Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Shepherd at Christmas

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him…” (John 1:1-3)

This passage forms the opening to the Gospel of John which tells of the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God Who shared in the creation of the world. These lines from John’s Gospel echo the opening words of Genesis, which tells us that “in the beginning” God created light, land, and water, and every kind of animal that moves upon the earth, and finally God created man in His own image. And God gave mankind dominion over the earth and over the animals and plants that grow there. Humans are responsible for tending to God’s creation.

Whatever our occupation or vocation in life, we participate in some way in nurturing God’s creation. Whether we build things with our hands or design things with our minds or move things from one place to another, we are answerable to God, and He will judge whether we make proper use of the created world He has bestowed upon us. Genesis tells us that we are the pinnacle of His creation. We are the greatest of His creatures. And so we have authority over the animals and plants of the earth because they are lesser creatures. We are responsible for their care. God has charged us with this task, but we can only succeed if we learn well our vocation and follow God’s Will.

Now, Joseph was a carpenter, and we assume that Jesus learned this trade in His youth. But as a vocation, as a life-calling, Jesus referred to Himself as “Shepherd.” This defined His task in the world. Certainly all shepherds care for the created world and have dominion over their flocks as God intended. But as the Good Shepherd, Jesus did not tend real sheep. Jesus’ flock is of the human race. Jesus came to have dominion over us who are created in His image. In this way, we who were charged with tending creation must ourselves be tended. As the Son of God, Jesus surpasses us who are merely created beings, and so He has the right to declare dominion over us.

In this way, the Son of God came down to fulfill that mission…

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

As the Good Shepherd, Jesus indeed cares for His sheep in the same way that we would care for those under us. And He set about this task immediately: The infant Jesus was laid in a manger – a word that means “to chew” or “eat.” A manger is where food is placed for animals to eat. Just as we are charged with feeding and caring for the lesser creatures in our midst, so the Son of God cares for us who are infinitely less than His divine Being. Every shepherd must build a manger and stock his barns and set aside pastures and farmland, and thus they provide for their flocks. At Christmas we see the infant Son of God laid where lesser creatures gather for food, in a manger filled with straw. God has provided food for His flock. God comes down from heaven and feeds us who are lesser beings, like sheep in need of a Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays Himself in the manger as food for His sheep.

When we read that “The Word became flesh…” we must recall too the later words of Jesus in John’s Gospel. The Good Shepherd assures us, “My flesh is real food.” (John 6:55) And so the Shepherd of mankind has provided food for His sheep. As His sheep we gather to partake of what God provides. Every Christmas should point us toward the Eucharistic feast that is God’s own flesh.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Link to a great article on subsidiarity

The current healthcare debate has been on my mind for some time now. Unfortunately I have not had the time (or more correctly, I have not taken the time) to sit down and write anything for this blog concerning my thoughts on this issue. And honestly, I prefer not to use this blog as a “current events” forum…even if that current event pertains directly to an important moral issue like healthcare and more broadly, social justice. I’m not interested here in picking apart specific pieces of legislation or commenting on the political winds that blow this way or that. This site is not specifically a “political” blog…although I do, from time to time, address political happenings.

When I do refer to politics or current events, I usually try to relate the issue to a broader theme and focus on that “theme” rather than an analysis of the particular event. With that in mind, I intend to write some posts on the larger issue of Social Justice, and when I do I will certainly take into account the political debate between conservatives and liberals on the role of government, the dignity of the human person, and other pertinent subjects.

Until that time, I wanted to post a link to an article I found at a website called Catholic Exchange, regarding the Social Justice concept subsidiarity and how it relates to the current healthcare “reform” legislation pending in Congress. As the article explains:

“In a nutshell, the principal of subsidiarity states that matters impacting the human person should be addressed by the smallest, least centralized, most localized, competent personal authority possible. The opposite situation is realized when personal affairs are managed by larger; more centralized and detached public authorities.”

Obviously this simple truth flies in the face of the “big government” bureaucratic solutions so often touted by liberal Catholics who argue that Social Justice demands a top-down solution to social ills. But as the article further states, official Catholic sources warn against such statist approaches to meeting people’s needs:

“Citizens, for their part, either individually or collectively, must be careful not to attribute excessive power to public authority, not to make exaggerated and untimely demands upon it in their own interests, lessening in this way the responsible role of persons, families and social groups.” (Gaudium et Spes - 75)

And as Pope John Paul II warned:

"Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good." (Centesimus Annus - 48)

Obviously, much more could be said on this issue, and I intend to write more some time in the new year. For now, I recommend reading this entire article as it reflects my own understanding of this important topic.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I ran across a funny, tongue-in-cheek commentary on what should be done if Mass is interrupted by a gunman. The piece was written by a priest at his own blog in response to the following question…

“I have a question for you. Suppose during a EF Mass, a gunman or threatening person enters the church, and opens fire. What can be done within the rubrics to protect the Blessed Sacrament, the priest, the servers, and the congregation? Please keep in mind that the congregation is made up of slow, aging men, who no offense to them, really can’t protect anyone.”

[Read the whole article here.]

The reply is quite funny and well worth the read (especially for any Catholic familiar with the rubrics), but in the end it does deal with a serious issue. Mass can be interrupted by any number of outbursts, verbal protests, natural disasters, sudden emergencies, or even a violent assault. Throughout the centuries priests have been martyred while standing at the altar offering the Sacrifice of the Mass. What better way to catch a Christian during times of persecution than in the very act of worshipping Christ in the Holy Eucharist. To find Christians gathered around the altar praising their God has always been a welcomed target for enemies of the Church.

During times of war, Mass has been disturbed by cannon and gunfire, troops storming a captured city, or bombs falling from above. Also during war, Mass has been celebrated near the frontlines as soldiers prepare for battle and partake in what may be their last reception of Christ’s Body here on earth. At any moment an enemy barrage or sudden attack could jeopardize that sacred moment.

Of course, these extreme examples are not typical in most of our ordinary parishes here in the United States or in most places in the Western World (although sadly there are places today where this sort of thing does still happen). For most of us, we do not go to Mass wondering if the church will be bombed while we worship or hoping that Father is not gunned down as he consecrates the bread and wine.

The final point from the article I cited above is that when Mass is suddenly interrupted by an act of great violence, if the people are directly attacked in some way or threatened with death, the rubrics do not spell out some pre-planned maneuver to counteract the menace. Generally in such circumstances the Mass is suspended and the threat is answered with whatever means are necessary…basically, common sense prevails, and the rubrics cannot replace common sense when faced with a life-or-death struggle. A gunman is not going to wait for the priest to cite some Cannon Law or turn to the correct page in his Sacramentary. Obviously the gunman is not “playing by the rules,” so consulting the “rule book” is a waste of precious time.

This is not to say that the rubrics tell us nothing about what to do when the Mass is interrupted in a more ordinary way, absent gunfire and explosives. Just as there are specific guidelines dictating how the Mass ought to be celebrated, there are also guidelines instructing us what to do when the Mass does not go as planned. The case of an armed gunman is extreme, but there are other unplanned emergencies that come up from time-to-time that do fall within the guidelines laid out in the rubrics. During these times, the Mass can usually continue while the emergency is handled by competent individuals in the congregation.

Coincidentally, a couple of days after reading the article mentioned above, the Mass I attended was interrupted by a man who apparently was having a stroke or some other sudden medical emergency. I say that the Mass was “interrupted,” but quite literally it was not interrupted. As the Mass continued on, I was completely unaware of the event as it unfolded on the other side of the church. The gentleman’s needs were handled quietly by those sitting nearby. A woman called 911 on her cell phone and others sat with him and his wife as they waited for the paramedics. I had no idea that any of this was going on until I heard a gurney unfolded and its wheels struck the floor with a thud.

