Wednesday, March 30, 2011

St. Catherine of Genoa's Vision of Purgatory: The Last Great Infusion of Light and Heat II

"I see, too, certain rays and shafts of light which go out from that divine love towards the soul and are penetrating and strong enough to seem as though they must destroy not only the body but the soul too, were that possible."

-St. Catherine of Genoa

Now to St. Catherine of Genoa’s vision of purgatory, generally considered: As stated in the previous blog, St. Catherine depicts purgatory not so much as a place but rather as a process through which the effects of sin- referred to as the “rust of sin” –are purged away. Although the idea of divine punishment is not to be disregarded in her account, what comes to the fore, nevertheless, is the application of God’s burning love for the soul. This is to be the context in which purgatory is considered. The idea of a torture chamber, portrayed in so many books, is not the main context.

It is the infusion of this fiery love of God into the soul- so attractive, yet, at the same time, so painfully felt -which burns away the real substantive effects selfishness and other vices leave upon the soul. Scripture refers to these effects as blemishes, spots and defilements. As we garnered from the New Testament already, we are called to be found without these effects when the Lord calls us to heaven. This implies one important truth: it is possible that we, as Christians, can be found with imperfections. Even more importantly, by being baptized into Christ we can purify these imperfections through faith, love and sacrifice. “By kindness and piety guilt is expiated, and by fear of the Lord man avoids evil.” (Proverbs 16:6) “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sin.” (I Peter 4:8) And to add yet one more passage from the same epistle: “…whoever suffers in flesh has broken from sin.” (4:1) This is why St. Therese the Little Flower could say that when she dies there would be nothing left for her to burn. Her life of love and sacrifice for the Lord would be the holocaust that would make purgatory unnecessary.

But for those souls for which purgatory is a necessity upon death, it is curiously not something that is resisted in a way a child resists punishment from his parents; but it is rather something that is desired. As St. Catherine says, “The souls who are in Purgatory cannot, as I understand, choose but be there, and this is by God's ordinance who therein has done justly.” In fact, the soul sees this purification as an act of God’s burning charity and would rather suffer this a thousand times rather than go straight to heaven. Again, she says, “Never can the souls say these pains are pains, so contented are they with God's ordaining with which, in pure charity, their will is united.”

Upon death, the soul sees itself as it really is and it sees it in contrast to what it was created to be. And it is the latter, that is, what the soul was created to be, which St. Catherine of Genoa refers to this as the “beatific instinct.” This beatific instinct is the capacity or desire each person was created with to love God; and with each person this beatific instinct varies. For instance, even if I were to be perfect in what God created me to be, my beatific instinct or capacity to love God would never equal that of the Blessed Virgin’s. As stars in the night sky have a different capacity to shine, souls are created with a different capacity to love God in heaven. In any case, the soul in purgatory sees- as if in an instant –his sins and how far away he had fallen from what he was created to be.

It needs to be said, however, that purgatory is not a state of lamenting sins. According to St. Catherine, focusing on past sins would be a form of imperfection. As such, “They cannot turn their thoughts back to themselves, nor can they say, ‘Such sins I have committed for which I deserve to be here’, nor, ‘I would that I had not committed them for then I would go now to Paradise’, nor, ‘That one will leave sooner than I’, nor, ‘I will leave sooner than he’.” Therefore, after having seen its sins and imperfections upon death, the soul no more considers them. From here on out, the object of the soul’s vision and orientation is the beauty and glory of God.

Similar to the first instant of its creation, the soul’s contact with God in purgatory is profound and an occasion of supreme happiness. But because it cannot possess what it tastes or what it partially beholds, it suffers exceedingly. As St. Catherine reminds us, “Again the soul perceives the grievousness of being held back from seeing the divine light; the soul's instinct too, being drawn by that uniting look, craves to be unhindered.” Yet, these two realities- supreme happiness and intense suffering –exists side by side with each other. “So that the souls in Purgatory enjoy the greatest happiness and endure the greatest pain; the one does not hinder the other.”

As the soul travels to heaven- as if by the speed of light –God’s consuming fire of love is infused into it. As the shades of sin recede, the soul begins to shine brighter, resembling- little by little -the splendor of God. The book of Wisdom provides the following illustration of these justified souls: “As gold in a furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings, he took them to himself. In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble.” (3:6-7) St. Catherine continues this thought by saying that day by day happiness increases in the soul as God flows into them. More and more, the rust of sin- the very thing which hinders them from fully possessing God –is burned away by divine love. As such, the soul is better able to open itself up to the divine inflowing.

She then gives the following analogy: When gold has been purified up to twenty-four carats, it can no longer be consumed by any fire; not gold itself but only dross can be burnt away. Thus the divine fire works in the soul: God holds the soul in the fire until its every imperfection is burnt away and it is brought to perfection, as it were to the purity of twenty-four carats, each soul however according to its own degree. When the soul has been purified it stays wholly in God, having nothing of self in it; its being is in God who has led this cleansed soul to Himself; it can suffer no more for nothing is left in it to be burnt away; were it held in the fire when it has thus been cleansed, it would feel no pain.

Such is the work of God in purgatory where the imperfections of human love is burned away. However, we are all called to be Saints; to be followers of Christ without these imperfections. Heaven, like purgatory, is a choice. Every soul is created with a certain capacity to love God which, as we said, is referred to as the beatific instinct. To the extent we fill that capacity with love and desire for God, we become Saints. But love and desire for God is tested through and measured by sacrifice and suffering. As with our created capacity to love, God has preordained, for every person, an exact measure of trials and suffering. To the extent we accept with love the trying and difficult circumstances of life- and endure them for his sake –to that extent, our life becomes a holocaust before God. Burning up our personal imperfections, we become like God. And with St. Theresa the Little Flower, we can say that there is nothing left to burn at the hour of our death.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

St. Catherine of Genoa's Vision of Purgatory: The Last Great Infusion of Light and Heat

“I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed. Sin's rust is the hindrance, and the fire burns the rust away so that more and more the soul opens itself up to the divine inflowing.”

-St. Catherine

The best description and explanation of purgatory is from St. Catherine of Genoa. At least that is my opinion. There have been some Catholic books that have depicted purgatory to be a torture chamber. There is pain there, no doubt. But this partial truth casts a dim light on the subject. The vision of St. Catherine of Genoa on purgatory takes place within the context of God’s fiery love and purity. The soul who is bound for heaven experiences an intense happiness similar to that of paradise. She also undergoes an unprecedented degree of suffering. These two opposite extremes do not mitigate each other. Rather, the integrity of extreme happiness and extreme suffering is fully intact until the imperfections of the soul are purged away.

Before I get into the details of St. Catherine’s vision, allow me to sketch the parameters by calling your attention to something Pope Benedict XVI said when he was a Cardinal. He had given an address on the “Memory of Conscience” which was based on the writings of Blessed John Henry Newman. He proffered the idea or theory that when God creates each soul there is some sort of contact between God and the soul; a contact that the soul remembers. This memory is not composed of an image of course; it is more like an impression that the Lord imparts. This impression is especially fresh and delicate in the childhood years. But as life unfolds the choices a person makes is either consistent with or a departure from this divine impression within the soul.

With particular acts, one’s conscience confers peace on the soul when an action is good; and when an action is evil, it imposes guilt. With a guilty conscience, the soul’s memory is essentially saying: “This is not what you were created for; nor is it consistent with the memory you have of God.” And through a peaceful conscience we are reminded that the good deeds we do are a fulfillment of that impression God made at the very beginning.

Now we come to St. Catherine’s vision of purgatory which begins as such: “This holy Soul found herself, while still in the flesh, placed by the fiery love of God in Purgatory, which burnt her, cleansing whatever in her needed cleansing, to the end that when she passed from this life she might be presented to the sight of God, her dear Love. By means of this loving fire, she understood in her soul the state of the souls of the faithful who are placed in Purgatory to purge them of all the rust and stains of sin of which they have not rid themselves in this life.”

The “rust of sin” which the Saint from Genoa refers to is no man-made doctrine; it comes straight from Scripture. In the New Testament especially, the sacred authors admonish their readers to be found without “spot,” “blemish,” “stain” or “wrinkle.” Here are just a few texts:

“…be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him [God].” (II Peter 3:14)

“…keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Timothy 6:14)

“…discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” (Philippians 1:10)

“…let us cleanse ourselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit, making holiness perfect in fear of God.” (II Corinthians 7: 1)

“...To the one who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you unblemished and exultant, in the presence of his glory…” (Jude 24)

These admonitions to be without blemish, stain, defilement and blame when the Lord comes for us presupposes that we can be found with blemish, stain, defilement, and blame. These imperfections are nothing less than the rust of sin (not its guilt but its effect) which holds us back from enjoying the Beatific Vision of God when we die.

