Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book Review: Catholic Answers to Catholic Questions

From Saintly Intercessions to Saint Bernards

When I received my copy of Catholic Answers to Catholic Questions, I found myself surprised by its content. I have read many books explaining Catholic beliefs - from the papacy, to transubstantiation; from why we call our priest’s “Father,” to why we have all of those statues of Jesus and the Saints. This sort of apologetic work is usually an invaluable resource for answering questions from non-Catholics and even the occasional ill-informed Catholic. The format is generally the same: question-by-question the author refutes fallacies and elaborates on correct doctrine until every inquiry is laid to rest. Most of these works use similar arguments borrowed from other apologists, sometimes going back centuries, with a few unique insights thrown in to shed new light on a subject or to appeal to a specific audience. That is what I expected when I first read the title of this present volume.

But as I began reading I was confronted with a unique assortment of topics that challenged my preconceived notion of this book. Certainly there are the old standards concerning biblical interpretation, confessing sins to a priest, prayer to saints, etc. These are the issues that most trouble the inquiring Protestant mind. These are the questions that need to be answered, the doctrinal stumbling blocks that stand in the way of any conversion.

But there are other questions included in this present volume. Questions of a less pressing sort, the kind that make one say, “Hmm, I always wondered about that.” These issues are more a matter of curiosity and not so much a doctrinal or theological sticking point. A good example of this sort of question: “How did a breed of dogs come to be named for St. Bernard of Clairvaux?” Or this one: “Did Jesus ever laugh?” These are scattered in amongst more weighty doctrinal questions that divide Catholics and Protestants.

Yet there can also be found questions that non-Catholic Christians will appreciate on common ground with Catholics. For instance: “How should we respond to claims that the resurrection of Christ was just a hoax, hallucination or superstition?” and other such questions that pertain to Christianity in general and not specifically Catholicism. These too are peppered throughout, and make for a well-rounded assortment of topics.

Obviously this book is not the typical apologetics resource. As the primary author/editor of the material, Paul Thigpen, Ph.D., explains in the forward, Catholic Answers to Catholic Questions is a compilation of questions received mostly from readers of The Catholic Answer magazine (of which he was the editor), as well as a Question of the Day portion of the same magazine’s website (whose parent company is Our Sunday Visitor, and the publisher of this book). Considering the broad range of questions generated from such a format, this text includes an interesting mix of both serious doctrinal matters as well as fascinating tidbits of trivia, rolled into one.

I have several books on my shelf that give a more in-depth answer to questions concerning “Scripture and Tradition” or “The Primacy of Peter” and other such apologetics challenges. But this book fills in the gaps with answers to questions that are less often encountered and yet sometimes shed light on aspects of the faith that puzzle Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The answers are brief, and sometimes leave the reader wanting more (a problem that can be solved by checking out resources on the web or other books with similar themes). However, as a simple volume to answer quick questions and satisfy one’s curiosity, Catholic Answers to Catholic Questions earns a place on my book shelf.
To purchase this and other great books and Catholic products, visit The Catholic Company website.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Marquee Madness

It has become a common practice among some churches (generally Protestant) to post inspirational messages and catchy slogans on a marquee outside of their church for passers-by to read. These are usually brief enough as to be read quickly while one is driving through the neighborhood or strolling past on the way to somewhere else. Usually these messages are meant to spiritually inspire the reader or to express in a few words why this particular church would be a good place to worship.

…But in general, it’s all about the marketing. Slogans and sales pitches, memorable one-liners, popular catch-phrases spelled out in bold black letters and back-lit for night-time viewing.

Now, I’m not opposed to churches (even Catholic churches) having marquees in front of their buildings for posting information about Mass schedules, upcoming events, and even the occasional inspirational message (perhaps a quote from a saint or a pope, or an invitation to inquire about the faith and the RCIA program). What concerns me is the seemingly thoughtless approach of many of these churches that use their signs as cute gimmicks rather than as tools for ministry.

A (Protestant) church near where I work recently posted the following message:

“Our church is 2000 years old; our thinking is not.”