However, our priest apparently had been alerted to the situation right away and had even sent an altar server to find out what had happened. I thought it odd at the time that a server would leave the sanctuary and I noticed upon his return that he whispered something in Father’s ear. But Mass continued, and so I focused again on the Liturgy while fellow parishioners did what was needed for the elderly gentleman.

On at least two other occasions I have witnessed similar situations, when someone has collapsed or fainted or suffered some sudden physical ailment during the Mass. And always the priest is called to perform his ministerial duties at the altar, while those in the pew attend to the needs of their fellow parishioners. The Mass must go on!

I am always struck by the wisdom of the Church in setting the guidelines for the celebration of the Mass. Every detail is planned for and every eventuality is considered. Even the gunman scenario described above is addressed indirectly in the rubrics by allowing for the suspension of the service when people’s lives are threatened. As the before-mentioned priest blogger duly noted in his conclusion:

32. If, while the priest is celebrating Mass, the church is violated before he has reached the Canon, the Mass is to be discontinued; if after the Canon, it is not to be discontinued. If there is fear of an attack by enemies, or of a flood or of the collapse of the building where the Mass is being celebrated, the Mass is to be discontinued if it is before the Consecration; if this fear arises after the Consecration, however, the priest may omit everything else and go on at once to the reception of the Sacrament. (From the old De defectibus)

In all of this it should be remembered that the Mass gives to us God Himself, physically present as food and drink. Knowing this, we ought not leave anything to chance.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Removing 'Christ' from Christmas

I read recently that the White House toyed with the notion of removing “Christ” from “Christmas” this year. That is to say, the idea was passed around that the Christmas nativity scene, traditionally displayed in the East Room of the White House, would not be brought out this year. In the words of the President’s secretary, Desiree Rogers, the Obamas would be celebrating a “nonreligious Christmas.” As faithful Christians across the country raised eyebrows over this breach of tradition and former Presidential secretaries literally “gasped” at the thought, those responsible for White House decorating and event planning have since changed their minds. The crèche will now be displayed as it is every year.

[For more on this story click here.]

Some might ask: Why should it matter whether the First Family celebrates a religious or a secular Christmas? Is it any business of ours to pry into the religious devotion (or lack of devotion) of the First Family?

Certainly a person’s religious beliefs are a private affair. It is a matter of one’s own conscience to decide what one believes about the Deity, if one believes at all. In a free, pluralistic society no one is required to believe anything against their will, nor are we required to share our personal beliefs in the public square if we choose not to do so. But Barack Obama has in the past put his faith front and center, especially when courting Christian voters during his Presidential campaign. In July of 2008, he addressed a gathering of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in these words: “In my own life, it's been a journey that began decades ago on the South Side of Chicago, when, working as a community organizer, helping to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, that he could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted myself to his will and I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.”

On many occasions Obama has referred to his religious faith as a Christian, and many people, rightly or wrongly, voted for him on the assumption that his faith shaped his understanding of human frailty and suffering. He framed in religious terms his work among the poor and disenfranchised, and made it clear that Jesus’ call to help those in need was a defining element of his own call to public service. In other words, Obama made his faith a matter of public debate. He took a private matter and brought it into the public square. He chose to do this himself – no one dragged the issue out of the closet against his will. It was his decision to make his faith public. Many, if not most, politicians have done likewise in the past, and when that is the case it is perfectly legitimate for their constituents to question a sudden change in that elected official’s stance toward their faith.

Obviously the Obamas have every right to celebrate a secular Christmas - or Winter Solstice - if the wish. No one is suggesting that we should pass a law requiring the President to celebrate a Christian holy day against his will. Indeed if Obama had always publically professed to be an atheist or an agnostic, then it would make perfect sense that he would reject the religious side of Christmas. If he were a Muslim or a Jew or any other non-Christian then of course we would expect him to celebrate Christmas in a secular way or even not at all.

But the fact is that Barack Obama has on numerous occasions referred to his Christian faith and to his Christian pastor as great influences in his life. He has attended church and been a member of Christian congregations in the past, and professed publically a belief in Jesus. He was married in a church, was baptized as a Christian, and had his children baptized. As President he publically celebrated Easter this year at an Episcopal church.

If this new “secular Christmas” is some kind of politically correct ploy designed to appeal to the atheistic Left, then I must question his sincerity as a Christian. I wonder whether he is using the Christian faith as a political tool. If that is the case then I am offended as a Christian. (Though, I am not surprised.)

If, on the other hand, he truly believes that Jesus’ birth - God becoming incarnate to live among us - is not an important event in his Christian faith, then his religious statements up to this point are either disingenuous (he has been lying about his Christian convictions) or he has reached some new understanding about God that constitutes a sharp break from what he has professed before…in other words he has suddenly rejected Christianity in the form he has embraced it before, for what alternative belief system, I do not know.

Now obviously, there are some Christian sects and denominations that do not observe holidays and feast days. These Christians reject setting aside days for special religious celebrations. Some Christian fundamentalists do not celebrate Christmas or Easter or other Christian holidays. But I doubt that this is the case for the Obamas. In the past, Obama has always attended these services (Easter this year, for instance). He has never shown any sign of gravitating to this brand of Christianity. But if this is the case, if he has chosen a new faith tradition, then this would mark some new spiritual understanding that Obama has acquired. And such a religious shift should be noted publicly since he has made his faith so public in the past. How does this new spiritual awakening affect Obama’s outlook on policy? If his Christian faith has shaped his motivations in the past, then what are his new motivations?

There are those who say that religion should not affect a person’s politics in this way. To those people I say, you are flat out wrong. A person’s faith affects their understanding of human worth and dignity, the value of life, the purpose of our created world, the meaning of history, the origins of our rights, and so much more. If a person holding public office cannot be honest and forthright about his or her convictions on these issues then I must hold them suspect. If they falter or even lie about their deepest beliefs, then how can I trust their judgment on other issues? It becomes a question of personal character and integrity.

If the nation had elected an atheist, then so be it. Christmas at the White House would be secular, and that would be that. If we elected a Jew, then I would expect a menorah. But we elected a man who spoke highly of his Christian convictions, a man who claims to have been greatly influenced by a faith which drove a personal quest for truth. If his convictions are wavering on this most important of issues, or his quest for truth has been a farce, then I have great reason to distrust him as my President.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mary's Immaculate Conception

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when we honor Mary, conceived without original sin. As a young Catholic, I had always simply accepted this status for Mary without much thought to the theological reasoning behind it. When I began studying the Catholic faith in earnest (around the time of my wife’s conversion), I reflected more deeply on why Mary was granted such a privilege to be without sin since the moment of her conception.

Original sin is passed from parent to child – it is inherited. Because of humanity’s fall, we are all conceived in this state, which damages our relationship with God. Because of original sin, we are all in need of salvation. There is nothing in our power that we can do to overcome this fall from grace. Only an act of God can save us. We are cut off from God and in need of His saving grace.

Mary was saved by just such an act of God. She was preserved from original sin so that she would be spotless, the perfect vessel for carrying God’s Son. The reason this was theologically necessary is quite simple. If Mary had possessed original sin, she would have passed it on to Jesus, her child. Jesus would then inherit a fallen human nature.

To prevent this, God could have “stepped in” at the moment of Jesus’ conception to "save” Him from original sin. But can you imagine a Savior in need of salvation?…the Son of God in need of grace? This is obviously not a workable solution.
If Jesus had been in need of salvation at the time of His conception, He would not be God.

