All posts by Tom Palanza

Thomas Palanza Jr. is a recent graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, with a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is now employed as a technology specialist in BC's Office of Residential Life where he is responsible for maintaining the office's website and social media and serves as proof that a theology degree can, in fact, get you a job just about anywhere. After paying off the debt that all perpetual students are so familiar with, he hopes to continue his studies and earn a Ph.D. in theology. While undergraduate studies in theology at the Catholic University of America, serving as a missionary with the Capuchins of Northwest Mexico, and working at Catholic Social Services in Fall River all furthered and deepened and broadened his relationship with God, it is from his family that Thomas received the solid foundation that his faith life has been built on; especially from his cradle-catholic become deacon father and his protestant convert become third order Carmelite mother.

500 Years of No Shoes

Yesterday was a BIG DEAL in the Palanza household.  Mama Palanza, OCDS of over 25 years, suspended the painfully low carb diet that my ever pudgy, Italian family agreed to follow.  It only took a couple of deliciously glutenous, thin crust pizzas from Bertucci’s to make our celebration feel like one of the most important, joyful days we’ve ever had.  Yesterday, an important member of our family had a birthday – a milestone birthday that most families never get to celebrate – a Quincentenary birthday!

Yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Jesus (of Avila).  That’s not actually a member of our family, you might say.  Well, I suppose that’s technically true.  Yet, thanks to my mother’s charism, Teresa really is the source of the way my siblings and I pray, she’s the one who gave us our spiritual goals, she taught us how important humility is, and she challenges us to become closer and closer to Christ – despite and especially when we think we are close enough.  How many “members” of our family have that kind of influence on us?  And if that isn’t proof enough that she’s part of the family, then just do a count of who has the most pictures up in the house!

You can find all kinds of information on Teresa from a simple Google search so I’ll just highlight two things here.  First, Teresa was named the first female Doctor of the Church by Paul 6th in 1970 (yeah, it took that long).  When you start reading Teresa, be sure you do so with that fact in mind.  You are about to read something written by a DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH (something of the same level as Augustine or Thomas Aquinas).  You are not about to read a short devotional book of comforting advice and pretty poetry written by a sweet, old nun.  You will be incredibly disappointed, frustrated, and perplexed if you expect to pick up the Interior Castle and get it the first time!  Second, Teresa is well know for her reform movement in the Carmelite order.  She had no intention of starting a separate group, she just wanted to live closer to what the original Carmelite rule laid out: live simply, pray a lot.  Not everyone was okay with Teresa’s reform, so separate groups eventually formed.  O. Carm. is the shorthand of the original group (Order of Carmelites), O.C.D. is the shorthand for the group that Teresa spearheaded (Order of Carmelites Discalced, “discalced” means “shoeless”).  O.C.D.S. is the shorthand for Mama Palanza’s group, which is the secular part of Teresa’s group (Order of Carmelites, Discalced, Secular – lay people with families who live out Teresa’s lifestyle as their situation in life allows).

To finish, here’s a passage from the Office of Readings for Teresa’s Memorial.  FELIZ CUMPLEANOS TERESA!

If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that if we expect to please him and receive an abundance of his graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through his most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight.

Many, many times I have perceived this through experience. The Lord has told it to me. I have definitely seen that we must enter by this gate if we wish his Sovereign Majesty to reveal to us great and hidden mysteries. A person should desire no other path, even if he is at the summit of contemplation; on this road he walks safely. All blessings come to us through our Lord. He will teach us, for in beholding his life we find that he is the best example.

What more do we desire from such a good friend at our side? Unlike our friends in the world, he will never abandon us when we are troubled or distressed. Blessed is the one who truly loves him and always keeps him near. Let us consider the glorious Saint Paul: it seems that no other name fell from his lips than that of Jesus, because the name of Jesus was fixed and embedded in his heart. Once I had come to understand this truth, I carefully considered the lives of some of the saints, the great contemplatives, and found that they took no other path: Francis, Anthony of Padua, Bernard, Catherine of Siena. A person must walk along this path in freedom, placing himself in God’s hands. If God should desire to raise us to the position of one who is an intimate and shares his secrets, we ought to accept this gladly.