To use another analogy, St. Paul likens the imperfection of the soul to a house built with hay, straw or wood in addition to good material such as gold and silver. The house- a symbol of our life –must withstand the pure and holy fire of God if we are to live in his presence. As is well known, however, straw and wood, which represents those unholy qualities of the soul, will not withstand fire. But in God’s mercy such unworthy building material will be purged away with nothing but gold and silver remaining. The burning of this flammable material will be at a cost; as such, the soul will suffer. As St. Paul said, “But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.”

Now that we sketched out some parameters, we can give our full attention to St. Catherine of Genoa’s vision of purgatory, let’s see what she has to say…in the next blog.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Samaritan Woman: A Restless Soul in Search for Rest

Living the sensual life, or as some say- “living in the fast lane,” is, no doubt, exciting. I had a taste of it myself in college. Thankfully for me it was a temporary phase. But for a lot of people, the lifestyle of partying and sleeping around begins in college but never ends. Perhaps, this is why there are so many restless souls; never quite content with the spouse they married, the partner they are with or the job they have. Having been disillusioned so many times with the choices they made, they are continually led to believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Like a bird in flight without a nest these souls live for the next exciting night or a pleasurable moment. But in the interim, that is, between episodes of fun and frolicking, life becomes monotonous and wearisome. Indeed, living the wildlife, even if it is only on Friday and Saturday nights, does not lend itself to a happy and well-ordered life during the week. This brings us to the Samaritan woman at the well.

For context, here is some background to the Woman at the Well story: In the first century, Palestine was divided up into the northern region of Galilee, where Nazareth was located, and the southern region of Judea, where the city of Jerusalem was situated. However, in between the northern and southern region of Palestine was Samaria. Approximately one thousand years before Christ, the Assyrians conquered ten out of the twelve tribes of Israel. These ten northern tribes (also known as the 10 lost tribes) became intermingled with the Assyrians later to be known as the Samaritans: half Jewish and half Syrian. Now, these Samaritans worshipped Yahweh, the true God, but they also worshipped other gods as well. With that, they fell into the errors and superstitions of paganism. The Jews and the Samaritans, as can be garnered from the Gospel of John chapter 4, were rivals. Needless to say, they didn’t like each other very much. For that reason they stayed cleared from one another. During their travels from Judea and Galilee, the Jews would go around Samaria but the Lord refused to play that game.

One day, passing through Samaria, Jesus sat down at Jacob’s well where he would eventually introduce himself to the Samaritan woman. As Bishop Fulton Sheen would say in his television program, Life is Worth Living, one would think that our Lord and this sinful woman had little in common. But they did share two loves: A love for water and a love for their common father, Jacob the Patriarch. As the story goes, a woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." After an incredulous and somewhat condescending response from the Samaritan, the Lord appealed to her thirst for water only to lead her to a more important topic: the salvation of her soul. Jesus claimed to have another kind of water to offer- heavenly water which quenches the thirst of the human spirit. He said, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

Before he could offer this water to her (the water he referred to was undoubtedly an allusion to the Holy Spirit), he had to provoke a confession out of her. To be sure, before the remedy could be applied and take effect, her sin had to be laid bare. After the Samaritan woman asked for the above mentioned water, Jesus instructed her to first go and bring back her husband. Of course, she didn’t have a husband; the man she was with at the time was only a "lover." In fact, our Lord knew that she had five husbands in the past.

Like many today, the Samaritan woman had gone from one lover to another; sacrificing a lifetime of peace and joy for periodic moments of pleasure. Of course, one thing that gets in the way of such a lifestyle is children. Since abortion and infanticide were common in ancient times, it is not unreasonable to think that she might have resorted to such measures. In any case, our Lord came to relieve this soul from "looking for love in all wrong places." Indeed, the Samaritan woman had grown weary and confused. Having been the object of men’s lust and used for all of the wrong reasons, the burden of her sins kept her from knowing the truth about God, morality and her own dignity. In her spiritual darkness, she simply gravitated towards men who would manipulate her. St. Paul would later give an apt description of this kind of servility:

“But understand this: there will be terrifying times in the last days. People will be self-centered…irreligious…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power. Reject them. For some of these slip into homes and make captives of women weighed down by sins, led by various desires, always trying to learn but never able to reach a knowledge of the truth.” (II Timothy 3:1-7)

Can it not be said that the Samaritan woman was “weighed down by sins, led by various desires, always trying to learn but never able to reach a knowledge of the truth?” Religious confusion begets sexual turmoil and a life of restlessness. After she discussed the religious differences between the Jews and the Samaritans and where they worshipped, Jesus responded by getting straight to the point: “You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews.” But worshipping what the Jews understood would cease to be confined to a place or a race. Our Lord then said, “True worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

This theological truth is the answer to her plight; her plight of restless wandering from lover to lover. The Messiah, in just a few short years, would transform her body from an object of men's lust to the temple of the Holy Spirit. Illumined with his grace, she would come to know her own dignity as a woman of God and also learn what real sacrificial love is; the kind that last forever. Indeed, before she could discover the truth of romantic love, she had to first encounter divine love.

As the Samaritan woman walked away from the well, and in reminiscing of her encounter with Christ in the years to come, I cannot help but think she experienced similar sentiments to that of St. Augustine. Upon his conversion, he prayed the following: "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you...You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you...You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more."

Jesus came to Jacob’s well in Samaria in order to give a woman rest. What he did for her he also does for men and women in our day. Following in the foot steps of our Lord, we cannot apply the remedy without turning from the sin. Only by turning from sin and turning towards the face of Christ can the soul be free.


Postscript: One of the few laymen given the title, "Father of the Church" was St. Justin Martyr, a Christian philosopher and native of Samaria. Martyred in 165 A.D. in Rome and likely born before the turn of the century, St. Justin, no doubt, benefited from the faith and the evangelization of the Samaritan woman. It was from Samaria that the title "Savior of the World" was given to Jesus. And it was in this region that St. Justin- a restless wanderer in search for truth -was inspired by the witness of those Christians who greeted their execution (meted out by the Roman government) with courage and a smile. He would later say that this is why he became a Christian.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Accused and the Fallen: The wounds of the Church and what we can learn from them II

Please scroll down for the first of two posts on The Accused and the Fallen: The wounds of the Church and what we can learn from them.

A friend of St. Padre Pio was distressed over a woman who- once having a strong devotion to Christ -could have tragically backslid in her Christian life. He asked how this could possibly happen. St. Pio wrote back with an explanation. Here is an excerpt of it:

"The Enemy, who is always alert, seeing such affection, convinced her that such great confidence and certainty could never decline...Furthermore, he put into heart a clear vision of the heavenly prize, so that it seemed impossible for her to renounce so great a felicity for things so base and vile as earthly pleasures. The devil used this immoderate confidence to make her lose that holy distrust in herself, a diffidence that must never leave the soul, no matter how privileged it is by God." (C. Bernard Ruffin, Padre Pio: The True Story)

The Accused and the Fallen continued-

It seems a lot of these scandals arise from occasions when a priest counsels a distressed woman. Given enough times, spending time alone with each other would naturally lead to feelings of attachment on both sides. Priests, I am afraid, are not trained with the spiritual discipline the Saints of old would exercise towards the opposite sex. In fact, there are some proponents of the Theology of the Body who have implied, if not said directly, that averting one’s eyes from a beautiful woman or using repressive measures towards sexual attraction is prudish; and that prudishness is a sin.

I’ll never forget a priest who- in the TOB tradition –presided over a retreat for men. The theme, a rather provocative one, was the female anatomy. That’s right. Men were to experience God by focusing on the female body for one or two days. There is a case to made- and JPII made it very well –that the human body is sacred; and as such, it reveals something about God. Equally true, however, is that the concupiscence of our flesh (the tendency towards sexual sin) is an urge to be reckoned with. Unlike Adam and Eve before Original Sin, our sanctification can tame but never extinguish this urge. We do not live in the Garden of Eden. Hence, in an effort to affirm the beauty of human sexuality, we can never let down our guard against the seduction of sexual sin. And as holy as the human body is- female or male -we would do well to keep our clothes on.

In Romans 7, St. Paul bears witness to the tension between the body and soul: “So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Although we take delight in the law of God, we must remember that evil is at hand. And it is not just the desires of the flesh, but also worldly desires which wage war against the soul. St. Peter admonishes his flock to “keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul.” In order that the soul may come out the victor, repeated acts of self denial and frequent mediations of Christ’s Passion are necessary. It is only through this struggle against self that the purity of God’s innocence prevails. There is a price to be paid but the peace it brings is incalculable.

This ongoing war between the flesh and the spirit must not only inform our spiritual practices but our work. Whether it be a married man or a priest, interactions and ministry with women should be governed with a saintly distrust of oneself. If it means counseling the opposite sex behind a confessional screen (in the case of priest) or having a third party present, such precautions should be considered.

