All things Scalia (Father Scalia)

Karna Swanson

Father Paul Scalia made national headlines in 2016 when he delivered the homily at his father’s funeral. Instead of eulogizing the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) for his rich legacy and great legal mind, the diocesan priest of Arlington, Virginia, spoke on the person of Jesus Christ, a move Father Scalia describes as simply doing his job as a Catholic priest.

This month, Father Scalia will visit Denver as the last speaker of the 2016/17 Archbishop’s Lecture Series. He will deliver a talked titled “The Word of the Lord Came to Me,” which seeks to consider “the increasing importance of prophetic Catholic witness in the culture today.”

This event is sold out. Watch it LIVE on Denver Catholic’s Facebook page (March 21, 7pm).

Ordained in 1996, Father Scalia has served in various parishes, and is currently the vicar for clergy. He founded the Arlington Diocese chapter of Courage and serves also as Chairman of the Board of Directors for Courage, International.

In this interview with Denver Catholic, Father Scalia offers, among other things, a glimpse into what dinner was like at the Scalia home, where you needed to watch your grammar; how his mother, Maureen Scalia, held the Supreme Court Justice accountable for taking out the trash; the road that led him to the priesthood; as well as the importance of Courage, a ministry that helps those with same-sex attraction live out Church teaching.

Here are some of the best excerpts.

On making national headlines

First, I like to think of it in terms of “the Church made headlines,” because if a priest preaches well it’s because people are interceding for him and because he has the grace of Our Lord through the Church. And I was very conscious of the fact that the Mass is the Church at prayer, and that’s where we are most ourselves, so it’s a tribute to the mystical body of Christ more than to me.

In a lot of ways there was nothing remarkable about the homily. … A funeral homily in the Catholic Church should never be a eulogy, it should always point to Our Lord, and a lot of the things that I touched on, I would have touched on at any funeral homily. Obviously, it had a lot more meaning and significance because I was speaking of my own father, and I could speak from that depth.

When I got home from the funeral I checked my email and a friend of mine sent me an email and he said, “Remember, you were just doing your job.” And that is exactly right.

On his mother

Archbishop Chaput wrote me shortly after my father’s death and he said, in my experience, a great man is not a great man alone, but it’s because he has a family. And my dad could not have been the kind of man he was without my mom. That’s an impossibility, and he knew that. And he would grouse and grumble at times if she held him accountable for certain things, like taking out the trash, but he knew that she was such a great source of support for him.

On family dinner, and grammar

My dad said once to someone in a Q and A, “you gotta be home for dinner.” That’s the key to the family. Dinner is where they are civilized, meaning, where they get civilized. And so, the dinner table was really a great place where we would come together. And there was plenty of grammatical correction there. And mom, and dad, were not shy about correcting us and teaching us. But then also there was conversation on philosophy, theology, and all of these different things we would discuss, and sometimes [we would] just goof off.

On learning integrity

My brother recounts a time when he was asking my dad permission for something, and he used the old line, “well, everyone else is doing it.” And my dad looked at him in puzzlement and asked him, “why would you want to be like everyone else?” In other words, you have to be who you are.

And [they taught] integrity about the faith. My parents made some serious sacrifices to make sure that at the very least we were going to a parish that was theologically sound and liturgically beautiful, or at least reverent. Raising kids in the 60s, 70s and 80s, these were some of the most confused and confusing times in the Church’s history, and in more than one place where we lived, my parents would bring us on a considerable drive to find a church that was doctrinally sound and liturgically reverent. And that sent a message, that certainly sent a message to us that this is something worth making a sacrifice for. And this is who we are.

And that’s what I mean by integrity. There was just this sense of “this is who we are,” and we shouldn’t expect to be like everybody else, nor should we desire to be like everybody else. We should be who we are according to our beliefs.

On the road to the priesthood

The first time it hit me was on the way home from my confirmation, and it was just my dad and I in the car, and I remember we had to stop and run an errand, and I was in the car alone for a couple minutes, and I remember just very clearly thinking, I am going to be a priest. It wasn’t, I want to be a priest, and it wasn’t, God wants me to be a priest, it was simply a matter of, this is what is going to happen.

In college [College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA], my friends and I started a newspaper, an independent newspaper. And … it was a troublemaker. And that was our intention. It was an independent newspaper and we were taking potshots at the administration. And that put me in the position of articulating the faith and trying to convince people of it.

At the same time, I was coming to a greater realization, in getting to know more people on campus, how the problems, the struggles that people have interiorly are always best answered and only fully answered by Catholic doctrine and sacraments.

It was a blend of things, so that by the time I sat down and wrote my essay to apply to the seminary, it all lined up very nicely, all these various influences in my life that had led me to this, to this vocation, in which I am commissioned to articulate the faith that nourishes people, that saves souls, and to administer the sacraments, which alone are the ways that we find peace.

On the final decision

One summer I interned on Capitol Hill at the Heritage Foundation, it was a great summer. And that was the summer that I finally decided to enter the seminary and spoke with a vocations director. And a lot of it came about because I realized over the course of that summer that we could propose a lot of legislation, we could advocate for this that or the other, but if we wanted to change people, to affect people for the better, well, only the priest can go that deep. Only the priest can go into the soul and make the change that needs to be made.

On becoming a diocesan priest

I didn’t ever think of anything but diocesan and parish life, because first, that is what I knew, I had very few encounters with religious priests. The parish priest is what I knew, and the diocese is what I knew, and I knew good, strong, courageous, holy priests, and I said, I want to join that. I want to be a part of that.

In our diocese, we have been blessed with very many vocations. In my class I am one of 13 ordained. So, we have been blessed with many vocations, and the area is growing rapidly. We’ve been blessed with a series of very good bishops, who have just kept clarity and charity as central. So, all those things have just been a great blessing.

On the work of Courage

The apostolate of Courage is articulating in a charitable way what the Church teaches, and not only that, but establishing places, and groups, where people can go and find the Church’s assistance, and find the accompaniment that Pope Francis talks about. It’s such a great word that he uses there [accompaniment], because that is exactly what our Courage chapters do, they accompany people to help them live chastity. … It’s not enough to have a clear teaching, we must have those means of assisting people to live it, and that’s what Courage is all about, it’s giving a clear teaching, but also giving the means to live it.

On giving prophetic witness

What I would like to do in the talk is speak about what it means to be a prophetic witness in light of the prophets, and what do we learn from them, and what do they have to teach us.

The institutional dimension of the Church is simply not going to have as much presence in the world. The days of the Catholic Church building enormous hospitals and schools and universities and orphanages, those are over. We just aren’t doing that anymore. And the temptation is to look back and say gosh, now what do we do, right? But the fact of the matter is, our greatest strength is in being prophetic witnesses, and you don’t need an institution to do that.

The Archbishop’s Lecture Series is a quarterly event, held in the refectory of St. John Vianney Seminary. Sign up for VIP access to the Archbishop’s Lecture Series: www.archden.org/lecture.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.