In order for Jesus' divinity to not be in jeopardy, it must be that He inherited a perfect humanity from His mother Mary.
And so Mary was spared through God's grace so that Jesus would be born naturally without the stain of original sin. It was not an act of Mary that caused this…she still owes her salvation to God, as we all do...but without this singular act of God’s grace bestowed on Mary the birth of the God-made-man would have been a theological impossibility. Mary was spared from original sin so that Jesus (who is God) could be born without the need of salvation, and He could then offer himself unblemished as a sacrifice for us all.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Book Review: Sharing Christ’s Priesthood - A Bible Study for Catholics

Reading God's Word as a Priestly People

As a biblical study, Sharing Christ’s Priesthood is suited to both individual as well as group or class use. Author Mike Aquilina writes in a straightforward style that is easily accessible to the average layperson, making individual home study ideal for any Catholic. Even for those unfamiliar with the subject or unable to find a Bible study group in which to participate, this book would be well received. Anyone seeking an introduction to the Catholic teaching on priesthood, as rooted in Scripture, will find this volume an excellent gateway to a broader study of the subject. At ninety-four pages, it is concise and yet contains the essential information necessary to gain deeper insight into the concept of priesthood from Genesis to the Book of Revelation and into our present time.

As with any effective biblical study, the goal is not to merely present information, but to encourage the reader to think, act, and pray about the subject at hand. Some issues, such as the tradition of celibacy among the ordained priesthood or the exclusion of women from Holy Orders, if treated in full, could easily fill many books (and of course, such books are available at any good Catholic bookstore for further reading). But Aquilina’s task here is not to address and analyze fully the historical, spiritual, and theological reasons behind such practices or to offer a compete analysis of the priesthood in general. With a mind toward thinking, acting, and praying on the Word of God, the author gives a brief outline of the biblical history of God’s holy priesthood and prompts the reader to reflect more deeply in one’s own heart and mind.

So for example, celibacy in the priesthood receives a brief explanation, but the reader is encouraged to ponder further the implications and spiritual significance of this discipline, and to discuss the issue with friends and fellow Catholics. In a group setting this might prompt a fruitful discussion in which greater insight can be shared among the participants. An individual outside of group study could seek out books or other sources, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that would shed more light in areas that deserve a broader treatment.

Anyone who has read more technical or theologically rigorous works on priesthood and those who are well versed in Catholic Scriptural exegesis will find nothing new in Sharing Christ’s Priesthood. But for those who are unaccustomed to Bible studies or find theology intimidating, this book presents a wonderful synthesis of many biblical texts organized on the theme of priesthood. Even those who are unfamiliar with Catholicism (for instance, persons enrolled in RCIA programs) who wish to be introduced to the Catholic understanding of priesthood would do well to read - and pray about - the information Aquilina presents.

The organization of the text, which is divided into six “Sessions” (or Chapters) creates a logical flow that helps connect the dots between biblical ideals and our present reality. Each Session can be used as a format for group study so that the entire book can be covered in six group meetings. However, I could see how the Sessions could be further divided for a more thorough examination of the material.

The first three “Sessions” cover the biblical concept of priesthood as it developed in three distinct periods of salvation history. Beginning “in the beginning” Aquilina traces the priesthood from the time of Adam and the Fall of Man and the promise made to Abraham; then secondly, through the coming of the Old Law with Moses and the Levitcal priesthood and the Jewish Temple; and finally the third Session presents Christ and the Christian concept of priest. The last three Sessions cover the common priesthood of all believers, the priesthood of the Apostles, and the priesthood today, respectively. Throughout each Session, Bible versus are frequently cited and assembled quite effectively to create a seamless narrative. Most of these biblical verses are printed in their entirety, except at the beginning of each of the six Sessions where the participants are asked to read an extended passage (usually an entire chapter or more of the Bible) to prepare for the material covered in that Session.

This book does at least two things very well. First, Mike Aquilina does a fine job of presenting a complicated subject in a format and in language that is digestible for the average lay Catholic. In covering the entire length of the Bible, as well as centuries of history and complex theological issues to explain the essence of priesthood in less than a hundred pages, Aquilina has provided a handy resource for educating the faithful in a way that is unintimidating and frankly an enjoyable and easy read.

Second, the author presents a priesthood that is personal and accessible to every believing Christian. Priesthood does not belong exclusively to those who receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Rather everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ shares in His priestly nature, and is called to offer sacrifice to God in union with the One Sacrifice of Jesus (the true High Priest). Those who are ordained into the ministerial priesthood certainly carry an awesome responsibility in offering the Sacrifice of the Mass and administering the Sacraments, but the Christian concept of priest includes all those who are baptized. We are al called to the priestly vocation in our daily lives.

This book, published by Our Sunday Visitor, was timed for release during the “Year for Priests” as declared by Pope Benedict XVI, from June 2009 to June 2010, and is highly suited to the purpose of engaging the average Catholic in celebrating the priesthood during this occasion. But the importance of the subject matter and the universal need for greater biblical understanding among Catholics on this and many other teachings of the faith will ensure that Sharing Christ’s Priesthood will provide spiritual sustenance for years to come.

To purchase your own copy of Sharing Christ's Priesthood - A Bible Study for Catholics by Mike Aquilina, visit the website.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What brings us joy this Advent

Thanksgiving is a time of festivity and food and visiting with family and friends, arrived at with hours of preparation, and followed by dirty dishes and much cleaning up. Some travel many miles to eat the traditional meal, and by the end of the day most of us are exhausted (though well fed) and ready for an afternoon nap and a long night’s sleep - looking forward to (or maybe not looking forward to) leftover turkey for lunches and dinners in the days ahead. As evening approaches and the guests take their leave, we rest from the days events.

But some do not rest...

The Friday after Thanksgiving – Black Friday – with its deep-discounted, bargain sales and slick marketing campaigns, has become the shopper’s holiday. People awake in the wee hours of the morning, or do not sleep at all, to stand in line or camp out in parking lots, waiting for the doors to open at their favorite retailers and shopping malls. It is a vigil of sorts, as they gather in shuffling crowds before the sun rises, bundled up against the cold, anticipating the joy of sharing in this “sacred” rite.

Some friends I know awoke at three or four o’clock in the morning to join the teaming masses. A coworker’s wife drove more than thirty miles from their rural home into the city where she hoped to find the best deals – she had already visited three stores before her husband had gotten out of bed. I even heard about a couple who exchanged wedding vows in front of an electronics store and received a new flat-screen TV as a wedding gift from the retail chain that hosted their nuptials.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but a cold dimly-lit parking lot, surrounded by strangers clutching their purses and shopping lists, hardly seems like holy ground on which to wed. Do we now enter into the bonds of holy matrimony in the shadow of the dollar sign, where once the Cross stood? Have we erected a new god? What is the cultural significance of this “Black Friday” phenomenon?

The name itself strikes me as rather odd - Black Friday. Friday, the day that Christ gave up His life on the cross. How fitting that this day be called “black,” since Christians have traditionally marked Friday with solemnity - especially Catholics who have in the past given up meat on this day of the week, and still do throughout the season of Lent. Of course it is called “Black Friday” for quite another reason. It is the day that businesses hope to be “in the black” with large profits, drawing in customers with unbeatable deals and clever marketing. It is the day that starts the “official” Christmas shopping season.

Does this commercialized “Black Friday” compete with our Christian faith?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to the free market, and I love finding a good bargain. But a friend of mine made a remark this past Friday that put it all in perspective. He said, “You know, my wife went to these sales today, and it only took her half an hour to get ready. She was up before the sun and out the door in no time flat. Funny thing is for any other event she takes more than an hour to get ready, dragging her feet the whole time and showing nowhere near the enthusiasm. I’ve never seen her get up this early. When we leave for church on Sunday morning she always waits until the last minute and we barely make it there on time.”

