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Why Is This Church Empty?!

In Christianity on June 14, 2019 at 7:56 pm

One of the most memorable exclamations I’ve ever heard in a homily was made recently by a passionate young priest. Gesturing to the half-filled pews, he asked, “Why is this church empty?!”

Why Indeed?
We can blame the sexual and financial scandals. Similarly, the silence from Rome to Archbishop Viganò, and to the dubia asking for clarification of Amoris Laetitia, has not helped. Beyond that, one could cite the contrast between Cardinal Cupich’s ever-anodyne statements, versus the scholars’ open letter accusing Pope Francis of the “canonical delict of heresy.”

But the decay in Mass attendance began long before these problems. Moreover, to limit ourselves to issues with the episcopacy takes us off the hook too easily. If we are praying for Church renewal (read Ezekiel chapters 8 and 9, but particularly Ezekiel 9:6), then what about us individually?

Are we willing to say with the Lord not only “Begin at my sanctuary,” but “Begin with me”?

A Muscular Christianity
James V. Schall, S.J.’s † fine short book, Another Sort of Learning, points in chapter 12 to Hilaire Belloc’s Catholic exuberance. “Belloc was much more than a folk hero. [He was] a man who made us think our faith was in fact thinkable.”

Fr. Schall’s writings are one of my touchstones for many things Catholic. That said, even he sells Belloc short here. Consider Belloc’s own words, i.e., that he believed in:

Not a hypothetical God, but a real God full of beef, creator of Heaven and Earth et omnium visibilium et invisibilium.¹

A real God full of beef, creator of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible! Good heavens. What a statement. How very much we need this certainty, this muscular Catholicism today—as opposed to equivocation and vagueries. Yet one almost dares not say such a thing for fear of being thought “traditionalist,” “dogmatic,” or even sacrilegious.

Empty Pews — Why?
“A real God full of beef” is the reality to which the young priest was pointing, even summonsing, from Heaven (Psalm 144:5). If we truly believed Christ is present in the Eucharist, and that the God of Heaven speaks through Word and Sacrament, then how could even one empty seat in our parishes be empty?

Lest we think Belloc exaggerates, or has engaged in sacrilege, consider this from Paul Claudel’s A Poet Before the Cross, a book that should be revered by every Catholic Christian:

The God we worship is not only standing, He is raised, all His body stretched, an active power visible in each fiber! He is above everything and holds on to nothing. But it is He who holds us, and we who depend on Him, the two of us indissoluble. He is here forever between Heaven and Earth, suspended, intermediary. He is a God fully functioning

Fully functioning, indeed! A real God, full of beef. Belloc again:

The Catholic Church is the exponent of Reality. It is true. Its doctrines in matters large and small are statement of what is. This is that which the ultimate act of the intelligence accepts. This is that which the will deliberately confirms.

As Belloc biographer A.N. Wilson concludes:

The Mass [for Belloc] was a daily chance to be present at the material and true miracle of Christ’s incarnation . . . As often as he knelt [at the altar] . . . Belloc renewed his intellectual appreciation of the fact that he belonged to the one institution on earth founded, guided, and daily visited by Almighty God

If this is true, then Christ is always present in the tabernacle of even the most modest parish church as well as the grandest cathedral. If this is true, then the Catholic Church is the clearest mirror of Reality. If this is true, then the Mass opens a door into Heaven.

If we believe this — then “why is this Church empty?!”

 

¹ A.N. Wilson, Hilaire Belloc: A Biography (New York: Atheneum, 1984), p. 361.

² Paul Claudel, A Poet Before the Cross (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1958), p. 225.

³ Wilson, pp. 250-253.

We Believe in a Person

In Christianity on March 18, 2019 at 7:53 pm

My original title for this post was, “Before a Crucifix.”

Then I realized the point of the post was not so much the Crucifix itself, as important as it is, but rather that Christians do not have an abstract faith. We don’t take a “leap of faith.” We don’t say things like, “I have faith everything will work out,” without knowing why.

The why is is a person, Jesus Christ. We could better say, a Person. In the words of the Nicene Creed, adopted by the Church in 325 A.D., Jesus Christ is:

The only begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
consubstantial with the Father.

One must recognize not all men and women believe in God. Yet many who do, or claim to believe, seem to believe in an abstract God—a noble ideal, or a moral standard, or a systematic theology, rather than a flesh and blood reality.

Saved by a Person
The Crucifix reminds us Christ was much more than an noble ideal and certainly was not a disembodied moral standard. This is the deficiency, and sadness, of using an empty cross as a symbol. We can say that it is empty because Christ has risen. He has. But we risk missing the equally important fact that a Person died and rose:

No man understands sin until he sees it in the light of the face of Christ. He [or she] may feel mortified at the fool he has made of himself, but he will sorrow only when he sees the Beloved crucified.¹

Saved by a Look
How was Christ crucified? Lifted up on a cross, among thieves, in full view of the men and women of His day. Jesus Christ said in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.”

Simone Weil describes the Crucifixion as the definitive event in our lives, i.e., that we are saved by a look:

One of the principal truths of Christianity, a truth that goes almost unrecognized today, is that looking is what save us. The bronze serpent was lifted up so that those who lay maimed in the depths of degradation should be saved by looking upon it … It is an act of attention and consent.²

Venerable Fulton Sheen writes that the Crucifix remind us of our sin, our own degradation:

  • Crown of thorns: Our evil thoughts and sins of pride
  • Torn flesh: Our sins of lust; cowardice; injury to others
  • Nakedness: Our avarice; covetousness; grasping
  • Thirst: Our abuse of alcohol, drugs, and other excesses

Looking at Christ on the cross, do we see our our sins being borne by a Person? Do we appreciate the truly supernatural intervention, that God Who created us would, out of love for us, come to earth as a man and die for our sins?

We don’t believe in an abstraction, or an ideal, or a moral standard. “When I am lifted up,” Christ said. And in Him, we should see ourselves and the price of our redemption.

The ultimate sorrow is related to the Crucifix, where each of us can read his autobiography

 

¹ Fulton Sheen, The Priest is Not His Own, location 2654, Kindle edition.

² Simone Weil, Waiting for God, pp. 125-126.

³ Fulton Sheen, The Priest is Not His Own, location 2667, Kindle edition.

I Believe in God

In Christianity on March 1, 2019 at 12:38 am

Waking up in a hospital bed focuses one’s attention. “What happened?” “How did I get here?” “What’s wrong with me?” “Will I recover?”

On a Sunday in early January, my wife and I were hit head-on by a large, heavy pickup truck. Our car was destroyed. I had to be cut out of what remained. She and I were taken to the hospital in critical condition. Doctors were not certain I would live. Recovery will be long.

At the beginning of 2019, I wrote in my prayer journal, “Lord, increase my faith.”¹ This request has been answered in a thousand times since the crash. The answers began with a simple conversation in my mind:

Q:  Do you still believe in God?
A:  I do.

Q:  Did He know this would happen?
A:  He did.

Q:  What is your response?
A:  God is in control.

When we say “I believe in God” (the first four word of the Apostles’ Creed) we acknowledge that God is. He is real. Not all men and women acknowledge that, of course—so the first step for you and me is to decide if God real. “I believe in God.” Few words. Many consequences.

If God does exist—and if He is loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful—then when bad things happen we are forced to face the existential question Job faced: “Why did this happen?” In most cases, the answer doesn’t come quickly, if at all.

That’s when we must say, “God is in control.” If He exists and He is a loving God, then we can only say like Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”²

The Christian’s everyday life is the “amen” to “I believe.”³

One last thought: please don’t interpret this post in the way I would have as a child—i.e., if you surrender yourself to God, something bad will happen to test your faith. For example, I remember thinking, “If I surrender myself to be a missionary, God might send me some place I’m scared to go.” God doesn’t do that. Yet, even if we are to be tested, He goes through the testing with us.

He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation. Psalm 91:15-16

“Lord, increase our faith!”

 

¹ Luke 17:5

² Job 13:15 (KJV). For many years as a child and young adult, I studied and memorized scripture from the King James Version. In some instances, this verse being one such case, the language is so transcendent and grace-filled, I still prefer the KJV.

³ Summarizing and paraphrasing paragraph 1064 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

 

2019 is Not 2002

In Christianity on February 28, 2019 at 9:23 pm

Between 2002 and 2019, the patterns of communication in our world changed dramatically. The Internet and social media elbowed broadcast news aside.

The old pattern or model was one way, one-to-many communication. Today multi-platform, many-to-many conversations are the rule. Facebook launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005, and Twitter in 2006. Reported news is now only one thread among many. No public figure from the President to the Pope can stonewall discussion of an important topic.

Stand Firm
Nowhere is the futility of trying to put a lid on discussion more evident than with the laity’s response to the summer of shame. An unending stream of social media posts and comments make it clear the glacial pace of the Vatican is at odds with the immense disappointment of the laity. With additional action anticipated by various states’ attorneys general, the social media stream risks becoming a torrent. We can hope that the Vatican ultimately will respond with a clarity and sense of urgency we have not yet seen.

As Catholic Christians, we must acknowledge that the situation is more complex than an allegedly isolated Pope or timid bishops.

A Resource Guide
The post, A Resource Guide, is intended to provide insight into the current crisis in the Church. The guide is not comprehensive, but perhaps it will be helpful. But how? Why?

On July 27, 2008, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, SC, I responded “I do” to the following question:

Do you believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.

The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church embraced me and warmly welcomed me. I did not deserve the riches of the Church then. I don’t today. But by the grace and mercy of God I became a Catholic Christian and was received into full communion.

