like, but the University of York has lately posted a splendid, interactive panorama of how it may have appeared in the 14th century. I highly encourage everyone to click on this link and check it out! The richness of color, heavy use of two-dimensional iconography, and the great rood screen all suggest to me a certain continuity with the styles of the Eastern rite churches.

Click here to visit the interactive panorama of the Chapel c.1360. You have to click the arrow to pass through the screen door into the choir.
Saint Stephen's was staffed by a canonry of priests who all lived in houses near the palace, along a street which to this day is still called Canon Row. Supported by vicars and a choir of some of the most talented boy singers in the realm, the Chapel was a true medieval chantry with three Masses sung daily, especially for the remembrance of the deaths of every past king. Even after Henry VIII abolished these remembrances for the kings of the past, he was always one to hedge his bets and still left a sum of money for the canons to remember his own soul after his death!

Under Henry's son, the boy king Edward VI, Parliament passed an Abolition of Chantries Act which seized and secularized chantries throughout the kingdom, including Saint Stephen's Chapel. The very room where Thomas Cranmer had been consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury just over a decade before was given over to the House of Commons for a meeting space. (Prior to 1547, the Commons had no fixed place of assembly, but seem to have most frequently met in the refectory or chapter room of Westminster Abbey nearby.) The stalls were elongated to seat more members of Parliament, and with each renovation over the centuries, the chapel lost more and more of its sacral appearance. There's another panorama of the Commons chamber as it would have appeared in 1707 here. Much duller there! I believe the benches were covered in green toward the end of the 1600's: a visual association continued by Pugin with the upholstery of the rebuilt chamber.

The Commons chamber today is not strictly Pugin's because in 1941, it was totally destroyed by the Blitz. The room was rebuilt after the war in a somewhat simpler style, so for "Darkest Hour", a set had to be built to faithfully reproduce the look of Pugin's chamber. Here's a still below without any actors to muck it up. Immediately after the palace was rebuilt, the Commons complained to Barry simultaneously of how cramped the space was, and also how ornate: "that it looked more like some monastery of the tenth or twelfth century, that a representative chamber of the nineteenth".

I enjoyed how the film relied mostly on lighting from the windows here, rather than all the garish artificial lighting seen in the chamber today.

A photo of the old Commons chamber, before it was blown up by the Blitz.
Barry and Pugin built Saint Stephen's Hall, above, over the site of the old chapel and Commons chamber.
A register used by the canons of Saint Stephen's Chapel with enrollments of the dead. The canons enrolled not only kings, but merchants and other commoners who donated to have themselves or their loved ones remembered in death by the priests of the chapel.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Salvator mundi: what's a painting worth?

Yesterday, a painting which has only recently been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci just sold at auction to a currently-unknown bidder for $450 million--the highest price ever fetched for an artwork in history. This inquiring mind wants to know: who on earth has $450 million to blow on a painting that we may never know for sure is actually Leonardo's? Even if it's authentic, what is it about Leonardo's legacy that can possibly make any piece so valuable?

Since Leonardo da Vinci represents a key figure in the departure from the medieval world to the Renaissance, I haven't written much about him on my blog thus far. It's worth mentioning that despite Leonardo's fame resting mostly upon his skills as a painter, there are only somewhere around 20 surviving paintings that are universally acknowledged to be his. The greater appeal, when it comes to the cult of Leonardo, is the fact that he was an undisputed master of many trades all at once in both arts and sciences. Few in all of human history can claim to have had used left and right sides of the brain as fully as he. Like most of us in the 21st century, even Leonardo had to put his artistry aside and seek gainful employment in more "practical" fields. As I wrote back in 2015 in my post Who made the first resume?, when I was seeking a new job myself, Leonardo's resume of 1482 barely mentions his skill as a painter at all. Rather, the letter concerns itself almost entirely with his skill as a military engineer and designer of machines that kill as many people as possible! Then, as now, there was more money to be found in making war than in love...

As to the painting recently sold at auction, it's called Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World). The subject is our Lord Jesus Christ, bestowing a blessing with the right hand and holding a crystal orb with the left. My favorite aspect is the attire: a rich blue tunic with crossed orphreys that have a strongly geometric detailing, almost like that which would be used by dwarves of a medieval fantasy setting. Other viewers might find treasures in either hand. The hand of blessing is upheld as evidence of Leonardo's work because of its uncanny faithfulness to the musculature of a real human hand. (Even today, with the advantage of anatomical textbooks, hands and fingers remain the bane of many a traditional artist. Leonardo had to study this the hard way, by dissecting the corpses of executed criminals.) On the other, the crystal orb has been waved about as proof that the work couldn't possibly be a Leonardo because the real artist would have been smart enough to show a realistic display of light passing through the orb--with a real crystal ball, the image in the orb would be distorted and inverted. The apologists, naturally, claim that light passes normally through the orb in this painting because it shows the miraculous nature of Christ... just as, perhaps, certain mystical writers have said that the infant Jesus passed through the womb of the Virgin like light through a prism.

