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The Power of Silence Amidst the Noise of the World – September 12, 2017

Saint John tells us in the Book of Revelation “when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” (Rev. 8:1) The silence of heaven rests above the great din of the world. Before the immensity of the Infinite, there are no words, only wonder, adoration, and silence. We have a foretaste of this eternal silence in the Divine Liturgy, which is the liturgy of the Church. Rivers of living water and sanctifying grace flow not only about the heavenly Throne, but also into the sacramental confines of hearts and flesh. Yet, as Cardinal Sarah says in his book The Power of Silence, if we, who are made in the image of God, are to approach him, “the great Silent One,” we must first quiet ourselves and enter into his silence.

But, the world today is raging against the silence of eternity. “Modern society,” Cardinal Sarah tells us, “can no longer do without the dictatorship of noise.” Postmodern man engages with hellish noise in “an ongoing offense and aggression against the divine silence.” Humanity has lost its sense of sin, and no longer tolerates the silence of God. He poignantly describes the current sad state of man: “He gets drunk on all sorts of noises so as to forget who he is. Postmodern man seeks to anesthetize his own atheism.” Even within the Church there is a noisy undercurrent of idolatrous activism. In this wonderfully written book with so many striking passages, the African Cardinal seeks to re-proselytize the increasingly secularized and debased West; the new evangelization rises from south to north.

Why silence? Silence is the chief means that enables a spirit of prayer. “Developing a taste for prayer,” he confides, “is probably the first and foremost battle of our age.” In modern techno-parlance, if our “interior cell phone” is always busy, how can God “call us”? Without silence, there is no prayer; and without prayer, there is no supernatural life in God.

Silence is not necessarily not speaking, but rather, it is an interior condition of the soul. “God is a reality,” he tells us, “that is profoundly interior to man.” God resides within the heart of man. The path to God is a path of interiority. At the Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreux in the French Alps, where they observe the vow of silence, interiority is a way of life. But, as wonderful and as holy as an exterior vow of silence is, it is not really an option for most people. Most lay people live amidst of the noise of the world. Cardinal Sarah understands this, and recommends a solution: “each person ought to create and build for himself an interior cloister, a ‘wall and bulwark’, a private desert, so as to meet God there in solitude and silence.” Man must learn to live in an interior silence, ‘an interior cloister,’ which we can bring with us wherever we go.

This silent interiority lends itself to a sacramental vision of the world. The silent and invisible Spirit of God dwells within the physicality of our bodies. We are a temple of God. Cardinal Sarah tells us that God gave us three mysteries to sanctify and grow our interior life with Jesus, namely: the Cross, the Host, and the Virgin. We are to contemplate these continually in silence. They are incarnational and sacramental by nature, where the heavenly is mingled with the mundane, and the divine lies hidden within the ordinary. So it is with our interior cloister, where the divine comes to rest silently in our human nature. In this sacramental vision of reality we participate directly in the mystery of God and impart it to the world.

Our primary focus should always return to the silence of Jesus. The divine silence entered the world as the “all-powerful word leaped from heaven”(Wis. 18:14-16) to be conceived and born of a woman, the Virgin. Mary is nearly silent in scripture, though she echoes over the ages “Do whatever he tells you.” Few words are recorded from the Holy Family, including not one word from St. Joseph, his silence reflecting his saintliness. Divine silence and humility came first as a baby in Bethlehem. Cardinal Sarah reminds us of this first scandal, “God hid himself behind the face of a little infant.” No stage of human life is deemed unworthy of Christ.

Then, for thirty years Jesus lived a hidden and silent life in Nazareth. So much so that his neighbors question at the beginning of his public ministry “where did this man get all this?” His divinity was veiled in everyday life, even though his mission of redemption had already begun from the ordinary woodworking in the carpenter’s shop to the mundane sweeping of its floors. Our interior silence is of upmost importance because it allows us to imitate the Son of God’s thirty years of silence in Nazareth. Jesus recapitulated within his “holy and sanctifying humanity” all the ordinariness of our human natures and vocations. By doing so, “the hidden life at Nazareth allows everyone to enter into fellowship with Jesus by the most ordinary events of daily life.” (CCC 533) Our interior cloister should be animated with the knowledge that, no matter where we are or what we are doing, Christ is there with us in the silence of Nazareth.

In the Cross, Cardinal Sarah reminds us that “the mystery of evil, the mystery of suffering, and the mystery of silence are intimately connected.” This trinity of mysteries is summed up in Jesus’ cry from the Cross quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Modern man likes to see the silence of God in the face of horrible, tragic events as proof of his non-existence: “if evil and suffering exist, there can be no God.” Yet, as Cardinal Sarah points out, the infinite and absolute love of God does not impose itself on anyone: “his respect and his tact disconcert us. Precisely because he is present everywhere, he hides himself all the more carefully so as not to impose himself.” In creating man and the world, God had to, in effect, “withdrawal into himself so that man can exist.” In allowing for human freedom and freewill, God would necessarily appear silent.

Man’s freedom, and ultimately sin, would leave God disappointed in man, and make God himself vulnerable to suffering, as a Father suffers for his child. The suffering of man leads to the suffering of God. God is with us in our suffering. The mystery of suffering and God’s silence will never be fully understood in this life, but must be viewed from the lens of eternity. God’s time is not like our own where “a thousand years are like one day.” Our brief sufferings on earth disappear forever like drops of water into the immense ocean of eternity. Even now, the person who prays often can “grasp the silent signs of affection that God sends him” as noticeable only by those who are lovers. Jesus has revealed, however, that bearing our crosses and silent sufferings can be redemptive and sanctifying. We can complete what is “lacking in Christ’s afflictions” for the sake of the Church. Our interior cloister should be united with the redemptive sufferings of Christ in his Passion and Crucifixion.

Jesus remains with us now, most silent and most humble and most small in the Eucharist. As the bread and wine become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, “the miracle of transubstantiation comes about imperceptibly, like all the greatest works of God.” There is no extravagant burst of light and power at each Eucharistic consecration, only silence before the Real Presence of God in the Host and the Mass. Cardinal Sarah laments the lack of silence and adoration today in much of the modern liturgy, declaring bluntly “The liturgy is sick.” He continues: “The liturgy today exhibits a sort of secularization that aims to ban the liturgical sign par excellence: silence.” Rather, reception of Holy Communion should be a moment of intimacy with the Lord, when we “receive the Lord of the Universe in the depths of our hearts!” Our interior cloister should be continually fortified by the words of Jesus: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (Jn. 6:56)

In every manner in every mode of everyday life, silence is necessary. Silence is necessary because it predisposes us to a life of prayer, a life of interiority and a sacramental vision of reality. Through the seven sacraments, the channels of dispensation of the divine grace of Jesus Christ to the world, we are recapitulated within Christ – a holy priesthood making spiritual sacrifices. We are spiritualized and divinized, made into children of God. Jesus adjures us not to leave the way of the sacramental life, for “apart from me you can do nothing.” Our prayers and sacrifices are “like the fragrance of incense that ascends to God’s Throne.” Each of us can become, as Saint John Paul called, a “contemplative in action.” Our practice in the virtues of silence and prayer are “an apprenticeship in what the citizens of heaven will experience eternally.”

Silence is needed most urgently now, even for those in the Church who would subsume social activism ahead of the worship of God. Cardinal Sarah proposes “a spiritual pedagogy” as illustrated by Mary and Martha in the gospel. Jesus does not rebuke Martha for being busy in the kitchen, but rather for “her inattentive interior attitude” towards Christ, as shown in her complaint about the “silence” of Mary. Mary remained at the feet of Jesus in silent contemplation and adoration. Cardinal Sarah warns, “All activity must be preceded by an intense life of prayer, contemplation, seeking and listening to God’s will.” We should be Mary before becoming Martha. Man can encounter God only in interior silence. The active life must be harmonized with the contemplative life. Silence must precede activity.

Silence is a form of resistance to the noise of the world. There is a danger today of being lost in “unbridled activism,” where our interior attitudes are diverted from Jesus towards social justice and politics. In the field hospital of the Church, the social aspect does have its place, but as Cardinal Sarah says, “the salvation of souls is more important than any other work.” This vital effort entails evangelization, prayer, faith, repentance, mortification and embracing the sacramental life, in short, living a liturgical existence. Before venturing out into the noise of the world, Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence encourages us to remain firmly grounded in our interior cloister, adoring God in silence.

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The Only Thing that Matters – September 11, 2017

Life is fleetingly short. The minutes and seconds of our earthly lives are trickling down inexorably like grains of sand falling through the hourglass. Christ on his judgment seat holds the hourglass for each of our lives, watching, and waiting for that moment when we shall, at last, appear before him. Only he knows how many grains of sand of time are left for us. We must be ready at any moment. That is why Christ declares “behold, now is the day of salvation.” In a world where “all is vanity,” we must cut through the fog of sin and meaninglessness, and seize the weightiest of matters, in fact, the only thing that matters – the salvation of our souls.

Jesus said what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his life? Our goal is not this world or this life. Our goal is eternal life in the world to come. Jesus spoke of this often, comparing it to a wedding feast. In the great revelation given to St. John, he was caught up into heaven and beheld the joy of the saints at the wedding feast of Christ. An angel spoke to him “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev. 19:9) St. John wrote about these blessed ones of the Church as the Bride of Christ, saying she “has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure.” (Rev. 19:8) The saints are ready because of the way they are “clothed.” But, what is this clothing and why is it “fine linen, bright and pure?” Simply put, this is the divine, sanctifying grace of Jesus Christ.

We must be covered and clothed with the supernatural grace of Christ. Those with the proper “wedding garments” are saved, and those without them are condemned. Jesus himself alluded to this in a disturbing aspect of the wedding banquet parable:

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ (Mt. 22:11-13)

Time is short to be ready for the eternal wedding feast. The only thing that matters is that at the moment of death we are clothed with sanctifying grace.

The opposite of being clothed is being naked. We find nakedness in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, Original Sin, their eyes were opened “and they knew that they were naked.” (Gen. 3:7) They were exposed and ashamed before God. There is a curious scene too, in another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, the night Jesus was betrayed and seized by the Roman soldiers. As all this happened, scripture says, “And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” (Mk. 14:51-52) Sin has left us all naked and exposed to damnation. St. Paul spoke of this too, saying “Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked.” (2 Cor. 5:2-3) Yet, it matters not what sins we may have committed in the past. Nothing is beyond the mercy of God, as long as we sincerely seek his forgiveness through the repentance of our sins.

So, we must be clothed from on high by the Holy Spirit, but how?

Sanctifying grace is conferred onto us through faith in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of the Church, which are necessary for our salvation. (CCC 1129) The seven sacraments of the Church are, of course: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. These are the means by which we put on our wedding garments of fine linen, bright and pure.

All of the sacraments are eminently efficacious and necessary for the life of the Church. However, I would like to focus here on just three sacraments, which are so necessary for the world today, and for our individual souls, and yet, are so sorely neglected. Jesus’ prayer from the Cross is apt “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Or, in our case, we know not what we squander.

As far as we know, St. John was the only Apostle to hear these words from the Lord as he was crucified. He remained at the foot of the Cross, and did not flee like the other Apostles. He was the disciple whom the Lord loved. He was entrusted with the care of Mary the mother of God after Jesus died. He rested his head close to Jesus’ Sacred Heart at the Last Supper. He was the only Apostle not martyred, and so, lived to a wise old age, reflecting deeply for his whole life on the words of Christ. This deep meditation poured forth in the pages of his gospel when he wrote about the sacraments, especially Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confession.