Do We All Believe and Profess?
The resource guide seeks to answer the question, “Do all Catholic Christians believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God?” The answer, of course, is “no.” But when one sees a Cardinal with this record admonishing the President of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops to be patient and wait until February 2019 to take any meaningful action [move the video slider to the right to 18:20 for the beginning of Cardinal Cupich’s remarks], it makes one wonder what to do?

The answer? Read and speak up. 2019 is not 2002! Speak with respect. Be sure of your facts. Offer gentle correction and guidance to any who are wrong. But use the tools we have in 2019, with God’s help, to ensure the Church is not faced with a repeat—or worse—of 2002. What could be worse? The stage-managed February 2019 gathering in Rome produced ambiguous statements and no meaningful action yet again.

One final thought: no well-formed Catholic Christian wants laity in control of the Church. If the vehement lay response to the current crisis is interpreted by the episcopacy as the laity wanting control, that would be a grave mistake. What so many are asking for is faithful spiritual fathers—holy bishops who teach, govern, and sanctify. An emphasis on personal sanctity, sound teaching, and accountability where those attributes are not present is what’s being called for.

These resources have been helpful to me. The red subheads are clickable links.

The Bible
Sacred Scripture is essential. The link in the subhead will take you to Olive Tree Bible Software. They offer downloadable Bibles. Get the RSV, NABre, and Douay-Rheims. You may also want the ESV Strong’s. Although the ESV Strongs lacks the deuterocanonical books, it provides quick links to the original languages in which the Bible was written (Hebrew–Old Testament; Greek–New Testament).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church
Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are summarized in the Catechism. This expresses the teaching of the magisterium of the Church. Our own views, as well those of Cardinal Cupich, must be tested against the doctrine defined by the Catechism. The Kindle version of the Catechism is wonderfully useful because it contains links for cross references, as well as easily access to footnotes.

Triumphs and Tragedies
This 23 episode series is both informative and encouraging. Fr. Longenecker puts 2,000 years of history into perspective, reminding listeners that the Church has survived scandal and bad popes before (read Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes). Fr. Longenecker goes beyond Duffy, however, in putting the current crisis into the historical context. It is Christ’s Church and the forces of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

Books
The subhead, above, provides a link to Philip Lawler’s 2018 assessment of our episcopacy’s response to the crisis in the Church. It is the most recent book-length account. Also very helpful, however, is Marcantonio Colonna‘s (pen name for Henry Sire) background study of Pope Francis’ papacy. Finally, for a comprehensive summary of the sex abuse crisis and legal responses as of 2014 see the scholarly work by James T. O’Reilly and Margaret S.P. Chalmers. Note that the latter book is often available far more inexpensively on AbeBooks.com.

Blogs, Podcasts, and Twitter
Twitter posts generally point back to the authors’ blogs and/or podcasts.  So, here is a list several accounts worth following on Twitter. Take the next step and visit their blogs, too.

@dlongenecker1 (Fr. Dwight Longenecker)
@TaylorRMarshall (Dr. Taylor Marshall)
@NCRegister (National Catholic Register)
@EdwardPentin (Edward Pentin)
@PhilLawler (Philip Lawler)
@ccpecknold (C.C. Pecknold)
@canonlaw (Edward Peters)
@jdflynn (J.D. Flynn)
@LSNCatholic (LifeSite News)
@OnePeterFive (Journal of Catholic Theology)

Stand Firm
We are repeatedly admonished in Sacred Scripture to “stand firm.” Ephesians 6:13-14: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

With the latest “revelations,” and potential legal action by as many as 17 states, it would be easy to become discouraged. Don’t. If this is your Church and mine, let’s begin by purifying ourselves; by praying for and encouraging faithful shepherds; and by keeping the pressure on the episcopacy. It’s always worth being reminded of Hillaire Belloc’s observation:

“No merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

The Church is Christ’s and He has promised the forces of hell will not prevail against. Hold your ground and continue to fight the good fight.

 

Summer of Shame

In Christianity on August 29, 2018 at 12:30 am

The “Summer of Shame” refers to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s report, released by the Attorney General of the state on August 14, detailing sexual abuse extending over 50 years in six Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. 

What can a faithful Catholic Christian say? What are you saying? What should I say?

Every Catholic must be prepared to “speak a word in season,” to “know how to speak to the weary.”¹ So what is my response—and what’s yours—as we look to the Church’s episcopate (Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals, and Pope Francis) for their next steps?

Anger at Complicity
I am angry, as every faithful Catholic is. After the 2002 Boston Globe report on the sex abuse scandal in Archdiocese of Boston, Church leadership reacted with contrition and assured the faithful (and the world) that steps had been taken to remedy the problem—not just in Boston, but throughout the United States. The aftermath of the Boston scandal led to what is often called “The Long Lent.”

True, some abuses reported then and now took place decades ago. The Church has done much, particularly since 2002, to ensure parishioners and their children are protected. Nor is the crisis limited to the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant assemblies and missionary associations also have had to address serious moral failures. Sins of celebrities and the sexual dalliances of powerful figures, from Hollywood to America’s newsrooms, have been exposed. High school teachers, college football coaches, and a prominent sportsmedicine doctor have disgraced themselves. Elected officials have resigned. We live in a sex-saturated age.

Yet not one, single moral failure in the Catholic Church is excused by those cases. And now, sixteen years after Boston, a prominent Cardinal has stepped down for grave immorality extending over forty-seven years, despite widespread awareness by others in episcopal leadership.

Concern for Concrete Action
I am concerned about early statements from Church leaders asking for “prayer, fasting, and penance.” Words aren’t enough. Yes—prayer, fasting, and penance are important. Prayer is powerful. St. Augustine wrote:

I thought that continence [self restraint] arose from one’s own powers, which I did not recognize in myself. I was foolish enough not to know . . . that no one can be continent [in control of one’s impulses] unless You grant it. For You would surely have granted it if my inner groaning had reached Your ears and I with firm faith had cast my cares on You.²

So let’s pray. Let’s all pray for purity. But at the same time, we can be concerned that, as a recent social media post said, “prayer, fasting, and penance” (words also said in 2002) amount to little more than the anodyne sentiment, “our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

St. James could have been addressing the Church’s leadership about sexual abuse, when he wrote:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith but has not works? . . . If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?³

In other words, don’t just talk. Act.

Notwithstanding the current “Summer of Shame,” the Church has many extraordinary leaders and faithful priests in dioceses across the U.S. and around the world. They are the large majority. They, too, are grieved by “blasphemous . . . twisted and monstrous sins,” as one faithful priest called them.  Here are just three examples of men who spoke out early (and these were written before Archbishop Vignanò’s recent letter):

For Archbishop Carlo Vignanò’s letter, click here.

So actthose of you in the Church who have the power to take action. Act concretely and communicate clearly. Individuals will sin for as long as this life endures, but institutional coverups must not continue.

In closing and in the awkward syntax used for emphasis in social media:

This. Must. Never. Happen. Again.

 

¹ Isaiah 50, verse 4, from two translations: the King James Version and the New American Bible for Catholics.

² Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2520.

³ James 2:14–17

Summer of Hope

In Christianity on August 29, 2018 at 12:29 am

Purity of heart is the precondition of the vision of God. Even now it enables us to see according to God. . . . ¹

Note: If you have not yet read “Summer of Shame, start here, then continue below.

So, what happened? How could priests, Bishops, and even Cardinals go so far off-the-rails that we find ourselves in the current situation?

  • Beyond the tragedy imposed on the victims (without suggesting in any way  that we should “get beyond” the impact on their lives)
  • Beyond the episcopal failures that allowed it
  • Beyond the Bishops and priests who behaved in a way contrary to all they professed to believe
  • Beyond the fact we’ve seen this all before, 16 years ago . . .

what happened? What really happened in Pennsylvania and elsewhere?

Individualism
Love is the gift of oneself—not satisfying one’s own desires at the expense of another. Radical individualism views self as the highest authority. Imagining somehow that they were “free” to engage in such behavior, the abusers were taken prisoner by their individualism and enslaved to their physical impulses.

Utilitarianism
The opposite of love is not hate, but to use another person as an object for self-gratification. This teaching is at the heart of Pope Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.² By using others to satisfy their own selfish desires, the offenders in this scandal failed to see the victims as persons, but only as objects of pleasure.

Hedonism
The offenders made an idol of pleasure and worshipped sexual gratification instead of the one, true God. This sort of hedonism is idolatry.

Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.³

As idolators, they gravely harmed the lives in their care, violated their sacred vows, repudiated much they claimed to believe, and damaged Christ’s Church.

The three-point outline is not mine. It is from Pope Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. This encyclical is worth re-reading in light of the current crisis. From paragraph 23:

The eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism, which breeds individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism. Here too we see the permanent validity of the words of the Apostle: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Romans 1:28)

The criterion of personal dignity—which demands respect, generosity and service—is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: others are considered not for what they “are”, but for what they “have, do and produce”. This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak. [Emphasis mine]

Saint John Paul II then continued at length to address the “culture of death,” an expression that typically refers to abortion, euthanasia, and more generally, cultural disregard for the sanctity of life. Yet curiously, “culture of death” also is included in Pope Francis’ statement about the current abuse scandal and cover-up.

Where’s the Hope?
Can we hope the Bishop of Rome sees the worldwide abuse scandal as manifesting the culture of death? Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wants to find out. The following excerpt is from his request for an audience with Pope Francis:

The recent letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò brings particular focus and urgency to this examination. The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence. Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.

We can hope Pope Francis rapidly grants the audience and Cardinal DiNardo will return with a report of positive, concrete results.

Our True Hope
Yet our true hope—our confidence—is in Christ’s promise in Matthew 16:18. He declared unequivocally the powers of hell and death will not prevail against His Church. Quoting Benedict Kiely’s article in First Things, “The House of God Will Not Be Closed”:

Hilaire Belloc once said of the Church: “No merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.” This proof of the Church’s divine origin remains true in every season, but it seems especially appropriate for our current moment.