As for Fr. John Corapi, I do not know what kind of associations he had with women. If he did have female companionships in his preaching ministry, I am confident he is rethinking that policy. In any case, it is my prayer and hope that he will be vindicated. What is just as important, however, is knowing that we as Catholics can never put too much confidence in any one priest or person- not even ourselves. The only trust that can never disappoint- the only one -is the trust that is firmly anchored in Jesus Christ. He is our Rock!

The Accused and the Fallen: The wounds of the Church and what we can learn from them

Bishop Fulton Sheen once said that “the corruption of the best is the worst.” In the worst case scenarios, fallen away Catholics often turned out to be the worst enemies of the Church. And yet there are others who just fall away; and to be sure, their fall is felt throughout the Catholic world. This is especially true with priests whose fall from grace.

Quite often, however, people fail to distinguish between a weak priest and the Catholic Faith itself. When a priest falls from grace and therefore falls out of favor with the believer, his or her faith in Christ is sadly dragged down with it. It is a mistake- but common nevertheless -that the sins of priests become associated with God himself. For many souls, disillusionment with the former leads to the distrust of the latter. This is why the recent developments over the allegations concerning Fr. John Corapi’s misconduct are so important and heartfelt.

Although at this point it is only an allegation, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the news of Fr. John Corapi rocked the Catholic world. It grieves me to no end to think that there is a lingering possibility that such a solid priest- a real man of faith –could have involved himself in the aforesaid misconduct. With Fr. John Corapi or with any priest for that matter, it is a loss for the Mystical Body of Christ that such a celebrated reputation could be in question; especially a priest who was an emblem of a sanctified manliness such as his.

For the sake of the Church and for the sake of those souls inspired by his witness, I pray that the allegations about Fr. John Corapi are just that- allegations!

The news about Fr. John Corapi- whether true or untrue -is especially painful for Catholics in light of previous priestly scandals; and no I am not talking about the 2002 pedophilia scandals. Here, I refer to the recent revelations of Fr. Tom Euteneuer, Fr. Alberto Cutie, Fr. Marcial Maciel, and the three clergy from EWTN in recent years who failed to keep their vows of chastity. As uncomfortable as it might be for the Catholic faithful, it is important nevertheless, to do a collective examination of conscience and rethink certain habits of thinking that have gained currency within the Church.

We have forgotten, it seems, the caution the Saints have prescribed when dealing with the opposite sex and even their willingness to take flight, to repress and to aggressively combat sexual temptation. In an era when college dormitories are allowing co-ed roommates, such laissez faire attitudes towards sexuality has evidently rubbed off on Catholics. At the very least, caution has been relaxed even during the ministering of souls.

One of the greatest contributions Pope John Paul II made towards the shaping of the New Evangelization is his work on the theology of the body. He did much to cast a positive light on human sexuality. Indeed, he presented a new way of looking at how God reveals himself through human anatomy and gender complimentarity. What this pontiff introduced to the Church is nothing short of revolutionary.

However, whenever the Holy Spirit inspires a new direction or movement within the Church such as the New Evangelization or a new way of looking at human sexuality, there can be a tendency among some to completely break with the old in favor of the new; to take a kind of either-or approach. In doing so, they overlook the wisdom of their spiritual ancestors i.e., Father of the Church and the Saints, thus leaving new developments without guidance. Here, I refer to some who have done an effective job in promoting Theology of the Body but have nevertheless omitted or dismissed the hard-hitting and repressive approach to sexual temptations that our Lord admonished us to observe:

“But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.”

For penance and as a preventative measure, Saints such as St. Jerome would study Hebrew when he was beset with sexual temptation. As one scholar said, St. Jerome ended up being quite proficient in his Hebrew. St. Benedict, when tempted against chastity by the devil would throw himself into a thorn bush. "Radical and harsh," you might say, but these were common practices among the best of the followers of Christ. Although there is no evidence that Sister Lucia, on of three Fatima seers, ever experienced these temptations, she, nonetheless, would tie a rope around the skin of her waste as a form of penance. The Saints were always mindful of the lurking nature of sin; as such, they were quite distrustful of they should have been.

These seemingly aggressive and radical responses to sexual temptations appear to be more in keeping with the violent imagery used by Christ than the merely affirmative or positive approach we are accustomed to taking.

Not just the spiritual practices but the customs Christians observed in times past conformed more to the limitations of human nature than they do now. In St. Thomas More's time, for instance, that is, in sixteenth century England, men would sit in one part of the church and the women in the other. Although it is only a guess, the partition of the sexes may have prevented undue distraction during the Sacred Liturgy. To add yet another example was the traveling practices of the Holy Family in the first century. One of the reasons why Jesus at age twelve had eluded the notice of St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin was due to the fact men and women traveled separately. For centuries, the separation of men and women (not in all circumstances) were observed in many social and religious venues. It may seem puritanical, but I would proffer that many occasions of sin and even scandals were avoided.

Now, to insist that twenty-first century Catholics should carry out these old social observances is perhaps unrealistic and even unnecessary. However, there is something that we can learn from them.

More on the next blog-

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Reluctant Prophet: Its empty pews and childless streets

Since among the truths revealed by God there are some which frighten the weakness of our corrupt nature, and which therefore are not calculated to attract the multitude, they [preachers who court human respect] carefully avoid them, and treat themes, in which, the place accepted, there is nothing sacred…They seem to have only one aim, to please their hearers and curry favor with those whom St. Paul describes as "having itching ears"… they strike the ears and gain their hearers' admiration, but give them no lesson to carry home.

Pope Benedict XV, On Preaching the Word, 1917

It is becoming more apparent that there is a relationship between empty pews and childless streets. When the Church is reluctant to preach the fullness of the Gospel or when she omits from public discourse those doctrines which find little favor in society, the incentive for people to amend their lives fades. Without specifying sins from the pulpit- especially the sin of contraception and the consequent aversion to having children –people not only miss the opportunity to repent from immoral and harmful behaviors, but they will inevitably lack the motive to attend Mass and have their sins forgiven. Empty pews are the result with fewer people benefiting from grace.

In the absence of grace, that moral power to be good, a civilization which is rooted in love and based on human dignity becomes exceedingly difficult to sustain. As such, both the individual and society falls into self-destructive habits. People begin to live for the moment. The convenience of cohabitation replaces the stabilizing effects of marriage and couples opt to have fewer children in favor of possessing more things. Historically, the unintended consequence of such easy lifestyles is that whole societies fail to reproduce themselves and survive. Such was the case with ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. As Arnold Toynbee said, civilizations do not die from murder but from suicide.

It is to be regretted that Western Civilization will have to relearn the painful lessons of history. But unlike ancient pagan civilization (at least before the birth of Christ), we have a prophet in our midst; and the prophet is the Catholic Church. Our Lord conferred on the Catholic Church the authority to speak in his name . He said to the Apostles, “As Father sends Me, so I send you.” And throughout history- both in and out of season –the Church not only proclaimed the Good News but she also positioned herself as a Sign of Contradiction. As Pope Paul VI said in his encyclical, On the Regulation of Birth, “To tell the truth, the Church is not surprised to be made, like her divine Founder, a ‘sign of contradiction’, yet she does not because of this cease to proclaim with humble firmness the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.”

In recent years, however, the Church has been a reluctant prophet to the modern world as Jonah was to the Ninavites. Just as the widespread use of contraception ushered in the Sexual Revolution in 1968, Pope Paul VI- as if compelled by the Holy Spirit –wrote an encyclical with the Latin title Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth). In this letter he reiterated the moral law concerning the use of contraception and its social repercussions; this, just when Paul Ehrlich, author of Population Bomb, and academia at large were propagating the myth of overpopulation.

For the next forty-plus years the pope's predictions about the artificial reduction of births would come to pass: increased marital infidelity, the objectification of women and the general lowering of morality. And now, with the threat of a demographic collapse, one would think that the Catholic Church would see herself as being vindicated on this issue. But no, it is as if the last forty years of the social ills resulting from the widespread use of contraception has never happened. Indeed, the Church has been relatively silent about contraception and its perilous effect on Western Civilization. Her doctrine has been validated by recent economic and sociological developments and yet there is little confidence to show for it.