For my own part, the face looks convincingly like a Leonardo, particularly with his signature take on noses. What gives me the greatest pause is the totally upright, face-front posture which, frankly, seems far too conventional for a man of Leonardo's taste. In every other Leonardo portrait, the subject is turned at a profile or 45-degree angle, or is posed somewhat crooked, as though to show off his mastery of human anatomy (e.g. his "St. John the Baptist"). Every other portrait is a demonstration of how clever Leonardo is, but Salvator Mundi falls back to the tried-and-true conventions of medieval iconography. What you see is what you get: Christ as savior of the world, in the same posture as has been done by Durer, Hans Memling, or thousands of unnamed artists through the Middle Ages, both east and west. Perhaps the apologist would say that this conformity to convention is a sign of Leonardo's piety, or that he was commissioned to paint a Salvator Mundi and there's simply no other way to pose the figure of Christ other than as seen here.

Another Salvator Mundi. This one, by Hans Memling, may be found at the Met in New York.

Whatever the painting's true value, my favorite article on the auction is an op-ed in the Guardian by Anglican priest Giles Fraser: Salvator Mundi went for $450m. But you can have the real thing for free. He observes that Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Luther weren't far apart in history at all. 

"Later Luther admitted that during this dark period he actually hated God, and hated the idea of a just God especially. His breakthrough, the so-called “Tower experience”, was through the extraordinary idea that God does not treat us fairly at all, but bestows his grace upon human beings gratuitously, far above and beyond what we deserve. In other words, human life before God is not all about us stacking up moral merit points, thus to guarantee our passage to heaven. Protestants disparage this as “works righteousness” and see it as a foolish and impossible task. The only way out of the trap of the human condition is to admit our moral incapacity and call on God for help. There is no way to bully or lobby the divine into doing this. Salvation is top down. And we are as dependent upon Salvator Mundi as we are dependent upon the rain."

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Weeping madonnas and myrrh-streaming icons

"From thy Holy Icon, O Lady Theotokos, blessed myrrh has flowed abundantly.  Thou hast thereby consoled those, in exile, faithful unto thee, and hast enlighten the unbelievers by thy Son's light.  Therefore O Lady, with tears we bow down to thee.  Be merciful to us in the hour of judgment.  Lest having received thy mercy we be punished as those who have been contemptuous of it.  But grant us through thy prayers to bring forth spiritual fruit, and save our souls." -  Troparion to the Iveron Icon, Tone 7

Maria lactans
One aspect of medieval piety which I've rarely touched on until now is the fascination with signs and wonders. Not street markers or architectural marvels, though those are also certainly worth writing about! I mean visible, tangible marks of the divine, imprinting heaven upon earth in an ever-so-slight way. Christ said that "an evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign". On the other hand, clerics and scholars of the medieval Church have bequeathed to us literally tens of thousands of recorded cases of alleged miracles attributed to the intercession of this or that saint, such-and-such shrine, or by touching a certain powerful relic... and I don't think this is necessarily because the medievals were all such bad, credulous folk. Quite a few of these stories are completely outlandish by modern standards: take, for instance, the Lactation of Saint Bernard. The founder of the Cistercian Order knelt in prayer and saw a vision of Our Lady with the infant Jesus, who then squirted a stream of her breastmilk into St. Bernard's mouth to impart her wisdom and demonstrate her maternal bond to him. Modern psychologists would have (or likely, already had) a field day with this story. Yet, the act of nursing has always been associated with the imparting of wisdom (why else do we call our graduating university an alma mater?), and the nursing Madonna has been consistently a part of the Catholic tradition for many centuries and enshrined in art many times over without betraying hints of hyper-sexualization or fetishization. It is, perhaps, our modern imagination which corrupts us into seeing something that's not there.