God is in control.

Need More Hope?
For twenty-five minutes of total clarity about the present crisis, watch Fr. John Lankeit’s August 26 homily on YouTube. Fr. Lankeit is the Rector of the Cathedral of Saints Simon & Jude, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Want more? Check out the “Triumphs and Tragedies” podcasts by Fr. Dwight Longenecker. Christ always cleanses and renews His Church. Just as one example, listen to the scandalous history of Pope John XII in the tenth century. Then skip to the last four minutes of podcast 14. You’ll hear a much-needed reminder that there may be corruption in the Church today, too, but we continue to be Catholics because that is where we find Jesus Christ.

Listen to Fr. Longenecker’s entire “Triumphs and Tragedies” series. It will give you the history, the long view, to see the current crisis in perspective.

This is not the time to walk away from the Church. Even if we momentarily imagined that we might, “Lord, to whom would we go?” (John 6:51–69). In Christ’s Church we are nourished by Word and Sacrament. We are surrounded by the Saints, a great cloud of witness, urging us to finish the race and to keep our eyes on Christ. We have many, many holy priests, Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals who are diligent in their roles as shepherds and spiritual fathers.

God is in control. He is not finished with His Church. Our responsibility is to become men and women of such holiness He can use us as instruments of renewal, as He has used others in centuries past. Let’s make this a summer of hope.

 

¹ Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2519.

² West, Christopher. Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II’s “Gospel of the Body”. Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2003, p.50.

³ Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2113.

For Mom

In Christianity on September 26, 2017 at 2:07 am

“If you went into someone’s house to visit a friend, wouldn’t you say ‘Hi’ to his Mom?”

With these words, a priest who has been a wonderful friend and guide in my Christian life, introduced the topic of the Blessed Virgin Mary to his RCIA class.

Divisive Topic
Probably no topic prompts more debate between Catholic Christians and those who left the Church in the 16th century than the Virgin Mary. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, an evangelical who is now a Catholic priest, even wrote a book on this topic based on a debate with a Christian friend.

My growth in faith and ability to honor our Lord’s mother has come through seven realizations.

  1. Mary was the spouse of the Holy Spirit
    These words sound nonsensical, even sacreligious, until we realize that is exactly what the Bible declares in Luke 1:35. Trying to grasp this is difficult— especially if we have spent a lifetime thinking of Mary as simply a young Jewish girl given the honor of bearing the Savior. Choose, if you like, a different word than “spouse.” But look at the big picture. How else would you describe “being overshadowed,” leading to the birth of our Lord?
  2. Mary robed our Savior with her flesh
    The Blessed Virgin Mary robed our Savior with her flesh. He was both God and man. His manhood, and the blood He shed on the cross for those who come to Him, was the result of His incarnation. His incarnation was made possible, in the will of God, through the flesh of the Virgin Mary.
  3. Mary received God into herself
    Mary’s “yes” to God (Luke 1:31-38) is the precursor of the “yes” all of us must say, if we are to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. “Be it done to me according to your word.” Through baptism, we are overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and made children of God. But we must continually receive God into ourselves (Romans 10:9-11 and elsewhere) and daily recommit ourselves to living for Him. We must receive God into ourselves. Mary is the best example of an answer to the evangelical question, “Do you know when you invited Christ into your heart?”
  4. Mary always pointed to her Son
    Most Christians know the biblical account of the wedding at Cana. When our Lord’s mother realized the newly-wed couple’s joyful occasion might be spoiled by the host having run out of wine, with faith she said to her Son, “They have no wine.” Then turning to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” If only each of us followed her admonition daily, how much better our Christian lives would be!
  5. Mary suffered in a way few, if any, of us will suffer
    Surely anyone would shrink from the thought of seeing a beloved child tortured and executed. How much more difficult must it have been for the Blessed Virgin Mary? She saw her Son perform the miracle at Cana, heal the sick, and proclaim Himself “the way, the truth, and the life.” Yet Colossians 1:24 talks about “filling up what is lacking” in the afflictions of Christ. No believer would say Christ’s sacrifice was deficient. But apparently our sufferings matter. In that case, who, if any among us, has suffered like the Virgin Mary?
  6. Mary is an example of purity
    In our sex-saturated 21st century, what could be more important than a shining example of purity? Pornography is instantly available 24/7. Women are viewed as sexual objects, not persons.¹ Human trafficking for sex is widespread. Hollywood makes increasingly sensual films and TV shows, while its executives and actors too often mimic the plots. Political figures have been humiliated, impeached, and even imprisoned, for sexual misconduct. Abortion has taken the lives of millions of unwanted, unborn children. Even the Church has endured the disgrace of its own sexual abuse scandal. Do we not need purity? Get close to Mom. Pray for purity. “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
  7. Mary is a picture of obedience
    Obedience is at the heart of the most pleasing offerings to God we can make. In Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s book, Into Your Hands, Father, he reminds us that our obedience—total abandonment to God—is to be patterned after Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.² God’s plan for our Savior’s birth begins with Mary’s obedience. He sends the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary with an astounding, incomprehensible message (Luke 1:26-34). “How can this be?” was her first reaction. But her obedience to God’s will follows immediately: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Describing Christ’s obedience, the New Testament book of Hebrews says, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:7, Psalm 40:8). Joseph’s obedience, despite his initial concerns, was essential as Mary’s husband and the guardian of the infant Savior: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (Matthew 1:24).

We need pictures of obedience, Mary’s included, after which we can pattern our own lives. Fr. Jean C.J. d’Elbée writes of holiness, but it could as easily be said of obedience: “Holiness [obedience] is a disposition of the soul, of the heart, and, above all, of the will toward God.”³ May we seek, and nurture, that disposition of the will that leads to loving obedience to God.

As God prompts our Christian growth and compassion for the souls of others, each of us must be ready to tell his or her own spiritual story. We must wrestle with our own convictions about matters of faith.

What does your spiritual story say? What does it say about our Lord’s mother?

You’ve just read the chapter about Mom in my story. What’s yours?

 

¹ See Love and Responsibility by Bishop Karol Wojtyła (later Pope, and now Saint John Paul II). His subsequent teachings on human love were later compiled in Theology of the Body. As consequential as his papacy was in other ways, these two books may be his most important works for the 21st century. He points out that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather to treat a man or woman as an object, not a person. Similarly, his teaching suggests pornography’s worst evil is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little—nothing of the interior person; simply an object being used for one’s pleasure.  For a shorter account of Saint John Paul II’s teachings on sexual intimacy, see Saint John Paul the Great, Chapter 8, titled “Human Love.”

² Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen, Into Your Hands, Father (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001).

³ Fr. Jean C.J. d’Elbée, I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001).

Forced Faith

In Christianity on June 28, 2017 at 9:03 pm

The phrase “forced faith” includes two completely contradictory terms (see No Forced Faith and the related posts, December 2009). Understanding that these words are contradictory—an oxymoron—is important. We live at a time when trust in the institutions around us is at an all-time low, ranging from lack of confidence in government, organized religion, and even the traditional family structure. We fear being compelled to live in a certain way.

Love Does Not Compel
That makes Robert Cardinal Sarah‘s statement about the nature of God all the more important:

God is love, and love will not compel, force, or oppress in order to be loved in return.¹

Why is Cardinal Sarah’s short statement so important?  It is because some fear Christianity out of concern that it is coercive. To those with such fears, Christianity seems to consist mostly of do’s and don’ts; it seeks to compel behavior based on those do’s and don’ts; it oppresses or even seeks to suppress those with opposing points of view.

God is Does Not Compel
God is love! He needed nothing. He was and is complete. Yet He freely created us to share in His divine love. To demonstrate His love, after mankind’s rebellion (which is also to say the individual rebellions mounted by each one of us), He even made the ultimate self-gift in Jesus Christ while we were still enemies.

Even you and I know that we cannot compel someone to love us, despite the hopes we sometimes have for a relationship with this person or that person. Do we imagine God is somehow different?  Has less understanding than we do? Thinks love can be commanded? No, He waits eagerly and watches for us, like the prodigal father.² But he does not compel, force, or oppress.

Emptiness Isn’t the End
Many people feel the emptiness of contemporary life. Robert Cardinal Sarah writes, “People . . . find themselves alone in the world, without anything that surpasses and supports them.” Quoting Blaise Pascal, Cardinal Sarah continues:

When I regard the whole silent universe and man without light, left to himself … lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death … I become terrified, like a man carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, [who awakes] without knowing where he is and without means of escape.³

This is not a new thought. Emptiness abounds even in popular songs that go back decades, from the isolation of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby (“all the lonely people”) to the nihilism of Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is  (“let’s break out the booze and have a ball”).

So think for a moment: is it possible that this emptiness more oppressive, even more dangerous, than our fear of losing what we believe is “freedom”? In The Mission of the Redeemer (written in 1990),St. John Paul II wrote:

The Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing

It is true there will be a reckoning at the end of our lives (Hebrews 9:27-28). But we are given free will, the overarching power of to choose—just as the prodigal father gave his son opportunity to choose how he wanted to live.

If you fear compulsion but feel the increasing isolation of 21st-century life, St. John Paul II said, “Be not afraid. Open the doors to Christ!” And Christ Himself said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest . . . my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Come. No compulsion. No oppression. Only freedom and rest. That is Christianity Richly.

 

¹ The Power of Silence, by Robert Cardinal Sarah, paragraph 90 (location 918 of 4186), Kindle Edition.

² Luke 15:20, but be sure to read the entire passage about the prodigal father, from verse 11 through 24.

³ The Power of Silence, paragraph 241 (location 2058 of 4186), Kindle Edition.

