Friday, February 26, 2010

Eucharistic Way of the Cross: First Station

Jesus is Condemned to Death

Jesus is brought forward in plain view of the assembled people and the crowd voices their desire that He be crucified. Pilate then washes his hands to symbolically cleanse himself of the guilt of Jesus’ death. Jesus is thus publically condemned and ordered to be crucified.

At Mass:

The bread and wine are brought forward in plain view of the people and the priest and people declare their desire that these gifts be transformed into Jesus’ Body and Blood.

“Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer…It will become for us the bread of life.”

“Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer…It will become our spiritual drink.”

The priest then washes his hands to symbolically cleanse himself in preparation for offering this sacrifice. Pilate’s act was a distortion of Truth and Justice; but the priest’s function at Mass is to proclaim Truth and Justice in the Holy Sacrifice of the altar.

[For an explanation of this series of meditations on the Way of the Cross see this Introduction.]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Stations of the Cross and the Eucharist

Lately I have been thinking a lot about Jesus’ Passion and the Mass. Specifically I have been pondering the connection between the celebration of the Mass and the events of the Passion that are marked by the fourteen Stations of the Cross. As my own personal spiritual exercise I have noted some parallels between our Eucharistic celebration and the Traditional Stations as depicted in the artwork of most Catholic Churches. So to commemorate Lent this year I will post on this blog some reflections on the Stations of the Cross and how I see each related to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. But first I will offer a further explanation as a way of introducing what will follow…

As Catholics we believe that the Mass makes present to us here and now the sacrifice of Jesus which happened nearly 2000 years ago. At every Mass we are drawn into the Mystery of His Passion, death, and Resurrection as He is made physically present to us under the appearance of bread and wine. We are brought before the Cross where we behold the Lamb of God crucified for our sins. There is nothing that can compare to the Eucharistic Liturgy for Catholic spirituality – it is “the source and summit of our faith.”

Yet outside of Mass we can still be with our Lord in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. There we can ponder His sacrifice and behold His physical presence in silent contemplation. But even when adoration is not available to us there are other means of meditating on Jesus’ sacrifice outside of Mass. Chief among these is the Stations of the Cross usually found in every Catholic Church in the form of pictures or statues positioned around the outer walls so that the faithful may walk with Jesus from His trial through his agony and death until His removal from the cross and His burial. These stations transport us spiritually (although not sacramentally) to Jerusalem where we again stand before the cross and witness Jesus’ Passion and death.

Obviously the Eucharist and the Mass are infinitely more “real” than the Stations of the Cross, but the Stations do point to the reality of the Eucharist and so can be a useful tool in meditating of this deep mystery of our Catholic faith. It is altogether fitting that Catholic churches contain images of the fourteen Stations in the same place where the sacrifice of the Mass takes place. The Way of the Cross leads us to the altar of sacrifice and there we find the Eucharist. As we kneel at Mass watching the Liturgy unfold we can see around us these images of His Passion while we are taken up into the mystery ourselves. These holy images reflect the reality of the Eucharistic Presence.

With that in mind I have incorporated the Stations of the Cross into my own meditations on the Eucharist as a way to visualize Jesus’ sacrifice while the Eucharistic prayer unfolds. Beginning with the preparation of the gifts and through to the reposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle I mark each moment with a different Station and see the Passion unfold in the words and actions on the altar. Admittedly this requires a little imagination to make each Station fit what is laid out in the Liturgy, but it works surprisingly well. In following posts I will reflect on each Station and how I see the Liturgy reflected in these events.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Begining Lent with a Hot Cup of Coffee

Some time in the late 1500s coffee was introduced into Europe from Arabia. Since this beverage was so closely associated with the Muslim “infidels” in whose land the coffee bean was first cultivated, many Christians wished to ban coffee from the continent as the drink of the devil. To settle the matter the issue was brought before Pope Clement VIII, who refused to issue a ban until he had first sampled some of the brew himself. Upon taking a drink he is reported to have said, “This Satan's drink is would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.” And so from that moment on Catholics were free to partake of coffee…and the rest is history.

