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What I'm Reading
(The Bible should always be assumed...)


The New Faithful
by Colleen Carroll

Magisterium
by Fr. Francis Sullivan, SJ

Leadings: A Catholic's Journey Through Quakerism
by Irene Lape

 
 
 
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Friday, January 31, 2003
 

No homily from Fr. Shawn O'Neal this weekend

Is Fr. Shawn shirking his duties? Is he doing a JTM ('just the Mass')?

No. Breaking open the word has been pushed aside by something far more important. Money.

Not only is this Sunday the Presentation of the Lord (yes, feasts of the Lord take the place of regular Sundays), it is also the presentation of the Diocese of Charlotte's "Diocesan Support Appeal" video.

 

Exploring Different Perspectives on Catholic Teachings and Practices: Church Governance—Addendum

A Request

Back when I introduced this series of posts, reader Jana Scott asked if I might consider exploring the governance styles of Christian churches that are rather freestanding and independent of any one denomination:

I am Catholic, and my husband is a "don't give me a label, I'm just a Christian." He prefers churches that have no central governance. I was wondering if you could explore these churches (Evangelical, community, Bible, or whatever you want to call them) in your series of posts. Do they teach what each minister believes? I hear they teach the Bible, but someone obviously has to be the interpreter. (Or not...?)

I would like to explore the governance of the these kind of churches only its kind of hard. For one, while I have had more experience being around them than the average Catholic (I was a hired choir member for two years in a Congregationalist church—very independent, although, in the end, not very evangelical), it seems that the governance of these kind of churches is not very transparent. Although I worshipped with the folks at this church every Sunday, I was still an outsider and knew nothing of what was going on in its management.

Sources of the Principles of Governance

This is kind of ironic considering the loud calls for the Catholic Church to be more transparent in its governance in light of the recent scandals. While, in all honesty, the decision-making process in the Catholic Church could be more transparent in some areas, the principles it strives to work under are open for all to see—look at Scripture, the writings of the Church fathers, and various conciliar documents, especially Lumen Gentium of Vatican II.

Now I suppose that many non-denominational evangelical churches would say that the principles of their governance are just as clear and even more concise than those of the Catholic Church. They would simply point to the Bible and do away with other sources, at least in terms of their ultimate authority. They might learn from the writings of the Church fathers or even some conciliar documents (at least the early ones), but for them Scripture would have the final say.

So that kind of puts us in a dilemma. The Catholic Church teaches that the way that it is set up is based on biblical principles. Non-denominational evangelical churches make the same claim. The structure of the two and the ecclesiology (the theology of the Church) behind each could not be more different.

How, then, do we reconcile these differences?

How to Reconcile Different Interpretations of Scripture

Well, there are differences even in the way that we would answer that question. The Catholic Church would say that, in order to arrive at the true understanding of the Bible, one must ultimately an authoritative teacher. That teacher is, in the final analysis, the pope. But the interpretations of passages don’t necessarily start with him but at a much lower level. Always remember how the principle of subsidiarity works within the Church. In a sense, the pope can be a ‘final court of appeal.’

There can be and are all sorts of debates among Catholics about what this or that passage means. But, in the end, if its meaning is of decisive importance for the faith and morals of the Catholic faithful, then there needs to be an authoritative interpretation of the passage, at least in how it relates to a particular issue of faith or morals.

Many evangelical churches would say that one must follow the plain sense of a passage of Scripture in order to discern its meaning. (Perhaps I am simplifying this too much. If I am, please correct me in the comment box.) But one problem (among many others) with this principle is that the ‘plain sense’ can differ from one person to the next, from one congregation to the next. Therefore the governance structure of evangelical churches can be different from one church to the next.

That is another reason that it is difficult to explore church governance in non-denominational churches.

Objective and Subjective Approaches to Scripture

In the end, whether our evangelical brothers would be willing to admit it or not, Catholics and evangelicals have this in common: they both agree that the word of God given to us in Sacred Scripture is free from error.

Where we depart from one another is that the Catholic Church believes that an inerrant Bible without an inerrant interpreter (at least as regards faith and morals—this are the essential things that God teaches us in the Bible) ends up weakening our faith. How can we be sure that we are understanding this or that passage correctly? The Catholic Church seeks to have an objectively true interpretation of the Scriptures as regards faith and morals while, in practice at least, non-denominational churches and those denominations with little power of enforcing any doctrines seek a more subjective meaning.

Now one might argue that, in the end, Catholics are just as subjective in their interpretation of Scripture as any other Christian is. They are just relying on the subjective interpretations of their bishops and their pope. However, this is where the importance of Apostolic Tradition comes in. When individual bishops, groups of them, or all of them in union with the pope set forth to give an authoritative interpretation of Scripture (as in, for example, a papal encyclical letter or in a conciliar document), they do not rely on their own study alone, let alone their feeling for what the plain sense of Scripture is to them.

Instead they are bound to make their teaching consistent with the tradition of teaching handed on to them from previous bishops and popes, from the writings of the Church fathers, and various conciliar documents. The writings of the fathers can be especially important as they take us back closer to the time of Christ and the apostles. Some of the early fathers were themselves students of the apostles. And so we can see, in their interpretation of Scripture, how the apostles might have viewed that passage as regards a certain topic of faith or morals.

And so in being bound to the Tradition of the Church, today’s bishops in the Catholic Church are not simply offering up their own interpretation of Scripture. Instead, under the charism of the Holy Spirit given to them by virtue of the sacramental episcopal ordination to be an authoritative teacher, they are teaching the eternal truths of Scripture in a language that may differ from previous ages but which, in its essence is the same, the language being different in part to speak more effectively to today’s society.

They also at times (especially in teachings of a high level of authority, e.g., a papal encyclical) might continue the authentic development of doctrine. That is, without denying the knowledge of truth received from the Tradition, they might be able to expand our knowledge. Pope John Paul has done this especially in our understanding of the sacrament of Matrimony.

In the end, we still need faith to accept that the bishops of the Church have been given the charism of the Holy Spirit to be authoritative teachers. But if in faith we do accept this proposition, then we can acknowledge that their teaching is objective.

A Subjective Approach to Scripture Related to Relativism?

As you might suspect, a subjective approach to Scripture can lead easily to relativism. I’ve heard evangelical radio personalities rant against the relativistic morals of our society. At the same time they claim that the only objective source for morals would be in the word of God. And I will grant them that the Bible is fundamental in establishing Christian morals. However, if we cannot have an objective and authoritative interpretation of the word of God, then we are left with our own subjective reading of it, are we not?

It would seem that we have gone fairly far a field in this discussion of the church governance styles of non-denominational evangelical churches. However, at a fundamental level, the difference between their governance styles (and there are many of them) and the governance structure of the Catholic Church are but one manifestation among many of the different approaches to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture that I ended up exploring in this post.

I would be interested to read you comments and thoughts on the matter of church governance in these kind of churches, on their approach to the interpretation of Scripture, and how the two might be related.

 

The Rapture Trap

I've just finished reading Paul Thigpen's book, The Rapture Trap. At the start of the book he set the stage by showing how Christ's second coming is to be understood in the context of his first coming and the current age in which we live. He laid out the origin of the rapture theology, showed how it is neither biblical nor was held by Christians throughout much of the history of the Church. He also explained what the Catholic Church teaches and is silent on regarding Christ's second coming. Finally, he treated the topic of private revelation.

In his conclusion, he offered some advice to his readers regarding the Left Behind series of novels which have made the rapture theology so prevalent in our culture, at least on a superficial level:

If you are a Catholic who has been invited by a friend or relative to explore the Left Behind books or tapes, one thing should be crystal clear by now: They are not worth your time. And if you have been a Catholic consumer of the Left Behind products or similar materials, not matter how entertaining they might seem, you should lay them aside. They are spiritual poison.

Strong words, yes. But true words. Sadly enough, however sincere their intentions may or may not be, the people behind Left Behind will deceive you. They will fill your head with flawed history, faulty theology, and twisted interpretations of Scripture. They will elad you astray in matters of eternal importance.


Are you Catholic or a Christian of another tradition? Have you read any of the Left Behind books or other fiction or nonfiction that sees the rapture theology as true? Do you yourself subscribe in any way to this theology or have you in the past? I'd like to see your answers to these questions and what you think about Thigpen's advice in light of the context set by those questions.

I'll be honest and say that I myself have read some of those novels. I'd call them a guilty pleasure, except I didn't get much pleasure (at least the lasting kind) out of them. I read them before I was married and had a baby, i.e., when I had a lot more free time on my hands. At the time I knew my theology well enough that the beliefs underlying the fiction was bunk and that there was also an undercurrent of anti-Catholicism in them, so my faith wasn't threatened at any time.