Liturgical Beauty

In Christianity on February 28, 2017 at 7:33 pm

To marvel at Your beauty
And glory in Your ways,
And to make a joyful duty
Our sacrifice of praise.
O God Beyond All Praising¹

One of the most important books published during 2016 is Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, edited by Dom Alcuin Reid. A strong statement? Yes, but as Timothy Cardinal Dolan has said, worship is “the most profound act we can do.”

The Importance of Liturgy
What makes worship the most profound act we can do? Bishop Dominique Rey, organizer of Sacra Liturgia 2013, an international conference on liturgy, states Christ “acts uniquely in the world today in the Church’s liturgy.” Sacrosanctum Concilium, one of the most important documents of Vatican II, declares:

The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.

That font is our Lord Jesus Christ present to His people during Mass. We must remember what is being celebrated by the liturgy. It is not a gathering of friends or like-minded religionists. It is, in the words of Cardinal Dolan, “our connection to the saving life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.”² 

The Importance of Beauty
Transcendent worship is evangelical
. Why? In a word, because it is beautiful. Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke’s chapter in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century takes beauty as the theme:

The search for beauty has nothing to do with a mere aesthetic sensibility or with an escape from reason. From the divine perspective, beauty, together with truth and goodness, are manifestations of being and, ultimately, the source of all being, God, Being Himself . . . the way of beauty, is a most important and irreplaceable means of announcing God to a culture [emphasis mine].³

Margaret Hughes cites French writer, Paul Claudel: “One can resist force, skill, or self-interest. One can even resist Truth, but one cannot resist Beauty [again, emphasis mine].” Why? Because:

Beauty . . . is essential to . . . manifesting to human beings what is authentically good. Beauty conveys that it is good to exist, and so opens us to the appropriate, fitting joy in being, and being in the world. Joy is the only proper response to the gift of Creation and Redemption. 

God shows His love for each of us in ways uniquely suited to us. Truth, goodness, and beauty are not only attributes of God and, therefore, of the Christian life (or they should be). Truth, goodness, and beauty are also powerful incentives drawing men and women into relationship with Christ — “to marvel at Your beauty and glory in Your ways,” as Michael Perry’s text at the beginning of this post states it.

An Open Door
In that sense, the liturgy is not only for the Church. The liturgy is for the entire world! Celebrated with reverence and transcendence, it parallels the invitation given to St. John in Revelation 4:1: “I had a vision to an open door to Heaven.” That’s what the liturgy is; that’s what it must be for the world.

According to Pew Research, the number of religious “nones”  is increasing significantly. Yet a deep spiritual hunger remains. Celtic spirituality talks about thin places, where “the distance between heaven and earth collapses.” The liturgy is precisely that: a thin place, a door to heaven standing open; a place of great visual richness, glorious song, and sights, sounds, even scents, all of which proclaim:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, Who was and Who is and Who is to come . . . Worthy are You our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power.  —Revelation, chapter 4.

Liturgy matters. Liturgical beauty matters. Thanks be to God for the the increasing number of faithful pastors and parishes who value the richness and eternal impact of liturgical beauty. That is Christianity Richly!

 

¹ Text composed by Michael Perry, to the tune of Gustav Holst’s Thaxted.

² Introductory Greeting and Messages, Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, pp. xi-xvii.

³ Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, “Beauty in the Sacred Liturgy,” in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, Alcuin Reid, ed. (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), pp. 2, 11.

4  Dr. Margaret I. Hughes, “The Ease of Beauty: Liturgy, Evangelization, and Catechesis,” Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 91, 100.

 

Reality

In Christianity on February 23, 2017 at 7:27 pm

Understood rightly, Catholic Christianity is not a matter of “religion” but of reality.

If we believe what Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition tell us about God’s creating love, caring intervention, and constant presence, then our comprehension of the world around us will be changed.

Strangers Among Flatlanders
Archbishop Charles Chaput has written a wonderful book titled, Strangers in a Strange Land. The title¹ comes from the Old Testament book of Exodus 2:22 (King James translation) of the Bible, a verse which explains why Moses named his son “Gershom,” which can be translated as stranger, sojourner, or even foreigner.

Certainly many of us feel like strangers and sojourners in our societies. We question our society’s direction and our government’s priorities.

Archbishop Chaput likens our postmodern world to that portrayed in the novel, Flatland. He points out: “Popular wisdom holds that Flatland was a satire of the conventionalism the Victorian era. But we might find better parallel closer to our our land.”

How so?

For Flatlanders, all of reality consists in width and length . . . One night the narrator, an urbane and orthodox Square (an attorney), is visited by a Sphere. The Sphere lifts him out of this Flatland universe. It shows him the glory of three dimensions and proves that Flatland is only part of a much larger reality [emphasis mine].²

The Order of Things
Fr. James V. Schall’s book, The Order of Things, may be the best guide to getting out of flatland and grounded in reality. As Fr. Schall explains, “The highest activity of the human being, that in which his natural happiness consists, is the contemplation of the truth, that is, of knowing the order of things [emphasis mine], what life and the world and their sources are about.”³

We live in an age of scientism. But science can only tell us about that which is observable; measurable on science’s own terms. But how much can science tell us about justice, meaning, character, virtue, or love? What can it tell us about the possibility of a higher power’s having ordered things as they exist? The limits of empirical validation are exceeded very quickly. Summarizing Fr. Schall:

Christian revelation, whether we like it or not . . . exists as an intelligible explication of things that are [emphasis his]. It is intended to alert us to more than we might think possible to know by our own powers. It is also a response to things we do know.

Revelation doesn’t simply complement reality. Revelation completes reality.

Reality is two-tiered: seen and unseen; visible and invisible, as the Nicene Creed expresses it. Men and women who permit their reasoning to be constrained by the visible make themselves strangers to reality. More than 500 years ago in Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote of a similar failure to grasp all of reality, using words remarkably similar to the title of Archbishop Chaput’s book:

Horatio:
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet:
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The refusal to consider all of reality, especially the Creator of reality, does not escape the “God problem,” as Fr. Schall calls it. “We merely locate our explanation someplace else, even if we call it atheism.”4

Yet the Christian is also a stranger in any land that closes its eyes to reality, by asserting that faith is a private matter with nothing to say about visible, public, day-to-day parts of reality. Archbishop Chaput’s book offers much that is helpful as we seek to live thoughtfully and responsibly as Christians and citizens. In the words of Fr. Schall:

To rule ourselves . . . means to use our mind and will to know and guide what is already in us or related to us, so that we direct these powers to a proper purpose, to the end of our being.5

Strangers in a Strange Land does much to identify that proper purpose and to explain our role in pursuing it during an era when thinking or acting in only two dimensions will not do.

 

 

¹ If seeking Archbishop Chaput’s book, click the title below, which is linked. The Archbishop’s book is a very different work from Stranger in a Strange Land, the science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein.

²  Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, page 80 of 273 (Kindle edition).

³  The Order of Things, by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), page 108. See also The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 37–38.

4 The Order of Things, p. 49.

5 The Order of Things, p. 95.

 

Sacramentality

In Christianity on January 29, 2016 at 5:57 pm

Have you ever had the experience of going to a museum many times, yet finding something you hadn’t seen before — a painting you hadn’t noticed; an artifact from an earlier civilization you hadn’t paused to examine? Have you ever walked through a city you know well, but stumbled upon something you didn’t realize was there — a special shop, a statue or monument, a lovely park?

My experience with the sacramental nature of Catholic Christianity has been a bit like that. I knew from my earliest days in the Church that the seven sacraments instituted by Christ are the foundation of a Catholic Christian’s life: Baptism, Confirmation, and The Eucharist (Sacraments of Initiation), Penance and the Anointing of the Sick (Sacraments of Healing), and Marriage and Holy Orders (Sacraments of Service). God conveys grace through these sacraments.

The Electrifying Story
But only after some years in the Church did the sacraments begin to even more powerfully inform and strengthen my faith. Why? Because the sacraments are God’s ongoing expression of His electrifying engagement with us! The sacraments manifest His creating love, caring intervention, and constant presence to us, for our good.

Enfleshed Souls
What makes the sacraments so significant? This: God created us as enfleshed souls. We each have a body. Each of us also has an eternal soul, the part of us that will live forever. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this truth more formally: “The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once [both] corporeal and spiritual.”¹ Moreover:

Spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature . . . every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not “produced” by the parents . . . it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.²

Deep concepts, yes, but in his painting, Divine Generation, the French artist Louis Janmot expresses this in a way we can understand. We see the recently born child being embraced by its parents. But simultaneously, the child and its parents are being embraced by Christ, as angels kneel in reverence at the birth of this newborn eternal being “created immediately by God,” in the words of the Catechism. This is why abortion is such a grave sin — not beyond God’s mercy, but extraordinarily serious — because God is directly involved in the unborn child’s coming into being.

The Significance of the Sacraments
So what’s the point? The point is that we are not simply spirits who are expected (and equipped) to relate to God abstractly — by precept and principle alone.

This sounds strange, even heretical, to separated brothers and sisters in Christ who insist on sola scriptura, scripture alone. God’s written Word is vitally important, as St. Jerome said and the Catechism reminds us: “Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (paragraph 133). But we weren’t created as incorporeal spirits. We were created as enfleshed souls, both spirit and matter.

How Do the Sacraments Address Enfleshed Souls?
Therefore, God comes to us not by precept alone, but in the sacraments. This is not surprising. If we love someone, we try to express our love in ways she or he will understand. We say, “I love you.” But we also do things that show we care. We don’t limit ourselves to one or the other. Neither does God.

The sacraments are God’s ongoing way of conveying grace, in love, to us. In the sacraments the invisible touches the visible. Each sacrament consists of matter and form. Think of “matter” as the visible, physical part of the sacrament (bread and wine, for example). Think of “form,” as the words spoken by the minister of the sacrament, asking the invisible Holy Spirit to make the sacrament effective; to make it become what truly it is, not just a sign but a means of grace.