I did not stop to inquire what was meant by this odd statement, but it certainly seems to imply that ancient “thinking” ought to be rejected by the Church. Apparently 2000 years of Christian thought on various doctrines, on moral teachings, and biblical exegesis are simply not what the Church should be “about.”

I suppose this appeals to a certain breed of “progressive” Christians who wish to re-shape the Church into whatever form fits the current “in”-thinking. I know there are many liberal Catholics who could adopt this as their own slogan. The first half certainly fits the Catholic Church (being 2000 years old) unlike Protestant denominations that are at best only a few hundred. But if our 2000 years of “thinking” were to suddenly be jettisoned for a modern mindset, would we still be the same Church? Indeed, isn’t that what Protestantism did centuries ago. – reject 2000 years of Tradition and form a new church? Can we really say that a church is 2000 years old, if they have rejected their very roots? They cease to be the same church.

Who thinks up these marquee slogans and do they bother to check their messages against reality? But just as important, should the Church waste her time coming up with off-beat ways to express herself in modern terms? Is this a valid forum for the Church to reach souls?

I have read accounts of people who found themselves down-and-out, at their lowest low, messed up in drugs or prostitution or gangs, and were suddenly inspired to conversion upon reading a church sign that said, “Jesus saves,” or “God loves you,” or some such simple phrase. At that moment in their life the sign pointed to redemption, and it spoke to them where they were. These people owe their salvation to the bold black lettering of a church marquee. I cannot belittle their experience (although I do hope they find the fullness of the Catholic Faith to deepen their conversion). However I also think that these modern gimmicks can too often get in the way of the clear Gospel message. If the Church focuses too much on marketing strategies and bumper-sticker slogans that compete with the mass market, too much of the Christian message is watered down or left by the wayside. If it doesn’t fit on a T-shirt, then it doesn’t get printed. And soon our signs promote the message quoted above and we loose 2000 years of Christian thought.

Let’s face it, the Church cannot compete with the larger-than-life ads on Times Square or the glitz and glamour of the Vegas Strip…nor should we want to. The Church is not meant to be a worldly institution that draws people in with flashing lights and neon signs. The Church should draw people in as an alternative to the modern, over-hyped world of consumerism and materialism. The Church has more to offer than can fit on a billboard. She offers centuries of spiritual and theological substance, she offers spiritual truths and sacramental realities, most especially the Eucharist. She offers salvation that is eternal, not fleeting as the things of this world are.

If the Church tries to compete with worldly things in terms and conditions that are set by worldly powers, then the Church will begin to think in worldly terms, and we will forget what it means to think as Christ taught us. Instead the Church ought to preserve her vast treasure of accumulated knowledge and not stoop to the level of cheap advertising gimmicks or ploys to drum up more attendance…or to put it another way:

“My Church is 2000 years old; and so should her thinking be.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

Latin Lessons

In an earlier post I told of my plan to learn some basic Catholic prayers in Latin. This was my own personal project, but my kids soon learned what I was doing and asked to join in the endeavor. We began with the ‘Sign of the Cross’ – short and simple, and used so frequently in our daily prayers that the constant repetition aided in their quick learning of it. Once I was sure that they had this under their belts, I suggested the ‘Our Father’ as our next challenge. By that time I had already learned the ‘Our Father’ (‘Pater Noster’) and was able to recite it from memory while they followed along. Within a few weeks they were familiar enough with the prayer that they could recite it unassisted with only a few hesitations and minor mistakes. Not bad for a 6 year-old and 4 year-old. They have shown steady improvement, and we are now ready for the ‘Ave Maria.’

What began as a novelty for my own spiritual benefit has become a standard feature of our whole family’s prayer life. The kids now insist upon it. Whenever my wife and I slip into the familiar English: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son…” the kids scold and firmly remind us: “No, no! In Latin, please…”

The ‘Pater Noster’ has now taken first place among the prayers that we say together at bedtime. Our 6 year-old has tried his own version of Gregorian chant as an alternative to the spoken prayer, and our 4 year-old has a fondness for Shubert’s Ave Maria. And whenever Latin is used at Mass for the ‘Sanctus’ or the ‘Agnus Dei’ or an occasional hymn, the kids’ ears perk up. They seem to know that the language demands our attention and they enjoy the use of Latin in prayer and song.