Whenever we think of Christ we should recall the love that led him to bestow on us so many graces and favours, and also the great love God showed in giving us in Christ a pledge of his love; for love calls for love in return. Let us strive to keep this always before our eyes and to rouse ourselves to love him. For if at some time the Lord should grant us the grace of impressing his love on our hearts, all will become easy for us and we shall accomplish great things quickly and without effort.

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Yves Congar and Why You Should Still Pray to Your Guardian Angel

By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

Did you catch that Tuesday was the feast of the Archangels, saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael?  Or that today is the memorial of Guardian Angels?  I only noticed because I signed up for the USCCB to email me the daily readings (scroll to the bottom of the daily readings page to sign yourself up if you are interested).  Honestly, I would not normally have thought much of either celebration.  Angels really don’t do it for me.  I’m not devotional in general, never mind devotion to angels.  I don’t often ask for this saint or that to intercede on my behalf.  In fact, most of the time I’m not even directing my prayers to Christ!  Why bother when you can pray straight to the Father, right?  Sacred hearts, relics, mercies, indulgences, rosaries, benedictions, adorations, patrons, vicars – none of those are very high on my list of “Why I’m Catholic” and I don’t devote a lot of time to thinking about them.  I haven’t even considered praying to or for my guardian angel in years.  Why would I?  I’m not a child anymore – I’ve got a master’s degree in theology, for crying out loud!  I’ve got more profound and more practical things to think about than guardian angels.

That is, at least, how I would have looked at yesterday’s feast had I not been in the middle of reading, Yves Congar, Essential Writings, edited by Paul Lakeland.  Just a couple days before yesterday’s feast, I finished reading the section where Congar talks about devotion to the angels.  It put the devotion into a new perspective, one that has given it a new importance for me.  To start, Congar perfectly describes the reasons why I don’t pay attention to angels: 1 – my spirituality is not fueled by the Scripture, and 2 – my spirituality is individualistic and moralistic, in other words, I am concerned about my behavior and my effort of achieving my salvation.  Together, these two trends make my spirituality artificial and narrow.  I can only accept that which is within my own ability to make sense of. Continue reading Yves Congar and Why You Should Still Pray to Your Guardian Angel

This Week in Liturgy: Sorrow and Joy

By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

The past few days of liturgy have been pretty serious, solemn, and sorrowful.  Normal Mondays are difficult enough to get through, but this past Monday was also burdened with the extra weight of contemplating the cross.  “No rest for the weary” perfectly describes the choice of celebrating our Lady of Sorrows immediately after the Exaltation of the Cross.  And to round it all off?  How about some death?  Two days ago we celebrated the martyrdoms of Saints Cornelius and Cyprian.  That’s a lot of sad stuff to think about for three days straight, even for a serious person like myself!

The Church, however, does not exist to burden us; so if I’ve found the last few days burdens, rather than celebrations, then I’m probably doing something wrong.  In such a situation, I turned to someone who had been there and done that before me – a growing personal favorite of mine: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (aka, Edith Stein).  For those unfamiliar with her, Teresa was born in Germany, 1891, in a Jewish family, lost interest in religion and faith for most of her young adult life as she studied philosophy, then had a conversion, became Catholic, joined the Carmelites, and was killed (martyred) in 1942.  She had plenty of experience of sorrow: not only did many of her close friends die in WWI, but she volunteered as a nurse during the war and watched many of her patients suffer and die; and though well qualified, she was not given a teaching position at a university in Germany, mainly because she was a woman; and in 1942 she was taken to Auschwitz due to her Jewish heritage where she was gassed a few days after arriving.