Japan, the first Western nation to legalize abortion in 1948, is now an aging culture resembling a top-heavy, inverted pyramid of elderly citizens. Japan's younger generations are increasingly carrying a disproportionate burden of subsidizing its elders. For the last 10 years its once prosperous economy has suffered decline. Japan is a good index of what our future might look like. Indeed, Europe and America are sure to follow Japan’s downward decline if it continues with the same old contraceptive mentality. As a matter of fact, there are 103 nations which are under the 2.1 replacement fertility rate needed to sustain a civilization. Most of these nations are European. Below are just a few nations that facing a demographic crisis:

US 2.06
Ireland 2.02
France 1.96
UK 1.91
Australia 1.78
Norway 1.77
Denmark 1.74
Finland 1.73
Sweden 1.67
Belgium 1.65
Canada 1.58
China 1.54
Spain 1.47
Switzerland 1.46
Georgia 1.45
Russia 1.42
Georgia 1.45
Germany 1.41
Austria 1.40
Italy 1.39
Greece 1.38
Poland 1.30
Lithuania 1.25
Japan 1.21

Keep in mind that once the birthrate falls below 1.6 it is nearly impossible to reverse the trend. In any case, the most painful truth of the depopulation of the West is how reluctant the Church has been to raise her prophetic voice about this critical issue. The very backyard of the Vatican, namely, the nation of Italy is contracepting itself out of existence. How few children and pregnant women there are in Europe! As one Englishman remarked, “If an adult is walking with more than three children in public, the average European will assume that he or she is running a daycare.” To be sure, their aging population is palpable because their streets are childless and the Cathedrals are empty. And as I said previously, childless streets result from empty pews. After all, hope comes from faith. And without hope sacrificial love loses its value; children are then seen as a burden.

Catholics, both clergy and laity, would do well to do an examination of conscience; to take the plank out of our eye before we assign blame to a decadent culture. If the Church is not going to bother to call Europeans to repentance by addressing specific sins- such as contraception and cohabitation -why should Europeans (or Americans for that matter) bother with church on Sunday's at all? In order for Jesus Christ to save us from our sins, we must recognize those sins, turn away from it and turn towards him. But if the Church does not cast its light on the sin of contraception and the unwillingness to have as many children as God wills, then Jesus cannot save us from these sins. Consequently, he will not be in a position to save our civilization.

For the life of me I cannot imagine why the Catholic Church- both on a universal and local level –does not implore Christians in no uncertain terms to have more children. To this day there has not been a papal encyclical or any visible campaign by the Holy See to remedy this cultural suicide. Sure, there has been a mention here and a document there, but so far these expressions have been mere whispers. We could also probably count, on one hand, the number of sermons in our local parishes which addressed the need to be generous with God in having children. As for myself, I have heard it mentioned in passing once or twice at the most.

What is needed is for the Church- a reluctant prophet up to now –to raise her voice as she has done so many times in the past. In a direct and unequivocal manner, to repeat the message that children are a blessing to the world. And the more there are, the better we become. The Gospel of Life demands this and our future depends on it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nighttime on the Mount: The Ascent of Prayer before the Descent of Tribulation

Tradition has it that the transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor transpired forty days before his Passion. Evidently, the Lord wanted at least three of his Apostles- Peter, James and John –to experience his glory before they had to drink the chalice of his suffering. St. Peter would later recount his heavenly experience in his Second Letter when he wrote, “For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, 'This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

Sometimes the Lord guarantees victory before he permits defeats. He might inspire us with an unshakable certitude to take on a mission for his sake and then allow circumstances to contradict that mission. On Mount Tabor, the divinity of Jesus was revealed before his humanity was crucified. Later, in the Upper Room, he would give his resurrected flesh in the form of the Eucharist the night before his death on the Cross and three days before he had actually risen from the dead.

In tasting the goodness of the Lord, strength is given to us for the trials that are inevitably associated with doing his will. In the Imitation of Christ our Lord speaks to his disciple by saying, “That good and delightful affection, which you sometimes perceive, is the effect of present grace and a certain foretaste of your heavenly country, but you must not rely too much upon it, because it comes and goes.” And this delightful affection and the foretaste of our heavenly country is chiefly to be found in prayer and in meditation. It is, in a real sense, food for the journey and strength for adversity.

To be sure, it was only after an arduous climb up Mt. Tabor and only after the world had fallen asleep that our Lord would give three of his Apostles a glimpse of his glory. But in doing so, Jesus would not stand alone. Moses and Elijah, two prophets who represented the Old Testament and who also experienced the presence of God on Mt. Sinai, stood beside our Lord to give their testimony of support. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke refers to these two men as speaking to Jesus about his “exodus,” that is, his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. And who is better qualified to talk about such an exodus than Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land and Elijah who was assumed into heaven on a chariot?

After our Lord’s face had shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light, a bright cloud appeared and the voice of God was heard. It was as if God the Father had bequeathed his authority to Jesus by saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” This, it would seem, is reminiscent of Psalm 2 when God said in even greater detail, “You are my son; today I am your father. Only ask it of me, and I will make your inheritance the nations, your possession the ends of the earth.”

However, conferring the inheritance of the nations and the power to teach with divine authority did not only issue from the Father to the Son; but it also passed from Moses and Elijah- two of the greatest Old Testament prophets –to St. Peter and the Apostles. Indeed, by "making disciples of all the nations" through the preaching ministry of his Church, Jesus Christ would take back what once belonged to his Father; namely, the world! As the prophet Isaiah said, "In days to come, the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it..."

Every apostle must be equal to his mission. Hence, the work of being God’s oracle to the nations would require spiritual transformation; especially for these frail fishermen. And the symbolic value of the transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor suggests that real transformation can only take place on a mountain of prayer and meditation. When speaking of the soul in contemplation, Cornelius A Lapide, a sixteenth century priest and professor of Scripture, wrote:

“She [the soul] is raised above herself, and is lifted up to God in heaven, where she learns and sees that all the things of earth are fragile and worthless, so that from her lofty height she looks down upon them as fit only for children. She perceives that the true riches, honors and pleasures are nowhere but in heaven.”

Without the foretaste of heaven in prayer and meditation and without eagerly anticipating eternal happiness with God, we will inevitably wince from sacrifice and the price we must pay in bringing souls to Christ. The meditation of heaven inspires a farsightedness that is needed not only for living out the life of Christ on a day to day basis, but for the challenging work God has called us to do.

No doubt, while St. Peter was crucified upside down in Rome; while St. James was dragged to his death in Jerusalem; and while St. John was in exile on the island of Patmos, recalling this heavenly vision of our Lord on Mt. Tabor was probably of great consolation to them. And although we may not enjoy the vision of the Transfiguration in the way the Apostles did, God will certainly not fail to give us a taste of that heavenly sweetness in prayer and meditation in proportion to our faith. This is God's way of giving us a sneakpeak of eternity so that we might be encouraged to hold nothing back!

Friday, March 18, 2011

St. Joseph and God's Sword of Conflict

It would almost seem providential that the feast day of St. Joseph on March 19th would invariably fall within the season of Lent. The mission assigned to this man of God was a great one. But with great missions there are great trials.

It is not uncommon, therefore, for God to frontload missions and great enterprises with adversity. St. Joseph was certainly no exception.

In the book of Sirach, it reads: “My son, when you come to serve the LORD, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in time of adversity.” (Sirach 2:1-2) To expect anything less is to run the risk of being scandalized by the Cross when it is imposed upon our shoulders. What we sometimes take for failure can often be the very thing needed to bring about the success God wills.

The Lord Jesus gave his disciples sufficient indication of this through parables, instruction, and personal example. Just before taking our sins to the Cross, our Lord told the Apostles, “He [the Father] takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” The Benedictines has a saying for this: “Pruned, and it grows again.”

Have you ever wondered why, after appearing to the Blessed Virgin to announce the coming of Christ, the angel Gabriel did not immediately appear to St. Joseph in order to inform him that the Messiah would be conceived of the Holy Spirit; that God would make it possible for Mary to be both virgin and mother?

Instead, there was an interim period of misunderstanding and anguish on the part of St. Joseph. God could have prevented this misunderstanding but he chose not to. And the reason he chose not to was due to some moral and spiritual benefit St. Joseph would gain. Certainly, a lot of tears could have been spared; but often tears can be every bit as redemptive as the blood of martyrs which, as the early Christian adage goes, is the “seed of the Church.”

In his temporary emotional estrangement, St. Joseph, when having the wrong impression about his betrothed, had to rely on God. Indeed, during this short period of time not even the Mother of God could help him because, after all, she was the object of his suspicion and doubt. Alone he stood, confounded over God’s plan.

Little did St. Joseph know that the first moment of our Lord’s conception was not accompanied with peace but a sword; a sword that would test the holiest of relationships; namely, his parents. “Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This refining sword would even fall between Jesus and his parents some twelve years later in the Temple. Even then, Jesus could have prevented the three days of agony his parents were to endure in searching for him; nevertheless, he permitted the trial knowing full well that his holy Mother would not appreciate it. Our Lord shows us that the very mission we are called to carry out sometimes is the cause of pain to those we love.

It is conventional wisdom or should I say, “prudence of the flesh,” which makes harmony and peace an absolute. In our day, even among Christians, truth and fidelity to God’s law is sacrificed at the altar of “keeping the peace.” The absence of conflict is the kind of peace the world claims to give; but it is not the peace Christ offers us.

