Wednesday, June 29, 2011

St. Peter and St. Paul: And the Bishop's "Pride of Place"

Part I: The Main Thing

If Western Civilization is to be saved, it will be saved by the very principles from which it originated. Any sincere historian who is well grounded in the history will tell you that the Catholic Church raised up, through her preaching, a Christian civilization. Unfortunately, this once Christian civilization has been secularized and is now better known as Western Civilization.

St. Peter, the first Bishop of Rome and St. Paul, the bishop who tirelessly preached the Gospel throughout the Roman empire, were two pillars of this great Christian civilization. Every June 29th the Catholic Church celebrates the legacy of these two great men.

St. Peter, the Rock, as he was called by our Lord, was that immovable agent of authority through which Jesus Christ would speak and rule his sheep throughout the centuries. St. Paul, on the other hand, was always on the go; laying the foundation of the Church by preaching the Word. The former was a Bishop who preached to the universal Church from Rome; the latter was a Bishop who was always traveling about in order to preach the Gospel to as many people as possible. For the Apostles, nothing was more important than preaching. After all, it was because of the ministry of the Word that the celebration of the Sacraments and living the Christian life was possible.

In book of Acts, it reads that the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." (Acts 6:2-4) St. Paul would go on to say to the Corinthians that his priority was not to administer the sacraments but to preach the Gospel. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.” (I Corinthians 1:7) This same mandate would also apply to every bishop who would succeed the Apostles.

To be sure, the Councils down through the ages- most especially the Council of Trent and Second Vatican Council -have taught in no uncertain terms that among all the responsibilities of the bishop preaching the Gospel holds the “pride of place.” Canon law confirms this. In canon 761 it states that, “While pride of place must always be given to preaching and catechetical instruction, all the available means of proclaiming Christian doctrine are to be used…”

The proclamation of the Word exercised by bishops enjoys the fullness of Holy Orders. As such, from the fullness of this sacrament, the foundation of Christian civilization was laid. Without a doubt, the greatest impact the Word of God would have on souls and on civilization itself principally comes their prophetic utterance. This is why in the book of Acts the twelve Apostles stressed that they were to be free from other administrative responsibilities to preach the Word.

St. Paul asked the rhetorical question: “[H]ow can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (Romans 10:14) It can also be asked, “How can the light of the Gospel shine in the unlit corners of society if the bishop does not preach there? Or how can Christian civilization expand once again if the successors of the Apostles preach only to Christians?”

Part II: Using All Available Means

I am convinced that like the Apostles and early Church Fathers, bishops need to avail themselves to the public- to believers and non-believers alike; and in doing so use “all the available means of proclaiming Christian doctrine are used.” (Canon 761) Where do people gather? Where do they meet? That is where the bishops preaching must be; not just in cathedrals and basilicas; but out there in the streets and in public venues, leading the New Evangelization.

Exposure to non-believers can be brutal; but this is precisely why our spiritual ancestors- the Saints of old –used war or battlefield imagery for their mission. St. Paul, a bishop, told his brother bishop St. Timothy to "fight the good fight." What has been lost in the modern day Church is that saving souls does involve a battle against evil; a fight that requires gentleness as a rule but a manly forthrightness when necessary.

In his encyclical on Union Among Christians in 1769, Pope Clement XIII implored the bishops of the Church to be courageous in preaching the Gospel. He challenged them by saying, “We should not be like dumb watchdogs unable to bark, allowing our flocks to fall prey to looting and our sheep to be devoured by every wild animal in the field. Nor should anything deter us from throwing ourselves into battle for the glory of God and for the salvation of souls.”

Clement XIII goes on to say, “If we are afraid of the audacity of worthless men, it affects the strength of the episcopacy and its sublime and divine power to govern the Church. Nor can we Christians endure or exist any longer-if it has come to that-if we become overly frightened by the snares or threats of the damned.” (On the Unity of Christians, 1769) Fearing “worthless” or godless men, he said, affects the “sublime and divine power to govern the Church.” Throughout history whenever spiritual leaders winced and flinched out of fear of reprisals, the people did not hear nor benefit from the fullness of the truth.

Then, in 1904, St. Pope Pius X wrote about the duty incumbent upon every bishop. He quoted St. Pope Gregory the Great by saying, “Gregory rebukes the bishop who, through love of spiritual solitude and prayer, fails to go out into the battlefield to combat strenuously for the cause of the Lord: ‘The name of bishop, which he bears, is an empty one.’ And rightly so, for men's intellects are to be enlightened by continual preaching of the truth, and errors are to be efficaciously refuted by the principles of true and solid philosophy and theology…” (On Pope Gregory the Great, 1904)

Again, among the duties of a bishop the "pride of place" is that of preaching. Preaching to who? Just Catholics? Absolutely not! Preaching to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Christ said to the twelve Apostles- who were the very first bishops -to make disciples of all nations. Most of them were not to stay in Jerusalem and preach among each other. They were constantly venturing into uncharted waters; that is, into the unbaptized world. This is how the Kingdom of God was to spread throughout the world. Indeed, if the frontiers of this kingdom is not expanding, it is contracting. One thing fore sure: It is never static.

Conclusion: Bishops and America

In the 1950's, Bishop Fulton Sheen cautioned America that in an affluent society spiritual leaders go from Shepherds to administrators; from being among the people to being among their own; and from being comforters to being comforted. Indeed, Christianity had softened up. Having witnessed what had begun to develop in the 1950's Sheen said that Christians were beginning to preach a Christ without a Cross, without his laws and without any demands.

On the flip side, Fulton Sheen said that it is adversity, that is, the Cross, which tends to bring out the good pastoral instincts of our bishops. To be sure, the mission of the Church is being challenged in many ways in America- legally, politically and socially. But it is the ministry of preaching by the bishops that will forge the way to renewed America. As good and valuable as we are as lay people, we cannot do it without the bishops leading the way. With their anointing to preach, they can build up a culture of life as did their predecessors St. Peter and St. Paul.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The intensification of Christ's presence: From the gathering of the faithful to Communion

Reposted from the April archives:

As we proceed from the outdoors to the sanctuary, from the business of the week to the Sacred Liturgy on Sunday, the presence of Christ gradually intensifies until we greet him at the altar. We know as Christians that God is everywhere in the universe. Psalm 139 reads, “Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too.” The might of the Lord sustains all things. Indeed, no part of the universe can exist without his presence.

But as soon as we walk through the doors of the church building and into the sanctuary for the Sacred Liturgy, what we encounter is the gradual intensification of Christ’s presence.

In the assembly, where the faithful gather, the presence of Christ is manifest in a special way. We are no longer considering the God’s presence as he exists in creation but rather as he dwells in the hearts of his people. This presence is described as the Church or the Body of Christ by St. Paul. Our Lord himself said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The early Christians had a lively sense of this divine presence where the totality of God is to be found and where the fullness of his gifts resides. Around the year 180 A.D., St. Irenaeus, bishop and martyr wrote: “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace."

