Thursday, August 27, 2009

What is 'church'?

Both the Anglican (Episcopal) Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America denominations have faced some internal strife in the past several months concerning openly homosexual clergy. Certain governing bodies within each of the denominations have voted to allow openly gay members to serve as pastors or even as bishops within their respective denominations. Obviously, this has caused an uproar among the more traditionally minded members. Some of those concerned Christians have begun seeking other denominational bodies with which to associate. Whole parishes or even whole dioceses are seeking to realign themselves with other factions within their own Protestant tradition.

This is really nothing new, of course. There are already a plethora of churches and denominations within Protestantism which have broken ties with one group and then merged with another, only to sometimes undo that association and move on to yet another body of Christians. Within Protestantism the lines that separate one sect from another are not always distinct nor are they solidly fixed. There is a constant splintering and realignment within Protestantism that begs the question: What is “church”?


Most Protestants (and I use that term loosely to include most non-Catholic Christians who would associate themselves with the teachings of the Protestant Reformers) describe “church” in very vague terms. The most common response I get when I ask non-Catholics this question goes something like this: “The ‘church’ is the invisible body of believers here on earth. It is all those who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and died for our sins.” That’s a rather vague definition, but it does fit the rather vague delineations and constant shape-shifting that one sees among Protestants. I suppose it shows consistency.

I have also asked non-Catholics whether I might be included in that vague ‘church,’ since I as a Catholic believe in Jesus and in what He did for us. And the answers are mixed. Some say yes, because my belief in that simple formula of faith is enough. Others say no, because my other beliefs as a Catholic are superstitious and even idolatrous. Once again, ‘church’ is not clearly defined.

And again, I have asked Protestants why they find it necessary to associate with one another within denominations if all that is really required to be ‘church’ is a vague belief in Jesus. Why have a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod that is distinct from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and why are these Lutheran sects then separate from Anglicans, Baptists and so on, who also have their divisions. If all we need is a belief in Jesus and THERE is the Church, then why are there so many churches?

“Well, these are the various ‘traditions’ within Protestantism,” I am told. “Different men and women have read Scripture and discovered different ways to live out the Gospel Truth.” ….Hmmm, sounds an awful lot like the “traditions of men.” Catholics get that one pounded over our heads quite frequently. (But Catholics only accept ONE Tradition; anyone who wants to read the Bible and come up with their own tradition can go join the Protestant fold.)

And so the questions continue: What about these differing methods of governing the churches – councils, synods, congregationalism? What about bishops – why do some have them and others do not? What about the role of the laity – why do some play an active role in determining doctrine and others do not? What about the sacraments – how many are there, what significance do they have, what do they do for us?

So then, finally I must ask my Protestant friends: why is it that Jesus did not clearly define the Church? What guide do we have from Jesus to show us what teachings are correct?

“Well, the BIBLE, of course. The New Testament gives us a description of the Church and what it should look like.”

So I search the pages of Scripture to see what it is that Jesus literally said on this matter. Strangely, He never said to the Apostles, “I will command some among you to write a New Testament, and this will teach you how to form a Church. From this you will form various denominations and associate with fellow Christians within these differing traditions.” No. He did not leave it up to us to go thumbing through the Bible to find out how to do this thing called “church.” He did not intend for us to form thousands of separate churches that squabble over doctrinal and moral issues and perpetually realign themselves as doctrines change.

Rather than allow such confusion and vagueness when it comes to the question of “church,” Jesus established, once and for all, a single Church, when He said, “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

A Church with this authority to “bind and loose” could never be questioned on matters of faith and morals. Such a Church, established by Jesus Himself, could never be viewed as an optional ‘tradition of men’ added on after the fact. A Church that can withstand the “gates of Hell” could never be a wishy-washy, vague denomination or an invisible, undefined throng, who disagree on doctrine and meet in separate houses of worship. A house divided against itself cannot stand…how could the Protestant vision of ‘church’ stand up to the very gates of Hell?

The head of the Anglican Communion has suggested a solution to the problem of ordained homosexual clergy. He suggests that two distinct bodies of Anglicans could co-exist within one larger denomination. One group can maintain the traditional view, that open homosexuality is a sin and objectively disordered and thus precludes one from ordination. The other group could accept homosexuality as a valid expression of Christian sexuality and so allow gays into the priesthood and episcopal office. It seems to me that this only temporarily puts off an inevitable schism. How can one church believe two opposing things regarding such a serious sin and ordination? How can anyone endorse the idea of a house divided against itself, and call it the Christian “Church”?