Continue reading This Week in Liturgy: Sorrow and Joy

God is Always Greater – Not Your Average Cliché

By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

There is a cliché in the theology world, “God is always Greater,” which – despite being a cliché – succinctly describes a fundamental belief of the Christian faith.  St. Anselm’s said it a little differently, God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought;” a definition which is as famous for its delicate beauty as it is infamous for its logical vulnerability.  This simple description is actually rather remarkable; it requires us to hold that God plus all of creation, all of the contents of all of the cosmos, past, present, and future the we do and do not know about, that exist in our dimension of reality or not, all of this is still not greater than God alone.  God loses nothing at all if all those things that are not God do not exist; which makes the god of the children of Abraham rather unique among the deities/forces that humans believe in.

This idea the foundation of apophatic or negative theology; you cannot say God is something because God so transcends that thing you use to describe God.  Thus, you can say God is greater than whatever you want to say He is greater than and be right.  Obvious things come to mind: death, sin, evil, suffering.  Then there are less obvious things: definitions, images, desires, hopes.  Then there are things you might not think of: Goodness, Being, Power, Love.  God is greater than all of these; yes, even love.  Does that surprise you?  

It surprised me when I read it in Alphonsus Liguori’s feast day Office of Readings.  While describing the love God has for us, Alphonsus says, “By giving us his Son, whom he did not spare precisely so that he might spare us, he bestowed on us at once every good: grace, love, and heaven; for all these goods are certainly inferior to the Son.”  Alphonsus is utilizing an apophatic method here – if God is always greater, then everything else is always less.  Isaiah says it in another way, “who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor? (Isaiah 40:13).”  That’s biblical sarcasm for you.  But the point is the same each time; you cannot tell God who God is because God is greater than you are.

Continue reading God is Always Greater – Not Your Average Cliché

Gregory the Great: Living a New Life in Christ

By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

“‘Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.’  When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing…  When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man…’  Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’  When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:1-11).

What makes this Gospel passage a fitting choice for today, the feast of Gregory the Great, is not so much the connection between the apostles and bishops, but the universal Christian experience of starting a new life in Christ.  It has been a theme lately in the daily and Sunday readings.  It is a prominent theme in Gregory’s life.  Asked to be pope despite wanting to live a quiet, monastic life, Gregory trusted that Christ would support him in his new role – one he often felt unable to perform well, “So who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?  Truly the all-powerful Creator and Redeemer of mankind can give me in spite of my weaknesses a higher life and effective speech; because I love him, I do not spare myself in speaking of him” (Office of Readings, Sept. 3).

While not all of us are called to be pope, we are all still called to a new life in Christ, to be “a kind of firstfruits of creation” (James 1:17-18).  This new life is beyond our ability to live alone, just as it was beyond the ability of the apostles to catch fish and beyond Gregory to be pope.  Taking on this new life is frightening.  To catch fish, the apostles must go out into the deep water; to be pope, Gregory had to leave his monastic life that he lived so well; to be Christians, we too must leave behind our own shallow waters and familiar surroundings.  We know we are living Christianity well when we are uncomfortable (see the Beatitudes).

Yet, even in the unknown, there is the familiar.  This is because a new life with Christ is not absolutely unlike our old life.  True enough, leaving behind our old life is difficult and painful – a necessary transformation that is well documented in the recent Old Testament readings – but the conversion is not without carryover.  Thus, the apostles are called to be fishermen still, yet now fishers of people.  Jesus does not just ask us to live a new life completely unknown to us, but, even more extraordinary, shows us that the life we think we know so well is actually far deeper and more mysterious than we imagine.  Our challenge as Christians is not to be other worldly people, living a life that is disconnected from the life of others, but a people that can see the otherness in the world, a people that is aware of the presence of abiding, living, breathing grace.  That was the struggle Gregory had, to see Christ in the world.  It is not an easy task.  It requires us, just as the apostles and Gregory, to be overwhelmed by Christ, to be completely out of our league, to be totally dependent on someone else for our success, to love as Christ loves.  Oh what a love that must be, to be overwhelmed even by death and yet have a love deep enough to win out over it!