From there we proceed to the Liturgy of the Word when the Word of God is proclaimed. When the Scripture readings are read aloud, the presence of God is taken to yet another level. Ancient Christians always made it a point to read Scripture out loud. When spoken, the Word of God becomes present and active. Here again, this is yet another special manifestation of his presence. “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Now we draw close to the culmination of the Mass when, in Persona Christi, Jesus Christ the High Priest mystically enters into his minister as the words of consecration of pronounced over the bread and wine. Here is yet another presence of Christ which is transmitted through the sacrament of Holy Orders. From the Persona Christi ordinary bread and wine become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ come into our midst. As St. Irenaeus said, “Just as bread from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, made up of two elements, one earthly and one heavenly, so also our bodies, in receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, for they have the hope of resurrection.” The Eucharist, therefore, is given to the Christian on the altar as Manna was given to the Israelites in the desert. Upon this altar- and only at the altar –is the bread of God is served. As St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of St. John the Apostle and Bishop of Antioch, said, “Let no man deceive himself: if anyone be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God.”

Before the altar, the communicant receives the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. By virtue of our sacramental communion with Christ, we are made into walking tabernacles, Christ-bearers if you will, and then are sent out into the world to sanctify it.

As Pope Benedict XVI taught in 2005 at World Youth Day, the transformation of bread and wine into Jesus Christ prefigures the kind of change that God will bring about in our resurrected bodies. Indeed, through the glorification of our Risen Lord and through our resurrected bodies the universe itself will be transfigured. The first pope of the Catholic Church, St. Peter makes reference to this when he writes, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought (you) to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (II Peter 3:10-13)

This is where the intensification of Christ’s presence leads; to a new heaven and a new earth. But it first must pass through the sanctuary of the Church.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Eucharistic Sacrifice: Self-denial in action

I have no taste for corruptible food or for the delights of this life. Bread of God is what I desire; that is, the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for my drink I desire His Blood, that is, incorruptible love.

~St. Ignatius of Antioch

There is a profound connection between the Eucharist and the practice of self-denial. We may not think of it this way, but the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass through which the Eucharist is given to us is self-denial in action. It is Christ eternally offering all that he has to the Father- his body, blood, soul and divinity. And yet, for us, self-denial is the preeminent virtue that makes love possible; it is the cornerstone of stable relationships; and it is the force behind great achievements.

St. Francis of Assisi once said that God is more pleased with bearing criticism in silence than with ten days of fasting. This self-denying silence goes a long way in keeping the peace between husband and wife, family members and neighbors. But it takes a great deal of discipline and sacrifice not to defend yourself when you’re being accused of some fault.

This is where the Eucharist comes in. The life of Christ, as told in the Gospels, is not only to be imitated. Holiness requires more. We sometimes forget that Christ is fully alive in the Eucharist as he exists in eternity and as he existed in time. Mysteriously contained within the Sacred Host is the Incarnation, the Nativity, the Presentation, his Death, his Resurrection, his Ascension and even his Second Coming.

To be sure, when the Eucharistic Host is elevated by the priest during the Mass, our Heavenly Father looks down and sees, in one glance, all the sacrifices Jesus made: from the moment he cried in the manger to his final words on the Cross. The sacrament of the Eucharist, therefore, projects this life-long sacrifice of love into the present moment through the Holy Sacrifice of the altar. But it doesn’t stop there.

As we feed on his body, blood, soul and divinity, the fire of the Holy Spirit reproduces the image of Christ within us. As Pope Leo XIII said, when we eat regular food, the food assimilates into us, becoming part of us; but with the Eucharist, the opposite happens! We become assimilated into Jesus and hence we become transformed into his likeness. Proceeding from his image and likeness imprinted in our soul is the virtue of self-denial; the virtue that weeds out selfishness little by little. With this, love of God and neighbor can prosper all the more.

Interestingly enough, the early Christians saw martyrdom as an imitation of the Eucharistic sacrifice. St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of the apostles St. John and St. Peter, just prior to his death in the Roman coliseum, said, "I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ." For him, martyrdom was the supreme act of self-denial whereby he became like his Eucharistic Lord.

It is important to keep in mind that it was in the day to day sacrifices of St. Ignatius- those little acts of love -that prepared him to face the lions in the coliseum. And we cannot forget where the source of his strength came from. It was the Eucharist, the “medicine of immortality,” as he put it, and "the Bread of God which is love incorruptible."

Self-denial, as practiced by our Lord, is the substance of every virtue and that which makes Christian love a living reality. And for Catholics who wish to advance in virtue, it is good to know there is a profound connection between the daily Sacrifice of the Altar and our practice of self-denial at home and abroad. And self-denial, sweetened by the body and blood of Christ, will lead the soul to peace and joy too few people know.

Friday, June 24, 2011

No red carpets for great missions

It used to be the case that scouting agents from major universities rolled out the red carpet for gifted high school athletes. In order to get them to attend their university, these scouting agents would give high school students a sizable bonus, such as cash or a new car. Such an incentive is hard to resist and for that reason, it probably worked most of the time.

However, when God calls us to something great, his approach is different. God’s recruitment tactics does not involve rolling out the red carpet. In fact, it is just the opposite. When God has a special assignment for us- whether it be leading one soul to Christ or leading many souls to Christ –he gives us a cross. That’s right! God allows obstacles, trials, and setbacks to come in our way.

Not infrequently, we become acquainted with the bitter disappointments of what seems to be successive failures. Under such conditions, it is not uncommon for a soul being tested to doubt his mission; or even worse, to doubt God’s love and providential wisdom. Pushed to the limit! That’s what a panting and fatigued soul feels when climbing the mountain of God’s mission.

With that said, great faith is merited by great trials. God knows that every person must be equal to his mission. In this life, trial is the school of virtue and the training ground for being an apostle! With God, unlike the college scout, the fast and famine comes first and then the feast follows.

This pattern of God’s training ground was applied to the great ones of the bible. Abraham was just one out of many. But in considering his example, we can draw some useful lessons for our own lives.

Abraham was privileged to be the father of God’s people. However, as with all of God’s chosen ones, Abraham was put through the ringer. For instance, God had promised Abraham that a far off land would belong to him and his descendants. As a result, Abraham picked up everything that he owned, and with his tribe, he traveled many miles to the land of Canaan (later to be known as the Promised Land- Israel). The only problem was that soon after he arrived, the land was hit with a famine. Consequently, Abraham’s tribe had to migrate to Egypt for food. Mind you, this was at least an eleven day journey.

But his trials didn’t end there. When he got to Egypt, the Pharaoh confiscated Sarah, Abraham’s wife. (By the way, he did get her back.) And then after years of being barren, God blessed Abraham and Sarah with a baby boy named Isaac. When Isaac was of age, God called Abraham to offer his son as a holocaust. Of course, this was a test. But Abraham wasn’t informed of this until the very last second.

Even today, God’s method of recruiting is the same. But why does God do it? What is the value of having trials in our mission? There are three benefits we can glean from this pattern: First, is to strengthen and purify our love for God. Second, is to strengthen our trust in God. Third, is to make us docile to his will.

Like his heavenly Father, Christ does not use the tactics of a scout in recruiting people for great missions. The red carpet was no where to found for St. Joseph, Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Apostles. Nor should we expect it when we have been called to undertake the Lord’s cause. Pope Leo XIII said that “no man can hope for eternal reward unless he follows in the blood-stained footprints of his Savior.” This is not the kind of language we are used to hearing; and for that reason, it might sound harsh to our modern sensibilities.

Nevertheless, when we are burdened, fatigued and perhaps discouraged by the weight of today’s trials, let us remember the words of St. Ambrose: "If you are being tested, know that a crown is being prepared for you."

In the absence of the red carpet- when the road is uphill and rocky -let us remember the crown! God has not forgotten about you. Your trials were a part of his plan from all eternity.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Martyrs and the State

“...nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are cut down by you, the more numerous we become. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.”