I just guess that I see now that I could have spent my time a little more effectively back then. Reading fiction is all well and good. I just think that we should focus more on those works of fiction that bring us to a greater awareness and appreciation of that which is true, good, and beautiful. Sadly, all three of these are, in large part, missing from the Left Behind novels.

 

Selling the Dream:

A Reflection on Today's Mass Readings

Memorial of St. John Bosco, priest


Heb 10:32-39
Ps 37:3-4, 5-6, 23-24, 39-40
Mk 4:26-34

A few days ago I heard on the radio an interview with a man who recently wrote a biography of fashion designer Ralph Lauren. In explaining the man's success he said that Lauren had feels that he isn't selling clothing but "the dream."

If you look at a recent commercial campaign for Lauren's clothes you can see this philosophy at work. Grand music plays while pictures of beautiful young adults flash across the screen, all of them enjoying wealth and leisure. A narrator comes across at the end and simply says: "The romance, the passion, the world of Ralph Lauren."

The world of dreams that Ralph Lauren Lauren seeks to sell is nothing less than the American dream, with a little glitz and glamour thrown in for good measure. As it happens, Lauren is a good person to do this. You see, Lauren isn't his real name at all. He was born little Ralphy Lipschitz, the son of Jewish immigrants from what is now Belorussia. As a young boy growing up in the Bronx he did not know the wealth and leisure that he now portrays in his commercials.

Such is the American dream. Come from a humble background to this country, work hard, and you just might be able to create for yourself a world full of dreams, filled with comfort and relaxation, free from anxiety and concerns--just like a Ralph Lauren commercial.

However, the dark undercurrent undercurrent of the American dream is the gnawing awareness that is just that--a dream. It is not a reality now nor has it ever been. Yes, we need time for relaxation and leisure. But we humans thrive on work of one sort or another. The hard-working career of Ralph Lauren is a good, if ironic, example of this. And, at any rate, we will never escape anxieties and concerns in this life.

This is the reality that our Christian faith bids us to embrace. Ralph Lauren may sell a dream but our Lord only sells reality, he sells the cross. But while the latter does not have the glitz of the former, it is much more meaningful and fulfilling in the end.

This is what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us in today's first reading. His audience had undergone severe persecution for their faith in the past and were facing a new round of it as the letter was being written. The writer, then, exhorted them to continue to cling to their faith.

By comparison, we Christians living in America in the 21st century do indeed seem to be living in a world of dreams. We face nothing of the persecutions that our ancestors in the faith did. And when any situation presents itself where we might feel uncomfortable because of our faith, we are very adept at avoiding it altogether.

We might be in a gathering of friends, where, in the course of the conversation, a moral teaching of the Church, such as the condemnation of contraception or abortion, is ridiculed. In our hearts we mght know that the teachings are true, but we don't want to rock the boat. So we remain silent on the issue.

Or we might be with friends or loved ones who no longer practice their faith or even, perhaps, have deliberately renounced it for the faith of another Christian church, another religious system altogether, or no faith at all. With the knowledge of this change in mind, we avoid talking about faith at all when we are with them. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. We want to avoid feeling uncomfortable at any cost. The ironic thing is, the more we avoid the topic, the more we often feel anxious about it.

Such situations have nothing of the dire consequences described in today's first reading. But if we embrace them and, in humility, charity, and in a spirit of genuine concern for those with whom we are associating, bring up the topic of the faith and its teachings, then they can be no less significant than those trials faced by the first Christians.

In either case, whether it is the harsh persecution of the audience of the Letter to the Hebrews, or our own less threatening situations, those who chose to embrace the opportunities offered to them are choosing to die to themselves. They are, if sometimes in small ways, becoming witnesses, martyrs for Christ. But, as Tertullian noted so long ago, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

And, as Jesus noted in today's Gospel when comparing the reign of God to the tiny mustard seed, our martyrdom for the faith, our seed for the growth of the Church, need not always be enormous sacrifices. We only need to embrace deliberately the opportunities given us. We need not be ashamed that we, in comarison with the Christians of the early Church, live in relative comfort and ease. We only need to feel sorrow when we choose to avoid these sitautions where we are being called to speak up for Christ.

Every situation presented to us, even if it is small like a mustard seed, is an opportunity to see the reign of God extended. Some of the most powerful missionary work can be done in simple conversations with friends and loved ones.

When, despite our fears, we speak up for the faith, plant our mustard seeds in our family and friends, and see them spread forth through the nourishment of God's grace, then we will experience the real dream. We won't be buying the dream of leisure offered by Ralph (Lauren) Lipschitz. We will instead be given the dream of the hard but beautiful work of the reign of God.


Thursday, January 30, 2003
 

Being Washed Clean for the Life of Faith:

A Reflection on Today's Mass Readings

Thursday of the Third Week of Ordinary Time, Year I


Heb 10:19-25
Ps 24:1-2, 3-4ab, 5-6
Mk 4:21-25

Today's first reading reveals to us something of the power of Jesus working in our lives through the sacrament of Baptism. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are able to "approach" Christ, who is now in the sanctuary of heaven, because in the waters of Baptism our hearts have been cleansed of the defilement of evil and our bodies have been washed clean.

Through our bath in the pure waters of Baptism we are joined to the bath of Jesus' blood, the blood that opened our way to the sanctuary. Before his death on the cross and before our being joined to it in Baptism we were unable to be reconciled with God.

In light of this knowledge of the power of Christ working upon us through this sacrament, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to give ourselves all the more to the virtues of faith, hope, and love given to us in it: "Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy. We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works."

Whether we were baptized as infants or as adults, our world was changed by God when we were washed in that water. A that moment the grace of God was showered upon us. Our hearts went from being darkened by evil and sin to being renewed and reborn in purity. Indeed, our whole selves, body and soul, were spiritually reborn in that sacrament.

I apply this to both our bodies and our souls because the inspired writer of this letter seems to be teaching us this. He noted that our bodies and our hearts are cleansed "in pure water." He encourages us to hold our faith and hope in our hearts but also to express it through our bodies in "love and good works." Now of course, our bodies are still subject to the temporal effects of sin. But they have, through the grace of Baptism, been empowered to show forth the fruits of our profession of faith and the eternal hope to which we cling.

This teaching seems to be confirmed in today's Gospel. Jesus asks if a lamp is to be hidden. Of course not, it is to be put on a stand. In the same way, our faith is not to be hidden in our hearts but shared with others through love expressed in good works done through our bodies.

The grace of Baptism allows us to do this. It frees us from a world that would have us selfishly turn away from others in greed and turn in on ourselves. It allows us to live out the paradox that Jesus proposes to us today: "The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, and still more will be given to you." In his death on the cross Christ gave his all. In his resurrection he received a glory far greater than he revealed before. This same glorious divine life was given to each of us in the waters of Baptism.

Lets continue to pray that each of us be blessed by our God with a greater and greater appreciation of what his Son has done for us in his death and resurrection and our being joined to it in the waters of Baptism.


Wednesday, January 29, 2003
 

Family, Baptism, and Reflections on Being a Tour Guide

As I noted in my previous post, Mark Shea has a great post on the distinction between the Catholic sacrament of Baptism and the evangelical Christian understanding of being 'born again.' Peter Nixon, in reaction to Mark's post, has a fine post of his own.

This morning I gave a tour of the church here in the parish where I serve as DRE to a goup of Japanese ladies whose husbands work here in Shelbyville in various factories. They were part of a club co-sponsored by several Protestant (reformational Evan?) churches here in town. I had scheduled the tour about a week ago but had forgotten about it when I was called this morning to go and meet them in the church. Therefore my remarks were straight off the cuff.

What did I focus on? I focused on how the building was a home, a home of the family of God, a home where lots of individual families gather together into that great divine family which traces its lineage back to Jesus himself and his and our heavenly Father. It is a home where the family gathers around the table of the altar and shares with one another the bread of angels. It is a home where we tell the stories of the beginnings of our family, those stories which still bind us together today.

All of this is nice theology, but in small-town parishes like St. Joseph, it can be incarnated in very effective ways in the families that make up our community of faith. I spoke about how the great-grandparents of many of the parishioners had given much of themselves some 100 years ago to build our massive church and how the building was a testament to their faith, the faith that they passed on to us.

I pointed out the old baptismal font to which my parents brought me some 32 years ago. And I pointed out the new font, bought in memory of my deceased grandmother with memorial offerings given to the parish in her name, to which my wife Cindy and I brought our son Michael, clothed in his baptismal garment sown by my other grandmother.

I showed our visitors the stained glass windows that show Jesus as a young boy discussing matters of the Law with some old men in the Temple. I directed them to the window next to this one that showed Jesus at home with Joseph and Mary in which Jesus is seen learning carpentry from his saintly foster-father, himself the patron of the parish.

