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.