The Cistercians were also the first to erect an altar to Mater Dolorosa--Our Lady of Sorrows--in 1221. Among the common folk, this aspect of the Blessed Mother frequently manifested itself in the form of "weeping madonnas": statues that shed tears of sorrow for the suffering of her divine Son upon the cross. Those of my readers who've read Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, or seen the miniseries, might remember Jack's clever trick with his Marian statue with eyes made of a stone that would secrete water after a temperature shift from hot to cold. But however common these shrines were, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows was not actually put on the general Roman calendar until the 1700's. In 1913, Pope Pius X gave the feast its current date: September 15, quite fittingly the day after the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

The eastern churches have their own variation of the weeping Madonna, in the form of icons of the Theotokos which purportedly stream myrrh. This phenomenon has exploded in recent years, with a proliferation of myrrh-streaming icons throughout the United States, such as the one in Scranton a few hours north of where I live. The most famous of these is probably the Iveron Icon from Honolulu, now on tour throughout the United States.

Encouraged by some friends who are all about these icons, I made a visit (I hesitate to label getting stuck in Philly traffic for an hour and a half, though annoying and arduous, a "pilgrimage") last night to the local Russian Orthodox cathedral in order to visit the aforementioned Iveron Icon, which conveniently happens to be in my area. Like so many millions of peasants from our medieval past, struggling to see a sign of God's favor, I strove to approach this icon not with a skeptical gaze, but with the eyes of faith. Well before I stepped through the doors of the church, I set myself in a frame of mind to ask not, "is this real?", but rather, "what is the Blessed Mother trying to tell me through this sign?"

Since this particular church seems to serve mostly immigrants from Russia, the liturgy was conducted in Russian. There were no service orders for me to follow along with, so I have no idea what was said (or sung, rather). The priest and his deacon were clad in lovely blue vestments. It was mostly the priest singing, but he had to stop frequently towards the end, as though he were out of breath and struggling to press on. Liturgy is, after all, "work done on behalf of the people"; I've always had a sense of satisfaction by feeling exhausted after serving an unusually long Mass, like last month's pontificals or the Corpus Christi procession before that. After the marathon of prayers to which the priest nearly expired, the many faithful in attendance approached the icon one by one to venerate it. Some were modest in their devotions. Others went whole hog with triple prostrations.

When my turn came at last, I stepped forward and made the sign of the cross in the eastern manner. Gazing at the icon for just a moment, I made my intention, kissed the glass cover, and took a step back again to bow as though I were a courtier gracefully observing protocol. On my way out, I inclined my head before the priest to accept anointing on my forehead with the myrrh, and took a holy card from the deacon before stepping back out into the night of the brutal city in silence. My days at church usually end with a great deal of fellowshipping with co-parishioners, but this night's was a journey I had made alone. You, dear reader, are the first to know my thoughts.

First, as to the question burning in your mind, "is it real?" The answer is... I don't know. Like I said, I wasn't looking for reasons to doubt, but on the other hand, I tend to be skeptical of these phenomena even in my own Catholic tradition. This shouldn't be a surprise, as the type of practicing Catholic least likely to buy into a weeping Madonna statue is a priest. Beyond that, I have a habit of giving pause even to some well-beloved apparitions such as those attributed to Our Lady at Fatima, Portugal: an inauspicious statement for this 100th anniversary of the apparitions, to be sure, but my lingering doubts remain. I hope my Orthodox friends aren't surprised, then, if I come face-to-face with the Iveron Icon and still don't know what to think about it.

For the true believer, though, the question of the icon's authenticity isn't all that important in the long run. As the risen Christ said to Thomas, "because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." I hope I'm not conveying a hint of spiritual pride by simply simply stating that I walked into that church already well-convinced of the truths of the Gospel, and of God's love for mankind. If the icon is authentic, then it's one more manifestation of His love, and perhaps a sign for those of weaker faith or those struggling with sin who need to see a visual manifestation of God's presence in their lives before they snap and give in to the final temptation to despair. God loves these people just as much as He loves those with holy orders, or extensive theological training, or who have read their way into the faith in true millennial fashion.

And so, with that in mind, I thought not so much about the icon itself at all, but about discerning what the Blessed Mother was trying to say to me during this trip. I asked for the gift of wisdom, as she gave to St. Bernard long ago--the guidance to better fulfill my first vocation not as an acolyte, but as husband and father. The answer I got as I walked out was: ite ad Joseph. There is, of course, no better example of husbandship than Our Lady's own betrothed. It's easier said than done, but I hope in some small way to come out of this experience with a first step toward emulating those qualities which St. Joseph used to support Mary and the young Jesus: an imperfect man sustaining, if it were possible, two models of perfection. My family may not be exactly perfect, but I still have a sense of unworthiness for the gifts I've received through them and will strive to do better in the future. And conversion of heart is, I hope, a greater miracle than all the packets and q-tips of miraculous myrrh that could fill the earth.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

"Behind the Mass": the 10th anniversary pontifical Mass from a lowly book-bearer's eyes

One of many splendid photos taken by Allison Girone for this Mass. There's a complete album here.

