Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Saints' Day

Salvation, glory, and power to our God:
his judgments are honest and true.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

Sing praise to our God, all you his servants,
all who worship him reverently, great and small.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

The Lord our all-powerful God is King;

let us rejoice, sing praise, and give him glory.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

The wedding feast of the Lamb has begun,
and his bride is prepared to welcome him.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

See Revelation 19

The beauty of the Gospel is fully alive in the saints.

Today is the Solemnity of All Saints and also the third anniversary of the day that I decided to be Catholic. It was best decision I have ever made. There is nothing like going along for the ride on the Barque of St. Peter. One of my greatest joys these last three years has been getting to know the saints. I knew about some of them: those living in the apostolic age, of course, and saints like Augustine and Athanasius. When one enters the one Church Jesus Christ founded, however, the veil rolls back and a host of saints is revealed. They are one of the greatest gifts God gives to us who are sojourning on earth. Why the saints you ask? Because the saints bear witness to the fruit of Christ Jesus’ love for mankind. Their lives are, in a sense, the beauty of the Gospel. The Gospel is not just an idea that we assent to, it is a life that we live by uniting ourselves with the Word made flesh. The saints lived lives totally converted to our Lord Jesus. They can do nothing in themselves, but they all can say with St. Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (1)!”

As sharers in the body of Christ, the saints take up their crosses and follow in his footsteps. They live the life of Christ. They participate in him. “This is my commandment to you, love one another as I have loved you (2).” Take the Blessed Virgin Mary for instance. She never wavered in her devotion to Christ, and she bore her cross at his feet during his Passion. She reflected the blessedness of his suffering in hers. Pope Benedict XVI, in a homily on the the Feast of All Saints, stated beautifully:

“Thus, we have come to the Gospel of this feast, the proclamation of the Beatitudes which we have just heard resound in this Basilica. Jesus says: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed those who mourn, the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful; blessed the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted for the sake of justice. In truth, the blessed par excellence is only Jesus. He is, in fact, the true poor in spirit, the one afflicted, the meek one, the one hungering and thirsting for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker. He is the one persecuted for the sake of justice. The Beatitudes show us the spiritual features of Jesus and thus express his mystery, the mystery of his death and Resurrection, of his passion and of the joy of his Resurrection. This mystery, which is the mystery of true blessedness, invites us to follow Jesus and thus to walk toward it (3).”

As an artist, I am always thinking about colors. Imagine if you will that the superabundant merits that Jesus won for us on the cross are all the colors on a color wheel (the beatitudes!) with Jesus being the color wheel itself. Now imagine that each of the saints represents one swatch on that wheel. No matter its hue, saturation or lightness, each color exists within the spectrum of the color wheel, and each color, or saint, is different from all the other ones. All the colors together show the beauty of the color wheel, and so the saints themselves together, show the beauty of the body of Christ. Not that Christ needs theses saints, for it is through his love that he uses us—the same love that created the world not because he needed to, but because he loved what he was to create. Therefore he delights to use us: his colors, his saints, his members that make up his body. He delights to use us, because he wants to share his divine life with us, because love, as both the recipient and the giver, is the greatest thing anyone can experience.

The saints are beautiful. To look at the saint is to behold the face of Jesus. By their union with Christ and each other through the gathering around the eucharistic table, they are changed—changed into Jesus: “yet it is not I, but Christ living in me (4).” To be a saint is to empty oneself as Christ did and to live for another. And in a sense in this emptying, Christ is really filling us with himself. The saints do not hide Christ in a sea of faces—no!—they all standing pointing to the Lamb of God saying with his Mother: “My soul proclaims proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior (5)!” “No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source (6).”

