Rorate Caeli

Musings on the Church and a Sermon, by a retired Pastor

by Father Richard G. Cipolla

I retired as pastor of St. Mary's parish in Norwalk, CT, and my last Solemn Mass was on June 24 and my last Missa Cantata as pastor was on June 29, the great Roman feast of SS. Peter and Paul.  The Sunday Mass was glorious in all ways:  the music,  the participatio actuosa of the congregation and the 32 altar servers and the ministers of the Mass, the reception that afternoon was an outpouring of joy and affection that I will always remember. 

I believe that the Traditional Movement in the Catholic Church, which appellation leaves something to be desired, is so very important to the future of the Church.  I nevertheless believe that there is too much heady talk and almost no heart.  What is lacking is contained in Newman's motto: Cor ad for loquitur: heart speaks to heart. This blog serves a very important purpose in the current struggle against the forces of a Catholic secularism that threaten the very foundation of the Catholic faith.  

I will not dwell on this situation, lest this piece become another one of my forays against those within the Church who threaten to make the Catholic Church into a pale and vapid form of Protestantism  that would be a shadow compared to the real but defective faith of a Protestantism  that at least believed in the Evangelium Ipsissum Jesu Christi.  But the hearts of men and women will be won over not only by intellectual discourse, but also by happy times over food and good wine.

I realized this past week that for so many years all I read and pondered was theology, in all of its manifestations.  I had abandoned the treasury of literature that was inspired positively mostly and even negatively by a vigorous Christian culture.  Just a few days ago, while culling my too large library, I came across a paperback translation of Flaubert's Three Tales.  I admit that I had always meant to read Madame Bovary but never got around to it. So I decide to read these tales, partly because they did not carry the weight of a tome by Dostoevsky.   The first story is called the Simple Heart.  To summarize it is to destroy its beauty.  It tells the story of an illiterate peasant. whose name is Felicité, who becomes the maid in a bourgeois household in mid 18th century France.  The story assumes and takes place in a thoroughly Catholic culture, a culture that is far from ideal, but yet one in which an illiterate peasant serving girl could go to daily Mass and grasp in some way what this was about, because it was there for her. No Daily Missal, none of the means of reduction of the Mass to something to be intellectually understood. She was simple of heart, and so she understood in a way that we can no longer understand. One is here reminded of Romano Guardini's statement towards  the end of his life that man is no longer capable of worship.  That is another topic and another time in which to expound. But Felicité, the illiterate maid with a simple heart, was able to understand, and it is that simple ability to understand that has been nearly destroyed in the past fifty years by the liturgical iron curtain that holds our Catholic people in secular bondage.

It is with this singular introduction that I posted my last Sunday Sermon at Solemn Mass as Pastor of Saint Mary's Church in Norwalk, CT. I hesitated to post this sermon because it is so personal and deals with a particular parish in a particular part of the world. The topic of the sermon is Friendship as understood by a Christian.  It is a sermon I had to preach, for Blessed John Henry Newman, my mentor and friend, who gave me the courage to become Catholic almost forty years ago, understood friendship so deeply.  It is the friendships that I have been graced to enjoy in my years at St. Mary's, including the blogmaster of Rorate Caeli,  that make the Love of God in Jesus Christ real and substantial. "O taste and see".  This is ultimately about the Holy Eucharist and the Real Presence of Christ in that Sacrament.

  But it also is and has to be about those relationships grounded in the Love of the Son for the Father that is the heart of what our Faith is about.  For those of you who will be disappointed by my sermon, hoping that it will be a thunderous denunciation of the current state of affairs in Rome and in the Church in general,  you will be sorely disappointed.  This sermon is the attempt of a priest who knows his failings and limitations to link in a small way what he has experienced at the altar in the celebration of the Traditional Mass with the real expression and experience of that Love that is offered in the Mass.


Sermon for Last Sunday as Pastor of St. Mary’s church.

 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you servants, for the servant[ does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you”. (John 15:12-15)

Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, the forerunner of Jesus Christ and the first to die the death of a martyr for the Truth who is the person of Jesus Christ.  I must say that I am happy that my last Sunday sermon as pastor of St. Mary’s is not on the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist, but rather celebrating his birth.  There are those who might say that this feast is fitting for my last Sunday sermon, because they may think that I bear a bit of John’s personal zealousness. 

The passage I chose for my sermon text is from Jesus’ Last Supper discourse in the Gospel of John.  The context is the eve of his passion and death.  It is introduced by the commandment to love one another.  It is only at this time that our Lord addresses the Twelve as “friends”.  What does this word “friend” mean to most people today?  The word itself has been in the process of being cheapened for some time now, but surely the word is below water level when its meaning has been sucked out by Facebook.  The word, friend, in Latin is amicus, which comes from amare, the verb “to love”. Jesus goes on to say:  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And he says this to a group of men, one of which will betray him, another deny him, and the rest, except for John, will desert him out of fear. 

When people used to write letters and took writing a letter seriously, the meaning of friendship was often either the topic of the letter or what was assumed in the act of writing the letter.  I am not talking here of love letters, like those between Abelard and Eloise or Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.  Those letters speak of affection that includes the physical and sexual.  When I taught Latin in prep school, the first part of the second year course was devoted to Cicero, that master of Latin prose.  We were obligated to plow through one of his orations.  After that struggle, I made my students read Cicero’s letters to his dear friend, Atticus.  These letters are simple and direct and as colloquial as Cicero ever gets.  The words of the letters show forth a bond between these two men that has been formed ultimately by love.  Listen to what Cicero says about friendship, which words, by the way, had a great influence on the Catholic understanding of friendship:

            Friendship is the greatest gift of the gods to men.  Friendship
            Improves happiness and abates misery by the doubling of
            our joy and the dividing of our grief.  What sweetness is left
            in life if you take away friendship?  Robbing life of friendship
            is like robbing the world of the sun.  Love is the attempt to form
            a friendship inspired by beauty. There can be no friendship without virtue.