In the third chapter of John’s gospel he writes about Baptism and being “born again.” The conversation, of course, is between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus tells him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (Jn. 3:5) Baptism is the basis for the whole Christian life and “the gateway to life in the Spirit.”

Three chapters later John writes about the Eucharist in the Bread of Life discourse. In it, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (Jn. 6:53-54) The Eucharist is our food of immortality.

Later in his gospel he writes about Confession and the power to forgive sins. He says about the Resurrected Jesus: “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn. 20:22-23) This sacrament of divine mercy renders us into a state of grace. Baptism, the Eucharist and Confession are so vital, so necessary in the everyday life of a soul. These are the channels of sanctifying grace by which we put on the wedding garments of Christ. To neglect these is to neglect the state of our souls, and to jeopardize our place of eternal life in heaven.

This is the only thing that matters: When we die, will we be clothed in the wedding garments of Christ, or not? This requires us to earnestly pursue the weightiest of matters: repentance, conversion, sanctity, holiness, and saintliness. We are men and women of God, called to strive to enter through the narrow gate, to pray ceaselessly, to cling to the truth always, and to serve one another. The way of the disciple is to renounce the vanities of this world and to embrace the Cross of Christ.

St. John quotes Christ in the Book of Revelation about keeping our garments white and clean: “He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” (Rev. 3:5-6) And again, concerning our garments and Christ’s Second Coming: “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” (Rev. 16:15) It is up to us to keep our wedding garments of fine linen, bright and pure. We do this by taking refuge in the sacraments of the Church; and going to Confession frequently, and receiving Jesus in the Holy Eucharist often.

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Mary and The Great American Solar Eclipse – August 16, 2017

Darkness is coming over America. For the first time in nearly 100 years a total solar eclipse will be visible from coast to coast across the United States. Monday August 21st will be “The Great American Eclipse.” It will be an American-centric event. Millions of people are travelling to see the totality of the eclipse, in what one astronomer is saying will be “the most photographed, most shared, most tweeted event in human history.”

It should be a truly spectacular spectacle. In terms of pure celestial mechanics, the moon will be aligned between the earth and the sun, casting its shadow perfectly over the sun, for those along the path of totality. It is pure science, not supernatural.

Yet, the Great American Solar Eclipse is causing many to worry and speculate that it is a harbinger of the apocalypse. They fear God is casting judgment upon America, and this judgment will be reflected in nature by a blotting out of the sun. Many Christian blogs and books have been written on the eclipse, and blood moons, and other astronomical curiosities. These are not hard to find.

But, what to make of it?

Certainly, the United States has been going through a period of relative social and political unease. The social norms of the country are in flux and moving away from divine truths as promulgated by the Church. One need only look at judicial rulings on abortion, euthanasia, same-sex ‘marriage,’ and transgenderism to see the shift away from traditional Christian values. Sin ultimately does provoke judgment. But, does this mean we are now living in the apocalypse? Well, no. Does this mean we are living in deadly serious times? Yes, it does.

Jesus himself did warn us to observe signs in nature before his Second Coming saying, “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves.” (Lk. 21:25) This echoes the prophecy of Joel: “The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.” (Joel 3:15) These will be cataclysmic happenings and worldwide events. Does the Great American Solar Eclipse rise to this level? No, it does not.

That is not to say that the spiritual things are not reflected in the temporal world. Clearly they can be. God does give us signs in creation. At the exact time of Jesus’ Crucifixion, the sun did not give off its light. As scripture says, “And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” (Mk. 15:33) So, there was darkness at the Crucifixion and there will be darkness at the Second Coming of Christ. And yes, there will be a brief darkness over the United States during the total solar eclipse on August 21st. Is this a sign from God specifically for America? Perhaps. Perhaps in the spiritual sense, that God does occasionally give us signs through nature. Perhaps God is trying to get our attention, and is calling us to repentance. Certainly sin has increased, and by way of analogy, the light of God is dimming in our society. Holiness is being eclipsed in America.

The last time a full coast-to-coast eclipse happened across the U.S. was June 8, 1918. This was not long after the last apparition of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal in 1917, and in the midst of the tragedy of World War I. Mary also warned that when you see “a night illumined by an unknown light” that God was about to punish the world for its sins. Most believe this was fulfilled on January 25, 1938 with a great aurora over much of Europe just before the start of World War II. This year is the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima, which some attach special significance to its centenary. It was at the last apparition on October 13, 1917 that tens of thousands of people witnessed another solar event, in that case, the dramatic “Miracle of the Sun.”

It was Pope Pius XII who also witnessed the Miracle of the Sun phenomenon. In fact, he supposedly witnessed it four times, in the year 1950 when he was going to proclaim the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. He says he observed it on October 30th while walking in the Vatican gardens. He then witnessed it again on “the 31st of October and Nov. 1, the day of the definition of the dogma of the Assumption, and then again Nov. 8, and after that, no more.” On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary dogma in Munificentissimus Deus: “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” The Miracle of the Sun phenomenon seemed to confirm the dogma. So, on August 15th of the liturgical calendar we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. The Great American Solar Eclipse falls within the octave of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. This feast culminates eight days later on August 22nd with the Feast of the Queenship of Mary.

On October 11, 1954, Pope Pius XII released the encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam declaring the Mary the Queen of Heaven and instituting the liturgical Feast of the Queenship of Mary. It quotes among others St. John Damascene that “When she became Mother of the Creator, she truly became Queen of every creature.” Pope Paul VI later moved the feast day to the octave of the Assumption in order to emphasize the close bond between the glorification of her body and soul and her Queenship in Heaven next to her son, Jesus Christ. Lumen Gentium makes this explicit saying, “Mary was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen of the universe, that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son.” (LG, 59) Thus, from August 15th to August 22nd we celebrate the Assumption of Mary into Heaven and her being crowned Queen of Heaven. Some see significance in the fact that the eclipse falls within the octave of the Feast of the Assumption and on the eve of the Feast of the Queenship of Mary.

Besides these two feasts of Mary, August 21st also falls on the Feast day of Our Lady of Knock. Our Lady of Knock was an apparition of the Virgin Mary that happened on August 21, 1879 in the County Mayo village of Knock, Ireland. There are some interesting aspects to this apparition in comparison to other Church approved apparitions. For one, this apparition was completely silent. Mary spoke no words to the fifteen witnesses. The apparition lasted for about three hours. Along with the Virgin Mary, who was in deep prayer with her eyes raised towards heaven, were St. Joseph, and an altar with Jesus – as the Lamb of God – on it. St. John the Evangelist was also in the vision. This is somewhat unusual and unique in Marian apparitions.

Our Lady of Knock did not speak any words. There was only silent symbolism. Jesus is pictured as the Lamb of God on an altar – clearly depicting the paschal mystery. In the four gospels, the word lamb is mentioned just four times total. In contrast, in St. John’s book of Revelation, Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb” 28 times. In the apparition at Knock, St. John was seen holding a book, which some have surmised was the Book of Revelation. In it, St. John wrote about The Lamb that takes away the sins of the world, and when the Lamb “opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” (Rev. 8:1) St. John also wrote about another great sign, Mary as the Queen of Heaven: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (Rev. 12:1)

Is there a deeper spiritual meaning to the eclipse? That remains uncertain. As with all things in life, we must live in the present moment and seek to amend our lives the best that we can. Perhaps, if the metaphor holds true, that sin is darkening our souls, then God is telling us to retreat to Mary the Mother of God in pursuit of sanctity. As a fairly remarkable astronomical event, we should appreciate the eclipse on Monday, and enjoy it safely (with the proper NASA-approved eclipse glasses, of course!) But, we should also be mindful to the dimming of our moral lives and the coarsening of our culture. In this time of devotions to Mary, perhaps we can rededicate ourselves to the message of Fatima, which is always the message of Mary and Jesus: prayer, sacrifice, conversion, and the sacraments.

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Reconsidering Contraception and the Way of Life – July 26, 2017

Contraception was not always as widely accepted as it is now. This is important to remember, especially for those of us born after the so-called sexual revolution, when contraceptives have become nearly ubiquitous, even farcical to the point of absurdity, just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor. However, in the not-so-distant past, in the first part of the 20th century, Christians of all stripes, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants were nearly unanimous in their belief that contraception was a grave sin and against the will of God. When did attitudes change so radically?

Many point to the Lambeth Conference on August 4, 1930 as the first crack in the dam. The Anglican Conference of Bishops passed a controversial resolution to allow for the use of birth control when “there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood.” This declaration was the first of its kind and perhaps the ‘camel’s nose under the tent’ that opened Christians to the practice of contraception. T.S. Eliot noted prophetically in his Thoughts After Lambeth, “The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse.” The Catholic Church was not so patient in her response. Soon after Lambeth, on December 31, 1930, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Connubii (“of chaste marriage”) reaffirming the historical Church teaching that contraception is a “grave sin.”

The leaders of the birth control movement took offense at the encyclical and derided the Pope. Margaret Sanger, head of the movement and future founder of Planned Parenthood, wrote an article in The Nation on January 27, 1932 mocking Catholic doctrine as “illogical, not in accord with science (sound familiar?), and definitely against social welfare and race improvement.” Race improvement was a euphemism for Sanger’s infamous eugenics ideology. Later in the essay, she accused the Church, by forbidding contraception, of increasing the “number of feeble-minded, insane, criminal, and diseased.” Sanger’s utopian vision harnessed contraception to engineer biological and racial purity. Interestingly, and perhaps to her credit, Sanger did not condone abortion as a form of birth control, calling it “dangerous and vicious.” Latter-day pro-choice and Planned Parenthood disciples have strayed where even she would not go.

In the decades that followed, the outcome of this culture war is plainly obvious with the widespread acceptance and legalization of contraception (and abortion). Yet, the Church has steadfastly remained a “sign of contradiction” (HV, 18) opposing contraception in all its facets as “intrinsically evil.” (CCC 2370) Some may say this is one of the Church’s ‘hard teachings.’ Indeed, this hard teaching has been reflected in the day-to-day, rank-and-file parish level, where many Catholics have accepted and use artificial birth control. This is probably why we do not hear sermons against contraception or have proactive discussions on periodic abstinence and Natural Family Planning. The point, however, is not to mete out judgment in the disconnect between truth and practice.

In an era of same-sex ‘marriage,’ abortion on demand, and gender fluidity, does it even make sense to discuss contraception – ground long ago ceded? As witnessed last century with the unleashing of Pandora’s box of sexual promiscuities and the idolization of sexual pleasure, perhaps it is the right moment to contemplate again the Church’s wisdom on contraception – the place where the “experiment” began. This also gets to the heart of the issue: procreation as the primary end of sexuality and marriage. The “contraceptive mentality” reduces sexuality to sensuality, and the dignity of the human person to an object of pleasure. The ‘unitive without the procreative’ mindset is the underlying zeitgeist of our generation, and the root of many modern social ills.

Even CC recognized the potential burdens of parenthood: “We are deeply touched by the sufferings of those parents who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children.” (CC, 60) No one is suggesting this is an easy, unemotional topic. It is uncomfortable and impractical, the way the world sees, but nonetheless we should reconsider because it is the right thing. Doing the right thing is something we as Catholics should be interested in doing. This means heeding the voice of the Church, and heeding the words of Christ. Jesus said we should strive to enter in through the “narrow gate” for “the way is hard, that leads to life.” Jesus also commands us to take up our cross and follow Him. In the context of marriage, we offer self-sacrificial love for our spouse. The marital vocation is a “work of mutual sanctification.” (GS, 52) It is their way to holiness and to heaven. As part of that, “fidelity and fecundity” are the twofold obligations of their conjugal love. (CCC 2363)

This is not to say that we are obligated to necessarily form very large families beyond our means. We are obligated in our openness to life, but we can regulate births and space children apart by natural means with “virtuous continence.” (CC, 53) Pius VI adjures us that virtuous continence should be used only after prudently reflecting on the moral law and our obligation of openness to having children. Yet, part of our responsible parenthood would factor in difficulties of “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions.” These are potentially “serious reasons” for spacing out pregnancies and limiting the size of families. It is illegitimate to say no to the primary good of marriage (children) for any trivial or selfish reasons. The couple with clearly formed consciences must have the moral judgment that they have serious, grave, or just reasons for delaying or limiting the size of one’s family. The contraceptive mentality of not being open to life for non-grave reasons is morally wrong, even if done through natural means.