In other words, the sacraments are:

Efficacious [i.e., effective; they actually do something] signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.³

The Importance of Preaching
In “The Renewed Understand of the Liturgy of the Word” (Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century), Fr. Allan White explains that while preaching is not one of the seven sacraments, preaching Sacred Scripture is a vital part of sacramental life:

. . . the everyday words of the minister, the everyday experiences of the congregation are fashioned by the Holy Spirit, operating by his power in the midst of the community, into a real presence of Christ the Word. Through the operation of His Spirit God takes up temporal, everyday realities to be transformed into the means whereby his supernatural grace is channeled.

Misconceptions
Thus, sacraments are not “priestcraft,” as I was once taught in a strongly anti-Catholic sect. Nor is the power of any sacrament affected by the worthiness or unworthiness of the minister of the sacrament, although God desires holy priests. The sacraments are effective because God’s power flows through them. The Maronite Rite of the Catholic Church shows this vividly, as the priest’s hands flutter over the bread and wine — like the Holy Spirit descending as a dove at Christ’s baptism (Matthew 3:16) — to remind us that it is the Holy Spirit Who actually changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Nor are the sacraments magic: go to communion, get the wafer, and all is well. No. Re-read the the final sentence of the indented paragraph, above: the sacraments “bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” The interior disposition — the heart attitude and intentions of the Catholic Christian — are vitally important. The sacraments are not get-out-of-jail-free cards, that permit one to live like hell, yet go straight to heaven.

Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
By addressing common misconceptions of sacramentality, however, we’ve digressed from the amazing grace offered to us through the sacraments; from their immense spiritual beauty!

Through the sacraments, God meets us where we are, as what we are. We are enfleshed souls, matter and spirit, on our individual life journeys. He is not indifferent to the needs of our bodies, any more than our souls. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) — eternally, yes, but temporally as well. “For the work of Your hands, I shout for joy” (Psalm 92:5).

Yet Christ also says, “Come . . . learn from me and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). We are flesh and spirit and God provides for both.

Thanks be to God for His almost inconceivable love in Christ, coming to us in both Word and Sacrament. That is Christianity Richly!

¹ Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 362. Click the link to paragraph 362, by all means, but read on through paragraph 368 for a concise definition of what we truly are as women and men.

² Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 365–366.

³ Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1131.

For Catholic friends who fear I’ve only scratched the surface of sacramentality, you’re right. A helpful discussion is here and the entire section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church about the sacraments begins here.

For sisters and brothers in Christ who find too few citations of scripture in this post, I encourage you to read this and this. You will find many more references to scripture, in the context of Christian reflection on the sacraments for millennia. For you — and also with you, I hope — I pray Pope Francis’ prayer intentions for January 2016:  “That by means of dialogue and fraternal charity, and with the grace of the Holy Spirit, Christians may overcome divisions.”

Constant Presence

In Christianity on December 11, 2015 at 8:25 pm

“And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:20

O changing wheaten wafer, that veils the changeless One.
— 
From The Pilgrim Pavement, by Margaret Ridgeley Partridge

__________________

To write about Jesus Christ’s constant presence in the Eucharist brings us into deep waters. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life.”¹ This doctrine is also a point of division among Christians. Yet the waters, deep as they are, are not unnavigable. Nor are they so wide that the waters cannot be crossed by non-Catholic Christians.

Not Just for Catholics
Note that this is not an exclusively Catholic Christian belief. Anglicans believe similarly, hence Margaret Ridgeley Partridge’s text, The Pilgrim Pavement.² Similarly, many Lutherans believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The LCMS Lutheran church my wife and I attended for several years in California placed gentle reminders into the hymnbook rack, asking those who did not believe in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist to refrain from taking communion.

Not Just a Belief  
Yet Christ’s ongoing presence with us in the Eucharist is not simply a belief. In our postmodern world, some of your friends and mine imagine that they can believe one thing, and you or I can believe another—but all those “beliefs” can be true.

No. Christ’s Real Presence can be believed or rejected. But it cannot be dismissed with “Well, I’m sure that’s true for you.” His body, blood, soul, and divinity are either present in the bread and wine or they are not. And if they are, if He is really present in the Eucharist, then this fact becomes the third door³ into the most compelling possible story.

Not a Complete Explanation
It would be tempting to continue here with an explanation of the Eucharist, how it is celebrated in the liturgy of the Church, and even why—if Christ is really present—the bread still looks and tastes like bread; the wine still looks and tastes like wine.

But these topics are explained elsewhere. See this FAQ on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website. Or read the Catechism of the Catholic Church for this stunningly beautiful and much more complete explanation.

It would also be tempting, if Christianity Richly were a theological textbook rather than a celebration of Christ’s riches, to address the opinions of some who reject the Real Presence (e.g., John Calvin, and later Charles Hodges, whose views shaped much of my Christian experience before I entered the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church).

But rather than conclude this post with explanations that can be found elsewhere, I want to share an illustration that helped me link all three parts of the Gospel account, the compelling story of God’s creating love, the His caring intervention, and Jesus Christ’s constant presence with us in the Eucharist.

A Touching Illustration
A Catholic Christian expresses the truth of the Real Presence in the Eucharist by bowing deeply or genuflecting to Christ before being seated, when entering the pew. Similarly, Catholic Christians kneel to honor and worship Christ in the Eucharist at times separate from liturgical worship. Such times are called “Adoration.”

So what illustration of Christ’s constant presence did I witness?

One day when I was at Adoration in a small chapel, a parish priest entered and removed several of the consecrated hosts—Christ present with us. He probably was going to take the Eucharistic Christ to the sick of the parish. However, whatever his reason, the speed with which he entered and departed struck me as inconsistent with the solemnity of adoring the Lord of the universe.

Then the realization hit me:

No, no! The priest’s entrance, the gathering of the Eucharistic Bread, and his departure were exactly right.

As St. John explained, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled . . . ” (1 John 1:1).

When God came into the world as the babe we adore at Christmastime, he was touched and handled by His mother—to bathe, to change, to embrace in love, the same way the priest entered the chapel and handled Christ in the Eucharist. 

When Christ’s cousins and friends roughhoused with Him during His childhood, as all boys do, His divinity was veiled. He was touched and handled in a way that was completely inconsistent with the fact He was (and is) the Second Person of the Trinity.

When Christ was seized by the chief priests, officers, and elders of the temple in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was handled in a way that was much more than rough.  And when He was scourged and nailed to a cross as a human criminal, the God of the universe permitted Himself to be handled as if He were a criminal—even less than a mere man.

The Changeless God, Veiled
In all of this, Christ was “veiled,” as Margaret Ridgeley Partridge’s wonderful hymn text says: O changing wheaten wafer, that veils the changeless One.

  • He was veiled in the womb of The Blessed Virgin Mary
  • He was veiled as a newborn child in the manger
  • He was veiled in his youth, recognized simply as Joseph’s son
  • He was veiled during His public ministry and teaching
  • He was veiled to those who did not believe, and paradoxically at times, seemingly even to His own followers
  • He was veiled as He was seized by the mob, taken before Pilate, scourged, and crucified
  • He is veiled in us today when we fall into sin, or division, or “casual Christianity”

At any point, the Second Person of the eternal Triune God could burst forth with more power than a nuclear bomb. Yet He did not. He remained veiled; hidden to human eyes, revealed only to the eye of faith that saw the reality beneath the veil of humanity.

Is it so difficult, then, to see His Real Presence veiled in the Eucharist? He gives Himself to us (John 6:53, Matthew 26:26-28) in the Eucharist and remains truly with us. He is not with us just “spiritually” or abstractly but Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, veiled in bread and wine, until the end of the age.

This is creating love, shown through God’s caring intervention, and His constant presence with us until the end.

This is a compelling, electrifying story! This is Christianity Richly.

¹ Catechism of the Catholic Church,  ¶ 1324.

² The Pilgrim Pavement.  The copyright holder for this work is uncertain, but the complete text (not reproduced here), along with Vaughan Williams musical setting, is available on Chandos Records, Vaughan Williams: Symphony #5. This text served as the basis for a post on Christ’s Real Presence four years ago, here, where you will find a shorter meditation.

³ See Evangelical Catholicism, near the end of the post, for an explanation of how the elements of the Gospel record—which are most compelling to us—become “doors” into that story.

Caring Intervention

In Christianity on November 30, 2015 at 2:21 pm

In the post that began this series, I said that for faith to be real, each of us must be grasped by a compelling story. My story comes in three parts:

1. Creating Love
2. Caring Intervention
3. Constant Presence

Clear Love
God’s creating love was explained in the previous post. God’s caring intervention is the topic of this post—and caring intervention is clear: God became man.

God entered the world He created. If that is not a compelling story, I don’t know what is. But 2,000 years after the event, we sit in church and we hear words like “God became man,” “God’s only begotten Son,” and “The Son of God” without any genuine sense of their reality. Too often, if we examine ourselves, the football game televised Sunday afternoon is more real to us.

Christ’s Incarnation and the events of His earthly life took place two millennia ago. By comparison, World War II happened only 70 years ago. Yet despite the recency of World War II, for anyone born since 1945, the war is simply history. We know the key dates and facts (or should). We may have some sense of how it affected the 20th-21st centuries.

Otherwise World War II is an abstract thing. The war is something we only know about. But as one definition of abstract says, we know about it “apart from concrete realities.” At most, we have a father’s or grandfather’s uniform, some photos, or his medals. But all of that is carefully preserved in a box that has little to do with our daily lives.

