On Notre Dame, Our Inheritance, and Hope

Notre Dame Burning.jpg

As I left school yesterday afternoon, my phone had messages from four or five faculty members: had I heard that Notre Dame cathedral was burning? I went online and looked at the pictures: the flames toppling the spire. The crowds gathered across the river, singing Ave Maria into the night
I wept. Why? Why did a fire nearly 4000 miles away affect so many of us so deeply?
Perhaps it was partly just stress that needed to find an outlet. I’d had a difficult meeting after Mass yesterday morning. Sometimes the practicalities of starting a school really are challenging.
But it was more than that. It mattered that it was this cathedral, this particular gem in the crown of Catholic Europe. For example, I assume that this 800 year old Rose Window no longer exists:

Notre Dame Rose Glass.jpg

Receiving a classical education means, in part, learning to receive this beauty as one’s own patrimony. At Martin Saints, our students are apprentices, young men and women being cultivated so that they are capable of receiving their inheritance.
What was on fire last night is a piece of that patrimony, a choice portion of our inheritance. People have been worshiping on that site since Roman times, through the Carolingian and Viking ages. Eventually, two hundred years of construction in the high middle ages created the building more or less as we know it today. Thomas Aquinas would have known and recognized it. What was burning last night is a chapter in the story that makes us who we are.
In 1969, the British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark stood across the Seine from Notre Dame cathedral and famously said: “What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms yet.” But then he turned and looked across the river at Notre Dame: “But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I’m looking at it now.” (Watch the whole documentary at this link; this quote occurs at 3:32.)
Civilization is a perilous thing. In that same BBC documentary, Sir Kenneth talks about how western civilization had nearly perished after the fall of Rome, and he warns that we could face similar danger again someday.
Please pray for Paris, pray for Europe, pray for the renewal of the Church, pray for the revival of classical education in our era, and pray for Martin Saints.


The rose windows survived! Read more in Rod Dreher’s article Hope in The Ruins.


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From the Deacon's Desk: Church renewal in Hard Times - Tending the Sacred Fires

Classical catholic students philadelphia camping trip.jpg

Pictured above: our ninth and tenth graders on the first day of school this year, back in September, geared up and ready for our annual camping trip. Pictured below: singing at a campfire on that trip, just a few days later.

All these beautiful faces are in my mind as I study and pray over this recent interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah, a Vatican prelate from Guinea in West Africa. In the interview, +Sarah describes the current spiritual situation in western civilization. It's a stunning, no-holds-barred, prophetic diagnosis of our culture. It's also the context in which our children are growing up.

Towards the end of the interview, +Sarah explains where he sees hope, and he perfectly articulates the motivation for what we're doing here at Martin Saints:

"...everything is prepared for a renewal. I see families, monasteries, and parishes that are like oases in the middle of a desert. It is from these oases of faith, liturgy, beauty, and silence that the West will be reborn....We have simply to live our Faith, completely and radically....I call upon Christians to open oases of freedom in the midst of the desert....places where the air is breathable, or simply where the Christian life is possible....places where truth is not only explained but experienced. In a word, we must live the Gospel: not merely thinking about it as a utopia, but living it in a concrete way. The Faith is like a fire, but it has to be burning in order to be transmitted to others. Watch over this sacred fire!"

Martin Saints exists to kindle this sacred fire in our children, to give them an experience of the lived Catholic faith that is beautiful, compelling, and persuasive. Martin Saints is also a place where adults can collaborate as teachers, parents, donors, prayer partners, and volunteers, so that all of us experience a sacred oasis, a place where the air is breathable, a hearth where the sacred fire burns.

It's hard work sometimes. If Cardinal Sarah's analysis of our culture is even half-right, nobody - no individual, no community, no relationship - escapes the stresses and strains arising from what he is describing. When our culture isn't right, the ripple effects in our daily lives can be discouraging.

But this is what it looks like to become a saint and seek holiness in our time and place: to persevere even when things get hard, and to perceive what we're doing in this school as an offering for the renewal of the Church, an investment in building community, a long term commitment to tending the sacred fires.

Lent is nearly over. I hope we're all finishing strong. It might be time to reconnect with our Lenten disciplines, our commitment to prayer, confession, and almsgiving. What is Jesus asking us to do? The recipe for renewal and a good Easter is no secret: tend those sacred fires!

classical students praise and worship by campfire.jpg

Pax Christi,
Deacon Roberts

Are we the right school for you? We’d love to meet you!