This Lent I am giving up coffee as my personal sacrifice these forty days. Not that coffee is a bad thing - as Pope Clement announced centuries ago, coffee has been officially “baptized” (according to the legendary tale above), and so we need not avoid the drink as a matter of moral living. Catholics are allowed to enjoy the pleasures of this life and indulge in some of the finer things such as coffee or chocolates or whatever luxury suits your taste. It is not that we must give up something “bad” for Lent (like smoking or excessive drinking – although these are certainly good things to give up all year long), rather we give up something that is good and pleasurable (like coffee and chocolates) so that we can free ourselves from the pleasures of this life and so we are not enslaved by our physical/earthly desires.

This Tuesday – which was Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” – our family indulged in a large dinner that included favorite foods in large quantities. We finished it off with candy for the kids, which was a special treat since we are removing all candy during Lent. And we stayed up late doing nothing but sitting around being lazy. It was our own Mardi Gras celebration.

I used to dislike Mardi Gras. I thought it was an overindulgence that crossed over into outright sin and gluttony, and mocked the true meaning of Lent and Ash Wednesday. Sadly, many secular celebrations of this Tuesday are just that – a mockery of everything for which Catholicism stands. Yet I now see that it is possible to salvage something pure from this cultural wreckage. That is, if we remember the words of Clement VIII about his coffee. “It would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.”

I had one last cup of coffee yesterday afternoon before feasting with my family…not because I wanted to see how much “sinning” I could do before the pious days of Lent, but rather to indulge in the goodness of God’s bounty before cutting myself off from earthly desires. My family’s Mardi Gras celebration was anything but sinful – it included a ceremonial burning of blessed palms from last year to make our own ashes – but it was fun, and there is no sin in that.

Lent can be more sacred if we use Mardi Gras and the days leading up to Ash Wednesday to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” The sacrifice becomes even starker after our joyous celebration, as we don our ashes and remember that we are dust.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Book Review: Believing in Jesus - A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith

When answering faith questions, I rely heavily on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which together with the Bible is an indispensible resource in concisely and accurately presenting Church teaching. The Catechism sets the record straight on what Catholics officially believe, and does so with the full authority of the Church’s Magisterium. There is no substitute for reading the Catechism on these matters…that is of course, when one actually takes the time to read the Catechism. But to a non-Catholic (the people most often asking the questions I try to answer) reading the Catechism can be a rather intimidating prospect.

At nearly 800 pages, the average lay person is not likely to read the Catechism cover-to-cover, as they would a good novel. For non-Catholic Christians this task is further hampered by their misconceptions about the Church and the hierarchical institution that produced the Catechism in the first place. Unfortunately years of misinformation and misconceptions about the Church have kept these persons from seriously considering Catholicism as a spiritual home. Untruths about Catholic belief, about the role of popes and bishops, about saints and the Eucharist, have all clouded their perception of what true Catholic teaching is. They naturally mistrust official pronouncements from Rome, or at least are unsure how to approach 800 pages worth of such official text.

Whenever I am asked probing questions about the faith, I attempt to clarify the Church’s position in a simple, plain-spoken way that clears up former misunderstandings and hopefully makes the Catholic Church more approachable. In bits and pieces I try to distill the wisdom found in the Catechism into a form that reaches non-Catholics where they are.

Believing in Jesus - A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith offers Catholics and non-Catholics alike a very readable alternative to digesting the entire text of the Catechism. When contrasted with the text of the Catechism, the author of Believing in Jesus, Fr. Leonard Foley, O.F.M., opens up a different perspective on how the pieces of our faith fit into one seamless whole. Whereas the Catechism of the Catholic Church is organized primarily around the words of the Creed (using this statement of faith as an outline from which the body of the text grows), Believing in Jesus begins with the life and preaching of Jesus at its heart and lays out Catholic doctrine within this framework of Jesus’ own life and ministry.