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” But we know this peace is not without a sword because he also said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man 'against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law…” Indeed, doing God’s will is often an occasion of unwanted conflict. As much as we try to minimize it, people we care about the most will sometimes be offended by the witness we give. Nevertheless, we press forward and do the will of God anyways!

Although it was for a short period of time, St. Joseph had to learn the discipline of putting God first; even before the Blessed Virgin- his friend and spouse. The irony is that the sword of trial and purification came between him and the woman he was called to serve and protect. Before he could benefit from the most blessed of friendships under heaven, St. Joseph- like Abraham who was called to sacrifice his son, Isaac -was given the opportunity to renounce, out of love for God’s justice, the person he loved and respected.

From this discord between St. Joseph and Mary, a better man would emerge. As such, he would be better prepared for even greater trials in the future. God's sword of conflict pruned and refined one of the greatest men to ever have lived.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Conclusion: The Letter of '71

“I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. You received Holy Communion this morning, and that is well. But you must do more. Make a general confession, and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.”

-Our Lady of Good Help, October 9, 1859

To briefly recap what has been addressed up to this point in this series of posts:

In 1859, exactly twelve years before the great Peshtigo fire, Our Lady of Good Help said of herself that she is “the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners.” She instructed Adele Brise of Robinsonville (or Champion), Wisconsin to do the same. But that wasn’t enough, she continued: “Make a general confession, and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.”

The part I wish to emphasize is Our Lady’s call to offer spiritual sacrifices and to do penance for the express purpose of converting sinners. Several decades later, she would reiterate the same request to little Lucia, one of three seers at Fatima. Years later, in 1971, Sister Lucia wrote a letter to her nephew, Fr. Valinho, explaining why there was such turmoil and disorientation in their day. Indeed, she insisted that many were “allowing themselves to be dominated by the diabolical wave that is enveloping the world.”

Previously, the explanation was given why the Catholic Church in the twentieth century let down her defenses in the late 1960's. While Christianity in the West seemed to be prospering in the 40's, 50's and early 60's, the Culture of Death had overflowed- as if beneath the surface -from the concentration camps of the Third Reich and the gulags of the Soviet Union to the abortion clinics and public institutions of America and Europe in the late 1960’s. The result, of course, was that the Church was caught off guard and was made vulnerable to forces hostile to her. Again, Sister Lucia assigned a cause behind what seemed to be a perfect storm. And that cause was an abandonment of prayer which is our way of totally relying on God.

In the letter she said that prayer is the instrument through which God gives light, strength, and grace. And a great lesson for the leaders and teachers of the Church,
both clergy and laity (many of whom regard academic distinctions or book knowledge as being the most important qualification for God's work), is “that in prayer you will find more science, more light, more strength, more grace and virtue than you could ever achieve by reading many books, or by great studies.” Indeed, through prayer we come to realize our own limitations and that "it is God who works in us and through us, to accomplish His work." Sister Lucia goes so far as to say that we should tell God about our affairs before we tell others. By doing this, we put him first. She further adds, “Let time be lacking for everything else but never for prayer, and you will accomplish a lot in a short period of time.”

This cannot be stressed enough: "Let time be lacking for everything else but never prayer." Busybodies who fall back on prayer at the end of the day do not accomplish half as much as those who take a sufficient amount of time throughout the day to life up their hearts to the Lord in prayer.

In the absence of prayer, therefore, confusion and fatigue abounds. This is why Pope Benedict XVI could say in 1970, “[T]he Church is becoming extinguished in men’s souls, and Christian communities are crumbling.” Communities, as with individual souls, make themselves a prey to the flesh, the world and the devil when prayer is relaxed or seen as an obstacle to progress. In fact, Sister Lucia writes that the “devil is very smart and watches for our weak points so he can attack us. If we are not careful and attentive in obtaining the strength from God we will fall, because our times are very bad and we are weak.” This is exactly what he did in the late 1960's. Satan ceased the opportunity to lay seige to the Catholic Church when her defenses were relaxed. Hence, in 1972 Pope Paul VI had reason to believe that the "smoke of Satan" had entered the Church.

The good news is that Sr. Lucia identifies the problem which burdens the mission of Church, which is a falling away from the habit of putting prayer first. Failing to unite ourselves with God through prayer is not the only problem, to be sure, but it is the principal one.

Sister Adele and Sister Lucia, two seers of historic Marian apparitions, would further convey to the world that the Mother of Jesus Christ is also our mother and one who prayers earnestly for our conversion. Under her mantle, the children of God find their refuge and protection from the firestorm of our time. Hence, I believe, that even though Peshtigo fire in 1871 was the greatest natural disaster in American history- claiming the lives of several hundred –the miraculous intervention of God on our Lady’s behalf in sparing the lives of Sister Adele and companions is the key historical lesson to take away from all of this. Indeed, just as the devastation might have been a portent of the "diabolic wave" Sister Lucia referred to in the Letter of ’71, it is equally plausible that the lives spared from the gulf of flames is a sign of hope; that through the intercession of Our Lady of Good Help countless souls in our own day will be led to Jesus Christ, her Son.

I leave you with the words of Pope St. Pius X, who, in his encyclical on the Immaculate Conception, was reminiscing about a time in Europe when whole nations celebrated God’s greatest work- the Mother of God. Indeed, he expressed a burning desire and a great hope that this veneration might be rekindled in the modern world. In fact, he said that the “desire of Ours is especially stimulated by a sort of secret instinct which leads Us to regard as not far distant the fulfillment of those great hopes.” This great pope wrote these words of promise approximately a hundred years ago. Hence, when he profers that the fulfillment of those great hopes, is not far distant, let's pray he's right!


To read Sister Lucia’s letter in full, please click on “The Letter of 71” in the right hand column.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Letter of '71 (part III)

For the first post of this series please scroll down.

Christopher Dawson, a Catholic historian, once said that if people are religious for social reasons, they will quit religion for the same reasons. During the decades which led up to the 1960’s the life of the Church, no doubt, possessed good qualities. After the Great Depression and World War II- as with any crisis –the sense of mortality and the need for God was reawakened among the West. As such, the Catholic Church enjoyed higher Mass attendance and high priestly and religious vocations. The icing on the cake was that in the early 1950’s, a weekly prime time television program called Life is Worth Living was hosted by a Catholic bishop whose name was Fulton Sheen. Surprisingly, it not only had high ratings but Bishop Sheen won an Emmy Award in 1952; an impossible feat in today’s entertainment industry. Hence, from the adversity of the 1930’s to the 1960’s the Church was riding a wave which favored her growth and mission.

During this time period, however, there was a growing reliance on the formal and institutional aspects of Catholicism among Catholics. Parents relied almost exclusively on the parochial schools for their children’s religious education, the personal study of Scripture was left to the parish priest, a great emphasis was placed on the memorization of formal prayers not infrequently at the expense of personal prayer, and the Sacred Liturgy, for many, became an automated worship service for the simple reason that the rank-n-file didn’t understand the Latin language. To be sure, Catholic spirituality became perfunctory for far too many Catholics before the great change that was about to occur; namely, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s. And as I said, the institutional Church was shaken to the core with this unfortunate result: The individual believer was left standing naked without a personal committment to Christ. Indeed, when the parish priest, the Catholic school and even the Mass could no longer be counted on as sound or 100 percent Catholic, the individual- whose religiosity was more formal than personal and more of a by-product of family tradition than a personal choice –went with the flow by conforming to worldly standards. As Dawson indicated, if a person is Catholic for any reason other than to follow Christ then if those reasons cease to endure, his house, which is built on sand, will collapse.

This finally brings us to the historic and spiritual importance of Sister Lucia’s letter to her nephew, Fr. Valinho.

She begins the letter by writing the following: “I see from your letter that you are worried about the turmoil and the disorientation of our times. It is indeed sad that so many are allowing themselves to be dominated by the diabolical wave that is enveloping the world, and they are so blind that they cannot see their error. But the principal error is that they have abandoned prayer.”

The “diabolical wave” that Sister Lucia had referred to was occasioned by the drought of personal prayer, spiritual reading and meditation. By the end of the 1960’s going into the 1970’s the fabric of Catholic life in Western Civilization had gone dry and brittle. When the spark of the Sexual Revolution and the Culture of Death was ignited, much of this fabric burned up. This is why the Peshtigo fire of 1871 and the miraculous intervention of God to save the faithful of Our Lady of Good Help seems so applicable to our era. (More on that in the last blog of this series)

Sister Lucia then goes on to encourage her nephew to draw close to the Tabernacle. “In fervent prayer,” she continues, “you will receive the light, strength, and grace that you need to sustain you, and to share with others.” Prayer, if seen as the daily food we need to carry out our day will bring about these advantages. However, if it is used like medicine, that is, if it us practiced only when something goes wrong, then I am afraid we will be devoid of this “light, strength and grace." Indeed, going through the motions and saying formal or liturgical prayers without attentiveness, interest and passion is antithetical to the kind of fervor Sr. Lucia is referring to.