You can email headmaster, Mr. Adam Dickerson, or our board president, Deacon Christopher Roberts, anytime. They are eager to hear from you!

Lent and The Benedict Option

Pictured above: at home in Deacon Roberts' kitchen, with visitor Milan Žonca, a Catholic professor from Prague who translated  Rod Dreher's Benedict Option  into Czech.

Pictured above: at home in Deacon Roberts' kitchen, with visitor Milan Žonca, a Catholic professor from Prague who translated Rod Dreher's Benedict Option into Czech.

What's the story behind this picture? Here's our latest news:

Last night Martin Saints teachers and board members met Milan to hear about the slightly older generation who grew up Catholic under communism, as well as Milan's own stories about raising his children today in one of the most aggressively secular countries in Europe. We asked our visitor: why are you interested in the Benedict Option? What analogies do you see between communism, secularism, and life in America today?
To answer all those questions took an entire evening. Check out the links above to Rod's blog, which will help explain what we discussed. But here’s one quick take-away that applies to us here and now in Philadelphia:
Daily life under communism meant a thousand small temptations to keep your head down, to avoid attention, and to deny one’s faith in small ways. Milan told us about the Benda family, Catholic dissidents who had an apartment down the street from the Czech secret police headquarters. Every day after school, the Benda parents would have to deprogram their children from the communist culture. They would read the classics to their children for hours each evening – Lord of the Rings was another favorite – reminding their children that there was another world beyond their daily lives, a world deeper and ultimately more real than their immediate communist context.
These days in America, we don’t worry about the secret police showing up in the night to take us away. But we too face small daily temptations to trim the sails of our faith, to fit in, to let the background secular culture dull our sensitivity to spiritual reality. We too need to read the classics and de-program, to remind ourselves that there is another world, deeper and more real than our immediate cultural context.
Which brings us to Lent. Lent invites us to ask: how do we need to de-program from our own secular culture? What habits have we slowly picked up that are anesthetizing us to spiritual reality? What do we need to give up – what habits do we need to break – or what good habits do we need to cultivate – so that we can be alert and alive to what is really real and important? For example, following the Benda family, what spiritual reading should we be doing in the evening to keep ourselves and our children focused on our true loyalties?
We gave our students copies of this article with 25 suggestions for things that children and teens can appropriately and fruitfully give up for Lent. We also recommend this article about one family’s approach to technology in the home. 


Rod Dreher featured this post on his blog at American Conservative!

Are we the right school for you? Come learn more at our open house on Monday, March 25, 7pm. All are welcome.

From the Deacon's Desk: Homily from Sunday, February 17th

Deacon Christopher C. Roberts, Holy Martyrs parish

2/17/19, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time - year C

Jeremiah 17:5-8; Ps. 40:5a and 1:1-4, 6; 1 Cor. 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26

The top story of the front page of today’s Inquirer indicates that yesterday, Pope Francis laicized – defrocked - Theodore McCarrick – who was once the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, DC. Mr. McCarrick betrayed our faith, and can no longer function as a priest – he’s not called Father, he can’t wear a collar, and he can’t say Mass, even in private. Any civil lawsuits that he might be facing, he faces on his own.

These steps for Mr. McCarrick are not enough, but they are a start. Justice is coming, one way or another, for the rest of McCarrick’s mafia.

As the Inquirer also says this morning, the number of reporters camped outside the Vatican this week is on the scale of a papal conclave. We may hear a lot about Rome in the next two weeks, because starting Thursday, the pope hosts a conference with 100 bishops from around the world to talk about abuse in the Church.

Personally, my expectations are low. I think renewal in the Church is coming, but it will take more than conferences. I want to tell you today where I think real reform is going to come from. I want to tell you three reasons why I’m proud and grateful to be a Catholic, no matter what happens or doesn’t happens with the bishops.

First, last Monday, we took the Martin Saints students to a lecture downtown. We listened to Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit who is the director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory. Brother Guy regaled us with stories of looking for meteorites in Antarctica, of studying things I don’t understand called “jellyfish galaxies” and “quantum gravity.” It was marvelous. That’s the Vatican on a good day.

I wanted our students to meet him, and absorb the point that our Church has astronomers, that it’s officially part of the Catholic mission to marvel at the stars. I wanted our students to know that the Catholic faith is smart, that religion and science go together, that we should ask questions and let our imaginations soar. Brother Guy said science is a type of worship, giving careful attention to the glorious things our Creator has made. That makes me proud to be Catholic and glad to be alive. This side of Catholicism – the smart side, the full of wonder and praise side – this side of Catholicism is deeper and more real than the McCarrick side.