One of the main points of Paul VI’s prescient 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae is that contraception is contrary to natural law. The male coming together with the female naturally procreates a child. The natural law purpose then of sexual intercourse is procreation. Any artificial interference, whether through contraception or sterilization, is against natural law, and against the intentions of God as reflected in nature. It breaks the unitive and procreative significance of the marital act, and reduces it to just sensual pleasure; an offense against the dignity of the human person created in the image of God. The conjugal love between a husband and wife is “by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children.” (HV, 9)

The question then is, if we have correct moral consciences and serious, just reasons for limiting the size of our family, how do we go about this in a morally licit way? The first and obvious way, as stated by CC, is abstinence. The next is natural family planning in one form or another. HV states that married couples may control births by taking advantage of the infertile “natural cycles immanent in the reproduction cycle.” (HV, 16) Abstinence and NFP are not “Catholic contraception” because nothing artificial has been introduced into the process to render intercourse infertile. The procreative potential remains intact. As the late moral philosopher Joseph Boyle stated, “Refraining from intercourse is not contraceptive intercourse, since it is not intercourse at all.” By our recourse to abstinence and natural family planning we preserve our inherent human dignity, respect the moral order, and offer humble obedience to our Creator.

HV did put one asterisk in the encyclical regarding contraceptive usage. This is the exception for therapeutic treatment of bodily diseases. The statement reads: “On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” (HV, 15) Intention is key. One of the footnotes for this paragraph is for a speech Pope Pius XII gave to the Congress of the International Society of Hematology in 1958. In that, he references the “principle of double-acting actions,” or the principle of double-effect. He says, “If the woman takes this medicine, not with the intention of preventing conception, but only by medical indication, as a necessary remedy due to a disease of the uterus or of the organism, it causes an indirect sterilization, which is permitted according to the general principle of double-acting actions.”

In some instances one spouse accepts contraception and the other does not. How does the Church handle this? The Vade Mecum for Confessors (3, 13) addresses this by referencing CC: “Holy Church knows well that not infrequently one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin.” (CC, 59) Again, as outlined, certain conditions must be met.

One need not look all the way to 20th century magisterium, however, to find Church pronouncements against contraception. In the New Testament, the word pharmakeia (same root word for pharmacy) appears three times, which some scholars have linked to contraception. The ancient Greek word denotes the mixing of “magic potions,” or as the New Testament sometimes translates it, “sorcery.” The meaning is not entirely explicit, and may have multiple levels of meaning. Yet, in the context of the ancient pagan cults, with widespread sexual fertility rites and orgies, it probably refers to contraceptive and abortive practices. The second century physician, Soranos of Ephesus, in his book Gynecology, for example, uses the term to refer to potions for both contraception and abortion. These “magic potions” were likely illicit drugs used in conjunction with pagan sexual rituals to stimulate hallucinations, sterilization, prevent conception, or to end a pregnancy. In the letter to the Galatians, the usage of pharmakeia appears alongside other sexual sins. St. Paul warns that those who practice “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery.. shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19-21) In two other references found in Revelation (Rev. 9:21; 21:8), it is similarly condemned.

The word pharmakeia also appears in the Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. This first century document was possibly a vade mecum, the early Church’s first handbook on morality and fundamental doctrines. In the first part of the document are proposed two ways of living – the way of life and the way of death. The Didache exhorts: “you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not use potions, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” The focus here again is on sexual immorality. The practice of “magic” and the use of “potions” could have multiple levels of possible meanings, including the occult and illicit drugs. However, in the context of the passage, it more than likely refers to abortifacients and artificial birth control.

Contraception closes off marriage from the divine love it is meant to image and reflect. St. Paul speaks about the love of a husband and wife as a “great mystery” meant to image the love of Christ and the Church. Marital love is also an icon in creation of the eternal exchange of love among the three persons of the Holy Trinity; so that, the very love between the Father and the Son is, in fact, another person, the Holy Spirit. In an analogous way, from the conjugal love between two persons, a husband and wife, comes a third person, a child. Their love is em-bodied literally. Sterilized sex cuts God, the ultimate ‘Giver of Life,’ out of the life-giving equation, so that man becomes by unnatural means the sole-arbiter in generating life or not. This stifles the Trinitarian image of God in creation, as a “communion of persons” in marriage and the family.

Shakespeare wrote “what’s past is prologue.” The past has brought us to this moment, and yet, it need not be our future. It may be difficult, but we should reconsider our comfortable acceptance of contraception and our uncomfortable omissions from being fully pro-life. God entrusted us with the awesome responsibility and role as co-creators with Him in bringing forth new persons. This presupposes our openness to life. The pseudepigraphical and extra-biblical book of Enoch tells the pre-history story of the fall of the angels from heaven, and how they spread sin across the earth, teaching man “charms and spells, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants.” That is to say, they taught magic potions and sorcery, and led mankind astray. It is this type of neopaganism that seems to have reemerged again in modern times under the guise of social progress. The civilized, non-Christian experiment is still in its slow-motion collapse. As the faithful of the Church, we should play the part, and be a countercultural sign of contradiction.

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Holy Thursday and the New Commandment – April 13, 2017

Jesus’ actions on Holy Thursday were revolutionary and radical. They are meant to shock our consciences. Indeed, St. Peter was so shocked he exclaimed, “You shall never wash my feet.” (Jn. 13:8) His sensibilities were offended that the Messiah, the very Son of God, would perform the actions of a typical household slave of those days. Jesus turned the world upside down. True greatness would no longer be measured in money, power and social status, but in simple humble service to our fellow man, as Jesus taught them, “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Mt. 23:10)

It was in the Cenacle in Jerusalem that Thursday night that Jesus faced His imminent death. Just hours from His Passion and Crucifixion – this supreme moment in His life – all of His words and actions in the Upper Room carried special meaning and weight. Jesus waited until this moment at the Last Supper to institute the Eucharist and Holy Orders. In this intimate setting with His closest friends and Apostles, Jesus washes their feet, and gives us the Mandatum, or the mandate, the new commandment. As John tells us:

Jesus “rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel. Then He poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.” (Jn. 13:4-5)

Following the washing of the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (Jn. 13:14-15)

Here, with His final actions before Good Friday, Jesus shows the disciples that they are to humbly serve one another. He reinforces this with His final discourse, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (Jn. 13:34) On Holy Thursday, the beginning of the paschal Triduum, Jesus commissions all of His disciples, that is, all Christians, above all else, to love one another.

As with all things, Jesus’ words and example is the model for us to follow. Jesus Himself said He “came not to be served but to serve.” (Mt. 20:28) St. Paul too speaks of Jesus’ humility as He “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:7) He spoke often about the need for humility and service, and the necessity to live one’s life with Christian charity. One of Jesus’ great teachings is the parable of the Good Samaritan. He uses the parable to demonstrate what our mercy should resemble, and that we should “Go and do likewise.” (Lk. 10:37) In another parable, the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus warns us about the implications of not living a life of mercy and charity. In the parable, the rich man, who did not show mercy or compassion towards the poor man Lazarus, ends up in torment in Hades. Abraham reminds him that he had his opportunity to demonstrate mercy during his lifetime, but chose not to. These are sobering words from Jesus.

Perhaps the most jarring words on this is Jesus’ depiction of the Final Judgment. The Righteous inherit the kingdom and eternal life, with Jesus telling them: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Mt. 25: 35-36) The Righteous had lived Jesus’ Beatitudes, especially “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Mt. 5:7) But to those who fail to perform works of mercy and charity, Jesus sends them to eternal punishment. Ultimately, we are judged by whether we follow Christ’s new commandment or not. In serving the needy, we are, in reality, serving Christ, as He said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Mt. 25:40)

Jesus says the distinguishing characteristic of His disciples will be their “love for one another.” Tertullian remarked that the early Roman pagans would exclaim of Christians, “See how they love one another!” And what should this charity towards our neighbor look like? The Church teaches the corporal works of mercy, in which we minister to the bodily needs of the person, primarily as: “feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.” (CCC 2447) The Church similarly teaches that we should practice spiritual works of mercy as well, primarily by: instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead. These bring to mind Jesus’ words to St. Faustina on the absolute necessity for us to demonstrate mercy towards our neighbor through deed, word, or prayer. (Diary, 742)

Jesus’ new commandment is clear; we are to love one another. How then do we do this on a practical level? The varied number of ways we can fulfill this are as long as they are deep. We can do it in our everyday life and work. We can donate our time and money, or goods and services. We can volunteer at a soup kitchen, or be involved in a parish social ministry. One of the areas I find rewarding is working with the homeless population. Regardless of what the social and economic causes may be for homelessness, and whether our actions may be enabling them to some extent, Jesus did command us “Give to every one who begs from you.” (Lk. 6:30) To enter into the world of the homeless is to be barraged by sights, sounds, smells and struggles. It is to witness firsthand the brokenness in humanity in drug addiction and mental health sickness, and at times, crime. On the other hand, they are people just like you and me. Each homeless man or woman is a person, with an inherent dignity, made in the image of God. In their faces and bodies is Jesus. Although sometimes it is a difficult experience, I almost always feel enriched and spiritually renewed in serving them.

And so, it is up to us to live out Christ’s commission of mercy and charity towards our neighbor: to love one another in humble service as He has loved us. This is Christ’s radical idea that upended the trajectory of the ancient world. The God-man took the form of a servant and washed the feet of His disciples. This is Jesus’ radical example for us. It was in this Passover setting that the sacrificial lamb gave way to the sacrifice of Christ: the prefigurement gave way to the reality. Christ gave us this sublime example and new commandment at the Last Supper, as He offered the sacrament of His love in the Eucharist. We too can offer ourselves, as a living sacrifice, in our mercy and charity towards others, in union with the sacrifice of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fatima, Marriage, and the Theology of the Body – March 25, 2017

It has been reported that Sister Lucia of Fatima wrote a letter to Cardinal Caffarra predicting that “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.” Not long after, Pope John Paul II was in the midst of his famous “Theology of the Body” talks on marriage and the family when a Turkish assassin attempted to kill him. The assassination attempt happened on May 13, 1981, the Feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, and the same day that Pope John Paul was going to announce the establishment of his Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. John Paul credited “a mother’s hand,” Our Lady of Fatima, with saving his life that day, and consequently, allowing for the promulgation of his exegetical insights on the theology of the body.

Pope John Paul’s biographer, George Weigel, described John Paul’s revolutionary ideas on the theology of the body as a “kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.” What were these novel ideas? As author Christopher West restated, the Pope’s thesis is the human body “has been created to transfer into visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.” The body is not just something biological, but also theological. The body is the sacrament of the person. As is often misconstrued, the Church does not teach that the body or sex is bad; this is a neo-gnostic heresy disparaging the body as something external to us and exploitable. Rather, the Church teaches that the body is good and holy, the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is incarnational and sacramental. The body is a person, and the person is a body.