-Tertullian, The Apology: A Letter to the Emperor (around 200 A.D.)


Every year, between June 22nd and June 29th, the Catholic Church honors five martyrs: St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, St. Irenaeus, St. Paul and St. Peter. These saintly martyrs have shown that there is something worth dying for- and consequently something worth living for –that is more important than life itself. And that something is Christ and his heavenly kingdom.

However, what Martyrs die for and what Saints live for does not fall under the jurisdiction of the State. It is something that political rulers cannot lay their hands on; nor do they possess the power to regulate it. Indeed, the dignity, the immortality and the destiny of the soul is forever outside the reach of political rulers. As St. Thomas More said before his execution, as long as he is faithful to Christ, the King can do no real harm to him.

In a way, martyrdom also testifies to the limitations of the joys in this life. That is to say, the shedding of one’s blood gives witness to the anticipation of an everlasting life in heaven. Every martyr was of the conviction that he or she would be compensated in full measure for all of the sacrifices they made for Jesus. As our Lord said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive back an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come.” And again, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

To be sure, the martyrs did not court death; but when it was a choice between death and infidelity to God, they welcomed death as a bridge to their heavenly homeland. As such, there was no melancholy or need to look back. Their resolve was unbreakable because their destiny was certain. And this is precisely what the worldly minded person does not understand: the moral and religious certainty of those who witnessed for Christ!

The Catholic Faith reminds us that our freedom and the responsibility of governing the people is not without consequence. Eventually every person and every ruler has to come to terms with the fact that there will be an accounting for the failure to observe God’s law. The book of Wisdom reminds rulers that their power will be scrutinized and held accountable by a Higher Power: "Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the LORD and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!" (6:2-3)

What is more, the martyrs and their witness calls attention to a world beyond the grave; a world that cannot be ignored! But those who pursue power and pleasure at any expense are threatened by this authentic Christian witness. The reason is that those who follow Christ are a Sign of Contradiction to the ways of the world. As St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “For we are the aroma of Christ for God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the latter an odor of death that leads to death, to the former an odor of life that leads to life.”

Perhaps this is why, from the very beginning, it was the unbelieving State- whether it be in the person of a Egyptian pharaoh, Roman emperor, king or a dictator –that has routinely contested the expansion of God’s kingdom. And the more godless this State was in any given era, the more it sought to eliminate godly men and women.

Martyrs from St. Peter to St. Thomas More have testified with their blood that the power of the State is not absolute; that there is a higher authority and a heavenly Jerusalem that exceeds the narrow limits of every political regime. And it is to this Higher Authority where our unconditional loyalty lies. To be sure, when every citizen or the at least the majority of citizen's loyalty is given to God first, then those circumstances which give rise to an all-powerful State will be laid to waste.

The Spirit of Christ: The author of secret warnings and invitations

I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. Ezekiel 36:25-26


Our Lord Jesus knew that the mere observance of His laws and the imitation of His virtues would not be enough for our happiness. Indeed, he knew that a copy of his life would not satisfy the human heart.

Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be our helper and intimate friend so that we could share in his very life. Through the Holy Spirit, we participate in the same power, the same wisdom and the same love that animated Jesus for thirty-three years. This is why we can say with St. Paul, "For to me life is Christ."

From our Lord’s Incarnation to his Ascension, the Holy Spirit was there with Jesus- sanctifying every thought, word, and deed.

As for us, we are baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. By receiving the same Spirit at baptism, we can live the same life that Christ lived. As such, Jesus raised the moral law to new heights. He said, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."

In his encyclical, On the Holy Spirit, Pope Leo XIII said the Holy Spirit enters the soul and makes it like unto Himself. And he does this by exciting in our minds secret warnings and invitations. Even more, he inspires in our hearts the sweetness of paternal love. Leo XIII concludes that without the Holy Spirit’s help, there is no progress and no arriving at eternal salvation.

In the affairs of everyday life the Holy Spirit helps us to discern those values that build-up relationships. He helps us to see that sacrifice and self-denial are absolutely necessary for happiness. And He further helps us to see the world as it really is.

As for those laws of Christ that are unpopular and least understood by our culture, his Spirit generously reveals their value to us. What once seemed absurd and confounding in years past, now begins to make sense. We thus realize how important all the teachings of Christ are for our happiness.

Amidst adversity too, the Holy Spirit helps us to keep our eyes fixed on heaven; filling us with hope and putting our life in a better context. Because He is our helper and intimate friend, he can use us in ways we once thought were impossible. And remarkably, it even dawns on us that living the life of a Saint is actually within reach!

St. Cyprian, a Father of Church and a martyr in the third-century, was one such person who thought that the standards of the Christian life were impossible- something that just couldn't be done. That's right! He said that in the darkness of his life he despaired of better things. But he saw something in the lives of the Christians that drew him irresistibly to Divine Love. After he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit went to work.

In a letter to Donatus, St. Cyprian wrote:

"By the agency of the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth had restored me to a new man, then, in a wondrous manner, doubtful things at once began to assure themselves to me, hidden things to be revealed, dark things to be enlightened, what before had seemed difficult began to suggest a means of accomplishment, and what had been thought impossible, was capable of being achieved."

What God did for St. Cyprian in the third-century he can do for us in the twenty-first century. We too can live the life of Christ! We too can begin to enjoy eternal happiness; thanks to the Holy Spirit- our helper and intimate friend.

God Gives Back His Holy Spirit

The first Pentecost Sunday, immediately following the Ascension of Our Lord, is when God gave back his Holy Spirit to mankind. You might wonder: when did he take it away?

Believe it or not, the Spirit of God had been missing in action for hundreds of years prior to the first-century.

In Genesis 6, just prior to the Flood, the Godly descendants of Seth- Seth being the righteous son of Adam and Eve -married into the ungodly race of Cain. The implication of course was that the descendants of Seth no longer valued the true Faith that was handed down to them. After all, they married into an irreligious people; a cursed race.

In response, God withdrew his Spirit. In fact, he said, “My spirit shall not remain in man forever, since he is but flesh.” In a word, God said “I’m out here! I am no longer wanted!”

In the absence of God’s Spirit, the rules of life changed dramatically. Immediately after the Flood in Genesis chapter 9, God spelled out these “new” rules:

-He said that dread and fear would come over the animals; they would now be afraid of man.

-Second, man would go from eating plants to eating animal meat. The harmony between man and the animal kingdom would therefore be disrupted.

-Third, God will now demand a strict accounting from man. For instance, if he kills another human being; he himself shall be killed (Genesis 9:6). An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will be the measure by which people are measured.

To be sure, from Genesis 9 to Pentecost Sunday an exacting justice will mark God’s dealings with man. Since “man is but flesh” and no longer concerned about the things of the Spirit, he will be judged by God accordingly.

Perhaps this is why God is perceived as being harsh in the Old Testament. Because of man’s rejection of him, God withdrew his Spirit and scaled back his mercy.

The unfortunate side effect was that human nature was coarsened. Indeed, man’s heart was hardened. Polygamy, superstition, and human cruelty were universal. And even with his own people, the Lord tolerated (but not endorsed) the polygamous practices of Abraham, Jacob and King David.

But that all changed when, through Christ, God gave back his Holy Spirit. If you read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5-7, you will see that Jesus is not lowering but raising the moral standards.

For instance, he said that not only is adultery was wrong but even lusting after a woman was a serious sin; not only killing is wrong but even being unjustly angry at your neighbor is a moral evil.