My second story starts with todays’ gospel, where Jesus says blessed are the poor…and woe to the rich. Blessed are the hungry….and woe to those who are full. Blessed are those who are weeping…and woe to those who are laughing. Blessed are those who are excluded and insulted…and woe to those with the fancy reputations.

All of today’s readings are a gut check, a challenge to our consciences. Nevermind McCarrick and somebody else’s sins – the question in this Gospel is whether we believe, with Jesus, that despite all outward appearances, do we believe that the poor, unpopular, and vulnerable are truly blessed.

Let me share with you one reason I believe that. Two days ago, on Friday, the Martin Saints students took another field trip, this time to a homeless shelter in Kensington. We had Mass in a small dark room just under the El train, a beautiful mixed congregation of students and street people. Then we made dozens, maybe a few hundred, sandwiches. Then we broke into small groups and for a couple hours, each group carried a big cross up a different section of Kensington Avenue. Almost every person we met was visibly poor, addicted, or homeless.

We’d walk up and say to them “hello, how you are you doing today? Would you like a sandwich? What’s your name? How can we pray for you?” Next, we would take their name or prayer request, write it on a small post-it note, and nail those little notes to the cross. Then, after a couple hours, we took the crosses back to the shelter. By that point, our crosses were covered in dozens and dozens of colored post-its, and we said the rosary for all those names and their intentions.

I admit that, earlier in week, when I knew Friday’s trip was coming, I felt a little afraid. But once Friday came and we were actually doing it, the fear melted away. 98% of the people we met on the street were glad to see us, with a gentle word or a heartfelt prayer request.

It was a wonderful day. A priest friend who led our group has done similar prayer walks in suburban malls and center city. He says that the more affluent neighborhoods are reliably more hostile than the people in Kensington. Generally speaking – and of course exceptions exist – but generally speaking, the further you climb on the economic ladder, the more people tend to close up spiritually.

So when the people of Kensington welcomed prayers and friendship, I was thinking about today’s Gospel. Is this what Jesus meant when he said the poor are blessed, that they are the ones who actually have time for him? This is our Catholic faith. There are at least a dozen or so priests, friars, and nuns down there in Kensington every day, representing our Church with the poor and the addicted. They need our support and prayers. Think of these priest and nuns, and how we can encourage our children to follow that path, when we pray for vocations and the future of the Church. To heck with McCarrick. He is not the future.

Let me get to my third and final story about why I’m glad to be Catholic and where renewal is coming from. In today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah says that the one who trusts in human nature is like a barren plant in a desert, or in a lava waste, or in a salted and empty field.

Jeremiah lived during the Babylonian Exile, when Jerusalem lay in ruins, when famine threatened, when violence was strong and the rule of law was weak. Just like our Church today, ancient Israel knew what it was like to be the people of God during lean times.

Jeremiah says that when we trust in the way of the flesh – meaning of course lust and consuming appetites of all kinds, but also that way of life which is bitter, closed-in on itself, refusing to hope or change, sleep-walking through life - Jeremiah is saying this way of spending a life is like planting ourselves in a salted, empty field. Nothing good can grow there. No renewal comes from those roots.

But, says Jeremiah, the one who hopes and trusts in the Lord is like a tree beside the waters, with deep roots into the living stream, unafraid of drought, always green and bearing fruit, even when the heat comes.

Friends, my third and final reason for being glad to be Catholic and hoping in renewal is that Lent is coming in just over two weeks. Lent is a great gift to us, from the Church, to help us assess our spiritual roots. Have we put our trust and grown our roots into bitterness, into a self-centered way of life, into the salted field? Or are we with the Lord, the tree rooted beside the stream?

McCarrick, the bishops, the media, the politicians, Amazon, Netflix, technological devices – none of those things can take away our Lent unless we let them distract us. It’s the Catholic Church that gave us Lent, and for centuries and generations past and to come, how we spend our Lent is up to each of us. We don’t need to ask the bishop’s conference for permission to have a good Lent!

Let’s take the next two weeks to get ready, to think about what we need to prune away, or what acts of generosity we might need to perform, so that we can get unstuck from our sin. The water is Jesus. Practicing prayer and acts of mercy are the way to grow roots. This altar is the river. This is the place where renewal of our lives and of our Church can begin.