His mention of “church” I found particularly relevant. This Sunday was the start of Advent, the time of preparation before Christmas, when Christians reflect on the coming of the Christ. During these weeks leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we set our priorities for the beginning of the liturgical year. As with Lent leading up to Easter, during Advent we pray and quietly prepare our souls for the coming of the Savior. It is a long vigil encompassing four Sundays…

But for this vigil we do not stand huddled in a parking lot counting our money and listening for the sound of doors being unlocked as crowds of eager shoppers press in around us. Christians during Advent retreat into the quiet of their own hearts and listen for the sound of angels singing, announcing Joy to the World. This vigil is a time to devote ourselves to the Almighty God, not the almighty dollar.

Certainly during Advent we shop and buy gifts as we prepare for the coming holiday. There is nothing sacrilegious or sinful about purchasing such tokens of love for family and friends as we plan for Christmas. But if we arise before dawn with glee and excitement, rushing to the mall for hours of money-spending madness, can we not bring the same enthusiasm to each Mass, or to the vigil of Christ’s birth? Do we instead drag our feet and complain that we need more sleep, and that we wish Mass was scheduled not quite so early? Do we give to Jesus the same joy that we give to our material goods (bought at discount prices, of course)? Are we denying Christ what is rightfully His – our love and devotion?

When Christ died on Good Friday He had told Peter just hours earlier, “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” At sunrise each morning the “cock crows.” When that time comes, have we already been to three stores before others are even out of bed? How many hours of silent devotion and prayer could we spend in that same time? Do we deny Christ our joy and enthusiasm on Sunday mornings when we give it so freely to bargain sales and cheap discounts? This Advent we should not care so much about the gifts we purchased at the lowest sale prices, guaranteed, but focus instead on the Gift that was freely given – the birth of God’s Son.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book Reviews

I have recently been given the opportunity to write reviews of books for an online Catholic retailer. The books are available for purchase at (along with many other fine Catholic products). Here is a link to the site…

For the record, I am under no obligation to write favorable reviews. The Catholic Company values the integrity of their reviewers, and requests honest evaluations of their merchandise (including any criticism). I, for my part, will oblige by offering my true opinion whenever submitting a review. To aide me in this endeavor my own penchant for reading Catholic theological, historical, and apologetic works over the past several years will give me some basis on which to judge the merits of any text I might analyze for The Catholic Company.

The book I am currently reading (and nearly finished) for my first review is “Sharing Christ’s Priesthood: A Biblical Study for Catholics,” by Mike Aquilina. I have previously read two other books by the same author, which has given me a good base-line from which to evaluate this current volume of his. Also, over the past few months (and quite coincidentally) I have read two other theological and more technical works on the priesthood and diaconate, which should prove useful in placing Aquilina’s Biblical study in broader context for comparison. Every book I review will receive the same treatment and be subject to a solid critique, applying authentic Catholic doctrine to the best of my ability.

When I have finished writing and submitting a review to’s website, I will also post it here at this blog, along with a link to the site, so that anyone who wishes may purchase the featured book or any other product offered by the fine folks at The Catholic Company. Please visit their site as often as you like, and enjoy the excellent faith-based and family-friendly merchandise sold there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Latin Revival

I am a life-long Catholic. But I was born after the Second Vatican Council. The parish I attended was a small country church built in 1968 in a simple modern style, (not as ugly and uninviting as some) but the Masses held there were just as understated as the architecture. That is to say, they were bare-bones and contained only that which was necessary to make them "valid" but lacking any adornment or style. But occasionally a "style" (of sorts) was supplied by visitors to our parish, who brought with them some recent liturgical "invention" which we had to endure with groans and embarrassment, often averting our eyes from the carnage.

Our resident nun at the time (who, I am certain, looked forward to the day of Catholic priestesses and charismatic Masses filled with liturgical dance and new-age symbolism) led the way in this liturgical demolition derby, crashing her way into every component of the Mass and leaving the congregation wondering what was left that was sacred and untouchable. The people patiently endured these periodic displays of irreverence, but it was obvious that the simple farming community in which I lived was not going to respond to or embrace something so grotesque, masquerading as legitimate Catholic liturgy. As time went on the experimentation slowly stopped and something of a "normal" Mass settled in (which admittedly still lacked a distinctive "style," but at least the intrusions of "style" we had endured were worthy of elimination). Bland was better than heretical.

Needless to say, I was born into a time in Church history marked by liturgical abuses that confused the laity and robbed the faithful of many traditional Catholic devotions and prayers and spiritual beauty. The Mass itself was so badly misused that few of us in the pews knew for certain what the Divine Liturgy was even supposed to look like anymore. For decades that has been the state of affairs in many parishes across the country and around the world.

Recently though, there has been the beginnings of a revival within Catholicism, especially among the youth who (like me) never experienced the Mass in Latin or knew the Church before the confusion that followed Vatican II, that promises to bring a more traditional form back to the liturgy. There is a movement to re-establish traditional prayers and devotions like Eucharistic adoration and the Rosary, and to breathe new life into the Mass by restoring some of the old.

Now I am not suggesting that Vatican II was a mistake. As a valid Ecumenical Council approved by the pope and convened under the proper conditions for such a Council, Vatican II was guided by the Spirit and teaches with authority. But the implementation of the Council was often sloppy and unregulated. While the Council Fathers certainly taught correct doctrine, the changes that came about within the Church afterward did not always follow the letter of the law. My childhood experience of bizarre experimentations and invented rites bears witness to the fact that Vatican II was not implemented in a uniform way that preserved the integrity of what had come before. And my experience was not unique. Others endured the same sort of liturgical inventions, and far worse.

Now, as I am older, I realize that all of the liturgical "styles" that had been forced on us in my youth were all lacking in one thing – SUBSTANCE. Substance is the meat of the matter and should drive our determination of the value of liturgical style. To have substance means that a thing has "practical value" or "purpose" (as a dictionary will tell you). The liturgical "styles" that were in vogue in my childhood were literally invented out of thin air or borrowed from some new age spiritual movement that happened to be popular at the time. They were not natural outgrowths of Christian spirituality or handed down from saints and martyrs who could attest to their religious worth. Rather, these liturgical inventions were pieced together by self-appointed liturgical gurus who wanted nothing more than to shape the liturgy to their own desires. The "spirit" of Vatican II gave them the perfect cover for their radical experimentation. They cared nothing for the "substance" of true Catholic Tradition, they only sought to concoct the most unique, the most avante-garde of ceremonies.

But what escaped these liturgical abusers is that real substance, real worth in religious liturgy is found not in the cutting edge newness of experimental forms, but in the depth of spiritual Truth contained in the rites and prayers that have an historical connection to the movement of the Spirit that came before. Christianity is handed-on, not reinvented. Our liturgy (while it may change) must always have a connection to its past in order to remain valid and True. Discarding the old and replacing it with something radically different can never be a valid expression of true Catholic liturgy. Otherwise it becomes all "style" with no "substance."

My experience of the Mass from childhood was not all bad. The substance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist remained through it all. And that gives us hope for the future of the liturgy. The new awakening of Tradition in the hearts and minds of the next generation of Catholics means that we have not lost the faith that was handed on to us.

In keeping with that spirit of awakening old traditions, I decided recently to learn some Latin prayers for personal use in my own prayer life. In 2005 Pope Benedict urged the lay faithful to memorize some of the basic Catholic prayers in the Church’s ecclesial language, so that common prayer could be had during international gatherings such as World Youth Day, and to keep us in touch with our historic liturgical roots. Along this same line, the recent Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum (issued in July 2007) allowed for the expanded use of the old Roman Rite Latin Mass throughout the world. Also the Church’s outreach to the Society of Saint Pius X (known for its hard-line traditionalist views that caused schism within the Church) shows a new openness and appreciation for Latin in the Church’s prayer life and a ought to encourage all Catholics to explore how Latin can be incorporated into their own experience of the faith.