Notice that the new law of Christ is not content in condemning bad behavior. Rather, it strikes at the root of the problem by addressing the heart of man, the inner sanctuary where his thoughts originate.

However, to his listeners, the new law that Jesus spells out seemed demanding; if not impossible.

But by the power of the Holy Spirit, observing the new law would not only be possible, it would also be the conditions for a new and abundant life.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Straight to Heaven: Tips on becoming a Saint

When all the hustle and bustle of the day has quieted down and you finally have a moment to reflect on the day, on life, and on God, do you ever entertain the thoughts of becoming a Saint? Do you even think it’s possible? Among practicing Catholics, I would say most do not. Yet, the first step in becoming a Saint is believing that it is indeed possible. That’s right! You have to think big in order to be a Saint! The second step is equally simple: As St. Thomas Aquinas said, you have to will it! And believe it or not, if you have these first two steps down, you’re half way there.

The other half of the journey consists of things that are normally associated with being a Saint: an intense love for God and neighbor; devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary; frequenting of the sacraments; and being faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church etc. However, there are other virtues and practices that set the Saints apart from other Christians. The difficulty with these qualities is that they run counter to the noise, indulgence, and the self-esteem driven society we live in. They are not so much opposed as they are ignored and deemed unrealistic.
Nevertheless, these are the marks of a Saint. With the belief that being a Saint is possible and the willingness to become a Saint, the practice of meditation, temperance, holy self-hatred, speaking highly of our neighbor and loving the poor will progress if we only persevere with God’s grace. They will free up the soul from worldly distractions so that obedience to God’s every directive can be realized without delay and without excuse. These five marks below played no small role in not only the sanctity of the Saints, but their ability to accomplish great things:

1. Meditation: Every Saint set aside time for spiritual reading and meditation everyday. In addition to assisting at Mass, praying as a family, or praying the Divine Office with a religious community, the Saints were emphatic on meditation in silence and in solitude. This is an absolute must if we want a closer union with Christ. Without it, we just superficially skim along the surface of life without plumbing the depths of its meaning, its mysteries, and its limitations.
Mediation simply consists of thinking about some sacred event or truth for a significant length of time; preferably a half & hour to an hour. It could be an aspect of the life of Christ, a teaching by St. Paul, an Old Testament story, or even a book by one of the Saints. Traditionally, the Saints included four basic parts to their meditation: 1. Preparation for meditation by choosing topic. 2. Thought about the sacred truth or even. 3. Being inspired to admire and adore Christ in light of this truth. 4. A specific resolution to living according to this truth that day or the next.

We need to keep in mind the Word of God is like the sun- the longer you sit before it, the more change it will effect in us. Each passage from Scripture is a like a present that needs to be opened and reopened again. For each time we open it, we are sure to find something new and beneficial. The fruits of this are that we come to see the world as it really is; we come to see ourselves as we really are; and most importantly, we come to see God as he really is. As such, the follower of Christ who has developed the habit of meditation is ready for anything- good or bad.

2. Not on bread alone: The diet of every Saint was very modest; at times scant. They rarely ate for its own sake; although they did enjoy certain foods and drinks. St. Padre Pio, for instance, had one beer a day. But his meals, as with other Saints, were just enough to keep his body going.

The virtue of temperance in eating food makes it much easier to be tempered in other areas of one’s spiritual and moral life. The sin of gluttony causes spiritual sluggishness. The virtue of temperance, on the other hand, quickens the soul to discipline and awareness. It reminds us that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word the proceeds from the mouth of God.”

The bottom line is that our body will expire and give way to corruption sooner or later. Eating less and fasting more is a testament and reminder of this. To be sure, the body needs to be maintained but the soul needs to grow everyday or else it regresses.

The Saints also understood that the key in unleashing the power of God is through prayer and fasting. St. John Vienney was consulted by another priest about attracting more souls to his parish. St. John simply asked him, "Do you do penances for them?" "No," the priest said. "Well," St. John said, "don’t expect much." Every Saint knew that the conversion of souls requires more than just words and prayers; it requires sacrifice. None knew more than St. Paul, for he said, “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (II Corinthians 4:12) Indeed, dying to self is a powerful means of giving life to others.

3. Holy self-distrust: This virtue is practiced among all the Saints but in today’s self-esteem driven culture, it has never been less understood. Holy self-distrust does not consist of berating oneself or deploring one’s own existence, it is simply seeing who we really are in light of God. The fact is we had nothing to do with our own existence; God did not consult us nor did we do anything to bring it about; we were totally passive. Moreover, before we loved God, he first loved us. Whatever good thoughts we may conceive, whatever good words we may utter or whatever good deeds we may do, it is primarily due to the initiative of God’s power and grace. If a leaf does not fall to the ground without God’s permission, then certainly the next move we make can only happen with his consent.

The virtue of holy self-distrust also brings us down to reality in reference to our neighbor. It is a law of holiness in that the more we become holy, the less we know it. The same also applies to sin: the more we sin, the less we realize that we are sinful. So, as the light of divine grace increases within the soul- illuminating those dark corners that were previously overlooked -a man like St. Francis of Assisi could sincerely say that he was "the greatest of all sinners" without being the least bit phony. As with any Saint, the sins of St. Francis were right there for him to see. Never seeing himself as being blameless, he was free to bless his persecutors, free to compliment his critics, and free to make peace with those who wanted to do him violence.

The great irony of holy self-distrust is that those who practice this virtue not only know how to love, but they know peace and happiness like no other.

4. Speak no evil: Seeing the best in others and in the worst in ourselves is a virtue that stands out strongly among the Saints. From this, the maxim they observed was never say anything about a person in their absences if you are not willing to say it in their presence. Not only, therefore, did they not gossip and slander, but they admonished those who did.

The Body of Christ is such that the close bonds with one another should, as St. Paul said, cause us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. In other words, if a brother or sister in Christ has sinned, instead of it being a subject for discussion or gossip, it should be a reason for sadness. But our weak human nature- mostly because of pride –delights in the faults of others. And this is why the sin of gossip and slander is so common. We compare our own goodness or sinfulness with one another (instead of comparing ourselves with Christ) and by default there is a temptation to relish conversations about those who have been ranked lower than we.

However, the Saints always resisted this. If they did encounter people gossiping about a sinner, they often reminded the “gossipers” about some virtue or good quality of the person they were talking about. Indeed, the Saints had a keen awareness that as sons and daughters of God they had a duty to love every person simply because God, our heavenly Father, loves them so much. Gossip, then, believed to be incompatible with this love and hence was always avoided.

5. Love of the poor: Doctors and Fathers of the Church, even with all of their scholarly work and spiritual master pieces, found time to help the poor. For them, evangelization was a body and soul approach to the human person. No doubt, conversion, salvation and education held a higher priority than any bodily need. Nevertheless, ministering to the physical needs of people was never compartmentalized and radically set apart from evangelization as it is today.
For instance, the same St. Augustine who wrote classics such as, Confessions and City of God, is the same man who founded hospices for the sick and orphanages for abandoned children. Even Bishop Fulton Sheen, probably one of the greatest television evangelists of the twentieth-century, did mission work in third-world countries and donated much of the proceeds from his popular television show, Life is Worth Living, to the poor. He once said, “The poor need the rich for material reasons; but the rich need the poor for spiritual reasons.” When we give of ourselves to a person in need- be it a child, the sick, or the less fortunate –we come to know, by way of imitation, what God is like as the Creator and Giver of so many good things. And because our Lord Jesus identifies himself with the poor in a special way, when we give to the poor and love them, we give back to Christ who has given us everything.