But, the body is also more. God created the body as a sign and self-disclosure of His own divine mystery. God “impressed His own form on the flesh He had fashioned, in such a way that even what was visible might bear the divine form.” (CCC 704) The central mystery of the Christian faith is that God is an eternal Communion of three divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a sacramentality to the human body that makes visible this mystery hidden from eternity.

How does it do this? In the beginning, when God created man, He made them two separate but complementary incarnations, male and female. Through the beauty of sexual difference, masculine and feminine, we are called to form a communion of persons, just as there is a communion of Persons within the Godhead. In this exchange of love between husband and wife, a third person is generated in a child, forming again an icon of Trinitarian love, just as through the mutual love of the Father and Son proceeds the Holy Spirit. In this way, the human family makes visible in the created world, by way of analogy, only infinitely less so, the hidden eternal exchange of love within God. Man is allowed to take part in this great mystery of generation and creation, in imitation of the Trinity. It can be understood then that when God tells Adam and Eve, “be fruitful and multiply,” He is really telling them on a symbolic level to manifest His Trinitarian image throughout the world. This is man’s original vocation, to love as God loves.

God teaches us to love as God loves, through the complementary sexes, as imprinted upon our bodies. This reveals the spousal meaning of our very existence. Jesus Himself reaffirms the truth of dual genders and their nuptial meaning. When the Pharisees question Him about divorce, Jesus answers them, “Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mt. 19:4-6) The two become one in the primordial sacrament of marriage: It was the original sacrament, the prototype that foreshadowed the marriage union of Christ with the Church. St. Paul refers to this marriage of Christ with the Church as a “great mystery.” (Eph. 5:32) Married couples are a sacramental sign of the divine Bridegroom and His bride. In reference to the marriage of husband and wife, and Christ and the Church, John Paul states, “these two signs together, making of them the single sign, that is, a great sacrament.”

The underlying theme throughout the Bible is God wants to “marry” us (Hos. 2:19). Indeed, God wanted to make His nuptial plan for us so obvious that He created our very bodies, male and female, to prepare us for this eternal, mystical marriage. Human marriage then is the sign and the sacrament, revealing the eternal reality of the union of Christ and His Church. Jesus spoke of this as well when He addressed the Sadducees saying, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Mt. 22:30) Jesus reaffirms that earthly marriage is not the ultimate end in itself, but a sign of the heavenly marriage to come. It is a harbinger of the final truth, when the earthly sign will at last give way to the heavenly reality. In the resurrection, the body will be raised eternal, incorruptible, spiritualized and divinized. Yet, as with any marriage proposal, mutual consent is necessary. We must give our “yes” through faith and the offering of ourselves.

Marriage was built upon this notion of a free, sincere gift of self to another. The gift of self in marriage is a sign and analogy of Christ’s total gift of Himself for His Church. At the Last Supper, when Jesus institutes the Eucharist, He says, “This is My body which is given for you.” (Lk. 22:19) Jesus offers Himself bodily for us, His bride. His total self-offering of His body is consummated with the His crucifixion on the Cross. In the same way then, the Eucharist is a renewal of Christ’s spousal gift of His body. In the words of Jesus, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (Jn. 6:56) This is our one flesh communion.

Jesus repeatedly points us back to the beginning to see God’s original plan for marriage. In His response to the Pharisees’ challenging Him on marriage, Jesus says “but from the beginning it was not so.” (Mt. 19:8) He tells us implicitly that a certain residual echo of that original innocence remains in us. In man’s “original nakedness,” Adam and Eve “were both naked and not ashamed.” (Gen. 2:25) They had no shame, or fear, or lust, but only innocence. Their composite natures, body and spirit, were in perfect harmony. Adam and Eve saw in each other a whole person who perfectly imaged the Creator. Their total gift of self to one another was an embodiment of God’s self-giving love, and a perfect expression of the nuptial meaning of their bodies. Christ calls us to restore this.

Of course, with the Fall of man in Original Sin, immorality and death entered the world. Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover their bodies and hide their shame. In the mythic language of Genesis’ prehistory, something had gone horribly wrong, and has never been the same since then. The perfect harmony of body and spirit had been ruptured. Our human nature was wounded by concupiscence, pride, lust, and disobedience. The revelation of the person as an image of God, the theology stamped upon our bodies, had become obscured.

Yet, as John Paul points out, despite sin, “marriage has remained the platform for the realization of God’s eternal plans.” This is no more evident than in the Incarnation. Jesus willed Himself to be incarnated into a family, and to be raised by a mother and father. Jesus’ Incarnation shows the body, and marriage, and the family remain “very good.” He Himself highlights the centrality of sacramental marriage. Scripture tells us that, “Jesus also was invited to the marriage” (Jn. 2:2). His presence sanctifies the sacrament. Jesus worked His first public miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, turning water into wine. The wedding at Cana points towards His marriage consummation at Calvary, when He gives His body for His bride.

On the Sermon on the Mount, Christ again calls us back to the way it was in the beginning. Jesus says, “everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt. 5:28) He challenges us to find a new, pure way of looking at each other, with custody of our eyes and a purity of heart, capable of seeing the person as the image of God. Jesus calls us to conversion, and a mastery of self. This is Jesus’ new ethos of the heart, in which our eros is infused with an agape love. John Paul’s anthropological vision is a redeemed sexuality, an “ethos of the redemption of the body,” through the power of Christ, free from the domination of concupiscence and lustful self-gratification. We are called to this liberation and freedom of being, to which Jesus came to restore us; to let us have “life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn. 10:10)

However, if marriage is the primordial sacrament – the primary revelation in creation of God’s inner being and the primary revelation of Christ’s union with His Church – is there any doubt why Satan attacks it? It is precisely in this original unity of the sexes that he tries to sever our communion with God. Satan’s goal is to keep man from his eternal destiny with Christ. Sister Lucia commented, in fact, that many people go to hell because of “sins of the flesh.” By distorting the theology of our bodies, Satan schemes to obscure the Trinitarian image within us. He seeks to mock our one flesh union with Christ. It is an increasingly depraved society that twists the sacrament into an anti-sacrament, and distorts the sign into a diabolic countersign. The staggering loss of sexual ethics over the last fifty years at least, as part of the “sexual revolution,” (and subsequent “culture of death”) shows the savage assault that has taken place on marriage, sexuality, procreation, and the family. We can readily see so many counterfeit signs that have gained widespread cultural acceptance, sadly even by many within the Church. As John Paul declared, “The ‘great mystery’ is threatened in us and all around us.” Not surprisingly, progressive sexual morality, especially the redefinition of both marriage and gender, is now the tip of the spear threatening religious freedom.

In further reflection on the Church’s sexual prohibitions, such as contraception, for example, it is theologically sacrilegious because it falsifies the sacramental sign of marriage. In exploring these sublime truths, John Paul considered his theology of the body as “an extensive commentary” on Humane Vitae (of Human Life) and the regulation of birth. Do we ask of ourselves the hard questions, like is our union free, total, faithful and fruitful? In the modern rationalist era that we live, where sexuality is reduced to just biology, is there room for “the great mystery?” In order to understand the Church’s teaching on birth control and sexual ethics it is necessary to have a “total vision of man and of his vocation.” Openness to life makes complete sense in the “prophetism of the body” as an image of God. In failing to recognize the sacramental sign, however, it is folly.

In this year, the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Fatima, perhaps we can, like Pope John Paul, appeal to Our Lady of Fatima for her intervention for the sake of marriage and the family. It was in the October 1917, in the climactic final apparition, that the world was given the miraculous vision of the Holy Family: Our Lady, and the Child Jesus in the arms of St. Joseph. They were presented for us as the model of the perfect family. We too can strive in our families for holiness and perfection through prayer, penance, and the sacraments. As Sister Lucia wrote about the vision of the Holy Family:

“In times such as the present, when the family often seems misunderstood in the form in which it was established by God, and is assailed by doctrines that are erroneous and contrary to the purposes for which the divine Creator instituted it, surely God wished to address to us a reminder of the purpose for which He established the family in the world?”

“Hence, in the message of Fatima, God calls on us to turn our eyes to the Holy Family of Nazareth, into which He chose to be born, and to grow in grace and stature, in order to present to us a model to imitate, as our footsteps tread the path of our pilgrimage to Heaven.”

Marriage is a lifelong sacramental sign of God’s inner mystery, to be lived out chastely and experienced in the day-to-day moderation of our lives, in reverence for Christ. This is, for many, our roadmap to eternal life. Let us study anew the theology of the body, as part of the new evangelization, to shine truth and compassion again in this world so desperately in need of it, for the hour is late.

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The Liberating Power of Fasting – March 6, 2017

“Do you wish your prayer to reach God? Give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.”
-St. Augustine, Discourse on the Psalms

“What happened to fast and abstinence in the Church in the United States?” This was the question Pope John Paul II asked Msgr. Charles M. Murphy, the former Dean of the Pontifical North American College, in a conversation they had in Rome in 1980. Pope John Paul perceived what is readily apparent to us still today, the seeming collapse of the practice of fasting in the day-to-day lives of Catholics. This question is particularly relevant now in the midst of Lent as the Church unites herself “to the mystery of Jesus in desert.” (CCC 540) The Bible tells us that Jesus “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards He was hungry.” (Mt. 4:2) If we are to unite ourselves more closely with Christ, we need to rediscover this holy practice of fasting.

The Catechism lists fasting as one of the three pillars of penance in the Christian life. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving express our conversion, respectively towards oneself, God, and neighbor. (CCC 1434) Fasting is a critical part of our metanoia, our turning away from sin. We are in constant need of this conversion towards God. It was when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit that Original Sin and concupiscence entered our human nature. Since then, as St. Paul eloquently wrote, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh.” (Gal. 5:17) This is our human predicament. The question we must ask ourselves is: Do our bodily desires and instincts rule our spirit, or does our spirit control our bodies? The mortification of the flesh, through fasting, offers a sort of “liberation of man” against this “wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance.” (Paentiemini, II) Through fasting, we can cultivate this cardinal virtue of temperance, as moderation and self-control tame the unruliness of the flesh.

In the Old Testament, Nineveh turned away from their sins. The wickedness of the city had reached a point that God sent the prophet Jonah to warn them that in “forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” (Jnh. 3:4) However, the people of Nineveh believed Jonah and the words of God, so “they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” God reacted by not carrying out His threat against them. God showed Himself to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jnh. 4:2) It is an example for us. By fasting, we can demonstrate our humility before God by repenting of our sins and asking forgiveness. As the story of Nineveh shows, God readily accepts this act of contrition.

Jesus is our example par excellence on the vital spiritual importance of fasting. Scripture tells us that before He began His public ministry, He was “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Mt. 4:1) Just as the first Adam was tempted by the serpent and failed by eating the fruit, so the second Adam, Jesus, was tempted by Satan, and yet resisted him by not eating. Satan tempted Jesus to break His fast by turning stones into loaves of bread, at which Jesus countered him, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Jesus’ fast spiritually prepared His humanity to confront and resist the devil. This is reminiscent of the disciples, who were unable to cast out a demon from a boy. Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith, and then, exorcised the demon. Later, when the disciples asked Jesus why they could not cast it out, He replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (Mk. 9:29) Prayer and fasting are fundamental tools we have to overcome the devil and his minions, and temptation. Fasting is a powerful weapon.

This self-denial and mortification, as expressed in fasting, is also efficacious for the conversion of others. Sacrifice and prayer are the vicarious payment we make towards the redemption of another. It is the required “money,” if you will, offered on behalf of their “debt.” St. Paul captured this eloquently when he wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body.” (Col. 1:24) This remains the same for us. We know that our love and intercessory sacrifices for others will cover a multitude of sins. (Jas. 5:20)

Intercessory prayer and fasting is exactly the message of Fatima as well. Our Lady of Fatima said, “Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to hell, because there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.” Mary revealed that our prayers and sacrifices are truly efficacious reparations, in which we can even positively affect someone’s eternal destiny. This Lent is the perfect opportunity for us to heed her words, especially this year, the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions. Heaven is waiting for our daily prayers, sacrifices, and fasts.