With that in mind, I have posted below the Latin text for the Sign of the Cross and the Our Father. Together these formed the starting point in my exploration of Latin in my spiritual life. I hope other Catholics are encouraged to do likewise as the Church enters a new age of spiritual renewal...

SIGNUM CRUCIS (The Sign of the Cross)
In nomine Patris, et Filii,
In noh-mi-neh Pah-tris, et Fee-li-ee
et Spiritus Sanncti. Amen.
et Spee-ri-toos Sanc-tee Ah-men

Pater noster, qui es in caelis,
Pah-tair noh-stair kwee es in chay-lees;sanctificetur Nomen tuum.
song-tee-fee-chay-tour No-men too-um:
Adveniat regnum tuum
ahd-vay-nee-aht ren-yoom too-um
Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.
Fee-aht voh-loon-tahs too-ah seek-oot in chay-lo et in ter-rah
Panem nostrum quotidianum
Pah-nem noh-stroom kwo-ti-dee-ahn-oom
da nobis hodie,dah noh-bees oh-dee-ayet dimitte nobis debita nostra
et dee-mee-tay noh-bees day-bee-tah noh-strah,
sicut et nos dimittimus
sic-oot et nohs di-meet-tee-moos
debitoribus nostris.
de-bee-toh-ree-boos noh-strees
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,et neh nohs in-doo-cahs in ten-tah-tsee-oh-nem
sed libera nos a malo
sed lee-bay-rah nohs ah mah-loh

Friday, November 6, 2009

The humble embrace of traditional marriage

The recent election has again brought to the fore the issue of same-sex “marriage.” In Maine voters struck down the state’s gay marriage law which had been recently enacted by their elected representatives. In a referendum vote, 53% of Mainers decided to repeal the law and leave traditional marriage intact…for now. Obviously this is good news in a state as left-leaning as Maine tends to be. But of course the fight is not over. As the push for “gay rights” continues on many fronts, we must remain vigilant knowing that the culture is saturated with the homosexual agenda and a disdain for traditional values and institutions.

After the election I discussed the Maine vote with a few liberals who live in that state. They expressed dismay that the people of Maine voted down what they saw as a step toward equal rights and freedom for all. Among the many arguments these liberals presented in favor of gay marriage two ideas stuck out in my mind as most deserving of closer examination here on this blog. I address those two ideas below…

1) A person’s sexuality is not that big a deal. Why should it matter that a person is homosexual?
I cannot adequately express in words my baffled amazement at this comment. If sexuality is not a “big deal” then why are homosexuals so adamant about claiming the status of marriage? After all, marriage is society’s way of holding up human sexuality as a BIG DEAL! If being gay (or being straight) is no big deal, then why should we have an institution such as marriage that recognizes sexual relationships…gay or straight? Why not do away with marriage all together?
Any way you look at it, our sexuality IS a big deal! It shapes our interpersonal relationships; it affects our emotional and psychological dispositions; it influences how we act in society and how others treat us. Sexuality (our sexual identity) touches so many facets of our lives that it is probably one of THE BIGGEST DEALS in shaping our outlook on life and our overall personality. Just tell a gay person (who undergoes a sometimes agonizing process of self-identification) that their sexuality is “no big deal.” Tell a person who is experiencing confusion in their sexual identification that it’s “no big deal” and they should just get over it.
I don’t think this is a valid argument to be used by the pro-gay-rights movement. Not only is it flat out wrong, it also hurts their cause by belittling the role of sexuality in our lives and thus undermining the importance they place on the cause itself. In other words they are shooting themselves in the foot.

2) The people who oppose gay marriage think they are better than everyone else. They push their ideas on the rest of society and don’t leave room for other opinions.
Now these are really two separate issues, but the way it was presented to me in conversation the two ideas are linked in the mind of the liberal gay-rights activist.
Let’s look at each claim separately and then see why it is wrong to equate the two...

The first claim is that the advocates of traditional marriage think that they are “better” than everyone else. This implies that we traditionalists are “self righteous” or “holier than thou” (to use some of the exact terms that were thrown at me). This brings up the question of “goodness” in the sense of personal sinfulness. So the liberals I spoke with believe that traditionalists support male-female marriage because we are the sinless God-fearers and we reject same-sex marriage because those on the other side are the evil enemies of God.
But the fact is I am a sinner and so are all the other supporters of traditional marriage. We know that we are sinners and that is precisely why we hold up traditional values and traditional institutions because they help us to be better people. We certainly do not live up to the ideals of our Christian faith, but then Christ came to save sinners and anyone who claims Christ as their Savior must first admit that he is a sinner and in need of salvation. I do not see myself as “better” than a gay person…I see us both as sinner who need God’s help in overcoming our sinfulness.
The second point used in this example is that traditionalists push their ideas on society without leaving room for other opinions. The fact is that marriage is not MY idea. Marriage is (and has been for millennia) a universally recognized institution that fosters male-female sexual expression directed toward procreation and the building of families. Marriage has always been society’s way of recognizing a particular sexual relationship as important for transmitting values and bringing up the next generation of citizens. In short, marriage is the fundamental building-block of society.
How can we say that traditionalists push their idea on the rest of society, when in fact marriage has been received by all of us from society since time immemorial? Traditional marriage was not invented one day by a group of religious fundamentalists in order to oppress gays or force a certain theology on the community at large. Marriage predates Christianity. Marriage between man and woman is older than Biblical texts, older than religion, and extends back into pre-history.
Traditionalists are not sinless, perfect, holier-than-thou religious freaks who want to force a rigid definition onto society. To be honest, traditionalists see marriage as something bigger than anything we in our imperfect state can tamper with. We know that we are imperfect sinful creatures, and that marriage has been handed to us from the history of humanity and we have no authority to change it or alter it in any way. It is those who do advocate a redefinition of marriage who must bear the burden of proof. What makes them so self-righteous and arrogant to believe that they have a “better” way of defining marriage?
So we can conclude with the following: Human sexuality is indeed an important facet of our being. It is a VERY “big deal.” It is such a big deal that cultures around the world, across the religious spectrum and all throughout human history have recognized the sexual relationship between man and woman as deserving of its own institution which we call marriage. Those who support traditional marriage between a man and a woman do so, not because we are arrogant or self-righteous, and certainly not because we think we are “better” than anyone else. We do so because we humbly accept what has been handed down to us from God or the “wisdom of the ages” or whatever you prefer to call the source of this venerable institution.
Those who support re-defining marriage must learn to accept the importance of human sexuality, not as some personal choice, but as a part of our human nature that touches the lives of others and affects the whole community. To try to change marriage into something that fits our personal desires and that flies in the face of every civilization, religion, and culture we have ever known is the very definition of self-righteous arrogance.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Reclaiming Halloween

In the past several decades, many Christian holidays have become increasingly secularized. Sadly, for many American families, Christmas Day is often more about gifts of material goods rather than reflections on the spiritual Gift of God-made-man lying in a manger 2000 years ago. Easter has been overrun by bunnies and baskets of jelly beans; Saint Patrick’s Day is for the leprechauns; and poor St. Valentine peddles women’s lingerie.

To some degree, even Christians get caught up in the hypnotic glow of lights and lawn ornaments, or green beer, or lavish parades and all the other trappings of the secular calendar. Christians are caught between two worlds. Especially as parents, we realize that when Christian holidays become secularized it leaves us straddling the proverbial fence. On the one hand there is the real need to recognize (and FIGHT for) the true religious nature of the holidays; on the other hand, we do not live in a vacuum. We and our children are exposed daily to the culture that surrounds us. We cannot completely shut it out of our lives. My home is not a monastery and my children are not cloistered religious. We must live in this world, even though we are called to an otherworldly purpose.

Many Christians have realized this dilemma and have begun “taking back” these religious holidays. If we must live in the culture, we will do our best to shape the culture in a Christian mold.