Therefore, to be a Saint is to love the poor. It is my no means automatic that the imitation of this virtue leads to sanctity; but the perfection of sanctity can not be had without it.

Among many others, these are the virtues and practices that go into the making of a Saint. The more they progressed in these areas, the more willing they were to say yes to God in all things. Believing that being a Saint is possible and the willingness to be one yourself is indeed a big part of going straight to heaven. Once you’ve gotten this far, however, go the distance with the abovementioned virtues and practices and you just may actually do it: You just may become a Saint and go straight to heaven!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

On Becoming Catholic: The Church Fathers had it right


In 1825, a German priest by the name of Fr. Johann Adam Mohler wrote a fantastic book (a little on the scholarly side) entitled, Unity in the Church. In it, he reveals how the Holy Spirit, through the teachings and the pastoral practices of the early Fathers, made the Catholic Church a unified front and a strong force in bringing about a new Christian civilization. A vital part of what made the Church an instrument of mass conversions and cultural influence was her spiritual formation of candidates in the Catechumenate. Their methodology went beyond mere instruction or the reliance on concepts alone. Living the Christians virtues and repenting from past sins was a must.

The Early Christian Catechumenate:

The RCIA of early Christianity was known as the “Catechumenate.” For several centuries it lasted three years and was attended by frequent prayers known as exorcisms. Exorcisms were simply prayers against any evil spirit that may have hindered the candidate's conversion. It was also a recognition that the sinner, who once belonged to Prince of Darkness, was not only called to do good but to also renounce evil.

The Catechumenate also involved a close scrutiny of the life of the candidate by the local bishop. A well known bishop of Hippo by the name of St. Augustine, one of the greatest Father's and Doctor's of the Church, would even ask the candidate's acquaintances how he or she lived during the Catechumenate. This process known as “the scrutiny” was an examination in order to determine if the candidate was serious about living the life of Christ. At the very least, the believer had to observe the Ten Commandments, be free from mortal sin and make a sincere effort to live out the Christian virtues. What is more, all of Christ’s teachings, as taught by the Church, had to be believed. It was only then that the candidate could hope to enter into the full communion with the Holy Catholic Church.

RCIA’s Reliance on Instruction:

The ancient Catechumenate was founded on spiritual formation and examination, unlike many RCIA programs of the latter part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first century. In recent decades, RCIA programs have not been based on spiritual formation so much as instruction and lectures. Many, if not most, modern day RCIA programs require that the candidates attend these instructions; but not much more is asked of them. And by and large, RCIA leaders do not insist upon the observance of God’s laws nor the unconditional and full assent of Christ’s teachings as a precondition of entering the Church.

Much like schools of ancient pagan philosophy, the RCIA program relies on the communication of mere concepts. There is no time of testing or real spiritual formation which necessitates repentance or a break from sin. Instead, candidates are put on a conveyor belt where they receive instruction on the Catholic Faith and proceed into the Church whether or not they have accepted anything that they have heard or learned. To become Catholic, all a person has to do is show up to class on a weekly basis for nine months and fold his arms and listen. Nothing more is required. But it wasn’t always like this.

Catechumenate and Spiritual Formation:

Before the 1960’s, being received into the Catholic Church was a matter of spiritual formation than it was a process of receiving instructions. Truth was to be passed on, not just by the communication of mere concepts, but by living out the moral virtues of the Gospel. Holiness, to be sure, always has been the most reliable source of knowledge. This is one of the great legacies of the Saints. The best training for becoming a full-fledge Catholic from the early Church to the mid-twentieth century was an instruction in the truth's of the Gospel, to be sure, but it also consisted of a sincere effort in the observance of Christ's laws. Without this sincere effort to break away from the life if sin and enter into the life of Christ, the subsequent graces received from the Sacraments would yield little fruit.

Pagan Philosophy and Concepts:

When Christianity first entered the world stage in the first century, it communicated truth in a revolutionary manner; much different from its pagan counterparts. The old schools of the pagan philosophers proposed a system of concepts to live by but their former life remained as it was before. They did not- nor could they -make a clean break with their old ways of thinking, speaking and behaving. What is more, the concepts that were handed down were a reflection of what they already were but not the better person they should have become.

Perhaps, this is why Clement of Alexandria, a Father of the Church in the second century, said the following: “We do not assert that knowledge consists in merely in concepts, but it is a divine science and a light that has arisen in the soul through obedience to God; it reveals everything to humanity, teaching human beings to know themselves and God.” It is holiness, not just learning alone, that leads to the life-giving knowledge of Christ.

The Life of the Spirit:

On the other hand, Fr. Johann Adam Mohler said that “Christianity gave a creative power, able to beget a new life to its adherents; it made individuals aware that they was nothing aside from a continual living relationship with God, and it taught them that they must take up their instructions with humility if they wished to know anything.” Moreover, the Spirit who gave life to the ministry of Jesus and further conferred redemptive value to his sufferings, is the same Divine Person who is communicated to the believer through the Sacraments. And although the candidate seeking to become Catholic had yet to receive the life of Christ through the Sacraments, he or she could count on the preliminary workings of the Spirit. Indeed, before being received into the Church, God inspires the soul’s yearning for a higher more noble life. But the preliminary working of divine grace is only fully realized in the totality of believers, that is, in the Catholic Church.

Doctrinal concepts and definitions have value insofar as they “express the inner life that is present with them.” No doubt, dogma conveys definite truths to the mind. But it is the life of the Spirit that brings them to fruition. Indeed, without the breath of the Holy Spirit revealed truths remain a dead letter; just ink on paper.

The early Christians, therefore, did not put a lot of emphasis in concepts alone or that Christian concepts were better than pagan ones. They did not want the Gospel to be chosen because its philosophy or ideas were superior to their pagan counterpart. The non-Christian or candidate who wanted to join the Church had to be proven in his or her association with Christians as well as living out the Faith. If Christians were convinced that the candidate believed that the teaching of Christ was from God, their admission followed.

Apostolic Truth and Totality of Believers:

In early Christianity, if anyone ever doubted what the true Christian doctrine was, the doubter was not given Scripture to study or a set of Church documents; instead, he or she was to learn the revealed truths passed down in the individual’s church, especially those churches in which the Apostles themselves taught. From that point forward, the believer who wished to join the Church, the community of the faithful, was to unconditionally accept all of her teachings. The reason for this, Fr. Johann Adam Mohler argued, was that the divine Spirit testified in the whole church where the fullness of Faith was to be found. ”The individual believer as an individual could err," he said, "but never if that individual clung to the totality," that is, to the Church. He then went on to say that “the totality of gifts of the Holy Spirit is in the totality of believers.” Full Christian maturity, therefore, depended on accepting and living out all that the Bride of Christ had to offer the individual believer.

A very important Scripture passage in understanding the necessity of total fidelity to Christ’s teachings is from James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” St. Augustine, just a few centuries later, elaborates on this principle by saying, "There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition."