Smooth Transitions: Teresa of Avila’s Focus on Prayer

Teresa of Avila

By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

Have you ever heard about people who give birth to babies in bathtubs – on purpose?  What’s up with that?  The American Pregnancy Association describes water births as occurring in large tubs of warm water, carefully supervised by qualified healthcare providers.  “The theory behind water birth is that since the baby has already been in the amniotic fluid sac for nine months, birthing into a similar environment is gentler for the baby and less stressful for the mother.”  Well, that seems like a fair thought to me.  But I’ll leave it to my doctor friends to argue about the benefits and risks of water births; it was the idea of making the transition from one stage of life to another smoother, easier, more familiar that interested me.  For a theology student (or maybe just for me) the transition INTO the world almost always makes you think of the transition OUT of it as well.  Smooth births got me thinking about smooth deaths.

This is what I was thinking about during class the other day.  We were talking about The Way of Perfection by Teresa of Avila when, towards the end of class, our professor asked us, “So, why talk about prayer so much at all?  Why does it matter?  What is this discussion of prayer doing for the reader besides just learning how to pray?  What does learning how to pray serve?”  My answer (and that’s just the opinion of a casual Teresa reader) is that learning how to pray helps with the transition from one stage of life to another, from life through death to eternal life. Continue reading Smooth Transitions: Teresa of Avila’s Focus on Prayer

Hearers of the Word

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By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

You know what I don’t do that often?  I don’t often think about what it means to say that I have faith.  Maybe that’s because I’ve got it and I’m busy trying to live being guided by it.  So what’s it matter – if I’m already using and profiting from it – to think about what it means to have faith?

Well, if you don’t know what it means to be something then you are never going to be able to use that thing to its full potential.  Imagine if all you knew about a smartphone was that it is a phone.  Imagine if all you knew about clothes is that you wear them.  Imagine if all you knew about painting is that you put it on a brush and smear it on paper.  Imagine if all you knew about faith is that it means you believe in the existence of an eternal, infinite, super existence.

That’s often enough all I think faith is.  Luckily I am reminded every now and then that there is more to it than just that.  Most recently, I was struck by this description from Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book, Prayer: “The person who has faith and describes themselves as a believer is actually saying that they have the ability to hear God’s word.”  Now that is a description of faith worth writing a blog post about!

Continue reading Hearers of the Word

O Antiphons: O Dawn! O Oriens!

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By Tom Palanza, Jr.

The recent release of the third “Hobbit” movie put me into a Tolkien mood and the recent close of the academic year gives me more time to think about my love of Tolkien again.  So, of course, I could not help but use a favorite scene of mine from the Two Towers in my reflection on the antiphon of the day.  Towards the end of the battle of Helm’s Deep, after a long, cold, rainy night of fighting for their lives, defending themselves and their families from a massive, swarming army of human sized goblins (Uruk-hai) hell-bent on slaughtering them all, Aragorn, the long awaited king of men, pauses from the battle.

At last, Aragorn stood above the great gates, heedless of the darts of the enemy.  As he looked forth he saw the eastern sky grow pale.  Then he raised his empty hand, palm outward in token of parley.

“What are you doing here?” they answered.  “Why do you look out?  Do you wish to see the greatness of our army?  We are the fighting Uruk-hai.”

“I looked out to see the dawn,” said Aragorn.

“What of the dawn?” they peered.  “We are the Uruk-hai: we do not stop the fight for night or day, for fair weather or for storm.  We come to kill, by sun or moon.  What of the dawn?”

“None knows what the new day shall bring him,” said Aragorn.  “Get you gone, ere it turn to your evil.”

Continue reading O Antiphons: O Dawn! O Oriens!

God is Love – Which Means?

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By Tom Palanza, Jr.

It’s such a familiar phrase, isn’t it: “God is love.”  I hardly ever seriously think about what it means anymore.  “It means God is love,” I say to myself, as if – a priori – I know what “God” means and I know what ”love” means, so I must also know what “God is love” means.  I use the phrase in “light” conversation with people and in my “heavy” school work.  It is one of those fundamental ideas you use all the time to develop more ideas.  It’s good that the phrase is a familiar one – you wouldn’t want people not to know God is love – but it’s also important to realize that the phrase is not self-explanatory since we cannot fully define either of it’s terms!  This phrase requires contemplation.