Sister Lucia also reminded Father Valinho, her nephew, that in fervent prayer “you will find more science, more light, more strength, more grace and virtue than you could ever achieve by reading many books, or by great studies.” To be sure, holiness is the principal cause of knowing God and understanding the mystery of life. It is my fear, however, that many programs, ministries and apostolates in the Church put an exclusive emphasis on college degrees and book knowledge. Take for instance St. John Vianney: He is a Patron of Priests but if he were alive today he would be unqualified to teach at any seminary. His most important qualification, namely, his holiness, which was a great font of knowledge for him, would most likely be overlooked. No doubt, holiness is difficult to measure or quantify and learnedness is important. Nevertheless, quite often the requirement to be holy isn’t front and center in most “job” descriptions for positions in the Church. As long as intellectual credentials are esteemed over and above holiness and spirituality, the “principal error” will continue and the “diabolical wave” will be unabated. It is principally through a fervent love of Christ and a penitential spirituality which will extinguish this wave. As St. Paul said, we are "always carrying about in the body the dying of that death is at work in us, but life in you."

The conclusion- next blog

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Letter of '71 (part II)

Keep in mind that Sister Lucia was old enough to remember the oppressive aftermath of the Portugal Revolution of 1910, the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917. At the time of Mary’s appearances in Fatima, a new era had already begun for Europe. Unfortunately, more wars, dictatorships and even genocide would menace Europeans for decades to come. As bad as that was, this first diabolic wave was outside the Catholic Church and thankfully, outside the North American continent. However, by the time Sister Lucia had written her letter to her nephew in 1971, the principles of the culture of death, which brought about the concentration camps of the Third Reich and the gulags of the Soviet Union, overflowed to America’s universities, entertainment industry and abortion clinics.

In 1962 and 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court had rendered prayers and bible reading unconstitutional. By 1968 the pill and artificial birth control in general had gained favor and currency among Westerners. By the time Pope Paul VI had published his encyclical, Humanae Vitae- which affirmed the Catholic Church’s teaching that such practices were against God’s law –Western Civilization had already made up its mind. And what immediately transpired on the heels of the widespread use of contraception were the Sexual Revolution and its offspring- the culture of death. Indeed, in 1973, Roe vs. Wade, would be the law of the land and early in that same decade the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, had declared that homosexuality was no longer a disorder. This was the first major victory of the gay-rights movement.

When the Second Vatican Council first convened in 1962 the Fathers of that council had reason to believe that Christianity was on the ascendancy. Indeed, there was an air of optimism going into this gathering of bishops with the Pope John XXIII. As a matter of fact, the pope himself, during the opening speech, had at least hoped that the human race had matured to the point of recognizing its former errors and vices. More than this, he seemed optimistic that men were inclined to condemn those ways of life that despise God’s laws and which undermine human dignity. In his own words:

“[The Church] considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations. Not, certainly, that there is a lack of fallacious teaching, opinions, and dangerous concepts to be guarded against an dissipated. But these are so obviously in contrast with the right norm of honesty, and have produced such lethal fruits that by now it would seem that men of themselves are inclined to condemn them, particularly those ways of life which despise God and His law or place excessive confidence in technical progress and a well-being based exclusively on the comforts of life. They are ever more deeply convinced of the paramount dignity of the human person and of his perfection as well as of the duties which that implies.”

By the time the Second Council ended, the world was changing for the worse but a positive worldview was retained among many members of the Catholic clergy. From this hopefulness, a new pastoral approach would be employed in the post-conciliar era. Intended or unintended, the Church’s long held view that the ways of the world was an adversary to Christ and his Gospel would be relaxed. To be sure, when the Mystical Body of Christ needed it the most, many of its defensive measures used to guard against the spirit of the world were dropped. For instance, St. Michael's prayer after Mass, the oath of fidelity required by every priest to the teachings of the Catholic Church, the National Legion of Decency- an organization composed of bishops and laity to combat objectionable content of cinema, the disciplinary application of excommunication, the index of forbidden books and even the imprimatur granted to books consistent with Catholic doctrine were just a few of measures that were relaxed or dropped altogether.

The result of this new posture was a precipitous decline in priestly and religious vocations along with a drop in church attendance. Indeed, the infusion of the secular spirit had entered into the sanctuary. As for the title of being “Catholic,” it would come to mean anything from believing or doing what one believed as well as following Christ and believing all that he commanded. In a word, the distinction between the faithful and the unfaithful would hardly be recognized by the hierarchy of the Church. Indeed, a politician could publicly campaign against the human dignity of the unborn without the slightest reprimand or repercussion from Church authorities. The modern pastoral practices have made it possible for wolves to have equal status with the sheep; the fruit of which, to be sure, was spiritual and moral confusion. Thankfully, there are signs that this is changing.

Nevertheless, we come back cull circle to the comments of then-Cardinal Ratzinger when he said, “[T]he Church is becoming extinguished in men’s souls, and Christian communities are crumbling” and the assertion made by Pope Paul VI that “the smoke of Satan” has entered the Church. Both of these comments were made around the same time Sister Lucia wrote her letter to her nephew when she said, “It is indeed sad that so many are allowing themselves to be dominated by the diabolical wave that is enveloping the world, and they are so blind that they cannot see their error. But the principal error is that they have abandoned prayer.”

I proffer this interpretation of the long forgotten Peshtigo fire: Can it be that this infernal wave of destruction- the worst natural disaster in American history -symbolized the diabolic wave Sister Lucia was referring to almost exactly hundred years later? This wave not only menaced nations but it rocked the Church to the core. Indeed, in the decades following Sr. Lucia’s letter, the Green Bay diocese- where the apparitions took place –the archdiocese of Milwaukee (just south of the Green Bay diocese), and many dioceses in the Mid West region of the United States, served as an emblem of all that went wrong in the Church during post-Vatican II era. The Peshtigo inferno seemed to portend the spiritual darkness that would pervade the Church. But those devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, seeking her intercession and guidance, along with the universal Church herself, would be spared.

The Peshtigo fire would have little symbolic value if God did not interject himself into this historic event by first sending the Blessed Virgin to Robinsonville, Wisconsin in 1859 and then to have miraculously protected Sister Adele and her companions from those all-encompassing flames just twelve years after the apparition. God speaks through historical events. In hindsight, Our Lady of Good Help's words in Robinsonville, Wisconsin, and the tragedy that followed, seem to convey a message about our own time; a message that can no longer be ignored.

More on the content of the Sister Lucia’s letter…on the next blog.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Letter of '71

Historical events have symbolic value. God does not limit his communication to the human race through just words alone. No. He also speaks through events. As with the interpretation of Scripture, interpreting the meaning of historical events can be subjective and uncertain. Nevertheless, even with the possibility of misinterpretation, God still communicates historical events.

The great Peshtigo fire of October 8, 1871 was one such event. It was the worst natural disaster in American history; yet, it went largely unnoticed because the Chicago fire occurred just two days later on October 10, 1871. The Peshtigo fire raged “through Northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, destroying millions of dollars worth of property and timberland, and taking between 1,200 and 2,400 lives.” And in terms of fatalities, the Peshtigo fire exceeded the Chicago fire by several hundred. Furthermore, it ranks right up there will the sinking of the Titanic and it comes close to the number of lives lost from the terrorists attacks on 9/11 (if the higher estimates are correct). This massive wave of fire even jumped across the Green Bay waters into the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin.

It just so happened that twelve years prior in 1859, Our Lady of Good Help appeared to a young girl named Adele; later to be Sister Adele. The main message of the Mother of God for Adele was to “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.” However, she further reminded Adele that, “If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.” This admonition by Our Lady leads seems to point us in the direction of the Peshtigo fire of 1871 (footnote: Christian prudence cautions us to consider the possibility that there may or may not be a correlation between the two). Sister Adele and her companions, in order to protect themselves from the inferno, “fled to the Shrine for protection. The statue of Mary was raised reverently and was processed around the sanctuary. When wind and fire threatened suffocation, they turned in another direction to hope and pray, saying the rosary.” Hours later rain came and those who had taken refuge at the Shrine were saved; what is more, the five acres of property the Shrine was built on was also spared. (More on this later)

With that background in place, we at last come to the developments which preceded the subject at hand. One hundred years after the worst natural disaster in American history, arguably one of the most important letters of the twentieth century was written. In 1971, Sister Lucia, one of three seers of the Marian apparitions at Fatima, wrote her nephew, Valinho, who was a Catholic priest. Father Valinho was evidently distressed over the “turmoil and the disorientation” of the late sixties and early seventies. She validated his concern by writing, “It is indeed sad that so many are allowing themselves to be dominated by the diabolical wave that is enveloping the world, and they are so blind that they cannot see their error.”
Western Civilization went from one having a Christian orientation with high church attendance to one that was secular and morally liberal in a very short time period. The Catholic Church was not unaffected.