A personal account of the inspiration, preparation, and execution of the historic Pontifical Extraordinary Form Mass at the Throne on September 14, 2017 for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum. All views are, of course, my own only. The complete Mass is now watchable on YouTube here.

You can learn a thing or two about someone just by asking them where they were when some major event in recent history took place. "Where were you when you heard that JFK was shot?" Or, "what were you doing when the twin towers fell?"

Admittedly, the release of Pope Benedict XVI's Summorum Pontificum in 2007, declaring that the traditional, pre-Vatican II Roman liturgy was never lawfully abolished, went unnoticed in the eyes of the average Catholic and was barely a blip even on most priests' radars. But for a young and impressionable Catholic with a budding interest in the liturgy like myself, Summorum Pontificum was a watershed moment. Before then, during high school when I was still inquiring into becoming a Catholic, I had attended a few low Masses in the old rite... but these, while approved by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, still had a clandestine, somewhat forbidden flavor to them. The designated chapel was a claustrophobic little thing behind an old nursing home. The locale conveniently fit the conventional canard that the old Latin Mass was tolerated only as a bone to throw to old folks who couldn't accept the changes to the Mass after Vatican II. While I still appreciated the sobriety and unflinching call to worship of the low Mass, I'll admit that I didn't fully understand the appeal of the traditional rite's beauty until over a year later, when I caught a broadcast on EWTN of the celebratory solemn Mass by the FSSP on September 14, 2007: the date upon which the provisions of Summorum Pontificum would go into effect.

Father Josef Bisig, first Superior General of the FSSP, celebrated a solemn Mass on September 14, 2007 for the effective date of Summorum Pontificum at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, pictured above.
There I was, on a Friday morning at Ave Maria University where several TV screens in the cafeteria were playing the broadcast at the same time. I still remember some of the people sitting at the table I was at. And there the three ministers at the altar were on the big screens: priest, deacon, and subdeacon, all moving like they were performing the same sacred ritual for the thousandth time in a row--not hidden away in a tiny chapel that could barely hold 20, but at the high altar of Mother Angelica's shrine in Hanceville, Alabama for the world to see. I didn't understand everything I saw that day, so I hit the library and consumed several old tomes on the traditional Mass to whet my appetite. I did the same the next week, and the week after, and the week following. 

The passing years were far from any sort of continual ascent to holiness, as I struggled with basic matters of faith and virtue like (as many other young adults do). But my love of attending and serving Mass helped me persevere through the worst times, and by 2016, I had started my own schola to teach ordinary guys how to sing Gregorian chant, and written numerous articles to help people delve into deeper appreciation for all the treaures of our liturgical patrimony. Looking back on what got me started on this apostolate, I had to credit Pope Benedict XVI and Summorum Pontificum above all.

My first time meeting Bishop Joseph Perry, who preached at a priest's first Mass here in 2016
In July of that year, I happened to run into Bishop Joseph Perry, who was visiting Philadelphia to attend a co-worker's ordination to the priesthood and preach at his first Mass the following day. I knew that he enjoyed coming to Philadelphia to minister to the urban parishes here, and also that he liked to travel around the country to celebrate the Extraordinary Form for communities at various parishes. So I thought, why not Philadelphia, too? Why not a pontifical Mass on the feast of the Holy Cross next year to give thanks for the 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum? The matter was brought before the rector of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul (which already generously provides its space for several solemn Extraordinary Form Masses on holy days throughout the year), and eventually, the Archdiocese sent a formal invitation to Bishop Perry to lead the celebration for us at the Cathedral. This would be the first traditional Latin Mass celebrated by a bishop at the Cathedral Basilica (and, perhaps, the whole Archdiocese of Philadelphia) in 50 years.

By the summer of 2017, the 10th anniversary of Summorum's first announcement on July 7 had just passed, with a flurry of celebratory articles on the web (I link to Dom Alcuin Reid's piece, "We can safely say the doomsayers are wrong", as one example of many). This was the perfect time to engage the faithful's interest, so I conducted an extensive mailout to clergy and lay leaders throughout the region to let them know about this pontifical Mass and ask them to promote it in their parishes. The excitement only grew when I spread word that a bus from Holy Innocents, Manhattan had been chartered to bring people in. A second bus was organized to start at the FSSP's parish in Scranton, with a stop at their sister apostolate in Allentown and again at the local Carmel for Vespers before arriving at the Cathedral. Flyers were also posted at churches in Washington, DC like Mary Mother of God, and word had spread even to Christendom College in Virginia. Clearly, I wasn't the only one who thought the 10th anniversary of Summorum was worth celebrating!