The Catholic Church, possessing the fullness of the gifts of divine life by the power of the Holy Spirit, channels the grace of Jesus Christ (sacraments) to the faithful. Acts tells us that the faithful devoted themselves to the teachings of the apostles, the breaking of bread and of prayers. This is the Mass. The breaking of bread, or as we call it, the Eucharist, is the participation in Jesus Christ himself. The body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord and Savior is made really, truly and substantially present in the form of bread and wine for our salvation. Jesus, the God-Man and our passover, upon his resurrection, opens the door to life beyond death. He took the eternal divine, which is timeless, and finite creation, which exists within time, united them in his person and ascended into heaven. The incarnation of Jesus Christ continues because “things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human (7).” Following St. Paul, this small band of Christians that shared in one loaf as one body soon realized that this (eucharistic) communion goes far beyond the unity of those on earth. “A cosmic breath very soon entered into the concept of Church: the communion of saints spoken of [in the creed] extends beyond the frontier of death; it binds together all those who have received the one spirit and his one, life-giving power (8).” There is but one Church—one body. There is only one who unites the saints in heaven to those those of earth, one who has has passed over to death and unites all beyond it, one who even now waits for you in the stillness of a whisper, in the bread of the saints: Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is this union of divine love with the Word Incarnate that allows us to say with St. Thomas Aquinas:

“I pray that You bring me, a sinner, to the indescribable Feast where You, with Your Son and the Holy Spirit, are to Your saints true light, full blessedness, everlasting joy, and perfect happiness. Through the same Christ our Lord (9).”

Here's a list of popular Catholic saints, for your perusal.


1. Philippians 4:13.
2. John 15:12
3. Benedict XVI. "Homily on Holy Mass on the Solemnity of All Saints," Vatican Basilica, 1 Nov 2006.
4. Galatians 2:20
5. Magnificat, Luke 1:46-47.
6. Lumen Gentium, 62.
7. Exsultet
8. Ratzinger, Joseph. Introduction to Christianity, 334-35.
9. Aquinas, Thomas. "Prayer of Thanksgiving After Mass."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

He Descended Into Hell

    "Tell me, my master, tell me, lord," I then
began because I wanted to be certain
of that belief which vanquishes all errors,
    "did any ever go—by his own merit
or others'—from this place toward blessedness?"
And he, who understood my covert speech,
    replied: "I was new-entered on this state
when I beheld a Great Lord enter here;
the crown he wore, a sign of victory.
    He carried off the shade of our first father, 
of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah,
of Moses, the obedient legislator,
    of father Abraham, David the king,
of Israel, his father, and his sons,
and Rachel, she for whom he worked so long,
    and many others—He made them blessed;
and I should have you know that, before them,
there were no human souls that had been saved."

—Virgil responds to Dante about the souls in the realm of the dead
Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto IV

The Harrowing of Hell, as the ancient Christians called it, is Jesus Christ's triumphant entry into the realm of the dead (hell, sheol, the inferno). This is the place were men, just and unjust alike, await their final destination, whether it be to share in the blessedness of the divine, or the realm of the damned. Jesus Christ, by his death as the God-Man, unlocked the entry into heaven that was sealed off to all those who had gone before him. By his own death, Jesus Christ has defeated death. As Adrian Walker says, "The Risen Lord has victoriously filled death with the only substance and intelligibility it can have: Himself."

Imagine the souls of all the patriarchs of the Old Testament and of all the just who followed God banging at the gate heaven to no avail. "The way is shut," as the Dead Men of Dunharrow in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings say to Aragorn. There is no entry for man into heaven. So our fathers wait. They wait in hope of the Messiah. "When will he come?" they ask. As they wait David sings a familiar psalm:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

The Prophet Isaiah solemnly responds:

For it is not the nether world that gives you thanks,
nor death that praises you;
neither do those who go down into the pit
await your kindness.

The living, the living give you thanks,
as I do today.
Fathers declare to their sons,
O God, your faithfulness.

Then suddenly, out of the abyss, a shining light appears. It is a light like none of them have ever beheld—it is Light itself, the Light of the World. The Just One approaches, clothed in splendor and wearing a crown of unsurpassable regal splendor, with the air of triumph, a scepter of mercy, and the robes of righteousness. He, who has accomplished his passion and died in obedience to the Father, approaches the dead, preaches to them the kingdom of heaven and his victory. They listen. He tells them of His redemption he won and offers them eternal life through His blood. They sing in unison:

And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; 
even my body shall rest in safety. 
For you will not leave my soul among the dead,
nor let your beloved know decay!

You will show me the path of life,
the fullness of joy in your presence,
at your right hand happiness for ever!