And so we come to Halloween…

As the word Hallow-e’en denotes, this holiday is the “eve of all hallows” – which is the evening before the Feast of All Saints. The word hallowed means “blessed” or “holy;” as in “hallowed be thy name,” which we say in the Lord’s Prayer. On Halloween the “holy” ones are the saints. (The word “saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus” which also mean “holy.”) On November 1 we celebrate the lives of all the Saints who have come before us in the faith. So the evening of October 31 marks the vigil of All Saints Day (All Hallows Eve), just as December 24 marks the vigil of Christmas (Christmas Eve).

But the holiness of this night has been neglected, ignored for so long that some Christians complain (and rightly so) that Halloween seems more pagan that Christian…and even downright Satanic. Some Christians do still send their children out trick-or-treating but others reject Halloween as a work of the devil. They point to the ancient pagan practices that resemble Halloween and draw the obvious parallels. They sometimes acknowledge the “Catholic connection” to All Saints Day, but they use that as yet another weapon in their arsenal to attack the Catholic Church as being demon-inspired and un-Christian. The Church promotes devil-worship, so they say.

The truth is that the Catholic Church does not teach that children should dress up as ghosts and goblins on the evening before All Saints Day and go door-to-door begging for candy. For that matter, the Church also does not teach that we should tell our kids about a man named Santa Claus who puts presents under a tree at Christmastime. These are both examples of secular and, to some extent, pagan cultural practices that have found their way into our own observance of the holidays. Examples of this extend into almost every facet of our lives. For instance, the throwing of rice at weddings stems from the pagan belief that this promotes fertility.

So what is a faithful Christian (Catholic) to do? Should we reject Halloween as a tool of the devil - a part of our pagan past that should be abandoned?

The problem is, if we were to eliminate all of our cultural traditions that are rooted in paganism, or that have some origin in pre-Christian thought, we would strip our culture of many time-honored institutions and perhaps find ourselves without a culture at all. Since New Testament times, Christianity has not destroyed pagan culture, but rather kept what was good in paganism by adding clarity and shedding more light on these beliefs, (giving them a Christian spin), while eliminating only the erroneous and evil beliefs and practices that accompany pagan insights. In a sense we “baptize” pagan philosophy and practices.

This is a Biblically sound principle. Paul did not uniformly denounce pagan ideals when preaching to the Gentiles. Upon entering Athens he said to the people gathered there: "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD ' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you…” (Acts 17:22-23) In this way Paul intertwined the pagan belief in an unknown, unseen god with the God of Christianity and Judaism. While paganism is not the true path to God, Paul recognized that the seed of truth can be found even among false religions.

The lesson in all of this is clear: It is not necessary to destroy or annihilate all the beliefs and practices found in non-Christian cultural traditions. We must give new meaning to their ideas, highlight the strengths, and eliminate the weaknesses and fallacies.

Halloween is in need of a re-cleansing. It has been neglected and almost abandoned, and a modern neo-paganism has shaped it into something un-Christian. If we are to “take back” Halloween (as we are trying to “take back” Christmas or Easter) we Catholics must bring to the culture our appreciation for the Communion of Saints and the honor that we show to the dead – which is what Halloween is supposed to be about. Unfortunately Halloween has fallen victim to the macabre, grotesque, and even Satanic influence of the pop culture. But as members of a counter-movement within that culture we can push back; we can reclaim our holy night.

This year my family has begun to do this in several ways. We carved a cross (rather than a traditional face) into the large pumpkin sitting on our front porch. As we emptied the contents of the pumpkin we explained to our children that God must also cleanse us on the inside to make us into Christians. As we carved the cross, we explained that we are all marked with the sign of the cross, and the light of Christ glows within. Leading up to the holiday, we have been studying different saints, and we will focus especially on each of our patron saints, our namesakes, on the Feast of All Saints. It’s important to include November 1 in the Halloween celebration since that is the true Feast Day on the Church calendar; and also All Souls Day (celebrating all of our deceased) on November 2. Other ideas include dressing as a favorite saint or Biblical figure rather than a commercial character or a phantom, spirit, witch or ghoul. (Although this year our kids prefer superheroes and princesses.)

It is not necessary to abandon Halloween traditions like carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating. Nor should we throw up our hands and let the secular culture take this holiday away from us so that they can transform it into a grotesque mutation of the “hallowed” celebration it ought to be. Rather, we should focus our time and energy on reclaiming the Eve of All Saints and use it to shape the culture in which we live. We can then say, as Paul might: “I see you have set aside a night on which you commemorate the dead. Therefore, what you celebrate in ignorance, this I proclaim to you…”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

You don't have to embrace the extreme...but at least learn to live with it.