When two people discover that their hearts can speak to each other with no reservation or embarrassment, then there is formed the bond of loving friendship.

My mentor and guide for a good part of my life, Blessed John Henry Newman, who fostered in me thirty-six years ago the courage to become Catholic, understood friendship so deeply.  His many letters to his friends almost make the reader jealous that he had these deep friendships.  He had these deep friendships because he understood that the basis of friendship is virtuous love, a love that must be self-sacrificial in behalf of the friend.  He knew this because he knew the person of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

Newman’s intellect was surpassed only by his generosity of spirit.  It is Newman above all who taught me about friendship that is grounded in love, and it is also he who taught me about those who resent that open generosity that is integral to friendship because of jealousy, fear or resentment.

I have been so blessed in my twelve years at St. Mary’s with the blessing of friendship.  But it is especially in the past three years as pastor that I have formed friendships that will endure beyond St. Mary’s and will be part of me and a blessing for me until I die. These friendships have been formed irrespective of age or ethnic background. What binds us is surely our Catholic faith, our love of the Church’s liturgy, the person of Jesus Christ who comes to us in the Sacraments and who is the center of our understanding of love.

When I first became pastor of St. Mary’s, I was convinced that I was pastor by accident.  Then one day about a year and a half ago, while celebrating Mas—don’t worry, no pious voices—I became intensely aware that I was meant to be pastor of this particular parish and to lead it in its special and singular mission to the Church: the recovery of the sacred in the life of the Church in a muti-cultural, multi-ethnic and multilingual community.  It Is here in the deepest sense that my life and priesthood have met and kissed.  My life long love of art, my knowledge of church art and architecture, my love and knowledge of music, especially the music of the Church ,without which  I cannot conceive of living, my love of Italian culture whose heart lies in the making of good food for those you love, my love of teaching, my love of people and of long conversations with them, which long conversations have been the bane of my wife’s existence.  The question I have been asked for almost forth-eight years:  why did you stay out so late? My answer: I was talking.  The reaction:  not very pleasant.  My wife, Cathie, and my children Benedicta and Nicholas learned the necessity of self-sacrifice as soon as I became a Catholic priest, and I am so grateful to them for their personal sacrifice that has allowed me to be everyone’s Father.  And I thank everyone in this remarkable parish for their love and support these past years.

A few nights ago I organized a celebratory dinner for the Viri Galilei, that group of men of all ages and all walks of life who in the past three years learned the chant of the Church from someone who deeply understands and loves the chant.   They sing the Missa Cantata every Wednesday evening and then sing Vespers in the chapel. For me to know this group exists and that I am in some way a part of it deepens my faith.  At the celebratory dinner, at my subtle coaxing, each man gave a toast.  I was so proud of these men as only a priest-father could be. Each man spoke with intelligence, feeling, humor, all a reflection of their own transcendental experience of this group of Viri, this group of men, whose manhood grounded in Christ and his Church shone through in a time in which true virility is hard to find and is sadly difficult to find in the clergy of the Church.

I begin to wind down this atypical sermon, not to say peculiar, with two observations.  First:  pastors retire.  Priests do not.  I shall do in the future what priests are called to do:  to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to minister to people. I shall continue to preach, to write, to lecture, to teach, all with the goal of the recovery of the sacred memory of the Church as lived and experienced in the Traditional Roman Mass.    Second. I must declare that I am a happy man through the grace of God.  Am I concerned about the state of the Church and of the world?  Of course I am.  But nothing can take away the joy I know this day and every day, that joy that is founded on what you and I do here in this Mass: to offer up Love to Love.  In this context remember to respect and love your new pastor, Father John Ringley. He loves Christ and his Church, he loves the Traditional Mass, he loves music and is a hard worker.

I was tempted to end this sermon by quoting St Paul’s words:  bonum certamen certavi, cursum consumavi, fidem conservavi.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  But no.  Those words are for a time in the future when two friends will dress me in Mass vestments for the last time, and a Requiem Mass will be sung for me, and at that time I shall be fully who I am, one who has died in the Lord. But this not now. Not now. Nay rather, I shall close with a piece of prose and a piece of poetry. The first is the ending of one of Newman’s most famous sermons called  “The parting of friends”, written at a time when to become a Catholic in Protestant England meant the severing of the ties of friendship.

And, O my brethren, O kind and affectionate hearts, O loving friends, should you know any one whose lot it has been, by writing or word of mouth, in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves, or what you did not know; has read to you your wants or feelings, and comforted you by the very reading; has made you feel that there was a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that you see; or encouraged you, or sobered you, or opened a way to the inquiring, or soothed the perplexed; if what he has said or done has ever made you take interest in him, and feel well inclined towards him; remember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he many know God’s will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfill it.

And finally, George Herbert, Anglican priest and poet.

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,

      Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

      From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
      If I lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'

     Love said, 'You shall be he.'

'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

      I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,

      'Who made the eyes but I?'

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame

      Go where it doth deserve.'

'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
      'My dear, then I will serve.'

'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'

      So I did sit and eat.