They have all been waiting for this day. He clothes them in white robes washed in His blood. Then in a terrible and sublime action, He bursts open the gate with the divine prerogative that was only His to wield. The darkness subsides. The shackles of death are removed. They all breathe and smell the sweet aroma of life. He enters through the gate to Life. As he enters, he himself is transformed into a gate—a new gate, with eternal beatitude awaiting on the other side. He calls to his own. "Follow me." His own hear His voice. They walk through and rise with Christ singing: "Alleluia. Alleluia."

The following sermon is taken from the Second Reading of the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday:

From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday
The Lord Descends Into Hell

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.


Our shepherd, the source of the water of life, has died. The sun was darkened when he passed away. But now man’s captor is made captive.
– This is the day when our Savior broke through the gates of death.

He has destroyed the barricades of hell, overthrown the sovereignty of the devil.
– This is the day when our Savior broke through the gates of death.

Praise be to Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Out of the Depths: My First Lent

Three years ago at this time, I was at one of the lowest points in my life. Everything that I thought was important was being stripped away. If real suffering is akin to pneumonia, mine was more of a sniffle, but at the time, it was real, and I was hurting. Fear over finances. Physical pain. Despair. Nothing was interesting. Everything tasted bland. C.S. Lewis in the Great Divorce mentions the main character standing in a bus queue that is going nowhere and noticing that his surroundings were stuck in that moment after sunset when all the colors are flat and dim but not dark enough for the light coming from the inside of houses to look cozy and inviting. Everything is neutral and nothing is appealing. That's how I felt. I was going nowhere and the whole damn world was gray.

At one point, in one of those raw moments of honesty, I gave God an ultimatum: "Either you show me what you want me to do, or you'll lose me. I'm hanging on by a thread here. I need something now!" On reflection, I think I was influenced by John Piper's JOB poem, which my friend Chris Koelle illustrated and we later turned into an animation with Aaron Greene's beautiful score. Job, at a moment of desperation, which of course was much more intense than my own, prays:

Oh God, I cling with feeble fingers
to the ledge of your great grace.

I was really down and out. This is not dissimilar to what all of us go through at some point—a moment of truth. What do I really believe? Am I a Christian because of my upbringing? Do I "believe" because it is convenient, and it makes sense for the time being? We all have to own those and  similar questions at some point. Life and what you believe about it will always come down to brass tax. So it was with me in the beginning of 2011.

I attended this thing for young singles that was run by First Presbyterian Church called Life. And yes, that got annoying to ask/be asked about. Anywho, it met once a week, Mondays I believe at the time, and was run by Phil Hargrove, a minister at First Presbyterian and a man that I admire greatly. It was one week after my "ultimatum" with God and either the first or second time that I had attended Life when he gave a talk about Lent. Now I had heard about Lent of course. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, a democratic Irish/Polish Catholic town with a little university with the mascot of the "Fighting Irish" which you may have heard of, but I had never really given Lent much thought. It was something for someone else to do other than me. After the talk that night, I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Three days earlier, I had just been hired to fill in at New Covenant School in Anderson as the Art Teacher (Yes, unemployment was one of the many things that contributed to my despair). I was talking the Headmaster, Joey Thames, with whom I befriended immediately, on the Wednesday morning after I got hired, and a day and a half after the talk at Life. He asked me what I was going to give up at Lent. I had been thinking about Lent a lot in that short time but I had not planned on giving something up yet (I'll get into that concept later.). I thought about it for ten seconds. It was obvious to me. Anyone who knows me knows that I like a good red wine, a high-gravity beer and a single-malt scotch as much as I love anything else. I told him him I was giving up all forms of alcohol. He said the same. It was nice to have a companion who sympathized with my "tremendous" sacrifice.

To this day, I cannot for the life of me remember how or why I entered through the large wooden doors at St. Mary's Catholic Church at 7pm that night for Ash Wednesday. But I did. I was there. I had never been inside before, nor had I ever been to a Catholic Mass. Here I was at St. Mary's with all the bells and smells, the stained glass, the immaculate choir and Fr. Newman's thundering homily delivered to a packed out sanctuary. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I'll admit that I don't remember much except the imposition of ashes and a series of questions posed by Fr. Newman: "Why is it that all four masses today have been standing-room only? Why is it that so many Protestants–that's me–are here for Ash Wednesday Mass at the beginning of Lent? What is it that draws them here?" The question itself was enough. I don't even remember what his answer was exactly. I didn't know why I was there myself. But I spent the rest of Lent figuring that out.