Extremism occurs on both ends of the political spectrum. On the Left the most radical faction pushes a secular agenda, embracing multiculturalism and moral relativism. The extreme Right possesses a religious fervor (usually Christian) which shapes a world view that is typically resistant to change, quick to judge, and frequently invokes God and faith in the public forum. Not every conservative or liberal is a radical (most are not), yet the extreme positions on both sides often largely define our political debates. The loudest voices with the most passion and the most press coverage generally dominate the news cycle. This is true on both sides of the aisle.
Like it or not, no matter which political party you join or what political philosophy you adopt, you will always carry with you the extra baggage of the extreme element of your group. When I tell people I am conservative, I know that that word conjures up images of “vast right-wing conspiracies” and Bible-thumping Christian fanatics determined to establish an American theocracy. I have learned to accept this caricature of the Right (regardless of its inaccuracies) as my unwelcome companion in political discussions. But I have also learned to value what the extreme Right offers in support of my beliefs, even if I do not partake in their radicalism. Both the far Right and the far Left operate with a clarity of purpose sometimes difficult to discern among moderates. There is no compromise on their core tenets, and they thrive on simplicity of belief. It is through this simplified view of the world that they offer political insight for the rest of us.
The far Right simplifies the world by seeing everything in “black and white” - good and evil. They categorize and label every aspect of society based on a strict moral code of absolutes. A thing is either “good” and godly and righteous, or it is “evil” and demonic. There is no middle ground. Conversely, on the far left there is nothing but middle ground. Everything is “grey.” The Left is, at its core, morally relative and as such recognizes no single, legitimate moral code. Accordingly, there can be no definitive good and evil, no right and wrong. The far Left’s simplified reality rests on a rejection of absolute moral Truth. Truth is relative.
Of course the flaw in these two approaches is not that they are both entirely wrong, but that they each have it only half right. More moderate thinkers from the left and right know that there is both “black and white” as well as “grey.” There is such a thing as absolute good and evil; and then there are times when moral questions are not so easily answered. Real dialogue happens when each side is willing to recognize the validity of both these points of view. Constructive dialogue always happens in the middle, not from the extremes.
Then what purpose do the extremes serve?
I have learned to accept the far Right as my ally because they offer moral grounding, a jumping off point, an ideological foundation. I begin any serious review of an issue by going back to the center of conservative values, back to the simplicity at the heart of it all. There I know that absolute Truth does exist; that there is good and evil, right and wrong; that there is a God and a purpose to life. I know that the grey-ness of the world is a mixture of the black and white Truths that shape my conservative convictions. Knowing these Truths I can step into the grey middle and better defend a particular position or course of action.
As a Catholic parent I see the importance of the Right’s over-simplified world view reflected in the upbringing of my children. My eldest is six years old. He is just beginning to see the grey-ness in the world of morality. He is beginning to understand that some issues are a complex blend of good and evil which must be carefully sorted out before passing judgment on a course of action or deciding the rectitude of any given moral choice. But to get to this point of complex discernment, he first had to be taught that moral absolutes exist as a foundation to shape his moral compass. He had to be grounded in a more radical “right and wrong” - a simplified moral logic, easily digested by a toddler or a preschooler - from which he can now judge the world. He had to be taught the absolute Truths of morality first, so that now he can navigate the uncertain grey-ness of the physical world.
My three-year-old is not at the same level of moral awareness as my six-year-old. For a few more years she must grapple with the “black-and-white” of a simplified morality so that, when she is ready, she too will reach a level of moral maturity and be able to cope with the grey-ness of the world, having first received a grounding in Truth. In a sense, I am parenting my children from radical Right-wingers into moderate conservatives.
Moderate conservatives do not deny that the world is filled with grey-ness. We meet people every day who are a moral mix of black and white – they are kind and loving souls, and yet they can do evil things. We all are capable of sin; even saints are sinners. No one is morally “white” (that is clean, pure and undefiled); and no one is morally “black” (totally corrupted and un-redeemable). As moral agents our actions are often a mixture of good and evil, in our intentions and in their outcome. If I am to send my children out into this world of grey how will they be able to discern good and evil, how are they to know right from wrong? I must first teach them that “black” and “white” exist and that the grey-ness they see is merely a blending of the two. Only then will they make moral sense of the grey-ness because they will know the source from which it is all derived.
On the other hand, if a child begins from a far-left perspective, that there is no right and wrong, that good and evil are relative, that all is grey and Truth is of our own making, then that child is left with only the shades of grey and no hope of sorting out the black-ness and white-ness of morality. They approach life with their own shade of grey, a unique shade, with no concept of the black and white from which it came. Good and Evil are swallowed up in a confused mix. Such a grounding in moral confusion cannot form a basis for right moral judgment.
So the problem of the political extremes is like that of a child learning moral Truth. The extreme Right sees the “black and white” and so has built a foundation for correct moral judgment (however immature this may be). The extreme Left is like an undisciplined child who has never been shown goodness nor scolded for evil. If the debate between these extremes sometimes seems like a shouting match between two three-year-olds, then I think that is an apt description. The radicals of each party are the embarrassing tantrum-throwers in the political families. If we engage ourselves in an active political life, we are bound to be thrown in at some point with one or the other of these groups (fairly or not). We will find ourselves in the same family with one or the other of the political preschoolers. We will look to our right or to our left and see that our allies in a particular cause are one or the other of the political extremes.
I categorize myself as a conservative. I am not “radical” – but I do appreciate the source from which the radical Right derives its passion. I do not mind being grouped with the Right-wingers any more than I mind being the parent of an unruly three-year-old. It is occasionally embarrassing, and I sometimes scold them publically, but they are part of the family, and I see the possibility of molding them into well-developed moral agents. They at least have in place some rudimentary insights into Truth and our divine origins…although I have serious disagreements with some of them theologically and on the correct application of these principles within society.
The far Right-wing does not always understand the reality of the moral grey (or even accept that it exists), but they do protect with zeal the Truth that I share in common with them. I am not a radical right-winger. But I am a conservative who remains in the fold, not in spite of the extreme faction on the right, but precisely because of those extremists. Although they are often self-destructive, closed-minded, and tactless, they understand certain Truths that the morally bankrupt extreme Left does not and cannot because of its own ideological flaws.
If I must be associated with the radical faction of a particular philosophy, then let it be those who see the world as having meaning and purpose and a foundation of Truth. If my political choices carry with them, at least in part, the added weight of the extreme conservative fringe then I can live with that, because I know that the extreme Left offers nothing in its place.

I would like to stress that there are some extreme elements within politics which do not deserve a place at the table. On both sides there are factions that use reprehensible tactics, or vile language, or make unfair accusations and peddle falsehoods. These groups are not the subject of this post.
I would never embrace or even tolerate a group that would blow up an abortion clinic, for instance. Nor would I suggest that liberals ought to embrace or make excuses for groups that set fire to corporate buildings because of their dislike of capitalism.
Instead I would use as an example a pro-life protestor holding a sign showing the dismembered body of an aborted fetus and shouting at women that they are going to hell for getting an abortion. This kind of action, while extreme (and I do reject it) is far less morally reprehensible than any terrorist action or destruction of property. I would never advocate breaking the law or harming someone physically just to make a political point.
Holding a picture of a dismembered fetus is well within a person’s free speech rights as is shouting that someone is going to hell… But it is tactless and infantile. My point would be that at least such a person has the correct moral foundation – abortion is evil; it is a sin; and certainly hell is a very real possibility for someone who traffics in this sin. But only God can make such a determination about one’s soul. And there are better ways to win over converts to your way of thinking than waving around pictures of bloody corpses.
This kind of political extremism is common and often makes the news. Nobody is doing anything illegal or engaging in terrorist plots…they just have misdirected passions and don’t know how to channel them effectively. As I said above: the extremists like this on the Right are at least in the right ball park. Those on the Left are not even close.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Patristics: Polycarp of Smyrna, Part IV

In our last installment concerning The Martyrdom of Polycarp we uncovered the ancient Christian custom of preserving the bodies or bones of saints as “relics” – objects intended for veneration by future generations. The ancient Christians honored Christ by paying honor and respect to the mortal remains of deceased saints. They revered saints because in doing so they gave glory to Christ from whom the saints receive grace and holiness. By studying and imitating their lives Christians sought to share in the holiness of saints, looking to them as examples of faithfulness and as imitators of Christ.
In the case of martyrs (those who died violently as witnesses to the faith) their imitation of Jesus comes through more directly as they shared in His suffering through their own deaths. In the martyrdom account of Polycarp this parallel between a martyr’s death and Christ’s death on the cross takes on a Eucharistic tone:

“…And as the flame blazed forth in great fury…the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked…”
This description of “flesh” appearing like “bread” is undeniably Eucharistic. In the Eucharist (the communion meal of bread and wine shared by Christians) the Lord’s body is made present under the appearance of bread. We discussed this Real Presence of Christ when studying the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, also a student of John the Apostle and a friend and fellow bishop of Polycarp. Ignatius tells us that the Eucharist is a source of unity within the Catholic Church – we are united to one another by participating in the one sacrifice of Christ made present in the Eucharist, and we unite ourselves to Christ by offering our own suffering as a participation in His suffering made present in the Eucharist. Like Polycarp, Ignatius also compared his own death to the Eucharist in this way: “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.”
It is fitting then to honor saints as imitators of Christ, especially those who die a martyr’s death, who link their own suffering to that of the Lord.
Carrying this analogy further, the Martyrdom even suggests that the suffering of these holy and faithful people offers some relief of punishment for sins:
“…And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them.”
This is called “redemptive suffering” – which is the Catholic teaching that our suffering here on earth can go toward the relief of any punishment for the sins of the one suffering, or even for the sins of others. Paul suggests this idea with regard to his own afflictions: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24)
Paul says that his suffering fills up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body.” Not that Jesus’ suffering was ineffective, but that His suffering has a dimension that transcends time and draws us into a relationship with Him, across the centuries, by linking our suffering to His own. We as believers are His Mystical Body. How fitting it is that His Body, the church, should share in the sufferings that He underwent in His own human body while He lived among us. How else can we explain what Paul says about Jesus’ afflictions “lacking” in any sense of that word? If we are to “fill up” what is lacking in His suffering, it can only mean that our own suffering has a redemptive quality through and in Christ’s sufferings.
So when we read in the Martyrdom that Polycarp and his companions were “redeeming themselves from eternal punishment,” we must read this in light of Paul’s own testimony in Scripture. Our suffering has spiritual benefits, not in spite of Christ’s suffering, but through and in His suffering. My suffering can “fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”
A further comparison between Polycarp’s death and the sacrificial death of Jesus is to be seen in the references made to Polycarp as a “ram,” as an unblemished offering to God in the mode of Jewish sacrificial offerings of old:
“…placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God…”
So too Polycarp offers a prayer on his own behalf: “… may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, hast foreordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled.”
The sacrifice of one’s life in the name of Jesus is the surest way to fulfill what the Lord said when He insisted that we must lose our lives to gain eternal life, and we must take up our cross and follow Him. (Mark 8:34-35) Certainly we are not all called to be martyrs in this way, but those who have met this fate in the course of Christian history, stand out as exemplary models of Christian faithfulness and rightly deserve our respect and honor. Their bones, now shattered fragments of a life once lived in harmony with God’s will, are to us, (as the Martyrdom of Polycarp states): “more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold.”
To this day, Catholic churches around the world house the relics of saints “ a fitting place whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate...both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”