As Christians, we need to re-embrace this pillar of our faith and practice regularly the discipline of fasting. It is a transformational habit that would enliven the modern Church, liberate us from our intemperate desires, and bring us into a closer divine intimacy with God. It also draws us nearer to the hungry and the poor, in line with the Beatitudes of Jesus. Although Jesus forbade His disciples from fasting while He, the divine Bridegroom, was still here, He did exhort future generations, and for that matter, us, that once the Bridegroom was gone, “then they will fast.” (Mt. 9:15) Some 2,000 years later, we continue our fast, at the behest of Jesus’ Good News, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 4:17)

Of course, fasting is not easy. It is a discipline that we must train our bodies to handle. We can accommodate fasting to our life situation. The important point is that we fast in some fashion, in union with the Church, particularly on Fridays in remembrance of Christ’s Passion, whether just giving up meat, or strictly on bread and water, or somewhere in between the two. The ancient ascetic monks perfected the discipline of fasting in the desert. Yet, we can bring fasting into the hustle and bustle of our lives, and families, and homes, and Churches, to form an oasis of sanctity in our modern world. Let us renew our faith – and fasting – this Lent, and beyond.

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A Meditation on the Theology of the Face – February 22, 2017

“Thou hast said, “Seek ye My face.”
My heart says to Thee,
“Thy face, Lord, do I seek.” (Psalm 27:8)

Do our faces reflect the divine signature of Christ?

Genesis declares that man is “made in the image of God.” Humanity is set apart from the rest of creation with an eternal soul capable of reason, will, and self-giving love; that is, God created man with divine attributes. These preternatural gifts bestow on us a rational and spiritual nature, elevating us above our mere physical natures. Man is separated from animal, person from non-person, primarily by our rational souls.

Yet, as Christians, we do not believe that we are just spiritual beings. We are more than just incarnate spirits confined to a body and then freed upon death. This is an ancient gnostic heresy, a Manichean dualism, unfortunately still prevalent today. Rather, our true human nature is a composite nature of spirit and body. The Catechism calls the flesh of the body the “hinge of salvation.” In the beginning, God created the flesh of the body; in marriage, man and woman become one flesh; in the Incarnation, the Word became flesh; in the Eucharist, Jesus gives us His flesh; and in the resurrection, the flesh is raised glorified and incorruptible. (CCC 1015) Christ, the Bible, and the Church are all in agreement: The body is good.

There is a sacramentality to the body. The body is the sacrament of the human person. It is a sign and symbol, making visible a hidden reality. Pope John Paul plumbed the depths of this mystery in his “Theology of the Body” series, referring to the body, “It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be its sign.” The body is a sign of divine mystery. Pope John Paul also stated “the face reveals the person.” It is the gateway to the soul. All of our senses are found in our face: our eyes, our ears, our nose, our mouth. They are the means by which the material world is translated by our human bodies to the spiritual world of our mind and soul. The face is the mediator between material and divine.

According to our Christian faith, the whole economy of salvation rests upon the bodily crucifixion of Jesus Christ. For, through the wounds of Christ we are healed, and through His death and resurrection we are saved. We can speculate, in conjunction with this definitive event in human history, did God mark our faces with Christ’s redemptive act?

Imagine, for a moment, Jesus’ Cross transposed on our faces. Our two eyes seem to correspond to the nail wounds of Christ’s two outstretched hands on the horizontal beam; our nose, the vertical beam of the Cross; our nostrils, the piercing of Christ’s side; our mouths, the nail wounds of both feet, placed one atop the other. Of all the shapes our faces could have taken, they assumed the perfect symmetry of a cross. The human face is clearly arranged in a “T” shape of two perpendicular lines. It is like a symbolical seal of Christ and His wounds.

In contemplating the face as a sign, all that we perceive, and all that we know of the world, is through our senses: In effect, analogously through Jesus’ hand wounds, we have eyes and sight; through the piercing of Jesus’ side, we can breathe and smell; and through the wounds to Jesus’ feet, we can taste, drink, breathe, and speak. His suffering was our grace. The face is not just the means of our perception, but also brings in life. The nose intakes air, and breaths oxygen into our lungs and blood. The mouth too provides sustenance through breathing, and nourishment through eating and drinking. Moreover, the face also conveys outwardly our divine faculties. We express emotions, words, language, singing, love, and worship all through our face. It reveals our rational and conscious nature.

The face is the icon of the person. This is God’s primordial claim upon us, through the imprint of Christ on the flesh of our face. The personal “I” of each one of us is made present to the world by the portal of our face. We can almost broaden Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy that “with His stripes we are healed” (spiritually), and extend it, metaphorically, to the body: So that, through His wounds, we have our senses, life, and access to the whole universe around us.

There are hints in scripture to the supernatural significance of the face. St. Paul calls Christ the “head of the body.” Would it not be fitting that our heads should bear the stamp of our Savior? When God spoke with Moses on Mt. Sinai, Yahweh hid His face from him saying, “you cannot see My face; for man shall not see Me and live.” When Moses returned to the Israelites, they were afraid to come near him because “the skin of his face shone.” Moses then put a veil over his face, which St. Paul later interpreted to mean they failed to recognize Christ; In effect, the unveiling of the face is related to recognizing Christ. Just before His Passion, Jesus did unveil His divinity on Mt. Tabor in His Transfiguration when “His face shone like the sun,” giving us a brief glimpse to the glory of the face of God.

In the climax of Dante’s Paradiso, the face of God is finally revealed in full to man in the Beatific Vision, and he is amazed to see that God’s face “seemed to be painted with our human likeness.” Perhaps more aptly, we are being painted with the likeness of God. St. Paul alluded to this, saying “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Cor. 3:18) Our ultimate hope is to behold God “face to face” for all eternity. At last, as St. John wrote of this blissful destiny, the redeemed “shall see His face,” and “we shall be like Him.”

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The Dignity of the Human Person – January 14, 2017

“When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life.” (Evangelium Vitae, 21)

It is a perplexing fact of history that one of the world’s most prolific mass murderers, Adolf Hitler, was also a vegetarian who abhorred cruelty to animals. This conundrum was oddly revisited when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ran a publicity campaign “Holocaust on Your Plate” in 2003 comparing caged farm animals to Jewish prisoners in Nazi death camps. As author Richard Weikart points out, ironically both the Nazis and PETA engaged in the fallacy of anthropomorphism, blurring the distinction between humans and animals. These are extreme examples, but highlight an underlying philosophical confusion in our modern era regarding the dignity of human life. Subsumed in this diminishment of human worth is an implicit denial of personhood.

This misanthropic view is unfortunately on the ascendancy in Western culture. To have a sense of this, one need only look at the recent outpourings of indignation and contempt at the killings of Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla. The flipside of overvaluing animal life can often be the devaluing of human life; the outrage over Cecil and Harambe stand in stark contrast to our culture’s complacency regarding abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, suicide and assisted-suicide. This “culture of death” is the negative underbelly of the modernist endeavor: recasting the human being as simply an ordinary animal who no longer merits ontological God-given dignity or teleological God-given purpose. Human life becomes expendable compared to the perceived greater good of the society or state, or the whimsy of the individual. The worth of the human person today has become obscured.

How did we get here?

Conflating the dignity of man and animal is but a symptom of the overall creeping confusion. A dimming appreciation for the specialness of man runs centuries deep, with incremental philosophical subversions to the foundations of true knowledge.

At its core, we are in a crisis of epistemology. The great breadth and depth of human knowledge have been sacrificed on the altars of skepticism and materialism. This modern epistemological error revolves around the denial of our true human nature as composite beings, of body and soul. The initial missteps of severing body and soul were philosophical.

Some trace the errors of modern secularism back to William of Ockham in the 14th century, who posited that universal essences, like humanity, are not real, but are only nominal extrapolations in our minds. Ockham theorized there are no universal forms but only individuals. This undermined part of our ability to explain objective reality. If there is no universal human form, or human nature, then we are deprived of fulfilling those ends of our nature and our teleological purpose. Once that is gone, it is not hard to imagine a confusion of personhood and a loss of ethics.

In the Enlightenment era, empiricists, like Locke and Hume, proposed that only the phenomenon of a thing could be known, and not the thing itself. Like Ockham, they rejected abstract knowledge of universals in favor of sense experience only. In other words, they dismissed our intellectual and spiritual knowledge for something akin to that of animals. Kant similarly conceded that we only know “things as known,” as interpreted by the mind, but not “things in themselves.” This “epistemological geocentrism,” as physicist Father Stanley Jaki called it, prevents us from having knowledge of God, the soul, and the full nature of reality.

Perhaps the most damaging blow to our understanding of our composite natures comes from biological materialism, in the form of Darwinism in the 19th century. Darwinian theory made strict biological materialism and scientism the predominant “acceptable” knowledge. No longer was there a need for the special creation of man by God, or the need for an immaterial soul or intellect. Man is just an evolved ape, created through blind forces, genetic mistakes, and the survival of the fittest. The severance of body and soul, begun in the philosophies of the previous centuries, was now complete. As Chesterton noted, “Evolution does not especially deny the existence of God; what it does deny is the existence of man.” Man was no longer a composite spiritual being, but mere physical creature.

This materialist reductionism had major repercussions on the modernist worldview and the dehumanizing of man. When the materialists finally seized power, Communist regimes, from Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot, murdered some 100 million people. Social Darwinism too had seeped into Western thought, sparking talk of people as “fit” and “unfit,” and races as “superior” and “inferior.” This was most pronounced in Nazi Germany, where racist notions were “proven” and “justified” by so-called science. Hitler had fully embraced this idea of evolutionary ethics in his march towards war and genocide.

The evidence of the past century has highlighted the fact that evolutionary ethics is no ethic at all. It undermines our moralistic certainty. Morality becomes very subjective, and in the spirit of the age, relativistic. Material reductionism altered people’s view on the sanctity of human life, by devaluing what it means to be human. The soul became merely an epiphenomenon of matter. In that sense, Christianity is at odds with strict Darwinian materialism, as opposed to the general theory of evolution, with which there is no conflict. This dogmatic materialism denies a priori even the possibility of final causality in man. It falsely stifles the reasonableness of belief in God, our moral compasses, and the knowledge of our selves as spiritual beings.

Sadly, this epistemological reductionism has not only persisted to the present day, but also increased. Although there is some progress against the culture of death, there remains a peculiar amnesia regarding the dignity of man, lingering in our cultural psyche. Not surprisingly, there has also been a concurrent falling away from the faith, as evidenced by record numbers of non-religious and atheists in recent polls (i.e., the “rise of the Nones,” so-called for listing “none” as their religious preference).

How are we as Catholics to respond? To start, we can reaffirm that there are many good, intellectual, and multifaceted reasons to believe. Christianity and belief in God are perfectly reasonable, despite protestations from modern scientific materialists and atheists. Science and theology, faith and reason are not opposed to each other, but are “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (Fides et Ratio) In fact, there is available today more cutting-edge scientific data suggesting a Creator than ever before. What better confirmation is there, for example, of Aquinas’ cosmological argument for God as the prime mover than the Big Bang and the latest supporting evidence of cosmic microwave background radiation?