Before I go on further, it is time for a crash course in all things Lenten. Lent, which starts tomorrow, is a liturgical season lasting forty days that was started by at least the 3rd-4th century. It is called Quadragesima (forty) in Latin. Our word Lent comes from a Germanic word meaning spring. The forty days of Lent lasting from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday mirror Jesus' forty days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness. As we are the Body of Christ, we aim to participate in his life. Lent is a time of prayer, penance, and denial of self to help bring about true repentance of sins and renewal of baptismal promises in preparation for Easter. The self-denial part is what everyone is familiar with. Chocolate, beer, fast-food, Facebook, sex... whatever it may be, the faithful willing give it up. And not just the faithful, even those on the fritz with the Catholic Church take part. Everybody recognizes in some way that denying ourselves of the things we desire is good for us. But giving up something is not the point in itself. What does it point to?

At the heart of Lent is baptism. All through Lent, the catechumens (those unbaptized) are being prepared to take the Sacrament of Baptism at the Easter Vigil, be confirmed in the Church and to partake of the Holy Eucharist. For those who are baptized, God has washed you with cleansing waters of his Spirit and grafted you into his body. Our sins are forgiven and we are no more children of wrath, but have become sons of God. We are told to "sin no more." But we are not yet perfect. We fall back into sin, and we stop ascending the ladder to heaven to have a look around. The original sin is removed, but we have to be remolded because of our tendencies to sin. And this is a slow process for most of us—a lifetime process in fact. The Church recognizes our lapses, and so Lent is one way where the Church corporately can recognize the need to return to our baptismal commitment by the grace of God. Lent is, in a sense, a preparation to once again say our "fiat" to God, to detest our sins and to come before the throne of grace saying "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

The penitential aspect of Lent touches both dimensions of our being: the spiritual and the physical. Matching prayer and penance with abstinence of food and the "thing desired" propels us to a higher plane than what we normally experience. You sense that you are both an angel and beast at the same time. You have cravings for food and true sorrow for sin. They work together. Your craving for food turns into a longing for the Resurrection, and your sorrow for sin brings you to the threshold of things hoped for. For me, it was one of the first times, if not the first time, that I sensed my own uniqueness as a human. We truly are unlike anything else. To paraphrase Frank Sheed in Theology and Sanity, there is the spiritual world with all its angels, principalities and powers, and then there is the physical world with its galaxies, stars, planets, water, soil, plants and animals. But if these two dimensions were opposing triangles, they would meet at one point. And that point is us—humanity. We straddle the spiritual and the physical. We are truly unique.

Now this might seem like a remote connection to the purpose of Lent, and it probably is, but for me it meant everything. Here was something that I experienced that cut to the core of my being: by denying myself, I felt complete. The paradox was tremendous. Lent was absolutely liberating. The weight of sin and the despair of not getting what I wanted was lifted off my back. The physical acts of contrition really meant something to me spiritually. I KNOW they did. I had always kept my spiritual side distinct from my physical side. The two did not really relate. Lent changed that. I recognized within me that the spiritual and the physical dimensions, although they are distinct, make up ONE person—me—whoever me actual is. It was as if I was staring at myself in the mirror for the first time. It was a pretty self-aware moment.

I stuck it out for the forty days. As we were nearing the end of it, I had a sense of hope like I had never felt before. Yes, I wanted to let the wine flow like the wedding feast at Cana, but the hope of the Resurrection shown so bright that everything else that I had placed my hope in became translucent and faded in comparison. It was one of those moments, and you know when you have it, where you have intense clarity and peace, and you feel you understand the cosmos.

Was Lent an emotional response? Emotion definitely played its part. But remember, Lent is 40 days long—there is plenty of time for the emotion to wear off and the desire to break your fast comes on strong. Emotion was the outpouring of something I had finally grasped. I was being pulled into something that was much bigger than I. Lent transcended me. I realized I did not know much of anything during those forty days and that was a good thing. Even as I write this, I know that I have only scratched the surface into the mystery that Lent draws us into.