You might say that we know what love is.  There are the classic Greek words for love, the dictionary definition of love, and your own experiences of love that have shaped the meaning of the word for you.  But, if we take the passage of 1 John 4:7-21 seriously, then it seems to me that love becomes something very difficult to define.  In fact, it becomes tied up in the very being of God – which is not exactly something you could define during over espresso and biscotti (although I can’t think of a better way to attempt it)!

Continue reading God is Love – Which Means?

“The Old that is Strong does not Wither…” Wisdom from Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch

By Tom Palanza, Jr.

Perhaps I seemed critical of the “Francis Movement” in my recent post?  I was, in fact, trying to look at it through a critical lens, but I do think that Francis is doing things well.  It also seems to me that, far from doing new things, he is actually doing Christianity like the early Church did it.  While praying the Office of Readings a few Fridays ago, I was surprised at how closely the pope’s agenda reflected the advice that Ignatius of Antioch gave to Polycarp back at the turn of the first to second century.  I’ve included Ignatius’ letter as it appears in the Office below.  While reading it, look for similarities between Ignatius and Francis and also look at how Ignatius blends spiritual and temporal needs, concerns, methods, and goals.  Does the combination seem odd to you?  How would you present Ignatius’ advice to people today?  Is that what Francis is doing?

            Ignatius, also called Theophorus, to Polycarp, who is bishop of the Chruch of Smyrna, or rather who has for his bishop God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, greetings and all good wishes.

Recognizing your devotion to God, firmly built as if upon a solid rock, I am full of thanksgiving to Him for allowing me to see your blessed countenance – may I forever enjoy the sight of it in God!  I beseech you by the grace with which you are endowed to press forward on your course and to exhort all people to salvation.  Justify your episcopal dignity by your unceasing concern for the spiritual and temporal welfare of your flock; let unity, the greatest of all goods, be your preoccupation.  Carry the burdens of all people as the Lord carries yours; have patience with all in charity, as indeed you do.  Give yourself to prayer continually; ask for wisdom greater than you now have, keep alert with an unflagging spirit.  Speak to each person individually, following God’s example; bear the infirmities of all, like a perfect athlete of God.  The greater the toil, the richer the reward.

If you love only your good disciples, you gain no merit; rather you must win over the more troublesome of them by kindness.  The same salve does not heal all wounds; convulsions should be allayed with poultices.  Be prudent as the serpent in all things and innocent as the dove always.  You are both body and soul; treat gently the manifestations of human fault, even as you pray for the knowledge of things invisible, and then you will lack nothing but abound in every blessing.  Do as the circumstances require, like the pilot looking to the wind and the storm-tossed sailor to the harbor, that you may win your way to God with your people.  Exercise self-discipline, for you are God’s athlete; the prize is immortality and eternal life, as you know full well.  In everything I am your devoted friend – I and my chains, which you have kissed.

Do not be overwhelmed by those who seem trustworthy and yet teach heresy.  Remain firm, like tha anvil under the hammer.  The good athlete must take punishment in order to win.  And above all we must bear with everything for God, so that he in turn may bear with us.  Increase your zeal.  Read the signs of the times.  Look for him who is outside time, the eternal one, the unseen, who became visible for us; he cannot be touched and cannot suffer, yet he became subject to suffering and endured so much for our sake.

Do not neglect widows; after the Lord, it is you who must be their guardian.  Nothing must be done without your approval, and you must do nothing without God’s approval, as indeed is the case; stand firm.  Services should be held often; seek out everyone by name.  Do not look down upon slaves, whether men or women; yet they too should not be arrogant, but should give better service for the glory of God so as to gain from him a better freedom.  They should not be anxious for their freedom to be bought at the community’s expense, for they might then prove to be the slaves of their own desires.