According to Archbishop Chaput in Render Unto Caesar, in 1970 Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, said the following: “We are living at a tremendous turning point in the evolution of mankind, at turning point compared with which the Middle Ages to modern times seems as nothing.” Amid such revolutionary changes, “the city of man is beginning to strike terror in our heart.” He later wrote that “the Church is becoming extinguished in men’s souls, and Christian communities are crumbling.”

Sister Lucia’s characterization of the recent changes in society and in the Catholic Church as a “diabolical wave” was no hyperbole. Just a year later in 1972 Pope Paul VI would claim that the smoke of Satan had entered the Church.

More on the next blog-

Temptation in Desert and its Twentieth Century Parallel

This a reposted blog from Janaury of 2011. If you wish to read the remaining two blogs of this series please click on the January archives.

On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. (Mark 1:10-13)

Pope Leo XIII once said that “Christians are born for combat.” This couldn’t be better illustrated in the Gospel of Mark immediately following our Lord’s baptism: “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.” The Spirit, which had just appeared in the form of a dove over the river Jordan, “drove” or led the Son of God to his first conflict. As St. Jerome said, it wasn’t that Satan came to confront Jesus; it is more the case that Jesus went out to the desert to confront him. Being baptized into Christ and anointed by his Spirit is not only an introduction to God’s blessings; it also a calling to resist and denounce evil.

In ancient rabbinic writings such as the Talmud, a dove did not symbolize the Holy Spirit like it does for Christians; but instead, it represented Israel. To a Jewish bystander at the river Jordan, a dove descending on Jesus would have meant that he was an ideal Israelite. As a representative of Israel, Jesus set out to do something that the Israelites failed to do during the forty years in the desert; and that is being faithful to God. And to be sure, resisting the Devil and his temptations was but one important expression of that fidelity.

We only get a few glimpses of Satan in the Old Testament. A well developed system of demonology did not exist in Judaism leading up to the time of Christ. Nevertheless, the Jews did believe in his existence. From Genesis 3 where he tempted Eve to eat the fruit we know this much: He doesn’t waste his time with weaklings; as an Angel of Pride, he only goes after the best. Satan personally had designs on Eve, Job and now Jesus. From the temptation in the Garden, we learn that he cleverly uses half truths and subtle nuances to undermine God’s authority. With precision, he exploits the weakness of his prey so as to maximize spiritual casualties. No doubt, he attempts to do the same with the Son of God.

However, there is only one problem: Many Saints have taught, such as St. Catherine of Sienna, the Tempter did not know who he was dealing with. That’s right! The mystery of the Incarnation was hidden from him. This might explain the preface for all three of his temptations: “If you are the Son of God…” He simply did not know.

In any case, in each of the three temptations Satan uses, there is a presumption or a guess as to who Jesus is. And in the Gospel of Matthew, with each guess or presumption, the cost of surrender progressively gets worse. In the first temptation, there is a presumption that Jesus was God; in the second, a holy man; and in the third, a sinner. The lower the ranking, the higher the cost of the surrender; that is, if Jesus would have succumbed or surrendered.

More on these three temptations and how he employed similar ones in the twentieth the January archives.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lent: A rehearsal for death

“To avoid the confrontation with death is a refusal to live life to the full.”

-Lorenzo Albacete

The great paradox of life is that death is the only sure thing; the only future event we can truly count on. The closer people get to the gates of death, the more sensible they become. Suddenly, a morally dissolute life or the missed family opportunities of a workaholic, in retrospect, is almost always regretted. Indeed, on your death bed, all the time you spent at the office doesn’t seem so important anymore.

For those who face imminent death, what immediately comes to mind as one of the most cherished of recollections is the time he or she spent with the family. During the 9/11 tragedy in 2001, there are countless phone messages left by victims whose highest priority was to say one last time, “I love you.”

Yet, what is more important than saying “I love you” to a spouse, relative or friend moments before death is the conversation we might have with God for one last time on earth. Hence, when America was in the midst of processing the loss of lives, the doors of local churches across the country were pushed open by the multitude so that they could take refuge in God within the sanctuary. To be sure, the nation’s mortality was felt for the first time in a long time. When death is a looming possibility, it awakens the soul to where it comes from and to where it is going. Petty interests and careless living quickly lose their appeal.

God is always relevant when death draws near; even to the most stubborn of atheists. After all, it is the only certain thing in life. As such, the contemplation of life’s end is the beginning of wisdom. When people assume they possess something indefinitely, they value it less. It is only by losing something that we can see it for what it is. “The Gospel confirms this; the only way for a man to gain his life is to lose it, to give it up, to sacrifice it.” This is the greatest paradox of life; yet, it is the least understood and perhaps the most ridiculed one. Nevertheless, it is the crux of the Gospel and the secret to happiness. As Jesus said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

Herein lies the essence of Lent. This season of dying to self and meditating on death- especially that of our Lord's -is a rehearsal for the real thing. The more we practice it, the more we see life as it really is and the more we ensure our passage into heaven when death greets us; as we know it will.

Is the Catholic Church losing our younger generation? IV

To reset the premise one more time: On March 4th, 2011, the Pew Research Center Poll found that “Americans were opposed to gay marriage by nearly 2-1 a decade ago, the latest poll showed 45 percent in support of it, with 46 percent in opposition.” I asked the question: Is the Catholic Church losing our younger generation especially as it applies to the institution of marriage between a man and a woman? As the poll indicates and from my own surveying of students in my Faith Formation class (of course, using a small sample each time) the conclusion that I reached, was yes, the Church is losing our younger generation in terms of numbers. To be sure, the young Catholics who are well-formed are probably the best the Church has seen in centuries. Nevertheless, it would seem that the vast majority of young people are gravitating away from traditional marriage and the nuclear family.

I again ask the question: What can Catholics do about this?

The first point was that Catholic clergy and leadership of all ranks should revisit the pastoral practices of the Apostles and the early Church Fathers. For them, one had to be totally committed to Christ according to the teachings of the Church in order to be in good standing. The standard was- at the very least -the willingness to believe all and to do all that Christ commanded. Today's leadership, at least in part, is satisfied with commitments. Anything more than that, they say, is asking too much with the likelihood of scaring people away. This is not the attitude the hierarchy of the Church assumed for nineteen hundred years. Half measures were not only discouraged but they were met with consequences throughout Church history; most especially in early Christianity. Pope Benedict XVI once reminded the Austrian Bishops in 2005 that to teach the fullness of the Gospel- especially those doctrines which come across as severe and counter cultural -will not drive away people; just the opposite, it will attract them. If the high moral standard of the New Covenant offends some, it is equally true that it will attract even more people.

The second point I wish to draw your attention to is the adversarial nature of State-run education as it pertains to the mission of the Church. U.S. Bishops would provide a charitable service to our nation if they would campaign against the Soviet Union style education system our children are subject to. In a Pastoral Letter in 1919 to the U.S. Bishops, James Cardinal Gibbons predicted what a State-run education would portend for America: "The spirit of our people in general is adverse to State monopoly, and this for the obvious reason that such an absorption of control would mean the end of freedom and initiative. The same consequence is sure to follow when the State attempts to monopolize education; and the disaster will be much greater inasmuch as it will affect, not simply the worldly interests of the citizen, but also his spiritual growth and salvation."

In the 1960's alone, the percentage of students attending public schools increased from 59 percent to 73 percent. Now it is up to 90 percent. Conversely, as late as the 1950's, the Catholic Church in America educated 12 percent of all children. Today, she only educates 5 percent of them. And to add insult to injury, parents who wish to send their children to Catholic schools have to pay double; they pay the taxes to fund public schools and then they have to compensate for the ever increasing tuition's of Catholic schools. And the reason for this spike results from a crisis of religious vocations. The vast majority of Catholic teachers in the early twentieth century were compromised of priests, sisters or brothers from religious orders. Being single and without a family, they did not require big salaries to feed a whole family. In the early twenty-first century, however, the vast majority of Catholic teachers are lay people.

The Catholic Church is being outdone by public education; certainly not in academics but in advancing its moral values. No doubt, this State-run system has failed to produce academic results, but it has, in the last four decades, been infusing the secular spirit into our nation's children with great success. With that, the decline of marriage and the nuclear family has accelerated.