In his own way, God was answering my "ultimatum" by preparing me through Lent to be received in his Church. As Lent prepares us for the Easter Season, and the Passion the Resurrection, for myself Lent was also preparing me for the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life. Now, Lent is but one facet of my conversion, but I can say after the Lent of 2011 I had the grace to lay down my prejudice towards the Catholic Church and find out what she is on her own terms. I wanted to know what the Catholic Church says she is in herself and not what others said about her. Lent had showed me that those two were not adding up.

So for all you Protestants out there who may not have participated in Lent before, give it a try. Go to an Ash Wednesday Mass or service tomorrow and surrender yourself these forty days. Devote yourself to prayer. I suggest the morning and evening prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. Fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, do not eat on Fridays, seek reconciliation with your neighbor and return to you baptismal commitments. You have nothing to lose (except the thing you give up!) and everything to gain. This is not a hidden invitation to become Catholic. Many Protestants as well as the Eastern Orthodox communions also participate in Lent. And this is just my story. God meets us where we are. We are human and he uses the most human of means to reach us. Lent is just that. Its one of the most human ways in which God comes to meet and restore us. Lent, for all its penance, is a tremendous gift when coupled with the hope of the Resurrection. This Wednesday will be the beginning of my fourth Lent, and I will ever thank God for it.

And I learned what it was that brought me to St. Mary's that night. It was Jesus Christ.


Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
Let Your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication.
If You, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand?
But with You is forgiveness, that You may be revered.
I trust in the Lord; my soul trusts in His word.
My soul waits for the Lord more than sentinels wait for the dawn.
More than sentinels wait for the dawn, let Israel wait for the Lord,
For with the Lord is kindness and with Him is plenteous redemption;
And He will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.

~De Profundis (Psalm 130)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Feast of the Chair of Peter

Upon the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Cardinal Francis George, who at the time was Archbishop of Chicago, was noted to have a serene and contemplative look on his face when the new pope and all the cardinals were standing around the Loggia of St. Peter's. When asked what he was thinking about at that time he said: "I was gazing over toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman Emperors once resided and reigned and looked down upon the persecution of Christians, and I thought, 'Where are their successors? Where is the successor of Caesar Augustus? Where is the successor of Marcus Aurelius? And finally, who cares? But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds.'"

Today is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter—the celebration of the office of the papacy. Pope Francis, who has so far captured the hearts of the world with his simplicity, humility and compassion, is the 265th successor of St. Peter. He was joined today by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus in an "unprecedented ceremony." Everyone recognizes that it is quite unusual to see two popes at the same time. It has not, however, been unusual to see one pope succeed another pope. In fact it is really silly to say. It is a no-brainer to everyone. For almost two thousand years there has been an unbroken succession of Apostolic authority vested to the man who stands in Simon Peter's stead. The succession is clear and steady, but the barometer of papal popularity greatly varies. There is not a position on earth where a man garners as much love as he does hate. Are you ambivalent towards Pope Francis? Probably not. Everyone who finds out I am a Catholic chomps at the bit to ask me what I think of the new pope.

For two thousand years, the papacy has wielded more influence than any other office. You may think, "well, he doesn't wield the power that the President of the United States possesses." While I would say that there is an argument to be had against that (see Pope John Paul II and the downfall of the USSR and the influence of Catholic Social Teaching), point is that only the pope has been there since the beginning. Every step of the way, there has been a pope: from the persecutions of Christians under the Romans, to doctrinal crisis of the 4th and 5th centuries, to shooing Attila the Hun out of Italy, to missionary work in the far reaches of Northern Europe in the dark ages, to unifying Christendom under one banner and countering the advancement of Islam during the Middle Ages, to patronizing the arts and culture during the Renaissance, to sending missionaries to the ends of the earth after the Counter-Reformation, to rallying the Catholic nations to defending Europe from the Ottoman Turks, to the development of Social Teachings that put the dignity of the human person in real practical terms, to combatting tyrannical regimes and fostering ecumenism among all Christians in the present age.