I was quite happy to see that Mary, Mother of God in Washington, DC had put a notice of this Mass in one of their July bulletins (above).
It's also worth emphasizing here that the excitement was by no means restricted to die-hard Latin Mass attendees. Flyers were posted in quite a few suburban parishes with no connection to the old rite whatsoever. Announcements were aired on secular newsradio the weekend before. The word was enthusiastically spread around several of the African-American parishes where Bishop Perry frequently visits. The Tolton Ambassadors of Philadelphia, commissioned by Bishop Perry to promote the canonization cause of Father Augustus Tolton during a visit by His Excellency to the city just a few weeks before our pontifical Mass, joined us and brought many of their friends along to experience the traditional Latin Mass for the first time. We were happy to have them set up a table in the narthex to distribute materials about Father Tolton's cause. The Ambassadors told me afterward that it was a very successful night for them.

A month or so before the Mass, we received word that EWTN would broadcast the liturgy as part of their Cathedrals Across America program. For me, it was as though everything had come full circle from that day, ten years ago, when I watched that solemn Mass of September 14, 2007 being aired from the Shrine in Alabama. This wouldn't have been the first time EWTN had broadcast a pontifical Latin Mass before (Bishop Perry actually celebrated one at the Shrine in 2009), but this would certainly be the biggest one they've aired since the Paulus Institute's pontifical Mass with Bishop Slattery at the National Basilica in DC for the fifth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI's accession to the papacy (2010). 

Mass is not a performance--but there was a sense that so many eyes would be on Philadelphia that night that we had a special incentive to put the Cathedral Basilica's space to its fullest use and let the faithful see and hear the best of what the classical Roman rite had to offer. As plans developed, the Archbishop of Philadelphia granted Bishop Perry the privilege of pontificating from the throne. Meanwhile, on the musical front, we secured a full choir and orchestra under the direction of Peter Richard Conte: the legendary organist of the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ (which I mentioned in a previous post on the church of Saint James the Less) and choirmaster of S. Clement's Church, a famous Anglo-Catholic shrine in the Episcopal Church. Mr. Conte previously had the honor to direct the music for Father Michael Magiera, FSSP's first Mass, which took place at the Cathedral Basilica in 2005. This was, I believe, the first Extraordinary Form Mass at the Cathedral since Vatican II, so in a way, this pontifical Mass was a follow-up to the success of that first Mass years ago.

A photo from the first Mass of Father Michael Magiera, FSSP in 2005. This was, I believe, the Cathedral Basilica's first TLM since the Vatican II reforms.
Rehearsing the ceremonies of pontifical Mass was a time-consuming process which involved multiple sessions, copious notes, and multiple priests taking time out of their busy schedules to learn their parts. Further, as this Mass would be celebrated from the Throne, there were additional offices that needed to be filled by clerics. The total assistants and servers for this liturgy came out to:
  • An assistant-priest (or archpriest) in cope
  • Two deacons-of-honor at the Throne
  • Deacon of the Mass
  • Subdeacon of the Mass
  • Two masters of ceremonies (one for the altar, one for the throne)
  • Four chaplain-bearers in copes (book, candle, mitre, and crozier)
  • A crucifer in tunicle
  • A thurifer
  • Two acolytes at the credence table
  • And six vestment-bearers, who would also serve as torchbearers during the Canon

In retrospect, we could have benefited from three or even four MC's: one to direct the clergy-in-choir, and one to remain in the sacristy. The greatest hurdle was the simple fact that most of us involved had never actually served a pontifical Mass before. Had this been organized by the FSSP or the Institute of Christ the King, all the key assistants would have had served their fair share of pontifical EF Masses. In our case, there are no full apostolates by any of the Ecclesia Dei societies in the city. An honorable near-exception is Mater Ecclesiae Chapel just across the border in New Jersey: the only diocesan church in the US which is devoted exclusively to the traditional Latin Mass and sacraments... and one of this Mass's biggest supporters. But even they had only done one pontifical TLM before, just this past November at their chapel with Bishop Athanasius Schneider. Nearly every other priest involved was a pastor of a "regular" diocesan parish.