Christianity was built upon revelation, of course, but also upon reason. Jesus had commanded us to love God with “all your mind.” (Mt. 22:37) The intellectual tradition of the West, and its empirical science, is, after all, borne out of Christian civilization. The contention with modern secularism only arises with the materialist denial of God and the soul. It is a denial of our composite being. Atheism suffers from an epistemological defect of rejecting personhood. As Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum states, “It is the mind, or reason, . . . which renders a human being human, and distinguishes him essentially from the brute.” We should embrace the idea of personhood and the philosophy of personalism as part of our worldview and ethic, and as a bulwark against dehumanizing philosophies.

One of the greatest proponents of the modern philosophy of personalism was Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul, then Karol Wojtyla, witnessed these dehumanizing forces of materialism firsthand in Poland, initially under Nazi occupation, and later under Soviet Communism. He was in the epicenter for both of these totalitarian outbursts, and observed what he called the “pulverization” of the human person. It was in reaction to these impersonalist philosophies and the subsequent political tyrannies that he helped lead a new philosophical movement and moral theology focused on the absolute dignity of the human person.

Wojtyla advocated for “Thomistic personalism,” a modern philosophy focused on the transcendent dignity of each person. His particular personalism was grounded in Thomas Aquinas’ classical metaphysics, and the cosmological view of man that we are set apart from the rest of creation by our rational nature and intellect.

Wojtyla sought to go beyond this, however, to explain the “totality of the person.” He recognized the great importance of the interior perspective to human experience. This interior perspective he referred to as “subjectivity,” experienced in each person’s consciousness, where no two are alike. Each person, then, is utterly unrepeatable, irreplaceable, incommunicable, and irreducible.

Pope John Paul spoke of this in practical terms, in his “personalist principle,” that the human being should always be treated as an end in itself, and never subordinated to another as a means to an end. Internalizing this principle would inevitably produce concrete practical applications, such as standing against slavery and human trafficking. But, it could also help turn the societal tide against normalizing this culture of death, with its impersonalist impulses, as recently witnessed in the Netherlands, euthanizing a man for being an alcoholic, or with Peter Singer, a utilitarian ethicist from Princeton, advocating for ending the lives of severely disabled infants.

As Catholics, we must always advocate for the inviolable dignity of the human person. This, of course, goes all the way back to Genesis when “God created man in His own image.” (Gen. 1:27) The magisterium echoes this by calling each of us “a sign of the living God, an icon of Jesus Christ.” (EV, 84) We have an interior transcendence in common with our Creator. Humans are relational and social beings, made in conformity to God, a trinity of intra-relational Persons.

As the image of God, there is a specialness to man. It sets us apart from the rest of creation. We alone can say “I.” No other animal, as wonderful as they are, can utter such a thing. They are bound by instinct. Even in the higher primates, as with the fascinating case of Koko the signing gorilla, the disparity remains immense. In the words of Pope John Paul, “an ontological leap” has to be made to span the “great gulf” that separates person from non-person. Man alone is capable of rational and abstract thought, free will, self-consciousness, moral action, complex language and speech, technological progress, higher purpose, altruism, love, creativity, prayer and worship. Man is different in degree and in kind, because God makes each person from the infiniteness of Himself. (CCC 2258)

In the New Testament, Jesus gives us the heart of personalism with His commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” For, as He later reveals, “as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” By embracing this notion of personalism in our lives, we liberate ourselves from our own egoism and coldness towards our neighbor. We see the face of God in each other. This is our vaccination against dehumanizing a person, and adopting a culture of life. It stands against the slide of centuries towards extreme skepticism and materialism, and calls us to draw again from a more complete knowledge. Materialism is only partially true. It denies the higher nature of our spiritual selves. By recognizing the image of God in each other we see the universal ontological value of each person, even down to the seemingly lowliest and weakest among us. It is for us to contemplate (and act upon), in light of Christ’s sacrifice, “how precious man is in God’s eyes and how priceless the value of his life” with “the almost divine dignity of every human being.” (EV, 25)

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The Sanctifying Humanity of Jesus’ Incarnation – December 24, 2016

“The hidden life at Nazareth allows everyone to enter into fellowship with Jesus by the most ordinary events of daily life.” (CCC 533)

The Incarnation of God as man is a scandal. The first century Jews were expecting a Messiah, but did not conceive that he would be the Son of God Himself. They expected a messianic political leader. Jesus, being the second person of the Trinity, could very well have descended from Heaven ablaze in His divine power and majesty to establish His kingdom. Yet, we know this is not what happened. The Son of God came in obscurity, humility and poverty. This is the second scandal of the Incarnation. The divine being was born as a baby, completely dependent and helpless, to a poor family in a small village, placed in an animal manger. God came as the least among us. Chesterton called this “an idea of undermining the world.” This is the great paradox of Christianity, God as man, and even, God as an infant, the divine hidden in the ordinary. So intimate is His love for us that He came personally in search of us, as the Creator entered His creation, and eternity entered time. How few recognized the extraordinary baby in their midst in that most ordinary scene in Bethlehem? How often still do we fail to see God in our ordinary circumstances each day?

The Incarnation is, at its most basic and profound level, a love story. It is the love of an infinitely merciful God for a broken and lost humanity. God came into our world on a search and rescue mission, to save us from our sins. Jesus did not come as the expected conquering king, rather, He came as the unexpected suffering servant. He chose to enter into our state of life, to follow the same path as all of us, of being born, growing up, laboring as an adult, and ultimately, dying. In doing so, He chose to take on the lowliness of our human nature, the ordinariness of our circumstances, and the drudgery of our every day lives. This is truly an amazing thing to contemplate. Jesus, the divine being, chose to spend most of His life living a private, ordinary existence just like yours and mine. God chose to live like us in the small, mundane details of our lives. But why?

We know the ultimate reason for the Incarnation is the Redemption. Yet, to state the obvious, Jesus was God even before His public ministry. When He worked as a carpenter in Joseph’s workshop, He was God. When He lived with Mary His mother, He was God. Jesus’ redemptive mission did not begin with His public ministry. It began with His Incarnation and birth, and continued along the spectrum of His whole life. As the Catechism states, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption.” (CCC 517) What is nearly as remarkable is the fact that almost all of Christ’s life was hidden and seemingly unspectacular. As the Church states, “During the greater part of His life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor.” (CCC 531) Jesus lived as one of us in all ways, except sin.

Little else is said in the Bible of this time period before Jesus’ public ministry. Unsurprisingly, when we think of the life of Jesus, we think most often about the last three years of His life, His public life, as recorded in the Gospels. These were the all-important years when Jesus gathered His disciples, preached the kingdom of God and the repentance of sins, worked miracles, healings, instituted the sacraments, founded His Church, and of course, offered Himself to the Father with His Passion and Crucifixion. There seems to be a huge dichotomy between the ordinariness of His first thirty years and the extraordinariness of His last three years. One can imagine at the beginning of His public ministry the astonishment of His neighbors when they asked, “Where did this man get all this?” (Mk. 6:2) They only recognized the “ordinary” Jesus, and were incredulous at seeing and hearing the divine Jesus.

This begs the question then, why did Jesus live these two almost separate, distinct stages in His life? Why was there seemingly such a difference between the first 90% of His life versus the last 10% of His life?

The two distinct periods of Jesus’ life, the private and the public, were not at odds with each other. Jesus’ whole life was lived accomplishing the will of the Father. Even from His beginning, He was already accomplishing the will of the Father in perfect obedience. As the Catechism states, “From the first moment of His Incarnation the Son embraces the Father’s plan of divine salvation in His redemptive mission.” (CCC 606) The mystery of redemption was at work throughout His life, even in His private years as a seemingly ordinary person. It was one continuous redemptive mission along the spectrum of Jesus’ life.

So then, what was Jesus’ redemptive mission in His private life? He followed the same path that we all follow of being born into this world, growing up, and laboring as an adult. Jesus took on all of our circumstances, and lived our daily, ordinary lives. He also lived in the most humble and extreme of circumstances so as to encompass the breadth and depth of human experiences. He came intentionally to live through all these various stages of life. The Catechism says, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of recapitulation. All Jesus did, said, and suffered had for its aim restoring fallen man to his original vocation.” (CCC 518) Jesus recapitulated within Himself all of our ordinary human actions, and in fact, our very ordinary human nature.

This mystery of recapitulation included our human institutions, from the family, to our jobs, our hardships, and our vocations. He also recapitulated all of our states in life. He was conceived in the womb, He was born, He grew up as a child, He became a young adult, and finally He reached maturity, and at last, died. Jesus lived all of this. God deemed no stage or circumstance of life unworthy of His presence. He lived these in order to sanctify them, consecrate them, and restore them. The Catechism quotes St. Irenaeus in this area, “For this reason Christ experienced all the stages of life, thereby giving communion with God to all men.” (CCC 518) Within Jesus, all aspects of human life, from birth until death, were sanctified.

The mystery of redemption took place in the body of Christ when “the Word became flesh.” The material nature of man was subsumed in the vastness of His divinity, and the infinite efficaciousness of His divine nature was infused into human nature. This is the hypostatic union – a fusion of humanity and divinity – in the person of Jesus Christ. The Catechism refers to this as “His holy and sanctifying humanity.” (CCC 774) Jesus’ humanity is the instrument for redeeming our human nature. It was made holy and sanctified when God took on our nature and lived as one of us. Humanity was raised up, restored, and divinized in the life and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, as the fullness of divinity dwelt in the person of Christ, every event, every word, every deed, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, took on a divine significance and importance. There are no small actions for a God-man. Everything He did or said was of divine significance. Because of this, St. Thomas Aquinas can say, “Christ did merit in the first instant of His conception.” All of Christ’s actions are of divine worth imbued with supernatural grace and with infinite value. For Christ’s whole life, the infinite God performed finite human tasks, living as an ordinary man. His sacred humanity then was a sacrament, a sign and instrument, of His divinity. (CCC 515)

Christ was indeed the “perfect man,” the new Adam, who lived a perfect life, but He did not live it for Himself. Rather, Christ lived it for us and for our salvation. Moreover, “All Christ’s riches ‘are for every individual and are everybody’s property.’” (CCC 519) Part of the reason Jesus lived His private life of thirty years was so we could be united to Him in everything we do. Our ordinary lives can have extraordinary meaning. The Catechism forthrightly describes our communion with His mysteries, “Christ enables us to live in Him all that He Himself lived, and He lives it in us. “`By His Incarnation, He, the Son of God, has in a certain way united Himself with each man.’” (CCC 521) And so, it is up to us to unite ourselves with Him in all that we do.

We can be united to Christ even now in our most ordinary of lives, through the sanctifying humanity of Jesus in His Incarnation. Each of Jesus’ actions was performed with the salvific power of the Godhead, infusing them with infinite moral value, not limited by time or space. This is part of the on-going love story, and is perhaps the third scandal of the Incarnation. We can partake in Christ’s mysteries, and He can continue to live them in us and through us. If we do so, in communion with the Church, the infant Christ of Bethlehem will be born again into our hearts and our souls. So, we too, like the shepherds can recognize Christ in our midst and adore His presence in our lives each day.

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Our Supersubstantial Bread – December 5, 2016

“Grant us this day our daily manna.” Dante, Purgatorio, Canto XI

The Lord has left us a mystery to contemplate. It is right there in the middle of the “Our Father” when Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Mt. 6:11) This is generally recognized to mean pray for our basic daily necessities. (CCC 2837) This is true. Yet, hidden in the mundane and seemingly redundant word “daily” is the veiled, mysterious Greek word epiousios (επιούσιος). Epiousios is a unique word, sacramental-like in nature, a visible sign of a hidden reality. Epiousios occurs nowhere else in the Greek Bible except in the same Our Father passage in Luke 11:3 and the Apostle’s Didache. In fact, epiousios is not found anywhere else at all in Greek literature. The only recorded reference to epiousios, ever, is Jesus’ prayer.

