Our Word On Fire music critic and expert, Father Damian Ference, tries on a new genre for size today: Christian music. Yet when it comes to the art of Matt Maher, this is one singer/songwriter who is not to be pigeonholed. As Fr. Damian put it, "Maher does not impose his Catholic faith on anyone, but he proposes it to everyone." Who can argue with that? Amen indeed.
Now that we’re at the halfway mark of the Year of Faith, I thought that the time might be right to introduce Word on Fire readers to an artist who incarnates the Year of Faith both in his art and in his person: Matt Maher. If you’ve never heard of him, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve at least heard his music, either on the radio or at Mass – “Your Grace is Enough” is a pseudo-classic and his settings for the new translation of the Roman Missal are sung in parishes every weekend.
Many folks want to categorize Maher as a Christian artist, but in the spirit of Flannery O’Connor, I want to say that such a description is inadequate and inaccurate. Maher is an unapologetic Catholic Christian, but he is also an exceptional artist, and the title “Christian Artist” often calls into question, intentionally or not, the quality of the art. O’Connor liked to say that she was an artist who was Catholic. I’d like to say the same about Maher.
Last week Maher released “All The People Said Amen,” a collection of thirteen songs – some old and some new, some live and some in-studio – that in an a little over an hour’s time will have you clapping your hands, pumping your fist, bowing your head, stomping your feet, belting out epic choruses, and whispering humble prayers. Drivers beware.
The album opens with the title track, which works as an invitation and offers understanding and hope to the listener: “You are not alone, if you are lonely/ When you’re afraid, you’re not the only/ We’re all the same, in need of mercy/ To be forgiven and be free.” The chorus is big and fun, and it’s hard not to sing along, especially with the “Woah-oh-ohs.” Maher brings the song home with a very cool and convicted rendering of the Beatitudes...
There's the cute statue in the garden, the lover of animals, the gentle steward of nature. Then there's the reformed party boy, the slow and reluctant convert, the man who embodied the heart of Christ through his love of the poor. Word on Fire contributor Father Damian Ference takes a look at the real St. Francis of Assisi and shares his thoughts.
I am a diocesan priest, but I like to tell people that I am part-Capuchin. That’s because in addition to the diocesan priests that staff our college seminary, we also have three Capuchin friars on formation faculty – it’s been that way since I was a seminarian. Those friars played an important role in my priestly formation, inside and outside of the classroom.
When I was heading off to do graduate work at Catholic University, my bishop told me that I could live on campus, in a rectory, or with a religious community. (Wisely, he told me that I was not permitted to live alone in an apartment.) So I asked the Capuchin friars if they would have me, and soon I had my own room at Cap College in Washington, DC. For two years I celebrated Mass, prayed the office, took meals, washed dishes, watched football, and shared my life with about thirty men who were devoted to the witness of St. Francis of Assisi.
After the Virgin Mother, St. Francis is arguably the most popular saint in the Christian tradition. Everybody loves St. Franics of Assisi, even some atheists. After all, who wouldn’t love a guy who has a nice beard, wears sandals and a simple brown habit, loves creation, and is often depicted with a cute bird on his shoulder or even in his hand?
To be honest, most of the Capuchins I lived with in DC loved animals too. Their little slice of land in the North East corner of the District was a sanctuary for birds, squirrels, deer and even a red fox. And if you were lucky, inside the friary walls you might see (or at least hear) a mouse or two late at night. All creatures of our God and King...
At a time when Catholicism is under intense scrutiny, the traditions of the male priesthood and celibacy often bear the brunt of secular ire. Father Damian Ference offers not so much a defense of the traditions, but an explanation of why they are both practiced and of utmost importance, especially now.
I am well aware that many Catholics disagree with the Church’s understanding of the priesthood. Many object to the requirement of celibacy, pointing back to a time in the early church when many priests were married. They argue that the requirement of celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, and that the mandatory discipline of celibacy can be changed. They are right. If the Holy Father wanted to, he could remove the celibacy requirement. But he has not done so.