We looked at another window of Jesus lovingly curing the illness of a small child. This child was being held before Jesus by a kneeling mother who had a look of quiet urgency on her face. Behind Jesus we see many other sick people, often being carried to him by their friends or loved ones.

The nature of the church building as a home for the family of God, the stories of it being built by the faith of the parishioner's ancestors, the re-telling of how I was brougth to be baptized there and how I myself have now brought my son to the same house, gazing upon the windows which I have described to you--all of this has reminded me of the great depth of the life of faith to be found in the Catholic Church, of the deep personal significance that even an infant Baptism can have for us.

Just as the Gospel of St. Luke tells us that Jesus "increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man" (Lk 2:52) and the parishioners of St. Jospeh and its visitors see this in its window, each of us who are baptized are not baptized with a fully mature faith. Under the loving and grace-filled guidance of our parents we too are to grow in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and man.

All faith, imperfect or growing closer to perfection, is a gift, whether we embrace it as an adult or are given it as an infant. In some respects, infant baptism can emphasize for us how much of a gift it really is. My son Michael did nothing to merit the gift given to him in the waters of Baptism. Neither do the adults baptized in the same font at the Easter Vigil. But the total gratuitousness of the gift has the potential to be obscured when we see adults making their long journey to the font, through months and often years of discernment and struggles.

In addition, we can see in infant Baptism something of the great love and care that Jesus had for small children, the love and care that was portrayed in the window in which Jesus was shown curing a sick child. It is the same love and care that led him to rebuke the disciples who wanted to stop children from being brought to him: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God" (Mk 10:14).

The Kingdom of God is nothing less than the great and glorious family of our heavenly Father, a family unbounded by time and space, a family that finds its homes in small towns and big cities, on the prairies of the midwest and in the jungles of Africa. That family continues to grow as our Father's loving grace inspires parents to bring their newborns into the fold.

When children are born into a family they know nothing about their parents (save that they are the ones that feed them and change their diapers), their siblings, their uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents, let alone ancestors who are long since dead. But as they grow they can learn more about who these people are, their importance in their lives. For those children who are more grounded in the stories of their families I believe that there is a greater chance for them to grow "in wisdom and in stature, in favor with both God and men."

This natural truth is only a small reflection of that greater supernatural truth that each of us baptized as infants can experience as we continue our conversion, as we continue to learn about the great family of God, our Father, as we seek to bring others to share in the life of our family home.

 

Mark Shea on the differences between Catholics and evangelical Christians on the sacrament of Baptism

Its a great post and summarizes the differences with great clarity and precision, and with some great images thrown in for good measue. He also is open in pointing out down the upside of both theologies and the potential pitfalls of each. Here is an excerpt that I particularly like. It addressed the 'upside' of the Catholic theology of the sacrament of Baptism:

The upside is that it directs our eyes to the objective fact of our baptism as the lynchpin of our incorporation into the life of the Blessed Trinity, rather than to an introspective hall of mirrors in which we are continually fretting about whether we really meant it when we asked Jesus to be our personal Lord and Savior. And, of course, the Catholic approach is the biblical one whereas the Evangelical method of "asking Jesus into your heart" is of extremely recent vintage and without biblical precedent.

 

Blessed Contradictions:

A Reflection on Today's Mass Readings

Wednesday of the Third Week of Ordinary Time, Year I


Heb 10:11-18
Ps 110:1, 2, 3, 4
Mk 4:1-20

The word of God that cmes to us in Sacred Scripture is mysterious. We look at it and we see human words, human language. And yet what is confronting us is nothing less than God revealing himself to us. Therefore we should expect such a joining of that which is human and that which is divine to be nothing other than mysterious. It is the same mystery that we encounter in Jesus himself and in his Church.

When we look at the word of God we might see what we think to contradictions, even within a single verse. Consider this one from today's first reading: "...by one offering he [Jesus] has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated." This statement describes our being perfected as a completed act, one accomplished in the past. On the other hand, the same verse applies this description of bieng perfected in the past to those who are being consecrated *now*.

Surely our complete consecration is part of our perfection. If that is so, then it would appear that this verse is unintelligible. Is this true? Is it indicative of other contradictions in our faith? Is the Church and the faith it professes just a house of cards?

If it is, then it is an incredibly durable house of cards, one that has endured some 2000 years. So how then do we explain such contradictions? for we can see them also in today's Gospel where Jesus, in explaining why he taught in parables, stated that he did this so that those hearing would not understand him and so would not repent and not be forgiven.

When we see the Bible we see a book. Yes, its content is more significant that that of other books. But, in the end, it is just a book. We think that when we read it we can ascertain its meaning, its complete meaning like we would any other book. We conclude that the plain sense of scripture that our hearts and minds perceive is indeed the fullness of the revelation that God is offering to us in it.

But this revelation that God is offering us in Sacred Scripture is not, in the first place, just an intellectual assertion. In the divine revelation that is the Bible God is revealing to us his very self. He who created the universe and stands over and above it is revealed to us in the thoughts, words, and deeds recorded in the books of the Bible.

When a Being who so infinetely transcends our human condition reveals himself to us in finite human language, we should only expect to be confronted with what appears to be contradictions.

Paradoxes and contradictions trouble our hearts and minds. We want a world around which we put the fingers of our reason. But God is using our human world to reveal himself to us and so we must reconcile ourselves with the contradictions if we are to enter into a relationship with God.

When Jesus in today's Gospel explained the nature of the various soils onto which the seed of the word (that paradoxical word), he especially noted the condition of the hearts and minds of the those who hear the word.

Those who hear the word but have it taken away from them by Satan are like the path on which the seed was sown and from which the birds came and took it away. These people have their minds and hearts troubled by evil spirits. Those who have no roots and so give up on the word when persecution comes are lke the rocky soil. Those who are troubled by worldly concerns and so give up on the word are like the soil with thorns. But those who listen to the word and take it to heart are like the good soil in which the seed grows and prospers.

In each of these cases there was something about the people's hearts and minds that led them either to accept or reject the seed of the word.

In order for us to come to a more full understanding of the word of God with all its paradoxes and contradictions (all the while recognizing that this understanding will not be complete), we must let it settle into the soil of our hearts and minds, let it take root and sprout there.

But for this to happen our soil needs to be prepared. It needs to be readied so when that seed is sown it falls on good soil. May the gentle dew of God's grace continually enrich the soil of our hearts and minds, helping us to accept the paradoxes of the word when they confront us, sharpening the eyes of our souls so that we might look beyond and above them to the transcendent glory of God.


Tuesday, January 28, 2003
 

Mark Shea wants to develop a Evangelicalese/Catholicese Dictionary

Go here and here to learn more about the project. There is certainly some humor behind this. I don't foresee Mark going to a publisher with this.

On the other hand, he is trying to make a serious point by it, trying to show us that evangelical Christians and Catholic Christians often mean the same thing when they use different terms. He tried to point this out in this post where he suggested a way for Catholics to understand the question sometimes put to them by evangelicals, "Are you a Christian?"

If you look at the comment box, you'll see that I wasn't entirely satisfied with Mark's perspective on this. As I've pointed out before, I think that the question has behind it significant differences of belief between Catholics and evangelicals on the sacrament of Baptism and on evangelization.

 

Inherit the Wind--Hoosier Style

I live in Bartholomew County, Indiana, the seat of which is the town of Columbus. Last night the Bartholomew County School Commission debated the relative merits of teaching creationism, intelligent design, evolution, etc. They ended up passing a proposal which will allow Columbus North HS and Columbus East HS to teach an elective course where students would study these various worldviews. Apparently the debate was rather heated at times.

I'd like to be able to give you a link to an article on the affair. Unfortunately the folks who run Columbus' daily, The Republic, only allow those who subscribe to their print edition access to their website.

 

Like Mother, Like Son:

A Reflection on Today's Mass Readings

Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, priest and doctor of the Church


Heb 10:1-10
Ps 40:2 and 4ab, 7-8a, 10, 11
Mk 3:31-35

In today's Gospel Jesus refused to go and see his mother when she called for him. He even appears to have forsaken her altogether by not claiming her alone as his mother but stated that anyone who does the will of God is mother, sister, and brother to him. In this passage are we seeing Jesus breaking the fourth commandment? Is he thus telling us to do the same?

By no means. Before we could conclude that he was forsaking his mother Mary, we need to look at her example first. She, for us, is the best example of a mere human doing the will of God. When she told the archangel Gabriel, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38), she acknowledged God's will and assented to it. Her doing the will of God changed the course of history. Her "fiat" still has, by virtue of the grace of her Son, eternal effects on us today who live 2000 years later.

Now one might say that even though bearing the Word of God was no small feat, it was still made easier for Mary by Gabriel laying out God's will for her so clearly. With the rest of us his will seems more often than not to be dark and mysterious.