From the first rehearsal, with a view of the massive amount of sanctuary space to walk around in. The first step to the altar is at bottom-left.
My assigned position was as the book-bearer: one of the four chaplain-bearers at a pontifical Mass from the Throne. While I more usually assist the Cathedral Masses as subdeacon, we wanted to offer as many minister roles as possible to the various priests who had started or sustained the various TLM communities in the area over the years. So, you'd think my new job would have been a breeze to learn by comparison. That's true on the surface, but there was still much to learn about where to stand at which point in the Mass, which book to bring at a given time, and when to switch the book off with the archpriest. Our first rehearsal was the Saturday prior with almost everyone but the bishop. The second rehearsal began on the day of the Mass with the bishop, six hours beforehand. Since I'm told most bishops don't "do" rehearsals, we were grateful for Bishop Perry's patience in going over all the rites with us. After that, the bishop retired to the cathedral rectory to prepare while I helped (a bit) with collecting all the requisite supplies, carefully bringing an antique processional cross downstairs, and retrieving Bishop Perry's personal mitre set. People began to fill the Cathedral even two hours before starting time to get decent parking.

From the bishop's rehearsal (Bishop Perry is obscured from view by Father Pasley). The red altar frontal is in place, and the Blessed Sacrament has been relocated from the tabernacle. Note that the altar is actually freestanding.
The sacristy table lined end-to-end with vestments for the pontifical Mass. When Mass is at the Throne, the bishop is attended by two deacons-of-honor in dalmatics, and four chaplain-bearers in copes.
A separate table was needed for the vestments of the deacon and subdeacon of the Mass (distinct from the two deacons-of-honor).

About twenty minutes before Mass, the bishop and his familiares (his chaplain-bearers and members of his personal retinue--that is to say, the members of his "family") gathered in the small rectory chapel next door to the Cathedral to begin the formal preparation before Mass. We weren't yet vested, but rather in choir dress: cassock and surplice for the chaplains, cassock/rochet/mozzetta for the honorary canons, and the purple cassock and mantelletta for the bishop. I knelt before the bishop with the book opened to the seven penitential psalms. Whenever I brought the book to the bishop, my fellow instituted acolyte from Mater Ecclesiae, John Rotondi, accompanied me to the right with the hand-candle (also called the bugia). The fact that the rite calls for a special candle to be held near the bishop whenever he has to read something is one of many small aspects of pontifical Mass that seems to suggest it was designed to make the celebrating of Mass as easy as possible for a frail, venerable old man.... or, for the more cynical medievalist, a man who only pontificates once or twice a year and then spends the rest of his time out hunting or jockeying for favors at the royal court. This is all emphasized by the fact that an attendant is usually there to turn the page for the bishop, move the bookmarks around, and even to point with his hand exactly where on the page to begin reading!

The private rectory chapel where we prayed the preparations before Mass. Not in the broadcast, of course.
In Bishop Perry's case, I was immediately struck by how comfortably and gracefully the first words of the opening antiphon, Ne reminiscaris, flowed forth. Even many priests who celebrate the Extraordinary Form are uncomfortable with Latin and so stumble their way across the liturgy to the dismay of the congregation. The psalms went by in no time at all, and we made the responses of the closing versicles back to the bishop at the end. We finished this stage of the preparation early and so waited in our places, though there were no seats for the chaplain-bearers so we sat in a semi-circle on the floor along the altar steps (like little children, in the bishop's words, hence his familiares). 

As the time for Mass approached, we exited out the front door of the cathedral rectory and made the short walk along Race Street to the front door of the Cathedral in a mini-procession. As soon as we stepped outdoors, we were greeted to the beat of gangster rap thumping out of an SUV parked across the street, prompting someone to ask, "so, is this the processional hymn?" Welcome to Philly!

Waiting in the narthex for the signal to enter. Two honor guards stand at front: one representing the Knights of Columbus, the other (obscured from view) representing the Knights of Peter Claver. The archpriest is Father Pasley of Mater Ecclesiae, in the mozzetta of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (for whom the Holy Cross is a principal feast). The two deacons-of-honor are pastors of diocesan parishes who also celebrate the EF when they can: Monsignor Sangermano and Father Kulczynski. The four chaplain-bearers take the rear. On the far side, there's a table with literature on the canonization cause of Father Augustus Tolton.
Tourists and other passersby outside had no idea what was going on but snapped photos of us in our funny clothes as we circled around the corner. When we got to the steps leading up the west portal, we ran into some protesters waving some nasty signs. It would seem my efforts in getting the word out about this Mass were rather too successful, in this case. They were protesting sexual abuse of children by the clergy. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have an absolute zero-tolerance approach to sex-offenders in the Church, but this was not the time or place to engage them, so we moved on. I felt bad for Bishop Perry because of the protesters pointed at him and said, "look, just another one of your victims", not knowing or caring that the bishop isn't even from here. Thankfully, I learned after the fact that one of my fellow-parishioners who came to attend this Mass decided to dialogue with them after Mass was over.