And yet amid all these empirical accomplishments, all the while, every step of the way, the successors of Peter have preserved and safeguarded the deposit of faith which was given to them by Jesus Christ. Catholics recognize that without Peter's charism, the truth cannot be preserved. Truth cannot be properly known to be true if those who profess to transmit the truth cannot be trusted to properly know the truth. Without the preservation of truth, things will disseminate into moral relativism—a Christianity with fuzzy edges. Truth-seekers, rightly frustrated, will end up rejecting it. Let us go a step further. Without the leadership of one who preserves the truth, not only will moral relativism ensue, but it will do so on the backs of manifold schisms—an anti-Pentecost, if you will, or the new Babel. This is one reason why Protestants divide instead of unite. Protestantism, in itself, claims no authority. It places the authority on the clear understanding of Scripture. Scripture alone is the only infallible interpreter of the Truth. But if you and I disagree on the "clear teaching" of Sacred Scripture, who, I pray thee, will settle the matter if there is no one to turn to? For let's be real, a book cannot interpret itself. Luther had no authority to call off Zwingli or the antinomians. Neither could John Calvin, with all his "genius," forge the middle way. Their words cannot bind your conscience if they don't carry the weight of infallible authority. At best you agree with them by virtue of believing them in yourself, as if the arrow of truth is pointing towards oneself—you become you're own pope. This is the stuff of schism. Called to Communion has taken up this charge, and I need not belabor the point here. This lack of infallible authority is why there are countless schisms within the Protestant communities. Furthermore, it is just plain ol' common sense: What army can stay unified without a general? What corporation can operate without one who makes the final call? What government of any stripe that has worked at much length can make any progress and bind the state together without one leader who decides? What local parish or church has no leader? What sports team has no head coach? What school has no principal?

In the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the evangelist is clear in showing us that Jesus intends to allow Peter to participate in his authority in a special way:

"When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say the Son of Man is?' They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' 'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.' Jesus replied, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.'"

Now many will say that faith is the rock upon which Christ builds his Church. I agree, but I will add that it is Peter's faith—not James', not John's, not any one else's. It is a both/and argument. Just as Jesus has united the divine and human in his person, so by extension, the office of the pope is both a divine and human—faith which comes from God and the man, Peter, whom God chose. This divine and human marriage bleeds into all aspects of Catholic teaching: the Incarnation, the Passion and the Resurrection, the Sacraments, the Nature of the Church, Sacred Scripture, the Office of the Pope, et cetera

So many times the argument is used that the whole enterprise of the Bishop of Rome is opposed to Jesus Christ. But I believe that to be a misunderstanding that stems from a lack of incarnational theology. God has come to us. Et Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit a nobis. The Son of God condescended to us to unite us to himself. We are baptized into his body and participate in the life of Christ. Everything we are to do is in participation with Jesus Christ, not in opposition to him. He is the Vine and we are the branches. It is through him which we live and bear fruit. So it is with the Chair of Peter. Peter's authority does not take away from the authority of Jesus. It was given to him by Jesus. Listen to the words of Pope St. Leo the Great in a homily on Matthew 16:

"And I say to you. In other words, as my Father has revealed to you my godhead, so I in my turn make known to you your preeminence. You are Peter: though I am the inviolable rock, the cornerstone that makes both one, the foundation apart from which no one can lay any other, yet you also are a rock, for you are given solidity by my strength, so that which is my very own because of my power is common between us through your participation."

Now, the power of binding and loosing which Matthew 16 speaks of is also given to the other apostles. In the Gospel of John, Jesus appears in their midst, breathes on them and say: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Jesus Christ gives the authority he received from his Father to the Apostles, but he singled out Peter for something more. Peter's charism is not one of just cold preservation of the truth, like a safety deposit box, he is chiefly called to be a faithful shepherd who provides for the sheep and even for his brethren. In Luke 22, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus said to Peter:

"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren."

Peter, of course goes on to deny Jesus, but unlike Judas, Peter repents and turns back. In John 21, after the disciples recognized the Risen Lord standing on the shore while they fished, they meet with him as he is preparing food. Mirroring his triple denial, Jesus pulls Peter away from the rest of the disciples and asks him:

"Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

St. Augustine highlights this in a letter to the Manichees: "There are many things that keep me in the Catholic Church... the succession of priests, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it the charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate." Later in the letter he comes right out and says, "I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Church had not moved me."