To be sure, each f our own lives are unique and we can only receive a certain amount of direction by looking to other examples, even that of Mary. But, in the end, God's will for each of us can be boiled down to what we read in today's first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.

There we learn that God's will for Jesus was that he offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people, replacing the sin offering of the Law, allowing the people to be truly sanctified through him.

In a real and important sense Jesus, as the everlasting Son of the Father, knew this will from all eternity. But we also recognize the mystery that Jesus, as the Son of Mary, also "advanced (in) wisdom and age and favor before God and man" (Lk 2:52). Jesus doing the will of his Father was then, a case of "like mother, like Son." Surely he would have heard time and again from his mother the story of how the angel came to her with his mysterious message. He would have learned the importance of doing God's will and what it meant to do it.

In her own doing of God's will, Mary was, in a sense, a great prophetic sign. In giving her body over to God in order to become the mother of his Son, Mary foreshadowed how Jesus was to give his own body up according to his Father's will for the redemption of all humanity. All of us who have been baptized have been joined to Jesus. So in him and in Mary we have, at least a fundamental level, perfect models of the way of doing the will of God.

So in our own discernment of God's will in our lives we need to return to the question, "Will what I am considering allow me to give of myself for the good of others?" This is what it means, at a fundamental level, to do the will of God. This is what Mary did as good as a human alone can do it in her "fiat." This is what Jesus did perfectly as God and man in his death on the cross.

No, Jesus was not dishonoring or forsaking his mother in today's Gospel. Just the opposit. He was giving her the greatest honor possible for a human in acknowledging, in a way perhaps that, at the time, only Mary could have recognized, how she had so done the will of God so well. He was not forsaking her. He was binding himself as a loving Son to a caring mother, renewing that deep connection that had begun in her immaculate womb.

 

Blogger Christopher Cuddy has some interesting writing

You can find it at his new blog, "Toward a Catholic Biblical Worldview." The blog, hosted on the website of Scott Hahn's St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, will, in part, chronicle Christopher's journey from Reformed Presbyterianism to Catholicism:

Contrary to what one might expect, by embracing Catholicism, I have not rejected any of the core theological beliefs that I adhered to as a Protestant. In fact, far from being abrogated, the core beliefs that I embraced as a Protestant have not only been retained but they have been realized even more fully.

Considering some of the dialogues that I have had and am having at present with Reformed Christians, it will be interesting for me to see how Christopher will elaborate upon this conclusion.


Monday, January 27, 2003
 

Exploring Different Perspectives on Catholic Teachings and Practices: Church Governance

Introduction

Last Monday, January 20 I posted a link to an article that discussed how the title ‘Protestant’ is really not fitting for many Christians who do not identify themselves as Catholic. In response to that link, Evan Donovan argued that the term ‘reformational’ would be a more appropriate term. He himself identified himself with this group of Christians, strictly speaking (i.e., he holds to those beliefs and practices that were formulated, by and large, by John Calvin).

Evan also listed in his comment some of the things that he feels distinguishes himself as a Reformed Christian from Catholic Christians. One of them was the differing views on Church governance between the two groups. He felt that Reformed Christians prefer what “presbyterian church government” to the church government of the Catholic Church, with its “centralization in Rome.”

In a comment to this post, Evan went on to elaborate what he meant by “presbyterian church government.” Based on 1 Tm 5:17, local churches are led by two groups of elders: those who rule and those who preach. The former are elected by a specific congregation while the latter are called by the Church as a whole. Deacons assist these elders. The elders throughout the broader church meet both regionally and in general assemblies to discuss and vote on issues involving the entirety of the faithful bound to that denomination.

On the surface, one might conclude that there is very little in common between this form of church governance and the form used by the Catholic Church. And, in all honesty, there are a number of significant distinctions. However, I think that it is important also to point out where there are similarities, at least on a conceptual level. I’m not so sure if the distinction between a “presbyterian form of church government” and one with “centralization in Rome” that Evan made in his first comment is as clear-cut as he and others might think.

The Church as a Divine Mystery

The Catholic Church as a whole, both in its visible manifestation, and its mystical reality reflect to us a divine mystery. It is, in many respects, a mystery related to the incarnation of the Son of God. And this stands to reason considering that we call the Church the body of Christ (see 1 Cor 6:15, 1 Cor 12:20-27, Eph 5:30, Rom 12:4-5, etc.). Such a unification of two polar opposites—that which is spiritual and that which is material—is impossible to understand with our reason alone. And although we can and are called to observe such mysteries in faith with our souls as well, our reason still works in the process. Therefore, there will always be elements of the Church that seem to us to be contradictions and paradoxes.

One such paradox is the fact that the Church is both centralized, as Evan pointed out, and highly decentralized at one and the same time. “How can this be?” you might ask. You could ask the same question, of course, of the way in which Jesus Christ is both true God and true man.

The Church Centralized

So, how is the Church centralized? It is centralized just as the first followers of Jesus were centered around him. He taught, they listened. He sent them out, they did so, preached his Gospel, and worked wonders in his name. This sending out (the Greek term for this being the root of our word “apostle”) happened both during his life on earth and as a final command, just before he was to ascend to the Father:

(18) And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (19) Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’” (Mt 28:18-20--RSV).

So, without him visible in one person alone, Jesus wanted his apostles to continue to preach the Gospel just as he had, to baptize just as he had been baptized and as he baptized others (Jn 3:22), and drawing disciples to themselves just as he had done with them. Now, in light of the passage from the end of the Gospel of Matthew quoted above, one might conclude that Jesus did not foresee any centralization among the apostles as they continued his work. Each one would go off and makes disciples on his own.

And, in all honesty, there is a real equality among all of those whom we, in the Catholic Church, believe are the successors to the apostles. There is a real equality and collegiality among all of the bishops of the Church.

However, in light of the fullness of the Gospels and the other writings of the New Testament given to us, we can see how there is also a mysterious centrality, or, more appropriately, primacy among those whom Jesus gave the great commission. Simon Peter is always the first in the list of the Twelve, although the ordering of the others is not always the same from one list to the other. In all the New Testament Peter is mentioned 195 times, more than all of the other combined.

And, as many know, this primacy of Peter among his brethren is confirmed for us by our Lord in Mt 16:17-19: (17) And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. (18) And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. (19) I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (RSV)

Now in one of his comments, Evan noted that “common exegetical understanding is that it was Peter's confession of Jesus as Christ on which He would build His Church, not Peter himself” (emphasis added). Yes, just before the passage which I quoted Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ. However, in Jesus’ words, we see no pronouns that referred back specifically to that confession. Rather, when he says “you” it is a second-person personal pronoun, referable only to Peter.

Much more exegetical analysis could be done on this passage, but I believe that this is enough for the moment.

It is passages such as Mt 16:17-19 that establishes the principle of the primacy of Peter. How that principle has been actualized from one period to the next often depends upon the historical circumstances of the day. The first successors of Peter did not exercise their primacy in the exact same way that Pope John Paul II does today. However, if one looks at the letter of St. Clement to the Corinthians we see there how a bishop of Rome (living presumably in the late first or early second century) dealt with difficulties in other local churches. The principle of primacy is strongly in the background of those letters.

The Church Decentralized

But so is the fact that the Church is also decentralized. Each of the local churches, including the one in Corinth, established by the apostles had emerged, in fairly short order (i.e., in less than a century after the time of the apostles, that is, probably within the lifetime of their direct successors) with a governance structure that had the principle of the tripartite composition that we see today in local Catholic Churches: one bishop with co-workers of presbyters and deacons. Each local church is complete in and of itself. St. Clement acted to restore order in the church in Corinth because some of the faithful there had sought to remove the rightfully established bishop and replace him with one of their own choice.

So in this action by St. Clement in restoring order in Corinth we see both the centralization of the Church under the pastoral care of the successors of Peter but also its decentralization in the completeness of each local church. The awareness of this mysterious paradox was emerging at a very early date then.

We also see it in the Didache (“The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles”), one of the oldest non-scriptural Christian writings that still exists. In the eucharistic prayer that is described in that work we read the following statement: “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom” (IX:4).

From the example of St. Clement, then, we are given a glimpse of the ultimate purpose of the primacy of Peter and his successors. It wasn’t to have power over other people, to force them to believe things that go against their consciences, to claim infallibility by virtue of himself and his successors. None of these things are true statements about the papacy.

In order to find the purpose of the papacy, one needs to look more to Lk 22:32 than Mt 16:17-19. In Lk 22:32, we see Jesus addressing Peter directly: “…I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren(RSV).” In this verse we see that Jesus has prayed for Peter, that his faith would not fail. If any prayer were to be efficacious, it surely would be a prayer of Jesus.