Concrete Love
I’m convinced too often the Incarnation is just such an abstraction. We know a few dates and facts. We may understand—please God!—how it affects us today. But it stands apart from the concrete realities of our lives. Our knowledge of the Incarnation sits in a box called “going to church on Sunday,” along with other details we don’t think we really think much about on a daily basis.

Yet it was not so for the woman at the well: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done!” (John 4:29). It was not so for the man born blind: “One thing I know is that I was blind and now I see” (John 9:25). The Incarnation, for us, should be as miraculous as Christ’s knowledge seemed to the woman.  It should be as miraculous for us as the blind man’s his healing.

As Robert Cardinal Sarah writes in God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith, “Christianity is Someone bursting into my life.” Christ’s Incarnation should be more startling than a Martian landing on earth.

The illustration is silly. Its point is not. Are we actually startled—even dismayed, or perhaps troubled, or thrilled—by the fact that God became man? Or is it just an abstraction? Did God really became man or is this just a dramatic way of describing His empathy for us? God becoming man would be quite a miracle, after all.

Caring Intervention
The Triune God entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ. That is caring intervention! It links to, in the most powerful possible way, the first part of my story: God’s creating love. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). And “in this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent His only Son into the world so that we might have life through Him” (1 John 4:9).

This love, demonstrated through the concrete reality of God’s caring intervention, should affect every moment of our lives—and our response to that love, that intervention, will determine our circumstances in eternity.

This is why during the Nicene Creed, Catholic Christians bow in awe at God’s loving condescension as we say:

For us men and for our salvation He [Jesus Christ] came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.¹

God’s caring intervention is among the reasons The Virgin Mary is held in such esteem by Catholic Christians. Her flesh robed the Incarnate Christ.² She is an integral part of the compelling story of God’s intervention.

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “Without Mary’s maternity, Jesus would become a mere abstraction to us.” There is that word again: abstraction—without concrete reality. No! The reality is (in the words of poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.) that Mary is “her who gave God’s infinity . . . infancy.”³

The Continuing Story
So what is my story, so far? God’s creating love. What is not God need not exist. Yet by His desire, we do.

As a result of God’s caring intervention, described in this present post—God became man; one of us. He has experienced all we experience, including most of all our sufferings. God could have remained aloof, outside His creation, but he didn’t. He intervened, He accompanied, and continues to accompany us, in the most personal way possible to set right what we put wrong.

How does this story end? I invite you to read on, click here, because Christ is still with us and will be until the end of the age, “the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:20). He is with us, not abstractly but truly. He is constantly present in The Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life.

 

¹ Nicene Creed:
http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/index.cfm

² Even if we ignore the Blessed Virgin Mary saying “Yes” to God (Luke 1:26-38), when we so often say “no”; even if we ignore the immense responsibility she was given, with St. Joseph, to parent the Son of God; even if we ignore Mary’s constancy of faith, despite immense suffering, at her Son’s brutal crucifixion (John 19:25), we cannot escape the fact Christ was given His flesh by Mary. The flesh He bears even now in Heaven—with nail scarred hands and feet, and wounded side—was Mary’s. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, called Mary “the ‘holy earth’ from which Christ was formed as man” (Magnificat, August 5, 2016). Yet the attention Catholic Christians give the Lord’s mother is often misunderstood.

³ This quotation by G.K. Chesterton is from Magnificat, January 2015 (http://us.magnificat.net/online/).  His quotation appeared as explanation before the liturgy for The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, which is celebrated each January 1 as a reminder of Mary’s role.

Gerard Manley Hopkin’s thought is an excerpt from his lovely and much longer poem, “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe,” which further emphasizes that one of the roles of the Blessed Virgin Mary is to prevent Christ’s Incarnation from ever seeming abstract to us:

. . . Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race . . .

To say more about The Blessed Virgin Mary is beyond the scope of this post, but it is a topic that, through misunderstandings, has needlessly divided Christians for far too long. See the post, For Mom, for additional perspective.

Creating Love

In Christianity on November 20, 2015 at 6:41 pm

The two posts prior to this one (Evangelical Catholicism and Fear and the Good News) talk about having a compelling story. So it would be fair for you to ask, what’s my story?

In the broadest sense, all of Christianity Richly is my story. But what would I say to to someone I just met, sitting beside me on an airplane? Or to a family member in just a short conversation? Or to you?

The short version of my story comes in three parts:

Does God Need Us?
The first part of my story is the reality of God’s creating love. What does that mean? It means that your existence and mine aren’t at all necessary. We aren’t needed by God. But to be wanted is much better than to be needed. 

The poem, “The Creation,” by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1928) asserts God is lonely, and therefore He made the world. The poem recounts God creating light, then the physical features of our world, and finally plants and animals—but, so says the poem, God was still lonely:

Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!”

Nonsense! In his book, The Order of Things, Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. explains:

Within the inner life of the Godhead there is a diversity of Persons such that God is in fact lacking no perfection, such as friendship … [this] means that what is not God … is not the product of necessity … what is not God need not exist. God would be perfect and complete even if there were nothing besides God.¹

Does God Love Us?
Did you notice, “What is not God need not exist”? Just in case you or I miss Fr. Schall’s point, that’s us. God was not moved by some sort of loneliness to sit down (in Johnson’s poetic language) beside a river and think, “I’ll make me a man!” Instead:

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness, freely created man to make him share in [God’s] own blessed life. [italics mine] For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man . . . In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (From Paragraph 1 of the Prologue to The Catechism of the Catholic Church)

God created freely. He created joyfully, for Genesis 1 repeatedly says that God viewed what He created as good. He even created us in His own image. And He blessed the first man and woman with everything needed for their welfare and creative activity (Genesis 1:27-31). This is evidence that God’s intent toward us is loving; that He desires our good; that He wants to draw close to us!

As Fr. Schall writes:

If God freely causes what is not Himself to exist, [then] we can, on the basis of His own merciful purpose in creation, anticipate or expect that His loyalty or fidelity will be freely given to what He causes to be.

How Do We Know?
As noted above, we get our first sense of God’s love from creation: we were created in His image, given everything needed for human welfare and creative activity. Evidence of God’s creating love starts here.

As magnificent as our world is, however, God went beyond creation. His communication is also evidence of His love. Before the first man and woman damaged their relationship with God, He apparently walked with them daily in friendship and complete communion (Genesis 3:8-9). Yet even after they chose their way over God’s, he continued to communicate through Moses and the prophets. And He continues to communicate today, as Fr. Allan White, O.P., explains:

Revelation is . . . a conversation of God with humanity, a conversation in which God takes the initiative. It is an impulse of His love . . . an expression of God’s continuous offer of friendship to humanity.²

God loves us and He tells us—as the simple children’s hymn says: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

God’s Highest Expression of Love
Like our first parents, each of us has failed individually and collectively—sinned—in what we have done, and in what we have failed to do. So God went beyond creation, and beyond communication. God’s ultimate expression of love for us is in His Son, Jesus Christ.

“God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that everyone who believes in Him might not perish, but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). This is the strongest possible evidence of continuing love from the One who created us, not because we were needed but because we were wanted. He entered our circumstances, becoming man.

By doing so, He went beyond the evidence of His love that might be deduced from creation. He went beyond His ongoing communication of friendship through revelation. Jesus Christ is the highest expression of God’s love for us, in absolutely concrete form. He is God walking with us, not distant from us.

We might mistake the meaning of creation. We could misunderstand the intent of revelation. We cannot miss the meaning of God’s caring intervention in Christ:

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, He spoke to us through a Son (Hebrews 1:1-2a).

What is Our Response?
Knowing these things, the question becomes, “What is our response to God’s offer of friendship?” Listen to Pope Francis talking about God’s creating and redeeming love:

“It would do us good today to ask ourselves: Do I believe the Lord has saved me freely? Do I believe that I do not deserve my salvation and that, if I merit anything, it is [only] through Jesus Christ and what he has done for me?”

Pope Francis continues: “The gift of God’s son, his death and resurrection, is a mystery that is and always has been difficult for human beings to understand. One must obey the commandments and do what Jesus said to do, but this obedience is is [our] response to God’s salvation, not a condition for it.”³

God’s humbling Himself in Jesus Christ, to walk with us in our circumstances and actually die for us, is faithful love. That is costly love. That is God’s creating love.

What is our response? Need to know more before answering? Click this link, for part two of my story—which can be yours, too!

 

¹ The Order of Things, by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., pp. 54-55.

² Allan White, O.P., “The Renewed Understanding of the Liturgy of the Word,” in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, Alcuin Reed, editor (London and New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), p. 179.

³ Cindy Wooden, The Catholic News Service, in The Catholic Miscellany, October 22, 2015.

 

Fear and The Good News

In Christianity on November 19, 2015 at 6:00 pm

In trying to explain anything that is life changing—for example, the compelling story mentioned in the last post—many of us fear that what we say is just too strange, too inexplicable to repeat in public.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story
Yet fear didn’t stop the Samaritan woman Christ met at the well or the man he cured of blindness. “The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, ‘Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?’ … Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me everything I have done.'”¹

The Blind Man’s Story
Nor did fear—even fear of telling a story that seemed too simple to believe—stop the blind man. “One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” He was then pressed for details about what Christ did and how he did it. The formerly blind man replied, “I told you already and you did not listen … This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, but he opened my eyes.”² The blind man’s life was changed. He had evidence. There was a lot he could not explain, but he was enthusiastically recounting what he could; what he did know.

Your Story?
What is there in your Christian life that you know, that has changed your life and faith so significantly that you can say, “This I know. And what I know makes a difference. Here’s why.” We so easily repeat the things we were taught as cultural Christians, the things we are supposed to believe. But why do we believe them? What about the gospel story is so personally engaging it has stopped us in our tracks? What makes a real difference in the way we describe our relationship to God?