As the early Church Father and master of the Greek language Origen (d. 254 AD) concludes, epiousios was “invented by the Evangelists.” The millennia have bore out his assertion that epiousios was a new word, a neologism of uncertain etymology. The usual Greek word for “daily,” hemera, is, after all, used elsewhere in the New Testament, but not in this instance. Why did St. Matthew and St. Luke feel compelled to create a new Greek word to accurately reflect the words of Jesus? They most likely had to use a new word to faithfully translate a novel idea or a unique Aramaic word that Jesus used in His prayer. What was Jesus’ new idea? Although there are multiple levels of meanings to epiousios, Jesus is making a clear allusion to the Eucharist. “Our daily bread” is one translation of a word that goes far above our basic needs for sustenance, and invokes our supernatural needs.

St. Jerome translated the Bible in the 4th century from the original Latin, Hebrew and Greek texts to form the Latin Vulgate Bible. When it came to the mysterious word epiousios, St. Jerome hedged his bets. In Luke 11:3, St. Jerome translated epiousios as “daily.” Yet, in Matthew 6:11, he translated epiousios as “supersubstantial.” The root words are: epi, meaning “above” or “super;” and ousia, meaning “being,” “essence,” or “substance.” When they are read together, we come to the possible translations of “super-substantial,” “above-essence,” or, in effect, “supernatural” bread. This translation as supersubstantial is still found today in the Douay-Rheims Bible. Taken literally, our supersubstantial bread is the Eucharist. (CCC 2837) In his commentary on St. Matthew’s gospel, St. Jerome states this directly: “We can also understand supersubstantial bread in another sense as bread that is above all substances and surpasses all creatures.”

St. Jerome also suggests that the Hebrew word for epiousios was the word maar meaning “for tomorrow,” invoking an eschatological interpretation of epiousios. In this sense, we are praying “this day” for our bread “for tomorrow,” or our future bread. We are petitioning God for tomorrow’s future bread today. Pope Benedict reflects on this “petition for an anticipation for the world to come, asking the Lord to give already ‘today’ the future bread, the bread of the new world – Himself.” This again has Eucharistic overtones, as the Catechism states, “the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come.” (CCC 2837)

This eschatological interpretation is also borne out in the parable for the “coming day’s bread,” that Jesus teaches immediately following the Our Father. In Luke 11:5-8, Jesus tells the story of a man, who at “midnight” asks a friend to lend him three loaves of bread, as another friend of his has arrived from a journey and he has nothing to give him. As scholars have noted, there is the crucial matter of timing in this parable. In the morning the man can provide an abundance of food and bread for his guest, but at midnight he has nothing. This is an allusion to the fact that in the coming day of the Lord in heaven we will have a superabundance to meet our every need, both material and spiritual. But, as of yet, in this temporal life, a constant need remains.

Ours, like the man in the parable, is a matter of timing. We desire to have a measure of that superabundance now, and not just to meet our needs, but also to share with others. Thus, in praying today for tomorrow’s bread, we are praying to realize now, in time, a bit of the fulfillment of eternity. This is in line with the theme of “realized eschatology” that runs through the Our Father, in which we pray for “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Even now on earth, we share daily in the realized eschatology of the heavenly Mass.

In asking God for our daily, supernatural bread, we are also reminded of the manna from heaven that the Israelites supernaturally survived on in the desert for forty years. In the exodus, where there was no food or water in the desert, God miraculously rained down bread from heaven each day, both a supernatural and daily occurrence. In the morning dew, they gathered manna for their daily sustenance, and in the evening they ate the flesh of quail. As the psalmist says, “Man ate of the bread of the angels,” and “He rained flesh upon them like dust.” (Ps. 78:25; 27) The Israelites ate of the heavenly bread and flesh from the time they crossed the waters of the Red Sea (a foreshadowing of Baptism) until they reached the Promised Land (a foreshadowing of heaven). Then, as soon as they completed their journey, the heavenly manna ceased. (Joshua 5:12) Our daily manna is with us too from the time we enter into the Church until the time we cross over into eternity.

Jesus makes a direct connection of Himself to the manna from heaven, calling Himself the “Bread of Life.” The Jews, citing Moses and the manna from heaven, demanded a similar sign from Jesus. In response, Jesus tells them, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever.” (Jn. 6:51) Jesus is the new Moses, leading a new exodus, with a new heavenly manna. Like the Israelites’ manna, Jesus offers His bread and flesh for us to survive on for our journey. He tells them “he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life.” (Jn. 6:54) Evidently Jesus wanted to make sure His scandalous words were not glossed over, because He repeated six times that those who eat His flesh and drink His blood have eternal life.

This theme of “eating and living forever” is mentioned in only one other place in the Bible – in the Garden of Eden with the Tree of Life. After the fall of man, God sent Adam and Eve out of paradise, lest he “take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” (Gen. 3:22) However, now with the Incarnation of the God-man, Jesus, paradise is, at last, opened fully to humanity to “eat and live forever.” The Tree of Life, cut off to us by our sins, is now open to us through the tree of the Cross, and resurrection of Christ. The fruit of this tree is given to us sacramentally in His supernatural manna, the Holy Eucharist. It is our spiritual bread without which we cannot live.

Thus, Jesus is making a direct reference in the Our Father for our daily supernatural bread of the Eucharist. As Jesus instructs us in the beginning of the Bread of Life discourse to not work for “food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” (Jn. 6:27) The theme of bread runs through the life of Christ, as visible signs pointing to a hidden reality. He is a priest-king, the order of Melchizadek, who offered bread and wine. He was born in Bethlehem, Hebrew for the “house of bread.” He performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves to feed 5,000. He refers to Himself as the “Bread of Life,” the true manna from heaven. In the culmination of the Last Supper, the Passover feast and the feast of Unleavened Bread, He offered bread and wine as His Body and His Blood of the New Covenant. After His Resurrection, He revealed Himself to His disciples in the “breaking of the bread.” Jesus lives on with us sacramentally in the Holy Eucharist, under the guise of bread. In the final revelation He promises to give us “some of the hidden manna.” (Rev. 2:17) This is our food of salvation, our medicine of immortality, which gives eternal life. It is not surprising then that the disciples beseeched Jesus saying, “Lord, give us this bread always.” (Jn. 6:34) And, so it remains with us.

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A Few Observations on Therese Neumann, Laywoman, Mystic, and Stigmatic – October 24, 2016

Very rarely has a person reflected so many purported supernatural gifts as did Therese Neumann, a 20th century German mystic and stigmatic. Her renown nearly rivaled that of St. Padre Pio. Their gifts supposedly included bearing the sacred stigmata (the wounds of Christ), visions, bilocation, reading hearts, healings and conversions, among other phenomena. However, unlike St. Padre Pio who was canonized June 16, 2002 by Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church has not yet officially recognized Therese Neumann as a saint. She was known as a joyful woman who loved animals and flowers, and was particularly despised by the Nazis. By most accounts, Therese Neumann was an extraordinarily holy laywoman, as well as a Third Order Franciscan, who displayed a great devotion to Jesus and the Church. She truly lived as a “Servant of God.” After an investigative period for some years after her death, the Vatican officially opened proceedings for her beatification on February 13, 2005 by Bishop Gerhard Mueller of Regensburg, Germany. The process remains open to this day.

Regardless of the Church’s final ruling on Therese Neumann, we must recognize that the mystical component of her life falls squarely under private revelation, which no one in the Church is forced to accept. The Catechism states in no uncertain terms that the deposit of faith is closed, and there will be no further public revelation. (CCC 67) In certain limited instances the authority of the Church recognizes private revelations that are in line with magisterial teachings, in order to help the faithful “live more fully” the gospel. The Church obviously treads very carefully in these matters, so as to root out frauds and impostors. Indeed, the focus should never be directed towards sensationalism, but always towards faithful obedience to Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Still, in reviewing Therese Neumann’s purported mystical gifts, we may find inspiration for our own lives.

Therese was a stigmatist, that is, she bore the wounds of Christ on her own body. There have been numerous people in the history of the Church who have officially had the sacred stigmata, including St. Francis of Assisi and St. Padre Pio, and perhaps even St. Paul himself, as he suggests in his letter to the Galatians. (Gal. 6:17) In March 1926, during Lent, as Therese began to have ecstatic visions of Jesus in His Passion, she concurrently began to have the stigmata. The wounds of Christ began to appear on successive Fridays: first the wound to her side, just over her heart; then the next Friday, the wounds to her hands; and finally, on Good Friday, all five wounds. Months later, on Friday November 5, 1926, Therese received the full complement of Jesus’ wounds from His Passion: holes in both hands; holes in both feet; the wound to the side above her heart; nine wounds around her head from the crown of thorns; and wounds to her shoulders and back from the scourging and the Cross. It is estimated that she bore at least 45 wounds in total, meaning she bore the full wounds of Christ’s Passion, not just the Crucifixion. Perhaps even more shocking, the wounds never left her from that moment in 1926 until her death in 1962. As one biographer, Adalbert Vogl, put it, “Not one of the wounds ever disappeared; they never healed, and they were still imprinted on her body at the time of her death.”

Therese’s sufferings and visions conformed exactly to the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. Just as she received the wounds of the Crucifixion on Good Friday, so also were her visions and ecstasies aligned to the liturgical calendar. For example, when she initially received the sacred stigmata, it was during the liturgical season of Lent. Although Therese had the wounds of the Passion for the rest of her life, she only experienced the ecstasies of the Passion on Fridays, and only on Fridays during Lent and Advent, and on some of the sorrowful octaves. Thus, her experience of the Passion was connected only to the relevant liturgical days, and never during joyful seasons, such as Christmas or Easter. On the Fridays when she did not endure the Passion ecstasy, she would have a vision of the death or martyrdom of the saint whose feast day it happened to be, in recognition of the liturgical calendar. On All Saints Day, November 1st, she would have a 24-hour ecstasy and see souls of saints from Heaven, and similarly on All Soul’s Day, November 2nd, she saw saints from Purgatory. Based on the timing of the mystical experiences of Therese Neumann, it seems heaven honors with great respect the liturgical calendar; perhaps we should pay close attention to this as well.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Therese Neumann’s mystical experiences is that she evidently lived without food or water for much of her life. This supernatural phenomenon is known as inedia. It is not unheard of in ecclesiastical history, particularly with stigmatists, as reported in the life of St. Catherine of Siena, who supposedly ate no food for the last seven years of her life. Therese herself stopped eating food in 1922, and then stopped drinking nearly all water in 1926, and continued this way until her death in 1962. Her sole sustenance for 36 years was the Holy Eucharist. As part of this experience, she had no desire whatsoever to eat food or drink water. Solid food or liquids would be immediately expelled from her body, save her daily Holy Communion. Her physical sustenance depended directly on her reception of the Eucharist. If she did not receive the Eucharist on a given day, she would have an extreme hunger and fatigue until she received Him. Once when asked how she could live just on the Eucharist alone, she responded, “The Savior can do all things. Did He not say that “My flesh is real food, and My blood is real drink?”” (Jn. 6:55)

For 15 days in 1927, Therese was placed under strict observation and investigation at the behest of the Archbishop of Regensburg. The investigation was directed by a non-Catholic professor of Psychiatry, Dr. Ewald, and a prominent Catholic physician, Dr. Seidl, as well as four nuns, who were trained nurses. Their strict instructions were to work in two-person teams, never leaving Therese alone, day or night. They were to record, measure and photograph everything that happened over the course of the investigation. At the end Dr. Ewald reported Therese’s complete abstinence from food and minimal water intake to swallow Communion (about 45cc of water, although this was apparently discharged too). Despite losing some weight around the time of her Passion ecstasy, she then regained the weight back over the next few days. Her weight was the same, 121 lbs., on July 28th as it had been on July 13th, despite not eating anything.