Yes, Peter would deny Jesus, but it would seem that Jesus’ prayer was a request that his faith would not fail in an ultimate sense. And, at any rate, the prayer of Jesus would seem to have begun to be fulfilled at Pentecost when Peter and his leadership seems to have been radically transformed by the Holy Spirit.

We also see in this verse Jesus giving Peter a direct command: strengthen your brethren. Of course each of us who are Christ’s disciples have, by virtue of our baptism, a duty to give strengthen and encourage each other in the life of faith. However, it would seem from this passage that this duty has been given by our Lord himself in a special and preeminent way to Peter himself and his successors.

Why his successors? That is an involved question, in part answered by Jesus’ promise in Mt 28:20: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Jesus himself established the principles of the governance of the Church. One of those principles was the primacy of Peter. Another was the equality of him with his brothers, those whom he was charged to strengthen. That these two principles exist at one and the same time is a sign, not of the unintelligibility and self-contradicting nature of the Catholic Church, but of it being what Sacred Scripture says it is: the body of Christ on earth.

The primacy of Peter and his successors ultimately exist as a sacramental (in the broad sense) channel through which Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit gives grace-filled strength to each of the local churches. That is the ultimate purpose of the governance structure in the universal Church as a whole, in each local church (diocese), and in each parish. The pope, bishops, priests, and deacons exist to serve the communion of the whole Church.

Subsidiarity

Christ mysteriously establishes this communion both from the bottom up and from the top down at one and the same time. The principle of establishing it from the bottom up is seen in the principle of subsidiarity. Simply put, this principle says that decisions in the governance of the Church should be made at the lowest level possible. What can be decided by a director of religious education (like myself) will not be decided by a pastor. What can be decided by a pastor will not be decided by a bishop. And so on all the way up to the pope.

As I implied earlier, the bishop of Rome isn’t the CEO of a large corporation with bishops being mid-level managers and DREs like me being mailroom boys. Each local church is complete in and of itself and acts as a local sign of the greater universal Church.

The Logical Conclusion of Subsidiarity: Primacy

It stands to reason that the principle of subsidiarity carried out to its logical conclusion would call for the primacy of the pope, Christ also creating communion from the top down. There are some decisions that are to be made at the highest level—those decisions which have an impact upon all believers throughout the world. This is why the pope, as successor to Peter, has the final responsibility of caring for the faith and morals that bind all Christians together.

This is, arguably, the most important way that Peter and his successors strengthen their brethren. And it is a way that the words of Christ in the Last Supper Discourse of St. John are fulfilled: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:12-13--RSV).

Catholics believe that the bishop of Rome and his brother bishops do not teach with authority that resides in them by virtue of themselves but because it is a charism that has been given to them by the Holy Spirit. Jesus had many disciples while he walked the earth. He did not address these words to all of them but to those ones that he chose in a special way to be sent out, to be his apostles.

But although he gave this teaching authority (see also again Mt 28:18-20) to his apostles, he still maintained the freedom of subsidiarity at the most fundamental level. No teacher in the Church, no matter how authoritatively he might teach, does not, in any way, impose those teachings on any other believer. The Church proposes, it does not impose.

Conclusion

As I’ve tried to show in this essay, the centralized and decentralized aspects of the Church work closely together and are bound so tightly together that one cannot separate them. This is a mystery, a paradox that is difficult for us to understand.

But the material reality of this paradox, which has the potential to confront Christians at so many levels, is merely a sacramental manifestation that the Church (in its fullness—not just its leaders) is what the New Testament tell us it is: the continuing visible human body of Christ on earth, the mystical body of the everlasting Son of the Father.

 

Cindy is working again today...

...so I'll be taking care of Michael. He's napping right now. We'll see for how long.


Sunday, January 26, 2003
 

Catholic Reasons for Hope

Q: Who is Melchizedek? I’ve seen him mentioned in the Psalms and in the Letter to the Hebrews. He seems to be important but also a very mysterious person.

A: We know of Melchizedek (pronounced mĕl-kî’-zĕ-dĕk, meaning “king of justice”) first in Genesis 14:18-20. There he is portrayed as and a priest of the Lord and the king of the city of Salem (meaning “peace”), a precursor to Jerusalem. He came to Abraham after Abraham had won a great victory in battle. When he met him, he blessed Abraham and offered a sacrifice of bread and wine. Abraham then gave him a tenth of everything that he had won in the battle.

Psalm 110, in which the king of Israel (who ruled from Jerusalem) is praised, refers to Melchizedek. In the psalm, the Lord himself promises to make the king “like Melchizedek,...a priest forever…” (Ps 110:4).

The first Christians often saw in the Psalms prophetic references to Christ. They especially saw this in Psalm 110. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews confirms this by his extended comparison of Jesus to Melchizedek in the entirety of chapter seven of that letter. In that chapter the story from Genesis is referred to as well as Ps 110:4 where the promise of being a priest forever like Melchizedek is applied to Christ.

The mysteriousness of Melchizedek comes in when we consider his life span. As early as the time of the writing of the Psalms the Jewish people believed that Melchizedek had somehow neither been born nor died. He was sent by the Lord to the earth and then taken back up there. That is why in Psalm 110 we see the king referred to as a “priest forever” like Melchizedek. Likewise, the Letter to the Hebrews tries to explain this oddity by showing that he was a prophetic precursor of Jesus: “Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever” (Heb 7:3).

Does this mean that Melchizedek was somehow divine, being neither born nor having died? No. It would instead seem, as the Letter to the Hebrews suggests, that he was a human made this way by the Lord in order to show his people a prophetic sign of the Messiah to come.

Melchizedek points us ahead to the coming of Jesus in many ways. We have already seen that he was like Jesus in that he was neither born nor died forever. He was also like Jesus in his being both a king and a priest. He was a precursor to Jesus in a very special way in his offering of bread and wine as a sacrifice, just as Jesus did at the Last Supper and as we continue today.

We here at St. Joseph need not look far to see the significance of the mysterious person of Melchizedek. Look above the stained glass window of the crucifixion and you will see a round window of Melchizedek offering his sacrifice of bread and wine. Abraham is there with him, with his helmet still on having just completed his battle. Next to that window is a portrayal of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice.

These three windows show us how the connection between the crucifixion as a sacrifice and the Eucharist as a continuation of that one perfect sacrifice was foreshadowed many ages before the time of Christ in the story of Abraham and Melchizedek.


Saturday, January 25, 2003
 

Thanks for the comments on the previous post

And keep them coming. I really appreciate reading your thoughts. Know that I'm putting some thoughts together on the topic of Church governance. It won't be a complete presentation, but one that I hope fosters some dialogue.

Consider this ahead of time. in treating the papacy, I'll probably be exploring as much if not more the meaning of Lk 22:32 as the meaning of Mt 16:16-19. Go grab your Bibles.


Friday, January 24, 2003
 

Exploring Different Perspectives on Catholic Teachings and Practices: Introduction

In response to this post, reader Evan Donvan posted an interesting comment. You can read it in the comment box to the post. In it he, who would, I believe, describe himself as a Reformed Christian, reflected on his preference for the descriptive term "Reformational" rather than "Protestant" when identifying those Christians who felt the need to establish their own churches in the 16th and 17th centuries and their spiritual descendants of the 21st century.

Evan believed that he simply doesn't 'protest' against the Catholic Church, but holds beliefs and practices, alongside many other Christians, that are distinct from those taught by the Catholic Church. He pointed out some of those distinctions in his comment. It is my hope to explore some of them in a series of posts.

The intent is to foster a dialogue between Christians of good will. I am a Catholic Christian. And while I have some knowledge of the beliefs and practices of other groups of Christians, I would like to learn more. On the other hand, I think that I might be able to offer clarification on Catholic beliefs and practices to those of other faith traditions who might have some knowledge of them but would also like to grow in understanding.

So, at its base, the intent of this series of posts is simply for all of us to continue to seek after the truth. It is not to prove one person right and another wrong. It is not to convince anyone that he or she should forsake his or her faith tradition and enter the Catholic Church. I have no illusions that our journey in seeking the truth will be completed through these posts and the comments I hope to elicit. I just hope that, for myself and those who read these posts and comment on them, they will be a few steps down that road.

The first topic which I hope to take up is that of Church governance. In his comment, Evan preferred "...presbyterian church government (as opposed to centralization in Rome)..." I plan on exploring the nature of governance in the Catholic Church and to see how centralized it really is. I also hope to learn more about what 'presbyterian church government' really is all about.

Comments anyone?

 

We've got a scooter

No, not the kind of thing that you see kids flying down sidewalks on, but a scooting child. Michael isn't yet crawling but knows how to scoot himself across the floor while sitting upright. This morning I brought him to my office and put him in the middle of the floor. Well I didn't realize that he could scoot as good as he can.