Conclusion: Allowing Error and Sin is to Allow Division

This is where Fr. Johann Adam Mohler contribution comes to the fore. He points to the reason why the Church’s influence on civilization would break down in subsequent decades. Today's Catholics have the advantage of hindsight and can see (and must admit) that our shepherds, teachers, dioceses and parishes are no longer perceived to speak with one voice and to act as one. If the RCIA programs throughout the world are not based on that spiritual formation similar to the Catechumenate and if they do not require repentance from error and sin as a precondition of entering the Catholic Church, then unity among her members will continue to break down. What is more, conflicting messages will undoubtedly be conveyed. The result can only be more of the same, that is, a world that has grown cold by skepticism.

“The battle of division,” Mohler predicted, “will last longer, the more sin and error is found in the Church. The result is always like its cause: the more error there is among a greater number inside the Church, the more numerous will be the opposing errors in the separated parties and the longer will be the battle...Thus all sects that were in the Church in her first century disappeared, and all parties that separated from her later have destroyed themselves.

It is only an infinite multiplicity, not a unity, and each one among many, each individual heresy, already bears the seeds of destruction in itself.”

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Letter from Theologians: When religion fuses with politics

Due to be published at the Edmund Burke Institute website:

In May of 2011 two Catholic theologians, Dr. Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University and Dr. Vincent Miller, professor at Dayton University, made an appearance on the O’Reilly Factor to discuss a letter criticizing the 2012 Republican-supported budget that was led by House Speaker, John Boehner. This letter, entitled The Letter from Theologians, and drafted by Dr. Schneck, enjoyed the support of approximately eighty signatories, one of whom was a well-known theologian- Fr. Thomas J. Reese from Georgetown University. But of these eighty signatories, thirty were from the Catholic University.

There reason why Bill O’Reilly asked theologians Schneck and Miller on the Factor had to do with the controversy it provoked. Not in the name of their own political views did Schneck and Miller criticize Boehner’s policies; no, they invoked Catholic social doctrine in order to advance the erroneous belief that the Church requires the State- much like Socialism and the Democratic Party platform -to be the principal benefactor of the poor and the needy.
Catholic social doctrine, to the contrary, condemns the theory or national policy whereby the State assumes the private responsibility of being our brother’s keeper, a responsibility incumbent upon private citizens, the family or Christian institutions.

And this is the point I wish to make: The overriding principle of Catholic social doctrine is that of subsidiarity; a principle opposed to what is commonly known as “big government.” This principle holds that “nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization.” As a matter of fact, in Pope Benedict’s most recent encyclical, Charity in Truth, mentions this cardinal principle twelve times; giving it a place of high priority.

Nevertheless, Dr. Schneck begins the letter by accusing Mr. Boehner, a professed Catholic, of having a voting record at variance with the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. And what might that teaching be? “[T]hat those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.” Specifically, Dr. Schneck takes Boehner to task on his 2012 claiming in that it guts “Maternal and Child Health grants and slashing $500 million from the highly successful Women Infants and Children nutrition program.” He then takes issue with the House budget which “radically cuts Medicaid and effectively ends Medicare.” Implying that cutting entitlement programs is tantamount to heresy, Schneck then admonishes Boehner to give full consideration to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

On the O’Reilly Factor, in order to support their position which favors big government programs, Scheck and Miller referenced two Catholic principles out of context. To justify the discontinuation of Bush’s tax cuts, for instance, Dr. Miller appealed to the principle of distributive justice. This principle of Catholic social teaching maintains that all classes, but especially the working and lower classes that have fewer means to legally defend their rights than the upper classes, be the beneficiaries of the same justice. That is to say, each worker deserves a wage by which he or she justly merits; that the burden of hard labor be age-appropriate, avoiding the exploitation of children (common in the late eighteenth and early twentieth century); that working conditions ought not be unsafe due to the employer’s dereliction; or that the poor have access to the basic necessities of life such as food and water.

In tandem with Dr. Miller’s argument, Dr. Schneck posited that the government ought to give preference to the poor, thereby giving the impression that the Catholic Church favors what amounts to a welfare State. One would think that by listening to Schneck and Miller that the Church would have endorsed Obamacare and the stimulus bills that have spiked to the national deficit to unprecedented levels. It is important to note, however, that this commonly held presupposition among Catholics theologians - that the State ought to be the principal benefactor of the poor and needy -is not only at odds with the Church’s most ancient moral teachings, but it has furthered the cause of an all-powerful State in our nation.

To counter these misrepresentations about the role of government, Bishop Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa, spoke to the practical implications of subsidiarity. In August of 2009, during the national debate on healthcare, he said that the sickest and those most in need should get the medical care they need. However, he goes on to say that how this is to be done is not self-evident. In fact, the decisions that are collectively made by society fall under “prudential judgment.” And in this category of prudential judgment, the Church does not teach that the government should supply healthcare.

As to the proper role of government, the Bishop of Sioux City reiterated the long-standing teaching of the Catholic Church. He said, “The proper role of the government is to regulate the private sector, in order to foster healthy competition and to curtail abuses. Therefore any legislation that undermines the viability of the private sector is suspect.”

Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), arguable the most authoritative Catholic document on economic and State-related matters, warns about the undue interference of the State in the economy. He said that “things move and live by the spirit inspiring them, and may be killed by the rough grasp of a hand from without.” That “rough grasp of a hand from without,” no doubt, is a State monopoly on the market. “It is clear,” Leo added, “that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected.”

And herein lies the error that many progressive theologians make in criticizing the budget cuts that are being called for: Giving the surplus of one’s wealth is a “duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity -- a duty not enforced by human law.” (R.N. art. 22) Hence, it is not the duty of the State to take from the upper classes in order to provide for the lower classes. No, as Pope Leo XIII said, it is a duty inspired by Christian charity and is the primary responsibility of the private sector.

Sermons: The Storeroom of the New & the Old

Originally posted in January of 2011:

"...every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old." (Matthew 13:52)

Experience can work to our advantage. Most people see it as such. However, what people miss sometimes is that experience can be a liability; a handicap of sorts. For instance, when a couple experiences troubles within their own marriage, it is often the case that they are the least qualified to see the troubles as they really are. Quite often, the culpability of the husband escapes the husband and the culpability of the wife escapes the wife. Hence, a third party is invoked; usually a friend or a marriage counselor who can make an evaluation and then offer guidance with some degree of objectivity about the problems at hand.

This is why two celibate bishops like Fulton Sheen, author of Three to Get Married and Pope John Paul II, author of Love and Responsibility, were able to provide deep and practical insights into love and marriage. Their contribution to the topic derived from the countless couples they counseled. And having been the "third party," these two bishops were able to arrive at helpful solutions to the common problems of romance, sexuality and marriage; this, precisely because they were free from certain blind spots which naturally sprang from these problems.

It is to be expected, therefore, that the clergy has its own blind spots as well. Like any married couple, they can become too close to their own problems. Chief among them are the sermons they deliver to their parishioners. A lay perspective, a third party, if you will, can be of great service to the priesthood. After all, lay Catholics are the "customers" or the intended beneficiaries of sermons delivered during the Liturgy of the Word. As with any service people receive, Catholics have formed opinions about the sermons they have had heard over the last fifty years or so. Dissatisfaction among parishioners with sermons is rarely communicated to the parish priest for obvious reasons.