The Martyrdom of Polycarp bears witness to the ancient Christian celebration of saintly lives, and to the collection of relics and the spiritual benefits of suffering. Written sometime shortly after his death in 155 AD, The Martyrdom of Polycarp is one of the oldest authentic examples of Christian Acts of the Martyrs, which tell similar tales of heroic faith and virtue under threat of death and persecution. Polycarp’s direct link to Apostolic times, having lived in the First Century and studied under one or more of the Apostles, gives to this text an added weight. We see here a Church shaped directly by Apostolic faith as transmitted by a hand-picked successor to the Apostles. The information we glean from this source adds yet another layer of understanding to our knowledge of authentic Christianity from the earliest centuries. If we wish to believe as the first Christian believed, we must accept with due reverence what was taught by a man such as Polycarp of Smyrna.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Patristics: Polycarp of Smyrna, Part III

We have been reviewing the life and writings of Polycarp of Smyrna, a First and Second Century Christian and bishop, an Apostolic Father, and student of the Apostle John. In our study, we have seen that Polycarp described the Church as a hierarchical, authoritative institution which derives its teaching power from God. According to Polycarp, we owe our allegiance to the Church as we owe obedience to Christ - this despite the imperfections of the humans who make up the Church. Polycarp acknowledged that the ordained clergy sometimes fall into sin and may need to be removed from office when they are unfit to serve (he offers an example of this in the person of Valens, a presbyter in his own time who was removed for matters of personal sin). Nonetheless Polycarp insisted that the laity must obey their bishops and all properly ordained ministers of the Church because they receive their authority through Apostolic Succession.

Polycarp was not alone in this view of the Church. He recommended the writings of his friend and fellow bishop Ignatius of Antioch (also a student of John) as a source for sound teaching and edification in the faith. Polycarp and Ignatius were part of a network of bishops who held authority over local church communities in the First and Second Centuries. Ignatius referred to this world-wide Church organization as the “Catholic” (or “universal”) Church.

Within the ancient “Catholic Church” the local bishops were united to one another through a succession of bishops going back the Apostles and the thus to Jesus Himself. A further source of unity was the unique honor and respect given to the Bishop of Rome, successor of Peter and head of the Church on earth. The Bishop of Rome possessed an authority recognized by the other bishops within the universal Church. Earlier we saw how Clement, a bishop of Rome in the mid-to-late First Century, exercised an authority over the other churches as he wrote to the Corinthians to clarify a dispute over proper ordination of clergy. And again with Polycarp we saw how the Bishop of Rome was respected for his authority to set the date for the celebration of Easter. Ignatius cited the Roman Church above all others as being “worth of praise” and “worthy of honor.”

These are only a few points of interest which we have explored in past installments. As we proceed in this study of Patristic writing a more complete picture of early Christian doctrine and ecclesial life will emerge. We have thus far examined only three Fathers of the Church, with many more available for our consideration. But for now, we must take one last look at Polycarp, and for that we turn to a text written not by Polycarp but about Polycarp, specifically his martyrdom.

“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” was written shortly after the great bishop’s death by an unnamed author (or authors) in his home church of Smyrna. It was addressed to the whole Catholic Church, as a tribute to their fallen leader:

“The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.”

The text tells of Polycarp’s arrest and subsequent trial before the multitudes in the local arena. Polycarp heroically testified to his Christian faith as he faced certain death:

“Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, ‘Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ;’ Polycarp declared, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour.’”

Polycarp was eventually burned at the stake. But first his crime was announced to the crowds gathered there to watch the spectacle:

“…the proconsul was astonished, and sent his herald to proclaim in the midst of the stadium thrice, Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian. This proclamation having been made by the herald, the whole multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, ‘This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods.’”

Ironically, in this passage, those gathered to condemn Polycarp bestowed on him the title by which he is now known within Christianity: “father of the Christians.” His preaching made him a “father” of the faith just as Paul’s preaching had earned him that title as well: “…for I became your father in Jesus Christ through the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 4:15) The use of the term “father” to describe a spiritual leader is a Christian tradition that is clearly Biblical and that continued into the early Church. The term “father” in this text is a testament to Polycarp’s great spiritual influence, recognized even by his enemies.

In committing to writing “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” the Church of Smyrna hoped to encourage other Christians in the empire who faced persecution and to offer a tribute to a man who had provided a valuable link to the Apostles, transmitting the faith for the next generation. As such, this loving portrayal of Christian martyrdom was not originally written as a source for doctrinal study or as a textbook to explain Church teaching. Nonetheless woven into the account there are glimpses of Christian doctrine which reflect First and Second Century Christian belief, and that sketch out some intriguing theological points. For our own purposes of reflection, we will take into consideration a few individual passages…

“And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his sandals,— a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as every one of the faithful was always eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good.”

This passage seems to suggest a “power” or spiritual significance attached to the body of Polycarp. Perhaps God worked miracles through Polycarp. He certainly was revered as a great teacher and a direct link to the Apostles; perhaps he had gifts of healing as the Apostles did. Whatever the case, the faithful Christians obviously attributed some religious significance to the body of this man who lived such a good and holy life. This recalls what was said of Paul in Scripture:

“God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.” (Acts 19:11-12)

According to the Bible, even the “shadow” of an Apostle could have miraculous powers: “…people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.” (Acts 5:15)

This also brings to mind the familiar story in Mark 5:24-34 of the woman cured by touching Jesus’ garments. We are told that this was a common occurrence: “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6:56)

So, physical contact with a holy person, with his body or clothing or something else closely associated with his person, was a Christian practice that dates from the time of Jesus and continued through the Apostles and into the First and Second Century.

This brings us to another passage from the Martyrdom…

“…we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”

Even in death, a saint’s bones retained a spiritual significance for ancient Christians. They were “more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold” according to this Second Century account. Christians gathered around the burial places of saints to commemorate the person’s life and death in Christ: “both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.” Obviously, saints and martyrs offered a concrete example of how to live out the faith. Polycarp stood as a first rate example of this as a witness to Apostolic teaching. Certainly this honor shown to saints presents the danger of over-emphasizing human persons and removing the focus from God. The Christians who wrote this account of Polycarp’s martyrdom were well aware of this concern and spoke directly to it...

The official who oversaw Polycarp’s trial “…did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh. For this end he suggested…to go and entreat the governor not to give up his body to be buried, lest… forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one.”

People who do not understand the Christian practice of honoring and revering saints (such as this pagan official) often assume that we “worship” saints as though they are gods. But this ancient text goes on to correct this fallacy…

“…it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow-disciples!”

Saints and martyrs are not worshiped in place of Christ, or as equals to God. Rather they are honored for their devotion to Christ, “as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love [them] on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master;” they are held up as examples to be imitated as fellow disciples of Jesus. This is not unlike Paul’s instruction regarding the example of his own life: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1; and also 4:16)

Paul does not limit this to himself; he says that others who follow this pattern of life are also worthy of imitation: “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.” (Philippians 3:17)

Polycarp fit this model offered by Paul, as The Martyrdom of Polycarp tells us:

“He was not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ. For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous [in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.”

(More on Polycarp’s martyrdom in the next installment…)