Now he's gone to one end of the room, taken off a whole shelf of CDs, and is chewing on the jewel boxes. I guess that he's a music lover just like his Daddy.

 

My "Spiritual Reflections" column, to appear in tomorrow's edition of The Shelbyville News

Near the end of his life St. Paul wrote his second letter to his co-worker St. Timothy. The old apostle knew that he would soon be executed for his faith in Christ and so he wanted to give a final exhortation to his young disciple, urging him to continue the work that Christ had begun in him.

Paul knew that the road that laid ahead for Timothy would be a difficult one, full of challenges and crosses. He would be threatened by those who opposed his message. And yet he knew that the message of the Gospel was indeed ‘good news.’ It was filled with the promise of eternal life. Because of the difficulty of proclaiming this message but also because of its importance for all of humanity he decided to command his disciple in stark terms: “..Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season” (2 Tm 4:2).

Unlike fruit bearing trees, the word of God is ripe at all times. It is always full of life, full of eternal life for those who accept it. But that’s the rub. There are not only some who will not accept the word of God, there are also some who will directly oppose it and those who preach it. St. Paul knew this very well when he wrote those words, for he was preparing himself to die for the word of God.

It was a challenging and very dangerous thing to be a Christian in the early days of the Church. Is it challenging now? Is it dangerous now? Thanks be to God that we live in a country where we are allowed to practice our faith openly and honestly. Other Christians and peoples of other faiths around the world are not so fortunate. Thousands of Christians are persecuted and even killed for their faith this very day in countries such as the Sudan, Indonesia, and China.

But in assessing the context of our own lives and comparing them with those in the countries that I listed above can we truly say that we are any more blessed than they are? Perhaps. Perhaps not. If we look at St. Matthew’s account of the beatitudes, it seems clear that Jesus loved those who were persecuted: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:10-12).

In a sense this passage says that those who are persecuted are doubly blessed. Does that mean that we should seek out persecution? By no means. We don’t need to find persecution. Persecution will find us. If we are faithful to Christ and to the word of God that he gives us then we will, even in the United States, experience some form of maltreatment or discrimination, just as St. Paul and so many in the early Church did.

Facing such a prospect from the comfortable circumstances in which we find ourselves is not easy. In fact, it is very challenging. It is a test of our faith. Are we willing to give up our security in order to defend, albeit in a spirit of charity, what we know is true? St. Paul didn’t just address his words to his disciple Timothy. He addresses them to us as well. Are we being faithful to the word of God both in season and out of season? This is a question that each one of us must ask ourselves time and time again.

____________________________________________

If any of you have any feedback on this column, please let me know what you think. Thanks.

 

Today is the Feast of St. Francis de Sales

He is, among other things, the patron saint of authors. As an aspiring Catholic writer I look to him as an example and pray to him that he may intercede for me that our Heavenly Father may continaully renew the presence of the Holy Spirit within me so that I might more effectively and lovingly proclaim the Gospel of his Son.

There is an impressive statue of St. Francis de Sales in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Indianapolis. It shows him preaching with a book (presumably a Bible?) in his left hand and his right hand raised, pointing to heaven. Behind the large statue there is a small stained glass window portraying the saint preaching to a large outdoor crowd. The caption below reads, "St. Francis de Sales preaching to the Calvinists." Interesting.

Here is a quote attributed to St. Francis de Sales. I suspect that he might have said something similar to it to his crowd of Calvinists:

"Salvation is shown to faith, it is prepared for hope, but it is given only to charity. Faith points out the way to the land of promise as a pillar of fire, hope feeds us with its manna of sweetness, but charity actually introduces us into the Promised Land."

I wonder what they would have said in reply?

One of the saint's most beloved works is the Introduction to the Devout Life. Although written many centuries ago, it still is a popular and meaningful book today.

 

Cindy is working today

So I'm taking care of Michael. We'll see how the blogging goes.

Oh, by the way, its 2 degrees here right now. Did I ever tell you how much I really like the summer? Its days like this that remind me of an old Franciscan friar who was a science for humanities people prof when I was in college. On days like this he'd open class with a typically Franciscan-like prayer. It would go something like this:

"Loving Father,
we thank for the cold of this day
because it helps appreciate more deeply
the warmth of the summer. Help us to
be grateful for all of your gifts, whether
we want them or not.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen"

Kind of reminds of the song from The Life of Brian: "Always look on the brighter side of life..."


Thursday, January 23, 2003
 

A Sad Reminder of Sin, a Great Reminder of Hope:

A Reflection on Today's Mass Readings

Thursday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time, Year I


Heb 7:25-8:6
Ps 40:7-8a, 8b-9, 10, 17
Mk 3:7-12

"For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests, but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law,
appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever
" (Heb 7:28).

We in the Church have been remindd, sadly, far too often over the past year of the particular weakness of some men in the priesthood. Although it is natural for us to be shocked and angered by their sins, they should not have been surprising to us, for each one of us, lay and ordained alike, suffer the weakness brought about by the Fall. However, it would seem that some give themselves to this weakness more than others.

Today's first reading puts the scandalous revelations of the past year in the light of Sacred Scripture. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews contrasts the pure holiness of Christ our high priest with the weakness of men appointed to that same office. The crisis of the past year makes the meaning of this passage so much more real for all of us.

Burdened with one story of abuse and mismanagement after another, it would be easy for us to look at this passage and begin to lose faith in the priesthood. This has happened before in Church history. In fact, it seems to occur on a fairly regular basis.

The basuses of some in the priesthood led many to reject it and the Church in general in the French Revolution and the wave of revolutions that followed it. Of courst the loss of faith in the priesthood during the Reformation is, sadly, still with us today. But even before the 16th century there was a crisis of faith in the priesthood in the decades that followed the Black Death, when poorly or wholly uneducated men, often motivated by avarice alone, sought ordination simply to grab wealthy benefices left empty by the death of countless priests in the plague.

Considering this pattern why do we still have the priesthood with us today? Thankfully it is because the Church has always recognized that we do not place our faith in the priesthood but in the one priest, Jesus Christ. Any man whom the Church in this world calls to ordination will be merely participating in Christ's priesthood.

The more that priests focus on Christ in their life and ministry, the more that people will have faith in the priesthood or, rather, in Christ who will shine through them. When this happens people from all over will flock to them, just as they did to Jesus in today's Gospel. Consider the example of St. John Vianney, theCure of Ars.

Men and women came to him from all over France so that he might hear their confession and be a minister of Christ's reconciling love. Were they attracted by him? Surely not. St. John was a very simple man, unable even to complete his the academic training of the seminary without the charity of his superiors. Likewise we was not of a prestigious noble family or from some other family of great wealth. Rather, in his simplicity he simply let Christ shine through himself.

Surely St. John Vianney, by the grace of God, lived out the words of John the Baptist: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). It is these same words that all priests should strive to live by.

For it is when these words become turned around, either consciously or unconsciously, that problems begin. And here I am not just referring to the sinful selfishness of those abusive priests who have been paraded before us over the past year. It also applies to those priests who can be workaholics and, at least implicitly, feel that all of the responsibilities of the parish fall on their shoulders and their shoulders alone (ultimately they fall on the shoulders of Christ). It is true in regard to those priests who seek comfort in drinking or eating to excess.

Now before you conclude that this is dump on the ordained day, let me also state clearly that these high ideals and sharp criticisms can be applied to all of us who believe to the degree to which we all share in that same one priesthood of Christ by virtue of our Baptism.

In living out our faith day by day all of us are called to let Christ increase and ourselves decrease. And yet all of us choose the selfishness of sin to one degree or another. Therefore should we, who are sinners, pick up stones to cast stones at our sinful priests and bishops?

Yes, we can point out the evil of their sin, just as we should remind ourselves of our own. And yes, we can should demand them to be banned from those forms of ministry which would place them in occasions of sin for themselves and occasions of tragedy for the faithful.

At the same time, let us all, priest and lay alike, never fail to encourage each other in our life of faith together in the Church. This is how God's grace can work through us, allowing the one priesthood of Christ to be more effective in ways that are visible to all of us, here and now.


Wednesday, January 22, 2003
 

I'm so glad that, on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the media has its eye on the ball

This story about a city council preparing to pass a law banning cat declawing ran on the local Indianapolis news this morning. What was the city you might ask? No surprise, West Hollywood, CA. I see that they're much more concerned there about defending a cat's claws than a child's life.

Now this leads me to wonder: why should this be a news story in West Hollywood let alone in Indianapolis?