This Jesus-centered approach for presenting Catholic teaching, while certainly beneficial for Catholics, is perhaps doubly so for non-Catholic Christians. Most evangelical or fundamentalist Christians stress that Jesus is at the center of their lives – they often say that they have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” - and they often believe that Catholic doctrine hampers, if not altogether contradicts, true Christian faith, because it gets between “me and Jesus.” They many times operate under the misconception that Catholics are not Christ-centered people; that our doctrine adds layer upon layer of “extra stuff” that has nothing to do with Christ or His preaching or the whole Gospel message.

Fr. Foley’s book ought to put that idea to rest. Just as the Catechism shows how Catholic doctrine is intertwined with the ancient Creed, so too does Believing in Jesus demonstrate that Catholic doctrine is the natural outgrowth of everything Jesus came to do and teach. Far from driving a wedge between “me and Jesus,” Catholic doctrine draws us into a deeper relationship with Christ through the Sacraments and through incorporation into His Mystical Body, the Church.

Believing in Jesus opens with an overview of Scripture. If Jesus is the Word of God Incarnate, then we must first understand the Word of God in Scripture to recognize the Divine Word that is the person Jesus. The books of the Old Testament form the Scripture of Judaism which shaped Jesus’ spiritual life as a Jew. To understand Jesus we must understand the context of His Jewish roots. From there we move to the New Testament which grew out of the early Christian experience of the Resurrected Jesus. These early Christian writings add clarity to Jesus’ life. So both the Old and New Testaments point to Jesus as their focus and this sets the stage for the rest of Rev. Foley’s book. Drawing on the life of Jesus in the Gospels the author lays out Catholic teaching within the historical framework of the Incarnation, life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Believing in Jesus offers a Jesus-centered, Bible-based approach to Catholic teaching, introducing those unfamiliar with the faith to doctrines that might otherwise seem unrelated to their non-Catholic Christian experience. The book offers a primer in the basic tenets of the Catholicism in a readable and personal style that draws upon the evangelical/fundamentalist “personal relationship with Jesus” but gives it a decidedly Catholic spin. When Catholics say that we “believe in Jesus,” we mean that we are literally in Jesus – that is, in His Body, the Catholic Church – and it is in Jesus that we find our faith. The Church is the fulfillment of this “relationship” that all Christians seek with their Lord and Savior.

The only criticism that I might offer of this book is that it occasionally comes across as lightweight in its treatment of certain topics. For instance it does not flesh out the details of liturgical worship. So the Mass for example is presented as a loose gathering of coreligionists sharing prayer and a common meal, rather than a rich tapestry of worship woven in Tradition and handed down to us through the centuries. Also certain doctrinal matters are passed over rather quickly without presenting a solid defense of their truth.

The reason for these problems is, I think two-fold. First, this book is targeted to those who are already enrolled in an RCIA program or who are seriously considering conversion. Indeed the author is best known for his work in producing RCIA tracts for the Catholic Updates publication. Thus Believing in Jesus is not meant to be a point-by-point defense of every Catholic teaching, but it is designed to give the reader a general overview of the faith from a unique perspective and ground the student in the fundamentals of the faith. Further reading would be necessary to delve deeper into any particular subject.

Secondly, the first edition of Believing in Jesus, which is now in its sixth edition and is widely used in RCIA programs, was published in 1981 and so was born out of a time when Catholic religious education was less rigorous (one might say even in shambles). When looking at books coming out of the turbulence of the 1970s and 80s liturgical experimentation, it is (in my humble opinion) difficult to find a text from this era that is not at least slightly influenced by the “soft” approach to catecheses (take that as you may). Admittedly some of this is a matter of style and personal taste. There is nothing about Believing in Jesus that is heretical – the book bears an Imprimi Potest and Nihil Obstat – but there is a certain style to the text that (to me at least) has a flavor of early 1980’s Catholicism, with home-made felt banners and guitar-strumming folk bands.

Having said that, I would still recommend the book to inquiring souls who wish to learn about the Catholic Church but who already understand Christianity as a personal relationship with Jesus. These Christians may have always seen Catholicism as a sort of mystery; something foreign and far removed from their own experience of Christianity. But they long to be a part of the mystery. They see something in Catholicism that they wish they had. They cannot describe what “it” is but they are missing “it,” and they know that Catholics seem to have “it.” Believing in Jesus opens up that Mystery from a perspective they can understand.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

How old is the Church?