With that said, it is universally acknowledged among lay Catholics- with some exceptions of course -that the preaching from the pulpit in recent decades has struggled to inspire and educate the faithful. Here, I include those sermons given by orthodox, Christ-centered priests. To be sure, sermons in parishes across the nation have also struggled to be relevant in that they make few references to every day problems and current events. For instance, I remember attending Mass the Sunday after 9/11. Not a word was spoken during the sermon about the trauma America was still feeling over the terrorist attacks. Although this may have not been the case in every parish that Sunday, my experience seems to be emblematic of what regularly occurs at Mass. Lay people can be reading and hearing about a pressing issue 24/7 during the week and yet very few words, if any, are spoken about it by the priest or the bishop. It is no exaggeration to say that what is talked about at the kitchen table, or what is discussed around the water cooler outside the office, or even what issues make the front page of the newspaper, are rarely given a Catholic interpretation from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Americans are consumers of event-driven news. They take interest, not so much in topics, but in what is happening today. The Second Vatican Council- as if prompted by the Holy Spirit in a kind of anticipation of how people would receive information in the future -gave an exhortation that the preaching of the Gospel should illuminate and interpret the circumstances of daily life and the current events which surround it:

"To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics."(Guadiem et Spes, article 4)

Still, the clergy and even some Catholic media outlets, are primarily topic-driven. As for speakers, evangelists or teachers in Catholic forums, it is not practical nor is it desirable to get away from topics altogether. However, what the Holy Spirit seemed to have been saying through the Second Vatican Council is that in an event-driven, media-driven society, the preaching of the Gospel must involve explaining people's experiences and interpreting events that are meaningful to them. This is the "new from the storeroom" that needs to be brought to the fore.

Second Post:

It seems as if the Catholic Church is a two-story building; the laity being on the first floor and the clergy on the second. Each story has its distinct subculture; the differences of which are profound at times. This bi-level Church we belong to- each level having its own language, interests and ways of looking at the world -is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it is several hundred years old. Arguably, the trends which divided the clergy and the laity into separate subcultures emerged in the Middle Ages; and it never completely went away. Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, wrote that during the Middle Ages "the rise of a new lay educated class brought with it an independent ideal of lay culture. The consequent division of culture into two halves corresponded to the social division between clergy and laity." He continues: "While the clergy studied the Bible and the Fathers, the laity studied the classics; while the clergy studied the history of the Church, the laity studied the history of the State; while the clergy studied the traditional Christian philosophy, the laity studied the philosophers of pagan antiquity and the natural sciences."

Today, this dichotomy between the laity and the clergy expresses itself along similar lines. Lay people are consumers of internet news, cable news, and talk radio. They get their information with imagery, in quick sound bites, or in well crafted advertisements which speak directly to desires and needs. In any given message, relevance is critical. On the other hand, papal encyclicals and Church documents are usually long and academic. To decode some of the theological jargon, one needs a B.A. or an M.A. in theology at the very least. Moreover, these instruments of passing on information within the Church are, as I said previously, more topic-driven and abstract. The average person, however, has been groomed by the media to want current event-driven information. For this reason, Catholic documents and books penned by Church officials are not frequented by many people. It simply takes too much time to read and the language is too elevated for the average person to appreciate.

We need to remember the words of St. Paul who became disillusioned with the elevated and sophisticated language of the Greek philosophers of his day. In his second letter to Corinthians, he wrote: "For we write you nothing but what you can read and understand." (1:13) Brevity, simplicity and charisma are not only the marks of the New Testament epistles, but they are also the marks of modern communication. But as it appears, the clergy has not yet adapted to the twenty-first century consumer mentality and the way people are accustomed to receiving information. This is why sermons are all the more important! Yet, the time allotted for sermons during the liturgy are too often missed opportunities.

Western Civilization, as with most civilizations in world history, is currently on the decline from moral decay. The moral causes are easy to identify: Contraception, sex outside of marriage, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia etc., just to name a few. North America and Europe are literally dying because of these sins. However, due to the silence of the clergy, the world has been given the opportunity to shape our attitudes and beliefs about the most important issues of life. It is not enough that we hear or read the truth about morality from the heights of Vatican Hill. We need to hear it from our priests and bishops. In the forty-plus years of my life on earth, I can count on one hand the number of times I heard words like "birth control" or "cohabitation" mentioned during a sermon. Yet, the Catholic Church is the most qualified agent to set the record straight and thus stop the social hemorrhaging. But she must begin by preaching about these issues specifically and concretely; not guised in general references. By doing this, the Church- the oracle of God -will bring the Light of Christ to these dark crevasses of society.

There is, no doubt, a price to paid for speaking the truth. This is why Christ exhorted his followers to rejoice when they are persecuted for His sake. Perhaps a disgruntled Catholic will reproach a priest after Mass; or maybe friendships and alliances will be compromised at the parish level. These possibilities quite often serve as a pretext for saying little to nothing about such sins from the pulpit. Nonetheless, it is important that everyone, not just the priest, know that for every person we offend with the truth, we are apt to attract three or more souls to Christ. Yet, the offended person is much more likely to be vocal about his opposition than the person who has been won over by it. Because of this recurring dynamic, Catholics- both clergy and laity -perceiving that the offended person represents the majority, retreats and says no more about the truth. But when the clergy or lay religion teachers do not speak the truth about the above mentioned sins- out of fear of a backlash -then the Church at large will have to pay a much greater price downn the road.

To be sure, the reluctance of the Catholic clergy to address the specifics of the moral law, especially with regard to sexual sin, has left a void in our culture. Let there be no doubt, the silence and timidity of priests who stand behind the pulpit every week has only made room for sin, false ideologies, and destructive behaviors to flourish all the more. But as our Lord said, "A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden." A lamp is placed on a "lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house." But when the lamp is put under a bushel basket, darkness ensues. Indeed, it has never been so unclear as to what a Christian really is or even what the nature of marriage really is.

The priesthood, that is, the spiritual fatherhood of society, really does set the pace for the people. The supernatural order is the cause; the natural order, the effect. When priests do not speak to the truth about specific moral behaviors which determine the quality of life and the longevity of civilizations, then the powerful and influential people of society- be it politicians or celebrities -will define how we shall live and how we shall die.

For the third post please go to the archives of January of 2011 and click on Sermons: The Storeroom of the New and the Old III

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Church's Role in Current Marriage Trends

Preface: It has been said that "the Church is the hope and despair of mankind." When her pastoral practices mirror those of Jesus Christ, inspiring holiness in her members, society inevitably benefits from her graces.

The institution of marriage, along with the family, is the cradle of society. And the guarantor of this cradle- at least in centuries past -has been the Catholic Church. But when the light of the Church is faint and her life frail, then the institution of marriage suffers. With an ever increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage and cohabitation becoming a popular alternative to marriage, our nation's prosperity and stability is compromised.

The point of the blog below- originally posted as three separate blogs in October of 2010 -is that the remedy is to be found with the preaching and pastoral practices of the Catholic Church. We have to remember that the Church is a real a Mother, the Mother of not only her own children but of the human race. When the discipline exercised by parents is strong, balanced and consistent, their children are orderly and well behaved. As a result, they prosper. But when parents are not on the same page, when their disciplinary actions are passive and timid, children become unruly and are ill prepared for the obligations of life. This analogy speaks to the affect pastors and teachers of the Catholic Faith have on the world. The plight of America, as well as the world at large, can be traced to the life of the Church. But the Good News, as I indicated, is that the remedy to this plight is to be found in the strengthening of that life. But how? By preaching, pastoring and disciplining the way our Lord, the Apostles, the early Church Fathers and the Saints did; like good parents who know how to say "no" as well as "yes," who know how to correct as well as affirm, who know how to punish- yes, punish -as well as reward. True Christian and paternal love requires this. Anything less is a disservice to souls.