The Shepherds and teachers of our Church- from bishops to teachers -might want to consider a more assertive approach to these issues. It is perfectly consistent with the mission of the Church to criticize the failing institution of public education. Like our Lord who marched in the Temple only to scourge the greed and abuses with a whip and then later predicting its downfall, our spiritual leaders, animated with the same spirit, can make a great contribution by publicly challenging the monopoly of the State on education. If, indeed, the walls of State-run education were to fall-as with the Berlin wall this seems unthinkable -but if they were to fall, then the Light of the Gospel would expand its influence on our nation's youth through the instrumentation of Catholic education and spiritual formation. To be sure, students benefiting from Catholic principles on sex, marriage the family would increase from a meager 5 percent to a percentage far surpassing what the Catholic Church used to enjoy in the 1940's and 1950's. This will go a long way in winning back the younger generations to Christ and to the truth of marriage. The decline of America would be arrested and new life and vigor would be within each.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Is the Catholic Church losing our younger generation? III

This leads me to the first thing Catholics can do. As Jesus said, there is no servant above his master. That is to say what the master does, the servant also must do. The New Testament quite often gives expression to masculine virtues. It uses combat imagery and even violence to communicate revealed truths. St. Paul, for instance, refers to the helmet of salvation and the shield of faith. Our Lord used hyperbole's of violence in order to inspire holiness such as plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand. When referencing hell, he speaks of the grinding and gnashing of teeth where the worm does not die. Furthermore, the spiritual and moral realities of combat, conflict and the ever looming threat of the enemy (which include the flesh, the world and Satan) are frequent themes from the first page of the Gospel of Matthew to the last page of the book of Revelation.

Today, however, we as Catholics address the issues in much softer and indirect ways. For instance, the world or the ways of the world is depicted by the New Testament as an adversary of God. In fact, St. John and St. James asserted that the love of the world and the love of God are mutually exclusive. It’s either Mammon or God. That is the choice. But the Church, as of the 1960’s, rarely gives expression to this for fear that it might come across as despising the people of the world. Our posture seems to be one of only affirming the truth while omitting the denunciation of error and sin. For instance, I heard many Catholics say they would rather “light a candle than curse the darkness.” That may sound nice but it is hardly biblical. Jesus spoke the truth about virtue but he also publicly rebuked vice. The men and women that the Church has canonized as Saints did likewise. Although our Lord never blessed any tree that I am aware of, he did curse a fig tree. Perhaps this was to prefigure the fate of Jerusalem which ended being destroyed by the Roman army just forty years after his ascension. Indeed, he issued severe warnings concerning what awaited that illustrious city. I would hate to think that our Lord’s pastoral approach is outdated; that it was to be applied in every century except the twentieth and the twenty-first century.

If Catholics want our younger generations to embrace the Gospel values of marriage and sexuality, we have to once again revisit the pastoral approach of Jesus, the Apostles and the Saints. They gave inspiration, they lifted up the downtrodden, and they consoled and provided hope to the hopeless. Nevertheless, out of love for souls they also publicly rebuked sin by name. If need be, they confronted sinners when circumstances warranted it. This, no doubt, drew unwanted attention and unwanted consequences upon themselves. St. John, the Apostle who wrote about Christian love more than any other, publicly confronted a troublemaker whose name was Diotrophes. St. Paul published names of blasphemers. St. Ambrose, a Father of the Church, publicly prevented Theodosius II, the Roman Emperor, from entering into the church because he had killed 7,000 Thessalonians during an uprising. Even our beloved twentieth century Saint, St. Padre Pio, chased out insincere penitents from his confessional booth. These men did not look for confrontations. But they knew that the love of souls required it at times.

Out of love for the younger generation we are required to do no less: To name the sin and to bear the consequences. Sometimes, it means turning people away as our Lord did with the rich man or the man from the country of the Gerasenes who was once possessed. Jesus himself said that those who do not listen to the Church are to be treated as outsiders. I know this runs counter to our modern sensibilities. Indeed, it clashes with what "we define" as Christian love. Many of our peers in the Faith have taken Christian love to mean that we accept people where they are at and then cross our fingers and pray that they somehow come to know the truth about their sins. In the meantime they are led to believe that are in perfect communion with God when in fact they are not.

Those who are entrusted with leading and caring for souls- be it a teacher or a priest –quite often do not require repentance from those souls under their care. Inclusion at all costs is the motto! “Come and enjoy the sacraments,” we say. But as far as “plucking out the eye” or “cutting off the hand”- which represent those things that cause us to sin -well…we leave that up to the individual Christian because we have been told “not to judge.” When the standards of Christ are not presented or they are presented but failure to meet them is not met with any consequence, then the incentive to be good and to follow Christ are compromised. It's good to remember that a Church with low standards is a Church without respect. Easy and unconditional access to the Sacraments is not only a departure from biblical norms and Church tradition, but it doesn't work! We have fifty years to show that it just doesn't work!

Our thinking has to change. We have to be proactive and unafraid of calling a spade a spade and a sin a sin. Love of souls and conversion itself demands it. If there are no sins to repent from then we can hardly invoke Christ as our Savior. And if people are unaware of the bad news, they can hardly appreciate the Good News. The salvation of youth demands that we communicate the positive and the negative, virtue and sin, heaven and hell, God and Satan. This certainly applies in particular to the sin of homosexual acts. Love for the homosexual person presupposes- at least in the biblical sense -that the sin of homosexuality be known. Without this knowledge, repentance is impossible. And I do believe that if you let the light of Christ shine in dark corners people will respect you for it. They may protest, but they will respect you and the message you deliver. Even more importantly, those who struggle with homosexuality may choose to live chastely in order to experience the peace of Christ.

Keep in mind that with every person you offend with the truth, you inspire at least two to three more people who perhaps will never say anything to you.

Points two and three in the next blog-

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is the Catholic Church losing our younger generation? II

Repeating what we said in the previous blog: On March 4th, 2011, the Pew Research Center Poll found that “Americans were opposed to gay marriage by nearly 2-1 a decade ago, the latest poll showed 45 percent in support of it, with 46 percent in opposition.” Hence, for the last several decades, the cause for gay-rights is steadily winning the minds of the American people. As stated previously, the entertainment industry has long been an unabashed advocate for the moral legitimacy of homosexuality. However, the institution which has even a greater impact on the minds of the youth is public education. As we have seen, the social agenda of favoring homosexual unions in public schools as the moral equivalent to heterosexual unions is a national phenomenon. And in many schools, it is every bit as important as teaching math or reading. Indeed, in terms of winning the majority of people to same-sex rights, what the entertainment industry began the public schools will finish.

The wide acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage will pose an even greater threat to the moral fabric of American than legalized abortion. What Roe versus Wade was to the human dignity of the unborn, the sanction of same-sex rights is to the dignity of every human being. In other words, the pro-choice ideology changed what some people believe about the unborn, but the belief that same-sex marriage is the moral equivalent to traditional marriage will change what people believe about every human being.

Nevertheless, what people believe about human nature and human sexuality does not change the truth of either one. Just as the DNA molecule contains information about the individual prior to his birth- information that cannot be changed or manipulated by the individual himself -so too does human nature come with pre-existing laws independent of what the community or State believes or says about it. Indeed, human nature is not a blank sheet of paper upon which we can write whatever we want without consequence. Instead, human nature has been given to mankind by God with instructions; its called the natural or the moral law. A child thrives, for instance, when he or she is loved as opposed to being ignored or hated. We cannot will it otherwise.

The point is we can no more redefine marriage than we can redefine human nature. But let there be no doubt, if same-sex unions are regarded as being equal to a marriage between a man and woman, then people will take it to mean that human nature is a blank sheet of paper upon which they can write whatever they want; which is to say people will live by their own rules. The result of which can only be dysfunction for the family and social disorder for society

One of the revolutionary contributions Christianity made to civilization is that it presented the human person- as if from the hand of God himself -with instructions, that is, with certain moral absolutes ingrained in its very nature. With the preaching of the Gospel people came to understand that they were created by God, created for God and created in the image of God. As such, the Divine Architect of human nature had something definite to say about it; something quite independent from what was commonly believed up to the time of Christ.

Let the historical record speak for itself. Compare how Christians treated women, children, the sick, the disabled, the imprisoned and even slaves; compare their services to their pagan counterparts. You will find, in fact, there is no comparison. It's not even close! The early Christians invented charity and in many cases carried out their Christian service even at the expense of their own lives. The dignity of the individual person, no matter what his social or political status, demanded recoginition in the Church. This was a stark contrast to even the most civilized parts of the world. Therefore, the Catholic Church has an impressive 2000-year resume of lifting up the lowly. But her Christian duty to love the individual person did not necessitate the approval of immoral acts and lifestyles. A distinction was always made between the sin and the sinner. The sinner was to be loved at all costs; the sin was to be opposed at all costs.

In any case, the approval of same-sex marriage or even homosexuality itself will have a counter revolutionary effect on how we view the world. As I said before, if the union of man and woman (especially in wedlock) is the very image of God through which we understand God and ourselves, then the legitimacy of the same-sex marriage or unions will alter our perception of reality. As with ancient pagan civilization, human laws and human relationships will be arbitrary, unjust and oppressive. That's right! If traditional marriage and the nuclear family is not venerated as exclusively superior to all other partnerships and lifestyles then anything goes.

What Catholics can do on the next blog-