All while this was going on, the altar servers, clergy and seminarians in-choir, knights and dames of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and Order of Malta, and the deacon and subdeacon of the Mass were processing into the sanctuary and taking their places. The rector of the Cathedral gave a brief introduction for the benefit of the full congregation, most of whom had never attended a pontifical TLM before, and probably a few hundred whom had never even attended any kind of TLM at all. There was a bit of awkward lingering in the narthex because we were waiting for EWTN to give us the signal to begin. ("The real power in the Church", someone joked.) Finally, we stepped just inside the nave so the faithful could see the solemn reception of the bishop at the door. The rector formally welcomed the bishop by offering him the holy water sprinkler, which he used to bless everyone in reach. We then made the long walk down the center aisle past a thousand or so worshippers who had come from war and wide to join us.

The choir sang the antiphon Sacerdos et Pontifex to a plainchant, then the canticle Benedictus to a 4-part Anglican chant, then finally the responsory Ecce Sacerdos Magnus to a setting by Sir Edward Elgar. A lot of faithful in the pews seem to have been so struck by the majesty of the rite that they genuflected out of instinct as the bishop passed by. 

We first made a stop at the side altar of the Assumption, left of the chancel, where the Blessed Sacrament had been relocated from the high altar earlier in the day. Even most traditional Catholics are unaware that the Blessed Sacrament was never traditionally reserved at the high altars of cathedrals (the tabernacle behind the high altar at the Cathedral Basilica here is actually a recent addition). If the Blessed Sacrament is kept at the high altar, it's moved away before a bishop pontificates. After a moment's prayer, we made a second stop before the high altar, and then finally the archbishop's throne to begin the vesting and final prayers of preparation before Mass. The deacon and subdeacon of the Mass stepped in to help the bishop put on each vestment, which were laid atop the high altar and brought by the vestment-bearers in pairs. Meanwhile, the archpriest, deacons-of-honor, and chaplain-bearers retreated into the sacristy to put on their copes and dalmatics. The bearers of mitre and crozier additionally wore the "vimpae" under their copes. Unfortunately, I hadn't tested out the cope I had been assigned, so I found out too late that it was oversized and constantly threatening to slip off my shoulders entirely throughout the whole liturgy.

I returned to the throne and brought the book for the bishop recite the various vesting prayers for each item: over his purple cassock went the amice, alb, cincture, pectoral cross, tunicle, dalmatic, chasuble, gloves, and mitre. There were a couple of nervous gaffes during the vesting (which are now just funny in retrospect) here, like the fact that the bishop was given the wrong gloves and had to switch them out; but simple mistakes like this happen even during the royal coronations at Westminster Abbey, so no one should be scandalized that they took place here, too. It was well worth doing the vesting as part of the public ceremony, because a couple of people told me afterwards that they had no idea how many layers a bishop had to wear.

There was no sense in doing the hour of Vespers during the bishop's vesting, so instead, the choir and congregation sang the Office hymn for the Holy Cross, Pange lingua gloriosi
With crozier in hand, we all made our way from the throne to the foot of the altar to recite Psalm 42 and the Confiteor. In a pontifical Mass, the last vestment, the maniple, is not kept inside the Gospel-book like a bookmark and not given until these prayers are done and the bishop ascends the altar to incense it.

Another variation for pontifical Mass, unlike TLM's celebrated by a mere priest, is that the bishop doesn't read anything from the altar during the Mass of the Catechumens. Instead, he reads everything from his seat (either the faldstool or, in this case, the throne). The book-bearer holds the missal for the bishop when he has to merely recite any of the proper texts, like the Introit and Kyrie. But whenever the bishop has to actually sing something, like the Collect, the archpriest has the honor of holding the book during these moments instead. Sometimes, it's a mix of both: for instance, the bishop must sing the opening intonation of the Gloria, but recite the rest of it quietly. So, the archpriest takes the book to hold it just for the Gloria in excelsis Deo, then hands it off to the book-bearer immediately after.

The Mass Ordinary was sung to Mozart's "Sparrow" Mass, with a full orchestra. My faithful readers know I'm not normally a fan of orchestral Masses, but hearing it in-person, and giving the architecture and historic significance of the event, it seemed eminently fitting. It is unfortunately a "you had to be there" moment, as no recording does the music justice.
As at a priest's solemn Mass, the subdeacon chanted the Epistle and the deacon chanted the Gospel. We usually keep the Gospel reading within the chancel at solemn Masses here, but this time, the procession went out past the chancel gate into the nave on the Gospel side.