I once again find myself occupied with home projects and other domestic matters and have had little time this week to devote to writing. Next week should be less hectic.

For now I will post a piece that has circulated on the internet for many years, the author of which is unknown. It has been variously attributed, but most of the websites I visited in a brief search reported that the author remains anonymous.

The text is little more than a straight-forward list of several major Christian denominations and a brief description of their founding – when, where, and by whom. It is a handy reference guide and apologetics tool as it illustrates the fact that only the Catholic Church can claim a true lineage dating back to Christ Himself. Perhaps in future posts I may refer back to this list and explore each of the denominations listed (and each split with Rome) and how the various Christian sects differ from the Apostolic Church. This may prove a useful jumping-off point for further study.

Versions of this list vary slightly, with some including more detailed information or encompassing more denominations. Some lists include the Orthodox Churches and Judaism (as I have below) rather than only Protestant sects. Most lists build up to the Catholic Church as the grand finale – but I chose to organize the list chronologically, placing the Jewish faith first and next the Catholic Church. I felt that this gave a better sense of connectedness to God’s Revelation in the Old and New Covenants, and demonstrated the growing separation caused by the subsequent schisms within Christianity down through history.

However one chooses to organize this information, the conclusion is the same: The Catholic Church possesses the fullness of divine Revelation, and only the Catholic Church can claim to be the true Church established by God Himself in Jesus Christ.

+ + +

How Old Is Your Church?

If you are Jewish, Abraham became the first Jew when God promised him: "I will make you a great nation..." Your religion was founded by God in the Jewish calendar year 2049 (1711 BC), over 3700 years ago. God revealed Himself to the Jews through the Prophets and promised to send a Messiah. Jesus Christ, a Jew from the House of David, came to this world as His only begotten Son in fulfillment of the Scriptures.

If you are Catholic, you know that your religion was founded in the year AD 33 by Jesus Christ the Son of God, the promised Jewish Messiah, and it is still the same Church today. Christ gave to Simon Peter the “keys to the kingdom” (Mat 16:18-19) and made Peter shepherd of Jesus’ flock (John 21:15-17). Jesus entrusted to Peter and the other Apostles the governance of the Church. As the Apostles died, their authority was passed on to chosen men, bishops of the Church, and that authority remains with the pope (the successor to Peter) and the bishops in union with him.

If you are a member of one of the Orthodox Eastern Churches your church separated from the Catholic Church in 1054 in the Eastern Schism. Although imperfect, the communion between the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church is so profound "that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist" (Pope Paul VI, quoted in CCC para 838).

If you are a Lutheran, your religion was founded by Martin Luther, an ex- monk of the Catholic Church, in the year 1517.

If you belong to the Church of England, your religion was founded by King Henry VIII in the year 1534 because the Pope would not grant him a divorce with the right to remarry.

If you are a Presbyterian, your religion was founded by John Knox in Scotland in the year 1560.

If you are a Protestant Episcopalian, your religion was an offshoot of the Church of England founded by Samuel Seabury in the American colonies in the 17th century.

If you are a Congregationalist, your religion was originated by Robert Brown in Holland in 1582.

If you are a Methodist, your religion was launched by John and Charles Wesley in England in 1744.

If you are a Unitarian, Theophilus Lindley founded your church in London in 1774.

If you are a Mormon (Latter Day Saints), Joseph Smith started your religion in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1829.

If you are a Baptist, you owe the tenets of your religion to John Smyth, who launched it in Amsterdam in 1605.

If you are of the Dutch Reformed church, you recognize Michaelis Jones as founder, because he originated your religion in New York in 1628.

If you worship with the Salvation Army, your sect began with William Booth in London in 1865.

If you are a Christian Scientist, you look to 1879 as the year in which your religion was born and to Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy as its founder.

If you belong to one of the religious organizations known as 'Church of the Nazarene," "Pentecostal Gospel." "Holiness Church," "Pilgrim Holiness Church," "Jehovah's Witnesses," your religion is one of the hundreds of new sects founded by men within the past century.