Messengers, Not Minstrels
When we have an answer to those questions—what has made a real difference in our lives? What has stopped us in our tracks?—then we are prepared to be evangelicals in the best sense of the word.

Like the blind man and the woman at the well, you will be eager to share the news that affected your life. Don’t stop short of that. Phillips Brooks, a 19th century Episcopal minister, said we will no longer be content as minstrels who entertain; who tell a pleasant tale. We will feel like the messenger, who rushes breathlessly into a room to deliver information of vital importance.³

My Story
For me, the message, the overwhelming experience, was to encounter Christ in the Church—not just in the Bible, as important as that is, or in my “quiet time.” Lifelong questions were answered; language was provided to describe my faith more precisely; Bible verses not explained in my prior Christian experience became clear; seemingly isolated ideas now fit into a coherent whole.

That is Christianity Richly. As the woman at the well said, “Come see.” The next four posts describe my story, the good news of of God’s creating love, Christ’s Incarnation, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Don’t stop here. Read on. “Come see.”

 

¹  John 4:28, John 4:39

²  John 9:25, John 9: 27, 30

³  The Joy of Preaching, by Phillips Brooks

Evangelical Catholicism

In Christianity on November 19, 2015 at 5:46 pm

The months leading up to any presidential election frequently include references to  “evangelicals.” Politically, the term means little more than a block of socially and fiscally conservative voters, whose political platform is imagined to stem from their Christian convictions.

However, the term evangelical is based on a Greek root-word meaning “good news,” and has come to mean the good news or gospel of Jesus Christ—which is decidedly more than a political platform. So, although the term evangelical is typically associated with protestantism, one can be an Evangelical Catholic. Indeed, the Church’s last three decades strongly suggest that one should be.¹

What Evangelicals Do
If we are evangelicals of any kind, this begs for some attention to the practical consequences of being evangelicals. Evangelization has acquired negative connotations in some modern circles, yet that need not be so. Evangelization comes down to good news, telling a story—a good story!  During the first dot-com boom, it was not unusual to be handed a business card with the title “Evangelist” or “Product Evangelist.” But effective evangelism requires the story to be so compelling you cannot not tell it.

Any narrative that compelling is easy to remember and to talk about with others. So what is Christianity’s compelling story? What is our good news?

What Our Story is About
At its heart, the story is about the Cross of Christ. French poet Paul Claudel expresses it this way: “Who knows, definitively, whether [the effect of Christ’s death on the Cross, applied to us] is not a bridge cut in advance to the exact measurement of that fissure we shall have to cross, just broad enough to pass from one bank to another,” from death to life; from time into eternity?²

Hasn’t each of us, at some point during our life, thought about our own death? About what comes after death? About whether there might be an antidote to death—a bridge to ongoing life?

Who Needs to Hear That Story?
If Christianity’s compelling story provides an answer to those questions, who needs to hear that story? Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, identifies three groups:

  1. Those who don’t know Who Christ was or how he relates to us
  2. Those who are already part of Christian communities, whose faith will be increased by hearing our story
  3. Those who have been baptized and call themselves Christian, but have lost a living sense of the faith, “or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, or live a life far removed from Christ and His Gospel”³

Each of these three groups needs to hear the story. God’s grace must first open our ears and prepare our hearts: for by grace are we saved (convinced of the truth of the good news, converted, born again) through faith—Ephesians 2:8.  But faith requires content. We believe in something or someone.

How we tell the story of what or in Whom we believe in depends, first, on our own personal encounter with Christ by God’s grace. Then, as evangelical Catholics, we take time to reflect on our personal story, so we can share the good news with others.

How I Tell My Story
My story? I increasingly believe that, if we grasp the significance of three things, then we come face-to-face with a story so compelling, we will be eager to tell it. These three things are not to the exclusion of the rest of the gospel story. They are doors into that story:

The next several posts tell this story. It is a story you can re-tell, first to yourself and then to others, if the content of the story grasps you as powerfully as it does me. And this story’s power, its truth, and its implications for us, are most assuredly Christianity Richly.

 

¹ See Fr. Jay Scott Newman (St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Greenville, SC) on Evangelical Catholicism, here. Fr. Newman also refers to George Weigel’s very helpful and timely book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, here.

² Paul Claudel, A Poet Before the Cross (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1958), p. 50. Although copies are becoming hard to find, they occasionally become available by searching AbeBooks.com.

³ Redemptoris Missio: On the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate

The Splendor of the Church

In Christianity on April 22, 2015 at 1:05 pm

My family does not yet believe in Saints. “Greet the saints around you,” yes. Capital-S, lives-of-heroic-virtue Saints, no.

Nor do their religious assemblies put much stock in the glories of Church. Their churches are local groups of believers, gathered for worship and service, governed by men and women in loose affiliation with like-minded believers. The believer is primary; the assembly is malleable—or if it is not, one simply finds or forms a new assembly more in line with one’s own beliefs.

Hence, while browsing in a Catholic bookstore, The Splendor of the Church caught my eye. Like Fr. James V. Schall’s title, The Order of Things, the title of Fr. Henri de Lubac’s book begs for attention.

More properly, His Eminence Cardinal Henri-Marie de Lubac († 1991), Henri de Lubac loved Christ’s Church for his entire life. He lived in service and fidelity to the Church, even during “the dark years.” Indeed, Méditation sur l’Église (retitled in English, The Splendor of the Church), was written during those years.

What makes this book remarkable? It is because The Splendor of the Church confirms that, long before the Church embraced me; long before the richness of catholic (which is to say, universal) Christianity became evident to me, the glories of the Church had been extolled for 20 centuries. For those of us from less than supportive families, or living in less than sympathetic communities, it is a great joy to be reminded history is on the side of the Church, and other women and men were drawn by the same transcendence.

The Catholic Church is a “standard raised among the nations” … a rallying point for all, “inviting those who as yet have not faith, and assuring her own children that the faith which they profess has the firmest of foundations” … She is the mountain visible from afar, the radiant city, the light set in a candlestick to illuminate the whole house. She is the imperishable building of cedar and cypress, which defies the passage of time in its awe-inspiring massiveness and gives to our ephemeral individualities their measure of confidence.  She is the “continual miracle,” always announcing to men the coming of their Savior and manifesting His liberating power in examples without number; the magnificent vaulting under which the saints, like so many stars, sing together of the glory of the Redeemer.¹

When a Catholic wants to expound the claims the Church has on his obedience he feels a certain embarrassment or, rather, a certain melancholy.  It is not that her title-deeds are inadequate. But when taken in the dryness of the mere letter, the claims do not do justice to something that is, as far as he is concerned, essential.  He can point to the facts of history, develop the arguments that are suitable to the occasion.  But when he has done all this, all he has done is to establish the fact that we ought to submit, as a matter of justice and our own good; he has not been able to convey the spontaneous leap of his own heart to obedience, nor the joy he feels in his submission.²

Thus, when we say to the Church, in the words which the Apostle used to Christ, Who founded her: “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life,” this is not in virtue of some fatigue of spirit, which seeks to place itself under an authority to escape the effort of thought and the labor of living; rather it is, as Newman put it, in virtue of a sense of coming to rest in the Catholic plenitude.³

 And that, by God’s grace, is Christianity Richly!

 

¹ Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), p. 46.

² Pages 265-266.

³ Page 271.

 

The Basis of Community

In Christianity on November 11, 2014 at 9:11 pm

If you are a regular reader of Christianity Richly, the importance of community is already clear. If not, click here and follow the links, because this present post is not simply about the the richness of community within the Church. This post addresses something more fundamental: how community came about; how the very basis of community arises from God’s own nature; and what the basis of that community means for you and for me.

If all community arises from God’s nature, then that certainly has implications for Christians (see John 17, particularly verse 21). But if community arises from God’s nature, we gain a better understanding of even “ordinary” friendship. We also gain insight about God’s purpose for us and guidance in terms of what response best suits that purpose. And finally, if community arises from God’s very nature, we can dispel a very common misconception about God and establish a right relationship with Him.

Let’s begin with the misconception. There is no better illustration than James Weldon Johnson’s (1871-1928) poem, “The Creation,” which begins:

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

God is not lonely. Moreover—and be attentive here—the fact He is not lonely is the basis for community. Why? Because non-loneliness begins in the Trinity, the three-Person Godhead. Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.’s magnificent book The Order of Things includes a chapter titled “Order Within the Godhead.” Note the word “order.” Fr. Schall does not mean “giving an order” or “ordering things rightly,” although that second meaning is close. By order, he means something more like the inherent structure of things; the true nature of things. So in that chapter his focus is the reality, the true nature of what the Trinity is.

Fr. Schall directly addresses the misconception in Johnson’s poem (a view held by some modern men and women):

Within the inner life of the Godhead there is a diversity of Persons such that God is in fact lacking no perfection, such as friendship … [this] means that what is not God … is not the product of necessity … what is not God need not exist. God would be perfect and complete even if there were nothing besides God.¹

Notice the statement “what is not God need not exist.” Just in case you or I miss the point, that’s us! God was not driven by some sort of loneliness to sit down (in Johnson’s poetic language) beside a river to think and think, until He thought, “I’ll make me a man!” The love, joy, and community among the three Persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—were complete and perfect before the act of creating. We aren’t “needed.” That sounds discouraging but the reality is infinitely greater and more positive. Read on.

So what is the first thing we learn by correcting the “God is lonely” misconception? The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers comprehensively in its first paragraph:

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man . . . In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (From the Prologue)

By extension, then, Fr. Schall writes, “if God freely causes what is not Himself to exist, we can, on the basis of His own merciful purpose in creation, anticipate or expect that His loyalty or fidelity will be freely given to what He causes to be.” He created freely. Apparently He created joyfully, for Genesis 1 repeatedly says that God viewed what He created as good. He even created us in His own image, endowed with reason and free will.² And He blessed the man and the woman with everything needed for their welfare and creative activity (Genesis 1:28-31). What marvelous evidence that God’s intent toward us is loving; that He desires our good!