The "dynasty" of the popes has had a remarkable run: two thousand years and still kicking. Now, if all of the popes were truly exceptional and saintly individuals, which would be remarkable enough, one would try to rest the merits of this incredible succession on the individuals themselves. But, as we are all well aware, God has blessed his Church with some less than stellar pontiffs, and some that were downright bad. This to me is more remarkable. How could an man-created institution perpetuate itself down throughout the centuries with so many ill-equipped leaders? Answer: it cannot. The Catholic Church and the Papacy does so because it is a divine institution.

Like any other institution, there is a leader. Unlike any other institution, it is divinely protected. If not, how could there be any unity? Now this is by no means a proof, but if you look at the disparity between the communions of the Christian bodies of the world, there is one that most obviously stands out. As Blessed John Henry Newman so eloquently and sharply puts:

"There is a religious communion claiming a divine commission, and holding all other religious bodies around it heretical or infidel; it is a well-organized, well-disciplined body; it is a sort of secret society, binding together its members by influences and by engagements which it is difficult for strangers to ascertain. It is spread over the known world; it may be weak or insignificant locally, but it is strong on the whole from its continuity; it may be smaller than all other religious bodies together, but is larger than each separately. It is a natural enemy to governments external to itself; it is intolerant and engrossing, and tends to a new modeling of society; it breaks laws, it divides families. It is a gross superstition; it is charged with the foulest crimes; it is despised by the intellect of the day; it is frightful to the imagination of the many. And there is but one communion such."

That the Catholic Church stands out among the rest, there can be no question. The Chair of Peter in no small way is the distinguishing principle of unity that preserves so vast and diverse a body of people. It has existed for so long, beginning with Peter, "down to the present episcopate." The Barque of Peter, the Catholic Church, is still sailing, and Peter is still at the helm. For two thousand years it has lasted, and we take it for granted. I think it is safe to say, even if you would not desire to admit it, that the Catholic Church and the papacy will be around for the next two thousand years, if the Lord tarries. It is a rather immovable force. It is grounded–much like, I dare say, a Rock.

All-powerful Father,
you have built your Church
on the rock of Saint Peter's confession of faith.
May nothing divide or weaken
our unity in faith and love.

Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Feast of St. Anthony the Great

Today is the Feast Day of St. Anthony the Great, or Anthony of the Desert, as he is sometimes called. Although he is not the first monk or aesthetic, his austere lifestyle and influence in gaining hundreds of followers and to forsake everything to devote their lives to prayer and alms giving won him the honor as the Father of Monasticism.

From the Life of St. Anthony
by St. Athanasius of Alexandria

When Anthony was about eighteen or twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him with an only sister. He cared for her as she was very young, and also looked after their home.

Not six months after his parents’ death, as he was on his way to church for his usual visit, he began to think of how the apostles had left everything and followed the Saviour, and also of those mentioned in the book of Acts who had sold their possessions and brought the apostles the money for distribution to the needy. He reflected too on the great hope stored up in heaven for such as these. This was all in his mind when, entering the church just as the Gospel was being read, he heard the Lord’s words to the rich man: If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor – you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.

It seemed to Anthony that it was God who had brought the saints to his mind and that the words of the Gospel had been spoken directly to him. Immediately he left the church and gave away to the villagers all the property he had inherited, about 200 acres of very beautiful and fertile land, so that it would cause no distraction to his sister and himself. He sold all his other possessions as well, giving to the poor the considerable sum of money he collected. However, to care for his sister he retained a few things.

The next time he went to church he heard the Lord say in the Gospel: Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Without a moment’s hesitation he went out and gave the poor all that he had left. He placed his sister in the care of some well-known and trustworthy virgins and arranged for her to be brought up in the convent. Then he gave himself up to the ascetic life, not far from his own home. He kept a careful watch over himself and practised great austerity. He did manual work because he had heard the words: If anyone will not work, do not let him eat. He spent some of his earnings on bread and the rest he gave to the poor.

Having learned that we should always be praying, even when we are by ourselves, he prayed without ceasing. Indeed, he was so attentive when Scripture was read that nothing escaped him and because he retained all he heard, his memory served him in place of books.

Seeing the kind of life he lived, the villagers and all the good men he knew called him the friend of God, and they loved him as both son and brother.