But then again…Isn’t that the foundation of Protestantism – Christianity torn by schism, first from Catholicism and then from one another? Haven’t Protestants always, on the one hand, defended their diversity of belief, yet on the other, ripped apart their houses of worship and shattered their unity because of the diversity they so loudly proclaim?

Is this God’s plan for His Church?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What's in a Name...?

I have always considered the naming of a child an important responsibility for parents. One ought to approach this task seriously and, dare I say, even religiously - with a mind toward one’s faith. God calls each of us by name…it is the parents’ duty to select the name that will be uttered by the Good Shepherd as “he calls his own sheep by name.” (John 10:3) As parents we are responsible for the development of new souls created by God as unique individuals and meant for eternal life. The name given each child is the first official act parents take in guiding that soul to heaven, where his or her name will be written in the Book of Life.

In Scripture names often describe a person’s vocation or personality or relationship to others, including a relationship to God. A change in a person’s status or a special call from God often included a change of names: Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Saul changed to Paul, and Simon was named Peter. God’s own name was so sacred that the ancient Jews were forbidden to utter it. So, in this ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, the name of a newborn child ought to bear with it great significance, marking the child for a special purpose, reminding him or her of God’s call to holiness.

Needless to say, my wife and I thought carefully and prayerfully about the names of our children. Our most recent addition to the family, Elizabeth Gianna, has been perhaps the most significant of these name selections, both in the way her name came about and hopefully in the way her name will shape our future and hers. Specifically the name “Gianna” carries with it a deep spiritual meaning for us.

While four months pregnant with Elizabeth my wife had a stroke. She awoke one night with one side of her body in paralyzed – her fist clenched tight, one side of her face drooping, and one leg heavy and difficult to move. I immediately called 911; the ambulance arrived and rushed her to the hospital. I stayed behind at our house with our two oldest children (both of whom had been sick and were sound asleep through the whole event). I reluctantly agreed, at my wife’s insistence, to stay home until the hospital called with more information. Obviously it was a sleepless night.

Our son awoke shortly after the ambulance drove away. He came to me and asked where Mom had gone. I explained everything and tried to prepare him for what might be a changed life – a mother who needs our help and care, a parent who once labored for her family but might now need her family to make sacrifices for her. I tried not to imagine the worst case scenarios, but these things have a way of creeping into your head when you lie awake not knowing what the morning will bring.

Our son asked, “What can we do for Mom now?”

“Pray.” I replied. And so I led him through some prayers. He prayed silently for awhile until he drifted off to sleep again.

I could not sleep…but worst of all, I could not pray. Oh, I mouthed the words and meditated on mysteries, but half of me wasn’t there. Half of me was in the hospital, and I didn’t know if she was going to be the same after that night.
As I lay awake, alone and in the dark, I remembered Saint Gianna Molla. She was an Italian doctor, wife, and mother who died in the 1960’s. While pregnant with her fourth child, she developed a tumor on her uterus. She was told that if she aborted her child the tumor could be removed and she would be cured. But if she continued with the pregnancy there would certainly be risks and she could very likely die. Gianna refused to kill her own child. She insisted that if the doctors had to choose which life to save they should save the life of her unborn baby. Eventually, after a difficult pregnancy she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. A short time later Gianna died from complications. She was declared a Saint in 2004 and is a model of self-sacrifice and motherhood.

My wife read about Saint Gianna more than a year ago - long before her most recent pregnancy and before her own medical scare. She was immediately drawn to this woman who lived so close to our own time and who dedicated her life so profoundly to her family, sacrificing her own life for the life of her child. When I heard the story of Gianna I was impressed, but not particularly dawn to the saint in the same way my wife had been. It was one of those things you store away in your mind but seldom revisit. I knew who Gianna was, but beyond that I had simply a vague admiration of her.

That changed the night of my wife’s stroke.

As I lay in bed, I prayed all the usual prayers that every Catholic learns from childhood, but my mind was elsewhere. I tried praying silently, without words, placing myself in God’s presence, but my focus was gone. I tried to find words of my own, but I found none. None of it felt like “real” prayer. My mind raced and anxiety crept in. This went on for more than an hour.