 

The Indestructible Life of Jesus:

A Reflection on Today's Mass Readings on this, the 30th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Wednesday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time, Year I


Heb 7:1-3, 15-17
Ps 110:1, 2, 3, 4
Mk 3:1-6

Thirty years after Roe v. Wade and 42 million deaths later it might seem that the cause for the defense of life is hopeless. Despite some decrease in the number of abortions over the past few years the number of babies who die each year is still astronomical. The passage of laws that defend life in the womb is very difficult even in a Congress that claims to be pro-life. And it would seem that the culture of death is having an even greater impact upon the hearts of our people as we see practices such as cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and in vitro fertilization gaining wider acceptance.

In the darkness of all of these facts it is easy to get discouraged in the work of defending life. But the light given to us in today's readings can renew our strength and give confidence to our hearts.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews compared Jesus to Melchizedek. Both of these men had neither a beginning nor an end to their lives, the latter because of a gift of God, the former because he is God. We see in this reading today that Jesus is a priest forever for us "...by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed."

My friends, it is that same life that fills each of our own hearts by virtue of our faith and our baptism. No matter how easy it is in our nation to destroy the life of the body that is in the womb, we can find strength in the indestructible life of Jesus given to all believers. It is his grace and his grace alone that will allow us to continue our efforts to try to touch the hearts of those who place more value on a woman's right to choose than on a child's right to live.

As this last point shows, the pro-life cause is one that is bound up in the work of evangelization and the defense of fundamental human rights. We can and should work hard to have this law passed or that bill defeated but, in the end, the cause of life will only overcome the culture of death when we are able to share the indestructible life of Jesus with those who either have never known him or who have chosen to forsake him, either knowingly or unnknowingly.

In the end, this might be the most challenging but also the most necessary work in the cause of life. It was difficult in Jesus' own day. As we see in today's Gospel, the hearts of some of the Pharisees were so hardened that they could not be convinced to return to the Lord even when he stood in their midst.

They were so concerned about Jesus ignoring their interpretation of the sabbath laws that they themselves flaunted them. With the man with the withered hand before him, Jesus asked the Pharisees if it was permitted to save life or to destroy it on the sabbath. While they remained silent, would they have known in their hearts that the former was indeed permitted on the sabbath according to the Law?

It would seem that their hearts were too hardened for such awareness, for immediately after Jesus acted to save the life of the crippled man, the Pharisees broke the sabbath laws by beginning to plot for the destruction of Jesus' life, a life which, in the end, was indestructible.

What a contradiction! In seeking to defend the Law of Moses, the Pharisees ended up breaking it. If we look at the pro-choice cause, we see the same twisted principle at work. Folks who support that cause claim to be defending a human right, a woman's right to choose to end the life of her baby. But in the process of defending this so-called right (which really doesn't exist to begin with), they trample on the supreme human right to life.

We might think that a contradiction as clear as this could not stand and yet it has, and has strongly for 30 years. And yet this should not lead us to despair. For in Jesus' day the contradiction of the Pharisees seemed to win out in the end, jsut as the cause of choice seems to be victorious today. The indestructible life of Jesus seemed to have been broken forever when he died upon the cross. But just when the cause of life seemed to be defeated for all eternity, a new, eternal, and indestructible life came forth gloriously from the tomb.

This is the life that each of us who belive has been given. Cling to that life as we press ahead in the hard work in the cause of life. But do not hesitate to give it away to those who most need it. That is how the cause of life will win in the end.


Tuesday, January 21, 2003
 

A Reflection on the Contemporary Relevance of St. Meinrad

The Life of St. Meinrad tells us the story of a holy man who was murdered some 1140 years ago. He was a hermit, living in the mountains of Switzerland, and was killed by men who, it was believed at the time, were driven by evil spirits to commit their crime.

All of this seems so foreign to us. It happened so long ago. It happened so far away. How are hermits relevant to us today? And evil spirits causing murders? It sounds like something out of a tabloid.

And yet if we reflect upon the way this man lived and the way that he died, if we peer into the details of his story, we might come to realize that it has survived for so many centuries and is now read by us in the 21st because of its timeless message, because of the way it shows the life of the Gospel played out in a context that has meaning for people in all places and times.

We see in this a man, born into a family of privilege, who used it in order to bring himself closer to God. He did not renounce his familial ties but used them for the glory of God. In our own day when materialism wealth is what we bring to offer in the temple of the cult of celebrity it is, I believe, a more effective witness to the Gospel to use the power of wealth for the work of our Savior than simply to reject it altogether and try to created a separate world of one’s own.

This is a more difficult path. It is full of temptations. The wealth that one might use for God’s glory can be so easily used for our own shame. But, as we see in the example of St. Meinrad, he remained connected to his powerful family by being educated by one of his relatives who had himself become a monk. And he was able to use the wealth of a generous woman to establish his hermitage in the mountains.

This last example can be a powerful one for all of us. The story of how St. Meinrad told her about his desire to become a hermit seems so very real. He at first simply asks her if she would be willing to listen to his desire. But he is so full of enthusiasm for it that he doesn’t wait for an answer and simply blurts it out. The woman seemed to respond to the saint’s vision and told him that she would be willing to support him in his life of solitary prayer.

Those parishes, religious communities, and other apostolates that seem to thrive are those that are able to communicate their purpose clearly and do so with much spirit. Not only will they find many people wanting to join their community or share in their work, they will also find many, like the woman in the story of St. Meinrad, who are willing to financially support them.

St. Meinrad experienced both of these. I have already mentioned how he was given financial support to begin his eremetical life. But his way of life seemed to have been so strongly defined and blessed by God that many people would visit him, forcing him eventually to move his hermitage to a more remote location.

Perhaps it was the renown that began to surround St. Meinrad that led to his death. The story of his life simply states that his murders were pushed on to their crime by evil spirits that invaded their souls. However, if we peer beneath the surface of the story, we might conclude that these men believed that the holy hermit may have been collecting great amounts of wealth from the many people that would come to visit him. Living now in a hidden place in the mountains, they may have felt that he would be easy prey for robbery.

The fact that the story of St. Meinrad describe his murderer as having been possessed by the Devil himself may seem strange to us. But should it be so? We remember the murders committed by Andrea Yates and furrow our brow when she claimed that she was not responsible for the death of her children because she was driven to her crimes by Satan.

Now I am not claiming that Yates’ claim was true. In truth, we who receive our information about her case solely through the media cannot know if it was true. But I do think that it is not unreasonable for we who are people of faith to see the inspiration of Satan in the countless murders committed everyday.

In the story of St. Meinrad we see that the Devil entered these men on his initiative and that the men were driven to their crime by him, almost making it appear as if they were not responsible for their crime. However, as the story progresses, we see the presence of the Devil less and less. More emphasis is placed on their own choice.

It was the same choice of Adam and Eve to give in the Devil’s deceptions, referred to in the story of St. Meinrad, that truly brought about the Fall. It was this sinful choice that brought about a disruption in the fabric of nature itself, a disruption that seems to be emphasized in this story. When the murderers arrive at St. Meinrad’s hermitage, the saint’s chickens scurry about, to and fro, and making unnatural sounds, seeming to perceive that something deviant and twisted was coming into their midst. Similarly we see the ravens of St. Meinrad (which are now emblazoned on the coat of arms of St. Meinrad Archabbey) attacking the murderers after they committed their crime.

We might look at these two episodes as being quaint and kind of funny. But they represent the timeless theme of the disturbance in nature brought about by sin. We see it appear clearly in Tolkein’s now so popular The Two Towers where the trees themselves (in the form of the Ents) rise up against the evil Sauroman who had destroyed such a large forest in his will to power.

But as important as it is for us to realize the pervasive and ever-strong effects of sin on the world in which we live, I believe that is still more imperative for us people of faith to reflect upon the way in which St. Meinrad welcomed these men that he knew were going to kill him.

We don’t see pious resignation here. We don’t see a martyr simply yearning after heaven, calling forth the forces of death to take him away. And yet, he accepts his fate freely, much like the Savior to whom he witnessed in his death. Blood came forth in Christ’s own perspiration as he experienced his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. And St. Meinrad wanted to linger in his chapel, seeming to want to delay his impending doom.

And yet when his time came, he accepted it boldly, much as our Savior did. Still, even then, he clung to the relics of the saints as he came out to greet his evil guests. He clung to small fragments of them that he surely knew that he would soon come to meet in the full stature of the glory of God.

This story of a man who openly welcomed his own murderers seems bizarre if not wholly foolish to us who now live in an age where we seek to protect ourselves from terrorists at every turn. Should we abandon our defensiveness and so embrace the way of St. Meinrad which is none other than the way of Christ?

This is a difficult question to answer. We need to be defensive to the extent to protect the lives of those placed in our charge. But we should not be so defensive that we are prevented from sharing the hospitality of the Gospel with those who need to hear it the most. Unfortunately, those who are in most need of our Christ-like hospitality are often those who can threaten us the most.