The Epistle
When the deacon knelt before the bishop to receive his blessing before proclaiming the Gospel, the entire procession knelt behind him, as though everyone standing in the bishop's immediate line of sight had been caught in the blessing's "blast radius".
After the Gospel, the familiares formed another procession to accompany the bishop around to the pulpit. We sat in the Sacred Heart Chapel, right of the chancel, to listen to the bishop's homily on the Holy Cross. Bishop Perry is a highly gifted preacher, and so I highly recommend that everyone listen to it. It begins around 55:44 in the linked video.

A few friends remarked to me later that they had hoped the bishop would talk about Summorum Pontificum in the homily. His Excellency chose to focus entirely on the Holy Cross that night, but not long after, Bishop Perry would go on to celebrate another pontifical Mass for the inaugural Culmen et Fons liturgy conference in Massachusetts. There, he preached a homily entirely about Summorum Pontificum, which may be read at this link.

The lengthy settings of the Mass Ordinary are, a friend said to me, an opportunity to reflect on the words. Note that the bishop sometimes wears the less ornate, less heavy "golden mitre".
We returned to the throne for the Creed from Mozart's Sparrow Mass, and the end of my official duties. The bishop would be at the altar from this point on, so I spent the remainder of the Mass standing or kneeling at the foot of the altar, off to the left side. Once the bishop arrived at the altar for the offertory rite, the Mass continued on more like an ordinary priest's solemn Mass, though with many more ministers around. The biggest differences go back to my point about pontifical Mass seemingly designed for a frail old man: the bugia-bearer was still needed to attend to the hand-candle beside the book, which in this instance wasn't the same pontifical canon I had carried into the church. This edition of the canon was a truly jumbo-sized, antique folio edition with lettering as big as the giant E at the top of an optometrist's vision test. This canon was so large that it slid off of its stand a few times, to Father Pasley's vexation as he kept readjusting it until it finally stayed in place.

A close-up view of the jumbo pontifical canon, which the bishop would read from at the altar in place of a missal.

The elevation
The Sanctus, Roman Canon, and Agnus Dei all seemed to pass by in a blur for me. For the people's Communion, the clergy, then the servers all ascended the altar four at a time to receive from the bishop. Once he finished communicating them, the bishop went down to the altar rail to join the other four priests there in administering Communion to the many lay faithful gathered that night. It took a while, though I think not as long as it would if everyone received Communion a single-file line while standing as the vast majority of churches here do today.

The kiss of peace. The pontifical rite adds some complications by having the ministers receive the pax not at the usual time, but immediately before each of their Communions if they intend to receive.
Holy Communion of the faithful. The bishop came to the rail to assist with the distribution after all the clergy and servers had communicated.
Mass concluded with us responding back and forth with the bishop for the concluding versicles and his triple-sign of the cross over the congregation. Now, with both the bishop's attendants and all of the clergy, knights, and servers together, we formed a massive recession to the narthex and back around to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The bishop gave a final blessing to all of the clergy and servers, who all responded with a hearty Amen. After a few group photos and enthusiastic greetings from the seminarians, we retired to the sacristy to unvest without further ceremony. It was a very long day, but worth every minute to reclaim these great traditions for the praise and worship of God.

The recession, with quite a few seminarians in line!
The recession went to the narthex and looped around back along the side to the side chapel.
The Tolton Ambassadors greeting Bishop Perry right after Mass
This was, as far as I know, the only "individual" photo anyone got with Bishop Perry that night. He's holding an antique crozier which, I'm told, belonged to Archbishop Edmond Prendergast (Archbishop of Philadelphia during the First World War).
My wife and I ended up unwinding with a few of the Knights of Malta at a rooftop lounge across the street, overlooking the Cathedral. We didn't get back home until after midnight. It was back to work as usual for me the next morning, but it took me well over a week to come down from the spiritual "high" of that experience and recount it for my readers here. 

View of the Cathedral from the rooftop lounge
Among the many responses I've received over the past week and a half, some friends and key members of the diocesan Extraordinary Form Mass in my hometown of San Antonio, where I helped establish a schola, resolved to begin increasing exposure for themselves by livestreaming all of their sung Masses from that point onward on Facebook. This is really the best response I could hope for from the pontifical Mass: that those who attended or watched it on television would be inspired to promote the gifts of Summorum Pontificum in their communities at home. Onward and upward, to restore all things in Christ! 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

EWTN tonight

The ongoing Pontificalia series is spurred largely by the grand pontifical Mass with Bishop Perry which will take place at the Cathedral Basilica tonight to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum. The Modern Medievalist, yours truly, is honored to serve as the bishop's book-bearer this evening. I hope all who see this will tune in or check the website so we can join together in thanksgiving for such a wonderful gift.