The Bishops Speak Up:

In recent months, U.S. Bishops in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia have been campaigning to keep traditional definition of marriage- between a man and a woman –as the only legally binding definition. For instance, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference stated in the Boston Herald News in late October that certain “moral and social issues are fundamentally important, since human rights are at stake and must be protected to help democracy to flourish in a way that benefits every citizen.” The statement went on to read: “These include the defense of the sanctity of life, the family based on marriage between a man and a woman…” The archbishop of the Twin Cities, Archbishop John Nienstedt, also assertively campaigned for the dignity of marriage by mailing a DVD (defending marriage as between one man and one woman) to 800,000 Catholics in the state of Minnesota.

There is a reason behind this refreshingly bold and unapologetic approach by many U.S. Bishops. And the reason is that the institution of marriage is being challenged on two fronts: Same-sex marriage, especially among the younger generations, has become widely accepted. Moreover, cohabitation among young adults is seen, with ever increasing frequency, as a viable alternative to marriage. Indeed, yesterday’s problem was divorce, but today’s problem is incentivizing couples to get married. If marriage, as opposed to cohabitation, requires more sacrifice and commitment, then why get married?

The Peril of Marriage:

Indeed, for the first time in America's history a majority of young adults from ages 25 to 34are choosing not to get married. Cohabitation rates, especially among the lower classes, have risen sharply in recent years. The data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey and 2010 Current Population Survey confirms this. This is what they found:

• Between 2000 and 2009, the share of young adults ages 25 to 34 who are married dropped 10 percentage points, from 55 percent to 45 percent.
• Among the total population ages 18 and older, the proportion married dropped from 57 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2009.
• In 2008, non-marital births accounted for 41 percent of all births in the United States; although roughly half of these non-marital births are to cohabiting couples.

As one analyst said, "This is the lowest percentage recorded since information on marital status was first collected by the U.S. Census Bureau more than 100 years ago." The question Catholics should ask is: What relationship does the Catholic Church have with regard to these marriage trends? And how can she reverse it?

Highest Doctrinal Standards:

No doubt, the Catholic Church has the highest doctrinal standards with regard to marriage. Her teachings on the indissolubility of marriage and contraception are just a few of the doctrines which are countercultural; that is, doctrines considered to be “too difficult” or “unrealistic” by the majority of Americans. However, the pastoral practices of the Church in these last five decades- especially with regard to marriage preparation –have not been countercultural at all; far from it, they have been quite accommodating. And here lies the problem.

As a result of this accommodation, rates of cohabitation, divorce and the practice of contraception among Catholics are roughly the same as the rest of society. In other words, the Church in America is composed of members who fare no better in their personal holiness than non-Catholics. If the majority of Catholics fail to observe all the moral laws of Christ then the Church as a whole will be ineffective in her witness. As Pope Leo XIII said, “As souls cannot be perfectly united in charity unless minds agree in faith, he [Christ] wishes all to hold the same faith.” The power to do good and the ability to glorify God as a Church requires a united front. But a united front in action is only preceded by a union of minds.

Keeping the Whole Law:

Collectively, a union of minds and uniformity of action is essential. Just as important is the obligation of every Christian to accept and live out all that Jesus Christ taught. A very important Scripture passage in understanding the necessity of total fidelity to Christ’s teachings is from James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” St. Augustine, just a few centuries later, elaborates on this principle by saying, "There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition." In other words, if a person is faithful to nine out of the Ten Commandments, but is not observing the sixth commandment- "Thou shall not commit adultery," then it is as if he or she violated all the commandments. The same applies to fornication, contraception or any sexual sin. Using the analogy of St. Augustine, any one of these serious sins is like that drop of poison in a big glass of purified water. What good is the purified water if it contains one drop of poison?

Low Pastoral Standards:

Do not these passages from St. James and St. Augustine summarize, in a nutshell, why the Catholic Church has struggled to preserve the dignity of marriage in our culture? Is it not the case that in most marriage preparation programs couples who cohabitate are not required to repent from their sin before getting married in the Church? As such, they are neither trained in virtue for the sacrifices every marriage demands or prepared for eternity by repenting from the sin of pre-marital sex. This pastoral passivity speaks to the heart of the problem.

Before the 1960's, and especially in the first millennium, a common pastoral practice in the Catholic Church was that she required repentance from sin, especially serious sins, as a pre-condition for participating in the Sacraments. Also, throughout the centuries- leading up to the 1960's -if one was to enter the Church he or she had to believe everything Christ as taught by the Catholic Church. Picking and choosing was not an option.

It is encouraging to note that Archbishop Nienstedt of Minneapolis is attempting to dust off those ancient pastoral practices of the Church. He said, "I believe if you are going to be Catholic, that you have to be 100% Catholic…That you stand by the Church, you believe what the Church believes and you pass that on to your sons and daughters and your grandsons and granddaughters.

Apostolic Pastoral Standards:

"Do not receive him in your house." In the first-century when St. John the Evangelist wrote these words the Church was eager- like we are today -to welcome as many people as possible into the fold. However, if a person or a couple was not willing to "remain in the teaching of the Christ" they were not to be received in to the house; that is, the House of God. Submitting both their minds and will to the Gospel was an absolute. A failure to do so would merit exclusion. As such, the Church's mission to prepare souls for eternity was more firmly established.

To repeat, this principle was universally observed in the Catholic Church prior to the mid-twentieth century. In the early Church especially, a candidate wishing to become a member of the Mystical Body of Christ or a couple wishing to get their marriage blessed by the Church, had to believe the whole corpus of Christ's teachings. About the year 150 A.D., St. Justin Martyr wrote The Apology. In it he makes reference to the high standard required of one who wished to receive the Eucharist. He said, "We call this food the Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true…and is thereby living as Christ enjoined."

The Early Councils on Marriage:

To live as Christ enjoined was proven by repentance and a virtuous life. The holy jealousy of the Bishops regarding the integrity of the Church, and the salvation of souls committed to their care, was given more clarity and detail at the Council of Nicea. Canon twelve reads as follows: "Those who by fear and tears and patience and good works prove that their conversion is real and not simulated, when they have completed the prescribed time among the hearers, may fittingly participate in the prayers after which it is at the discretion of the bishop to treat them with an even greater kindness."

Finally, we come to a writing from the same period which specifically addresses fornication, marriage and being admitted to the Sacraments. The Council of Elvira, a meeting of bishops in Spain, decreed that, "If it is determined that youths who have fornicated after having been baptized may, when they have done legitimate penance and when they have been married, be admitted to communion." (around 300 A.D.) Here, repentance from fornication and then entering into the lawful union of marriage (if the couple chose to get married) was the condition from which these "youths" could be admitted to communion.

The Wisdom of the Fathers:

To summarize: The best way the Fathers of the Church knew how to ensure the salvation of souls on the one hand, and the holiness of the Church on the other, was to make total fidelity to Christ the premier condition upon which he or she could enter the Church or remain in communion with her. By doing this, the Mystical Body of Christ was not only a showcase for individual virtues but it was also an assembly of married couples who were a living testimony of Christ's love for His Church. This is what made marriage so attractive in centuries past. Undoubtedly, it is what gives meaning and splendor to the sacrifices required for a happy, life-long marriage.

Those pastoral practices which served to make marriage esteemed by society as the holiest of unions in the past will once again reveal marriage as being superior to cohabitation and same-sex unions in our day.