And yet we are faced each and every day, as St. Meinrad was, with the call of our Baptism. We are called to proclaim the Gospel both to those wonderful folk who are willing to support us in our work and to those who would lash out against us. It is clear from The Life of St. Meinrad as well as from the anxious circumstances of our own day that this mission can only be carried out with the power of divine grace. May our Lord Jesus Christ never fail to fill our souls with this grace as we seek to be his witnesses throughout the world.

 

Raelian's Cloning Claim May Have Been False

You think? I would have never thought that they were anything but pure as the driven snow.

Interestingly, however, the announcement that the claim might have been false came from Vorhilon (Rael) himself.

 

A Response to an interesting comment

A reader read my reflection on yesterday's Mass readings and so concluded that he should not approach his pastor about some difficulties he had with the pastor's Sunday homily (according to the reader it was about the need for married priests).

I'm not sure if I would necessarily leave him alone. But, on the other hand, I wouldn't approach him with anger and a wagging finger either.

That is an easy and a rather self-righteous approach to take. One that is more difficult is to try to build up a relationship with the priest. I'm not recommending we seek after some kind of chummy friendship with pastors. Rather, I think that pastors and parishioners should be open to have free and honest conversations with one another about topics such as the one that was brought up in the homily in question.

These conversations can allow pastors to pro-actively live out their responsibility for the care of the souls of his parishioners. They also allow the parishioners to carry out their responsibilities, in a way that is appropriate to the particular nature of their baptismal vows, of caring for the Church and its individual members, including priests.

If such conversations were held in a spirit of respect, then, hopefully, the pastor might have more knowledge of his congregation and so be able to shape his homilies to their needs--mind you, not their wants, but their needs. Sometimes parishioners need to be challenged in homilies. Maybe not in the way that the pastor did it in the homily in question, but I don't think that it is a good thing for homilies to always make us have happy feelings afterwards.

 

Today is the Feast of St. Meinrad

Who is St. Meinrad you might ask? Well he is the patron of St. Meinrad Archabbey, located in southern Indiana. You can find an account of his life here. Other information about him can be found here. Einseideln Abbey was founded in the tenth century on the spot of his hermitage. It has been the constant home of that community for over 1000 years.

You might wonder, "Why am I giving so much attention to what would seem to most people an obscure early Medieval saint instead of those, such as the apostles or St. Francis, etc. that are more commonly known?" Well, as I have noted in other posts in the past, I was a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey for two and a half years and was a student in St. Meinrad School of Theology for two years previous to that.

I believe that the way that the spirit of St. Meinrad and the way that he lived out the Gospel continues to have a positive effect upon the monks who bear his name and the students who study under his patronage some 1200 years later. It is my hope that his story and the grace of Christ that flows through his story and his intercessions might touch us all and help us in our own lives of faith, here and now.

I will post a reflection on the contemporary relevance of this ninth century hermit saint, who is referred to as the "martyr of hospitality."


Monday, January 20, 2003
 

An interesting perspective on Catholic and Protestant apologists

Thanks to Mark Shea for the link. He also provides his own commentary on this article.

 

Catholic Reasons for Hope

Q: Could you explain what the “Didache” is?

A: The Didache (pronounced “dĭd´-ã-kay”) is a document written in some of the earliest days of the Church, dating from the period of the late first century to the early second. In fact, it is one of the oldest non-scriptural pieces of Christian writing that we still have. It is believed to have been written somewhere in present-day Syria.

But for a long time we only knew that it had existed. Various Church fathers from the third and fourth centuries referred to it. However, its text was lost for a long time. It was only rediscovered in 1883.

The title by which we refer to it now only represents the first word in its original Greek title. Its full title translated into English is “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles.”

It is divided into three sections. The first is “The Way of Life” and is a moral exhortation to live in the ways that Christ taught us. The second is “The Way of Death” and warns us to stay away from sinfulness.

The third section lays out ways to organize the life of the Church. In particular we can read there how these first Christians celebrated what we call the Eucharist. There seems to be some remarkable similarities between what they did and how we worship today.

We can even see that at this very early date the followers of Jesus had an understanding that the Church was closely connected to God and was universal: “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom” (IX:4). This excerpt was taken from a short Eucharistic prayer described in the Didache.

So, as we can see, the Didache has been invaluable for us to helping us to learn what life was like in the earliest days of the Church and to see how the Church of today is directly related to it. If you would like to read the Didache, you can find it online at the following address:

http://www.ewtn.com/library/PATRISTC/ANF7-17.TXT

Q: Are Catholics the only Christians who make the Sign of the Cross?

A: No, Catholics are not the only Christians to make the Sign of the Cross. All Eastern Orthodox Christians make the Sign of the Cross. Many Episcopalians and some Lutherans do as well.

All of these varied groups of Christians as well as Catholics are all united by their valuing, to varying degrees, of ancient traditions of the Church. And the Sign of the Cross is one of those ancient traditions. As early as the middle of the 200s we see the Christian writer Tertullian making reference to the practice.

Some Christians who reject the Sign of the Cross claim that it was a pagan practice and only started after many pagans started entering the Church in the 300s. But this is simply not the case. We see evidence of it much earlier than that. It was present during a time when most everyone who entered the Church did so because of personal conviction, not for political reasons, as some claim many pagans did in the centuries to come.

There are various ways of making the Sign of the Cross. Even we Catholics use different ways. We make a large Sign of the Cross, going from our forehead to our chest and then across our shoulders at the start of Mass. But we make small ones with our thumb on our forehead, mouth, and heart just before the proclamation of the Gospel.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, by and large, make the Sign of the Cross differently from Catholics. Instead of going from the left to the right across their shoulders, they go from right to left.

In whatever way Christians make the Sign of the Cross, it is a reminder to us of many things. It reminds us that Christ died for our sins on the cross and that we are to share in his sufferings by carrying our own cross. And it reminds us that, at our Baptism, when we were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we were also given a share of the very life of the Blessed Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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If any reader of Nota Bene would like to submit questions for this column, please feel free to do so by e-mail.

 

Being Made Perfect through Suffering:

A Reflection on Today's Mass Readings

Monday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time, Year I


Heb 5:1-10
Ps 110:1, 2, 3, 4
Mk 2:18-22

So many priests are suffering now because of the sins of a few of their brothers. That has been noted time and again. And it is often noted with hints of frustration and sadness. After all, the numerous good priests out there don't deserve the harsh treatment they often receive now from the general public and even sometimes from their own parishioners.

But I think that today's readings can provide some meaning for us for this unjust suffering. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us today that Jesus "obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him."

We could look at this passage, wag our collective finger at priests in general, and say, "See, if you were only obedient to the Church's teaching, you wouldn't be in this mess." But such a broad condemnation only increases the suffering of the innocent.

Yes, to varying degrees all priests could embrace more fully hte teachings of the Church. But, in the end, the same can be said of all of us, including those among the faithful who are quick to criticize.

At any rate, even if our priests were to live to the high ideals of some they would still receive harsh condemnations from others. Now one could make the argument that receiving criticism from a group with wrong principles or beliefs isn't all that bad, it really isn't suffering. But i believe that all of us should desire greater and greater unity in the Church. And the appearance of division is an occasion of sadness and suffering for all of us, priests and laity alike.

As long a we are on this side of the resurrection, we will experience division and suffering to one degree or another. I believe that it may become less as we approach the end, but it will always be there.

And so while we await Christ's glorious return we will experience suffering. That is the nature of discipleship in the age of the Church. The suffering of innocent priests because of the sins of a few is merely another example of this.

But the enduring of this unjust suffering can lead them to be formed more and more into the image of Christ. And the more and more this image is perfected, the more that Christ's eternal salvation will flow through them to all of the faithful who are inspired to obedience by them.

The endurance and even embracing of suffering by priests and, indeed, all of us will be our way of cooperating with the grace that God offers us, that grace that has the power to transform us more and more into the image of Jesus. Such endurance of suffering is even more powerful when it is freely accepted and even chosen, as with the fasting that Jesus discussed in today's Gospel: "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day."

Indeed, the Groom has, in a sense, been taken away from us. During this time of rejection of the Church in general and the priesthood in particular it may be hard for many people to discern his presence among us. This might be an occasion, then, when we are called upon to embrace freely and openly the suffering of fasting.

But in order for all of us to do this we need to seek out that hidden image of Christ. We need to look upon him who learned obedience through suffering and through perfect suffering became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

As we gaze more and more upon the face of Christ in prayer, in our learning, and in our service to our families, our Church, and our world, wour own suffering in the midst of all of this will become more perfected through his grace. As this happens that image of our Savior will become more clear and more shocking to all, including ourselves, who heap unjust suffering on others.