What is so surprising about all of this is that the conventional wisdom for decades has told us that Latin ceased to be used in the Church’s prayer life so that the laity could be more fully engaged in the Liturgy. Supposedly Latin stifled the average Catholic’s spirituality and limited their experience of the Mass. When Latin was used the people could not understand what was going on and so they tuned it out, or they simply failed to grasp the full depth of what the prayers contained. While I do not doubt that for some Catholics this was the case, watching my kids experience Latin prayer has shown me that this does not have to be so.

When I hear it said that Latin causes confusion, that we cannot understand the words and so we loose the meaning of the prayer, I know differently. Using Latin has prompted more questions from my kids than the use of English ever had, and those questions have lead to far greater understanding than we might have had otherwise. When my child asks, “Dad, what does quotidianum mean?” I am far more careful and thoughtful in my response than if they had asked about the English. It forces me to delve into the meaning behind each word and seek a fuller understanding. The use of Latin has prompted far more questions of this sort and has inspired much deeper discussions than ordinary English. Of course, it takes a little more effort to research a solid response, but the result has been greater understanding, not less as some would suggest.

Many claim that the use of Latin makes prayer less personal. The words of a dead language, a language that is not your own and that you do not speak fluently, separates you from the act of prayer; you do not feel personally engaged in the prayer. In my experience and in watching my children go through the same process of learning a foreign language - learning the correct pronunciation, the rhythm of the syllables, the meaning of the words - all of this only serves to heighten one’s connectedness to the prayer and draw one deeper into the experience. Your thoughts hang on every phrase and you focus on every utterance. In the end, the sense of achievement you feel after learning the Latin increases your personal connection to the prayer – you own that prayer. Every word of it you struggled to master and now it is yours.

Some feel that the Catholic switch from Latin to the vernacular was a mark of progress. They argue that the Church must move beyond its ancient roots and embrace new forms of spirituality. Latin is a relic of the past and should be left behind. But aren’t Catholics the ones who venerate relics? Is it not the Catholic Church’s duty to preserve the faith that has been handed on to us since ancient times? Latin is an integral part of this great tradition. Of course, those who most often argue against such handing on of past customs are usually the same sort who argue in favor of female priests, or who experiment with “cutting edge” liturgical rites, and advocate the abandonment of long-held Christian moral precepts. The rejection of Latin is but a small part of their agenda, and often signifies a deeper rejection of other parts of the faith.

Using Latin in our home has certainly put my children in contact with ancient (and even not so ancient) history, but I don’t think that that is such a bad thing. There are many facets of our cultural past in music, art, and literature that utilize Latin to convey their beauty. Having a familiarity with this important language will only serve to augment their experience of these great works. And let us not forget that the scientific and medical fields use Latin as the source for their technical jargon. If these modern branches of study can make use of Latin so effectively then why should Catholics be thought of as “backwards” or “archaic” for our own use of this ancient language in prayer?

Pope Benedict XVI has strongly encouraged the re-introduction of Latin into the mainstream of Catholic prayer. And there are many good books out there, as well as web resources, to aid Catholics who wish to learn. Older Catholics who still remember the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass from their childhood may need only to brush up a little. Younger Catholics will have to begin from square one. But my children have demonstrated that even the youngest among us can benefit from revitalizing Latin prayer, and you are never too young to start.
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Update: Here are a couple of sites you can visit to listen to recordings of the spoken prayers in Latin:

Catholic iPod, Catholic Prayers in Latin
Audio Recording of Latin Catholic Prayers

From the first site I downloaded files onto my mp3 player for easy listening.
(Instructions for downloading are given on the site.) Hearing the Latin spoken by someone who knows correct pronunciation really helps in learning the prayers. The second site states that the material is copyrighted and the author does not encourage downloading. But listening from the site is another option.

Of course there are many other resources online. These are just two that I found in a brief search when I began learning Latin. Another option would be finding a phonetic pronunciation guide for each prayer as a visual aide.The important thing is to find a method that works for you and that utilizes the resources you have at your disposal.