Others view the Church’s refusal to ordain women as a justice issue and as a violation of women’s rights. They accuse the Church of committing an injustice against women for denying them full participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Here I would say that they are not right. However, from a secular worldview, I will grant that the argument makes perfect sense.
The purpose of this essay, however, isn’t so much to offer a defense of the male celibate priesthood, as much as it is an attempt to highlight two important features of the male celibate priesthood that cannot be denied and that often go unnoticed, by both those who agree with and disagree with the Church’s teaching on the priesthood.
Here is the first: that the priesthood is reserved to men alone highlights the fundamental distinction between men and women. Of course, such a distinction seems obvious at first. Public bathrooms are designated for men and women by signs, symbols and words. My dad is eighty-eight years old and legally blind, and when we go out to eat or to shop, I always have to accompany him to the bathroom door and let him know which one is the men’s room. And even if the bathroom is unisex, I find it portentous that the sign on or next to the door still has a picture of both a man and a woman, not a hybrid of the two. Common sense tells us that men and women are different, that the distinction between male and female is a natural one...
We judge one another. Often. Too often. Sometimes we try and justify this judgment by the "I would never do that" excuse. But we are all fallible — and at one time or another, we all fall. Father Damian Ference examines what we must do when one among us errs, and who we must turn to to pick up the pieces.
Recently a Catholic news outlet reported a story that has left me unsettled. A Catholic priest – who from his picture doesn’t look too much older than me – made a call to 911 to ask for assistance. He was stuck in a pair of handcuffs at the rectory. When the police arrived on the scene they found the pastor not only in handcuffs, but dressed in an orange prison outfit and wearing a leather bondage mask. The police officers set the priest free, and the priest wisely met with his bishop and asked to take a leave of absence, which was granted. The incident happened in late November. In early January the story hit the press. It’s a sad story, indeed.
What do we do when a priest falls? What is the right response when a pastor goes astray? How do you wrap your mind and heart around a situation that involves a man who is supposed to be a witness of grace and strength but is publicly and embarrassingly exposed in his sin and weakness? Is there anything we can say? Is there anything we should say?
Obviously, since I’m writing this piece, I do think there is something to say. But let me start with this – since I don’t know anything more than what was stated in the police report, I will not comment or speculate on the situation itself. And even if I did have more information, these things ought to be worked out in confidence between the priest and his bishop, not in the public forum. What I do want to address, however, is how we might best respond to troubling news about a priest that has gone public...
Talent is one thing, but what one does with it is entirely another. Father Damian Ference, our resident music expert, examines Cincinnati band Walk The Moon, and advises a sound next step in ensuring longevity.
Lately I have been using my vacation time to visit friends from my first parish assignment, who at one time were in my youth group. It’s a great joy to maintain those friendships, as they are the kind of friendships that John Paul II had from his early years of priesthood and maintained throughout his life. Such friendships are precious to any priest.
My “dear young friends,” (as I call them in the spirit of John Paul II), are in their mid-twenties now, and although some have remained in the Cleveland area, others have moved on to Boston, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, San Francisco and Washington DC. One of my young friends, however, lives and works in Norton, Virginia – the heart of Appalachia – where he does important and excellent work for the church. I went to visit him this summer.
My young friend was happy to welcome me and show me around Norton, but he, too, needed a couple days of vacation. So we decided to head south to Asheville, N.C., which is known for its breweries, galleries, farm-to-table restaurants, its history, nature trails, and for the beautiful basilica of St. Lawrence. Asheville also boasts one of the top music venues in the country, The Orange Peel. We had tickets to see Neon Trees.
The highlight of the night, however, was not Neon Trees – it was their opening act, Walk The Moon. The quartet from Cincinnati played a tight, fun, interactive, high-energy set that had the sold-out crowd jumping and smiling and singing and dancing – think secular Steubenville. And this was impressive, seeing that most of the crowd was there to hear the headliner and was unfamiliar with the music of Walk The Moon...