Read in full at NewAdvent.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Feast of the Holy Family & St. Thomas Becket

Feast of Holy Family
An address by Pope Paul VI (Nazareth, January 5, 1964). 
Taken from the Second Reading in the Office of Readings for the Sunday in the Octave of Easter.

Nazareth, a model

Nazareth is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel. Here we can observe and ponder the simple appeal of the way God’s Son came to be known, profound yet full of hidden meaning. And gradually we may even learn to imitate him.

Here we can learn to realize who Christ really is. And here we can sense and take account of the conditions and circumstances that surrounded and affected his life on earth: the places, the tenor of the times, the culture, the language, religious customs, in brief, everything which Jesus used to make himself known to the world. Here everything speaks to us, everything has meaning. Here we can learn the importance of spiritual discipline for all who wish to follow Christ and to live by the teachings of his Gospel.

How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth! How wonderful to be close to Mary, learning again the lesson of the true meaning of life, learning again God’s truths. But here we are only on pilgrimage. Time presses and I must set aside my desire to stay and carry on my education in the Gospel, for that education is never finished. But I cannot leave without recalling, briefly and in passing; some thoughts I take with me from Nazareth.

First, we learn from its silence. If only we could once again appreciate its great value. We need this wonderful state of mind, beset as we are by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times. The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers. Nazareth can teach us the value of study and preparation, of meditation, of a well-ordered personal spiritual life, and of silent prayer that is known only to God.

Second, we learn about family life. May Nazareth serve as a model of what the family should be. May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplify its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings, in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children – and for this there is no substitute.

Finally, in Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work and the discipline it entails. I would especially like to recognize its value – demanding yet redeeming – and to give it proper respect. I would remind everyone that work has its own dignity. On the other hand, it is not an end in itself. Its value and free character, however, derive not only from its place in the economic system, as they say, but rather from the purpose it serves.

In closing, may I express my deep regard for people everywhere who work for a living. To them I would point out their great model, Christ their brother, our Lord and God, who is their prophet in every cause that promotes their well being.

Commemoration of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr
From a letter by St. Thomas Becket (mid 12th century). 
Taken from the Reading in the Office of Readings for the December 29.

Without real effort, no one wins the crown

If we who are called bishops desire to understand the meaning of our calling and to be worthy of it, we must strive to keep our eyes on him whom God appointed high priest for ever, and to follow in his footsteps. For our sake he offered himself to the Father upon the altar of the cross. He now looks down from heaven on our actions and secret thoughts, and one day he will give each of us the reward his deeds deserve.

As successors of the apostles, we hold the highest rank in our churches; we have accepted the responsibility of acting as Christ's representatives on earth; we receive the honor belonging to that office, and enjoy the temporal benefits of our spiritual labors. It must therefore be our endeavor to destroy the reign of sin and death, and by nurturing faith and uprightness of life, to build up the Church of Christ into a holy temple in the Lord.

There are a great many bishops in the Church, but would to God we were the zealous teachers and pastors that we promised to be at our consecration, and still make profession of being. The harvest is good and one reaper or even several would not suffice to gather all of it into the granary of the Lord. Yet the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God.

Of course many are needed to plant and many to water now that the faith has spread so far and the population become so great. Even in ancient times when the people of God had only one altar, many teachers were needed; how much more now for an assembly of nations which Lebanon itself could not provide with fuel for sacrifice, and which neither Lebanon nor the whole of Judea could supply with beasts for burnt offerings! Nevertheless, no matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter, and unless he himself assents to Peter's teaching. All important questions that arise among God's people are referred to the judgment of Peter in the person of the Roman Pontiff. Under him the ministers of Mother Church exercise the powers committed to them, each in his own sphere of responsibility.

Remember then how our fathers worked out their salvation; remember the sufferings through which the Church has grown, and the storms the ship of Peter has weathered because it has Christ on board. Remember how the crown was attained by those whose sufferings gave new radiance to their faith. The whole company of saints bears witness to the unfailing truth that without real effort no one wins the crown.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Feast of Holy Innocents

Sermon by St. Quodvultdeus for the Feast of Holy Innocents, Martyrs (mid 5th century).Taken from the Second Reading in the Office of Readings for December 28th.

They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ

A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.

Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.

You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.

Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace – so small, yet so great – who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the savior already working salvation.

But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.

How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.