The second thing we learn from the Trinitarian basis of community is what Fr. Schall calls the “principle of return.” He writes:

Creation needs and has the capacity to respond to its own cause [God] in the manner in which its existence was originally given, that is, out of love or mercy, not necessity … This means that the highest point of contact between the inner life of God and the life of the world is at the point where an intelligent creature is capable of receiving a gift and returning it to its source.

In other words, we are intended to love God in the same way love is freely given and reciprocated among the three Persons of the Trinity. Fr. Schall concludes, “The inner life of God is complete in itself. What is not God [us] exists in order to reveal or reflect this inner order insofar as it can be imitated outside of itself.” Our lives in community are to mirror the Trinity!

But unlike the Trinity, our love is not perfect. Our fidelity is not complete. So what does this mean for our friendship with God? First, that we must repent and turn from our sins to restore community with the Source of community. Second, we must gratefully receive the gift offered—the love of God expressed in the death of Jesus Christ for our sins. Third, we must respond in gratitude and reciprocate God’s love through lives of holiness and service to others.

How do we do this?

[God in] His wisdom has found a way by which we can truly reach Him, can give our love to Him directly, and yet retain the unfettered liberality of friendship. He has found the way of Faith. By faith … we reach God Himself; yet such is the character of the knowledge born of faith that seeing, we see not; we know the one living God, yet remain unconstrained by His unbearable beauty, free to present before Him the priceless offering of friendship.³

Do you desire friendship with God? Do you want forgiveness for failings? Do you desire the basis for true community in your family? Do you seek to be united with the vast Communion of Saints? Then extend the hand of friendship to God, expressed through your faith. And join in the community that is only possible through the free gift and reciprocation of Divine Love.

That is Christianity Richly!

_______________

¹ The Order of Things, pp. 54-55. The quotations of Fr. Schall that follow in the running text of this post are drawn from pp. 54-59, a section of the chapter so conceptually rich, it should be read carefully and used as a basis for meditation.

² Any discussion of free will quickly ends up in deep waters. This post’s purpose is not to re-argue a topic that has been the subject of debate for millennia. Let’s save that for another day. As the Catechism, “The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart” (Catechism, “Human Freedom in the Economy of Salvation,” 1742).

³ The Prayer of Faith, by Fr. Leonard Boase, S.J., pp. 102-103. This book is difficult to locate, but well worth the effort. The title is linked to the AbeBooks.com search engine.

A final editorial note: when to capitalize personal pronouns and other references to God is a subject of much disagreement. James Weldon Johnson, in his poem, chose not to capitalize the personal pronoun for God. We’ll trust that was not a reflection of his theology. Fr. Shall prefers to emphasize God’s divinity and infinite otherness by capitalizing third-person singular references to God, as well as the his reference to “Persons” in the Trinity. I have followed Fr. Schall’s lead. However, other sources, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, have chosen editorially to lower-case personal pronouns referring to God to create a smoother flow of the text for the reader. I understand and try to do that in my own writing by eliminating extraneous commas and other punctation marks, where clarity is not affected. If you wondered about He/he, Him/him, etc., in this post, hope this explanation the inconsistent treatment of upper and lower case answers the question.

 

A Day for Community

In Christianity on October 18, 2014 at 4:20 pm

On November 1, we celebrate Christian Community—All Saints’ Day. Previous posts on community¹ were not intended to mark this celebration, but still we can give thanks for God’s providential timing and add a quiet, “Hooray!” for All Saints’ approach, especially given the ghouls and ghosts our society celebrates at Halloween.

Now called The Solemnity of All Saints, this celebration once was titled Hallowmas, just as September 29 was Michaelmas (for the celebration of St. Michael and the Angels) and December 25 is still Christmas (for the celebration of Our Savior’s birth). Hallowmas was instituted to recognize and remember “the holy apostles, all saints, martyrs and confessors, [and] all the just made perfect who are at rest.”² Hallowsmas was sometimes called All Hallows. This led to the secular Halloween (short for “All Hallows Evening” or “Hallows E’en”).

Why should we care about All Saints? That’s like asking, “Why should we care about departed members of our biological families?” We care because those family members who were committed Christians nurtured us; they served as our examples; they prayed for us. The Christians in our families from previous generations served as beacons, guiding lights toward which we could walk on our own pilgrimage. As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

We are encouraged to demonstrate the same discipleship and imitation of those whom, like St. Paul, the Church recognizes as Saints — particularly the martyrs. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

We worship Christ as God’s Son; we love the martyrs as the Lord’s disciples and imitators, and rightly so because of their matchless devotion towards their king and master. May we also be their companions and fellow disciples! (CCC 957)³

Not all Saints are martyrs, however. Others lived long lives of faithfulness to Christ. Equally significant, the Church recognizes there were (and are today) even more men and women whose lives of heroic virtue qualify them as Saints, but they are yet unknown to us. All Saints’ is a day to celebrate them, too.

Finally, all who have died in Christ and have entered eternity before us, whether formally recognized as Saints or not, are part of the same Body of Christ as we are:

[A]t the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating “in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.” 

All of us, however, in varying degrees and in different ways share in the same charity towards God and our neighbors  and we all sing the one hymn of glory to our God. All, indeed, who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together. (CCC 954)

How do we cleave, while separated by temporal death, as we presently are, from the Saints who are with Christ? One way is by asking the Saints to pray for us:

Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…. [T]hey do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus…. So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped. (CCC 956)³

This in no ways contradicts the wonderful promise made in Hebrews 7:25, that Christ lives forever as our eternal High Priest to make intercession for us. But we can ask the Saints in heaven to pray for us, just as we ask family and friends on earth to include us in their prayers! The Saints are not indifferent to our needs. Have you asked for a Saint’s prayer recently? Just as we imitate the Saints’ holiness, we can ask their intercession. This privilege is underscored in during the Sacred Liturgy, when the priest prays:

Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church and, recognizing the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself … May he make of us an eternal offering to you, so that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect, especially with the most Blessed Virgin Mary, other of God, with your blessed Apostles and glorious Martyrs, and with all the Saints, on whose constant intercession in your presence we rely for unfailing help. (Eucharistic Prayer III)

The immense richness of this doctrine, the great opportunity the Communion of Saints places before us, constitutes an entire section of The Catechism. It is very much worth our attention. But for brevity here, we can summarize and conclude preparation for All Saints’ Day with this:

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. Charity does not insist on its own way. [T]his solidarity with all men, living or dead … is founded on the communion of saints. (CCC 953)³

And that is is another magnificent example of Christianity Richly!

_______________

¹ See Community Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

² In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved the date from May 13. That was the date on which All Saints’ had been celebrated since 609 or 610 when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs (Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres). The Pantheon is still standing, of course, and well worth a visit.

³ Catechism of the Catholic Church. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Libreria Editrice Vaticana (2011-11-02). Kindle Edition.

 

 

Community, Part 4

In Christianity on October 6, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Amy Welborn has written an absolutely wonderful book about prayer, titled The Words We Pray. In it she recounts her early prayer experience, which, although she grew up Catholic, was not unlike my own. “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” guided our contemplation. If it was a really good prayer experience, we cried.

Most of all, we both were convinced “praying with words that someone else had written” was not worth our time. In her view, memorized prayers were for children — not for a spiritually mature person. Memorized prayers, from my separatist protestant perspective, were for Catholics and high-church folks who didn’t understand the Gospel and didn’t have anything to say from their own Christian experience.

Enter the Communion of Saints. How wrong both Ms. Welborn and I were! That’s why this post is titled “Community, Part 4.” Early in her book, she expresses the reality better than I could (p. xvii):

The words of our traditional prayers are also gifts from the past, connecting us to something very important: the entirety of the Body of Christ, as it was then, as it is now, and as it will be to come.

Early in my Catholic Christian days, I was faced with “saying grace” before a meal with others in my parish. “Bless us O Lord,” our priest began, followed by others joining him praying, “and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” What? Wait. Stop! The blessing was over before I got started. And worse, where was the extemporaneous prayer asking God to bless the food, but also to bless those around the table, the work of the Gospel in the world, and all the other needs pressing upon our minds and hearts?

Was there to be no extemporaneous prayer? No. Not at that moment. Certainly no one there was unmindful of the other thanks and requests that might be included. But those assembled wanted to pray together. As Ms. Welborn writes later:

Life on earth is a reflection of God’s nature. He creates a world in which none of the parts work in isolation, in which loving community is the ground of being and action¹

— including prayer. This is very much in contrast to the ruggedly individualistic prayer that characterized so much of my protestant fundamentalist and evangelical years. And yet,

We are not alone. We have billions of brothers and sisters, all of whom breathe the same air and whose souls look to the same heights for meaning and purpose.²

As a protestant, I assumed (or at least hoped) my brothers and sisters were praying along with me. How much more wonderful it is to be audibly joined in prayer, which encourages all of us to come before the Father, in the Name of the Son, by the Holy Spirit. Memorized prayer doesn’t somehow relieve us of worrying about what we ought to say to God. It supports us and brings us into community with others who want to express the same thanksgivings; the same needs; to the same God and Savior.

It’s just one more way of bringing us together in God’s love. I’m not living for myself alone. I’m joined with an entire Church, living for God’s kingdom in all it does.³

 __________

¹ Amy Welborn, The Words We Pray: Discovering the Richness of Traditional Catholic Prayers, p. 195.

² Ibid, p. xvii.

³ Ibid, p. 56.

Please also see Community, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, as background to this post.