Then I remembered Gianna. I knew my wife had felt a connection to her even before this night. But now she faced an unknown illness as she bore within her our unborn daughter. Her relationship to Gianna seemed more intimate than before.

So I said, “Gianna, I can’t seem to pray right now. If you could just say some prayers for me, while I try to get some sleep, maybe I’ll be able to face whatever the morning brings.” Immediately I felt at peace and I drifted off to sleep.

I awoke only a couple of hours later. With very little sleep, I still felt refreshed and ready for whatever news I would receive from the doctors. I didn’t have to wait long. While feeding the kids their breakfast, I got a call from the hospital. My wife was ready to be discharged. There were no lasting signs of the stroke – the paralysis had gone away, her vital signs were normal, and most importantly, the baby was fine.

She had actually been ready for release a few hours before, but as my wife later recalled, she had heard the doctor say, “Don’t call her husband just yet. She has young ones at home – let them sleep.” And I had slept, thanks to Gianna. It was about the same time the doctor had said these words (some time in the middle of the night) that I had whispered my request to Saint Gianna and finally found peace. And I am sure it was thanks to Gianna that my wife had made a full recovery so quickly.

Months later (and after several more doctors visits that offered us no further explanation as to what had happened that night) we celebrated the birth of our daughter. The ob-gyn who delivered her asked us, “What are you naming her?”

Years before, we had settled on “Elizabeth” (my wife’s Confirmation name) as the name of our next daughter. Of course, Elizabeth was a woman who also bore a child (John the Baptist) under miraculous circumstances, and is a model for mothers. But we had not settled on a middle name until that night of worry and prayer when Gianna had come to our aide. It seemed fitting that Gianna should be honored as our child’s namesake. So we replied to the doctor’s question: “Elizabeth Gianna.”

The doctor raised his eyebrows, “Interesting. Where did you get Gianna?”

Of course, he already knew of my wife’s medical history, having been her physician. So we explained who Gianna Molla was, and all about my prayer that night. We told him that Gianna is an important patron saint of the pro-life cause and that we wanted to pass on to our daughter the same love of life and willingness to sacrifice for others. Prompted by this reply, we had a brief but engaging conversation with him and the attending nurse about life and parenthood, the significance of names and the sometimes profound meaning of names, and how the culture seems to have lost sight of these things.

Many times, when people are asked, “Where did you get your child’s name?” I hear the reply: “I just thought it sounded nice.” When my wife and I are asked about Elizabeth’s name we can respond: “Let me tell you a story about a woman who gave her life for her own child. And let me tell you why I value each human life, especially the unborn…” Our daughter’s name gives us the opportunity to witness to our faith and to speak out about the horror of abortion and the sanctity of human life. I don’t know how many people we may affect in this way. I don’t know how many people Elizabeth will encounter who will ask her the same question and give her the chance to offer her own testimony. But I do know that in choosing her name we have pointed her in the right direction for a strong relationship with God and a deep appreciation for her faith.

So many of today’s parents choose their child’s name to be “different,” to be “unique,” to set them apart from the crowd. I hope that my own children’s names teach them that they are a part of something bigger, that they are dependent on others, and that others depend on them. I hope that their names point to a larger Communion of Saints that reaches beyond earth, beyond the here and now, and draws them into one Body in Christ.

So many of today’s parents choose their child’s name for the beauty of the word. But the beauty of a name is not found only in the way it rolls off the tongue or melodically dances in the air when we call out to our child. Names carry stories, and symbols, and messages of faith, hope, and love. A name carries with it the richness of a person’s life. The beauty of the word should point to the beauty of the Word - our names should point us to Christ.

Friday, August 14, 2009

When I began this blog a year ago I had planned to post every week, or at least every other week, as time allowed. However, with the birth of our third child at the end of May, my wife and I have been understandably busy and I have been unable to blog. Now that things have settled down at home, I hope to get back into a more regular schedule of writing.

I have decided to not answer any questions or comments that were left in my absence. I came to that conclusion, not to be rude to any readers, but as a matter of simple practicality. Since I cannot be sure of who is still following this blog, or who might still have any interest in what I have to say after an absence of over two months, I thought it more prudent to ask that any questions or comments be re-posted and attached to this entry so that I can address them as fresh comments. That way, I can save time by not responding to people who may not even be reading, and also people’s comments will be bumped up to this more current date.

In short, I am starting fresh you might say. Sorry about the long absence. Hopefully I will be writing more regularly in the future…