The supernatural phenomenon of inedia highlights in a literal way the words of the Lord regarding the Bread of Life. Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger; and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” (Jn. 6:35) There seems to be a mystical connection between the sacred stigmata and embracing the Passion of Jesus, and inedia and living strictly off the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. In consuming the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, His Passion and sacrifice of the Cross may come to life in the events of our ordinary lives. In some extreme instances, the Passion and sacrifice of Christ come to life in an individual’s life in an extraordinary way, such as with Therese Neumann. The Eucharistic life is a life of redemptive and vicarious suffering. It is an embrace of the Cross of Christ. Therese Neumann lived this life of divine union par excellence. As St. Paul said “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) This suffering is not without meaning. We know that we who suffer with Christ, for this short while, will also rise with Him to eternal life.

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Jesus and the Fulfillment of the Jewish Fall Feasts – October 18, 2016

“Spiritually we are all Semites.” Thus spoke Pope Pius XI on the eve of World War II, as Nazi Germany was about to launch its fateful war and Final Solution against the Jewish people. His words of solidarity are, of course, manifestly true. Christianity grew directly out of Judaism. Jesus was an observant Jew. The scriptures, the beliefs, and the rituals are all intertwined and interconnected between old and new. It is for this reason that St. Augustine can say, “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” (CCC 129) Christian theologians refer to this biblical prefiguring and foreshadowing as typology. There is a unity in the divine plan linking the progressive stages of salvation history. The Old Testament, in its symbols and rituals, point to the Messiah, while the New Testament fulfills all of these in the person of Jesus Christ. In speaking of the law and the prophets, Jesus Himself said plainly, “I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Mt. 5:17)

This typology is evident in the Jewish memorial feast days. They are generally broken up into two seasons, the spring feasts and the fall feasts. They anticipated and foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the Last Supper, the Eucharist, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The feasts prepared Israel for the Incarnation. God obligated centuries of faithful observance of these feasts to place the seeds of understanding in the minds of Israel to prepare them to accept the Son of God when He finally was born into the world. While we as Christians no longer celebrate these Jewish feasts, they are still part of our common Judeo-Christian lineage. Jesus chose these major Jewish feasts to fulfill the central parts of His mission. As the catechism teaches, “His public ministry itself was patterned by His pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great Jewish feasts.” (CCC 583) Jesus was formed by the feasts, and in fact, the central events of His life gave ultimate meaning to the feasts. (CCC 592)

The primary focus of the Jewish feasts was to prefigure the coming of Jesus. This is true of the fall feasts of Yom Kippur and Sukkot (Oct. 16-23rd this year). Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is primarily a prefiguring of Calvary. One of the most important aspects of Yom Kippur is the idea of the scapegoat. This is the one and only time of the year when the high priest would go behind the veil in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, dare to utter the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, and offer the sacrifice of two goats. Upon one goat, the high priest placed his hands while confessing all the sins of Israel, symbolically conferring the sin to the goat. It was then sent off into the wilderness to die. The other goat was sacrificed, and the high priest sprinkled its blood upon the mercy seat in the Holy Holies. The high priest then came out and announced, “It is done.” This has clear similarities with the paschal lamb, and again, a foreshadowing of Christ and His last words from the Cross “It is finished.” (Jn. 19:30)

Calvary, of course, was sacramentalized in the Last Supper. The Mass became the feast of the new and eternal covenant. Just as the high priest entered the Temple and offered the sacrifice of goats, so too, does Christ enter the heavenly sanctuary and offer the sacrifice of Himself to the Father on behalf of our sins. The high priest of Yom Kippur is a ‘type’ of the true and eternal high priest of Christ in heaven. Christ Himself is both the high priest and the sacrifice. As the letter to the Hebrews states, “He entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:12) If God accepted Israel’s sacrifice of goats, as mere symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, how much more efficacious is the actual sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood? The Day of Atonement finds its ultimate meaning in Calvary, and each Mass is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement.

In this regard, Jewish tradition documents a miraculous event pertaining to Yom Kippur. In both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, they record that there was a scarlet cloth or strap tied to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur, as part of the sin offering. A thread from the crimson cloth was later tied to the Temple door. According to the Talmudic anecdote, every year when the goat was sacrificed, the thread would miraculously turn white, in recognition of God accepting their sin offering. One is reminded of Isaiah’s scripture “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Is. 1:18) Yet, as recorded in both Talmuds, this stopped happening some forty years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. This would have been about the time of Jesus’ crucifixion in 30 A.D. The scapegoat was no longer accepted in atonement for sin, but was superseded now by the sacrifice of Christ.

In contrast to Yom Kippur, the last fall feast is a little bit different. It is the joyous feast of Tabernacles, also known as the feast of Booths, or simply, Sukkot. Sukkot is the road map for the Church. It is ironic to call Sukkot a road map because it commemorates when the Israelites wandered seemingly aimlessly through the desert for forty years! But, their wanderings are representative of our wanderings as pilgrims on this earth. Just as the Israelites crossed the waters of the Red Sea and the evil Pharaoh was killed, so too, do we pass into new life through the waters of Baptism and sin is removed. Yet, the Israelites did not immediately make it to the Promised Land. Rather, they traveled in the desert wilderness for forty years with God leading them, who as “the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Ex. 13:22) For forty years, God sustained them in the desert. Sukkot is a roadmap because it reveals God’s plan to sustain us.

It is in this intermediary period that we find ourselves today, as travelers in the desert wilderness of life. Sukkot reveals that we must stay close to God, and be fed with the supernatural manna from heaven, and the water of the rock. The Israelites ate manna from heaven each day. As Moses said of the manna on the morning dew, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” (Ex. 16:15) This immediately reminds us of Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life. The Pharisees demanded a sign from Jesus, citing the miraculous manna from heaven story, but He answered them saying, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” (Jn. 6:35) Jesus reveals that He is the new manna from heaven, the Eucharist, which sustains us until we reach the eternal Promised Land.

God also quenched the thirst of the Israelites with the water from the rock. Sukkot commemorates Moses striking the rock in the desert and water coming out for the Israelites to drink. St. Paul tells us this rock and water was Christ. He says, “For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:4) In the time of the Temple, the priests would make a procession to the Pool of Siloam and draw water out with a golden pitcher. The high priest would then pour the water out on the altar in the Temple while reciting the verse from Isaiah, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Is. 12:3) This was to celebrate the days of the Messiah when the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all of Israel.

It was at the climax of the feast of Booths, on the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, that scripture declares, “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (Jn. 7:37-38) Jesus is telling them that He is the living water that is symbolized in this Temple ceremony. The living water is the Holy Spirit, and the sanctifying grace in faith and the sacraments, particularly the waters of Baptism. This is also reminiscent of Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well. He tells her, “the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn. 4:14) The Holy Spirit and the sacraments are the fulfillment of the water ceremony in the feast of Booths. This is our spiritual water from the rock, to sustain us in this age of the Church, from Christ’s first coming to His second coming.

Sukkot also has a deeper eschatological meaning to it. During the exodus, the Israelites had no permanent abodes. So, during Sukkot, the Jews commemorated this by building temporary “booths” or “huts” outside their house, and covering them with leafy branches or palms. The roofs were not supposed to be perfect but have openings, so they could view the stars at night. This again is allegory to us. Our lives are also imperfect, but in much the same way, we can look up to heaven and yearn for our permanent home with God. Scripture reminds us that we are “strangers and exiles on the earth… seeking a homeland.” (Heb. 11:13-14) It is perhaps fitting, then, that Jesus likely chose the feast of Booths to reveal His glory to the Apostles in His Transfiguration. (see Mt. 17:4) The Transfiguration gives us a glimpse and hope of the glory of God to come.

Thus, the Jewish feasts were a foreshadowing of Christ, and Christ fulfilled them with His life. They point to eternal truths of God and the Incarnation. The signs and symbols of the feasts were fulfilled in reality with the coming of Jesus the Messiah and the foundation of His Church. We no longer anticipate the coming of the final sacrifice in the paschal lamb or the scapegoat or the pouring out of water in the Temple. The Temple itself is no longer necessary, because we ourselves have become the temple of God. The Jewish feasts have been superseded by the sacramental reality. However, the feasts are still metaphorical roadmaps for us. We are to survive on the food God provides in the Eucharist and the water God provides with the Holy Spirit and the sacraments. We continue to learn the faith now through the celebration of the Catholic liturgical calendar, with its sets of feasts, and festivals and fasts. The primordial feast remains the Sabbath, or to Christians, the Lord’s Day, Sunday. It is the day set aside each week for rest and worship offered to God. The Mass is the foundational liturgical celebration of the Church. It anticipates the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb. This is our manna from heaven and our life giving water. Indeed, if but we believe, the sacramental life of the Church will sustain us, through our temporary wandering in this desert wilderness, to eternal life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Burning Passion of St. Francis – October 4, 2016

On his deathbed, Lenin reportedly uttered, “To save our Russia, what we needed . . . was ten Francises of Assisi.” Lenin was right: St. Francis of Assisi is one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. Almost single-handedly, he helped revive the medieval Church in the 13th century with the foundation of his mendicant Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans. He had many preternatural gifts as a mystic, healer, and leader, as well as a special symbiosis with nature. It is not surprising that Dante dedicated a canto in Paradiso to St. Francis, calling him a “prince” who “was all Seraphic in his ardour.” More than these great many gifts, however, St. Francis’ success was rooted in his desire, to live a life in imitation of Jesus Christ, particularly the crucified Christ. Many people today erroneously think of St. Francis as a sandal-wearing, milquetoast peacenik whose greatest legacy was in gracing birdbaths everywhere. Rather, St. Francis lived a life of radical conformity and divine union to the sacrificial life of Christ. In retracing the life of St. Francis, we can see how his divine union with Christ grew and developed through successive stages of personal martyrdom.

As with many young people, especially those coming from a wealthy family, Francis in his youth was given to follow the vanities of life. Tradition holds that he loved wine, food, and feasts, and lived a life of indulgence. The lyric poems of troubadours and wandering minstrels also held sway over his imagination. Perhaps they sparked his daydreams of becoming a gallant knight, fighting chivalrously in a far off crusade. In fact, it was not long before the high-minded youth was caught up in a skirmish in 1202 against the nearby rival city of Perugia. In the battle the young Francis was wounded and taken captive. He was held in prison for a year, during which time he developed a long and protracted illness. Eventually, after his release and his continuing maladies, his thoughts began to turn away from knightly adventures and worldly desires. He then began to spend long hours in intense prayer, religious exercises, and in the contemplation of God. This was his first conversion.

It was in this period that Francis had a miraculous encounter with a leper. He had discerned in prayer that God wished him to deny himself and conquer his self-will. To this end, his conscience was tugging at him about his strong aversion and disgust of lepers. One day, tradition has it that while he was riding through the countryside, he came upon a leper. Recalling his resolution, he approached the afflicted person, gave him some alms, and kissed his diseased hand. Upon remounting his horse, he turned to look back at the person, but no one was there. From this point on, Francis began to visit and minister to lepers in hospitals and other undesirable places, washing their sores, kissing them, and eating with them. With this, he began his process of detachment from himself.

While praying intently in a chapel at San Damiano in 1205, and kneeling devoutly before a large Byzantine crucifix, Francis heard the voice of Jesus. He saw the lips on the image of Jesus move and heard the voice of Jesus say to him, “Francis, go, repair My house, which as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.” Three times Jesus spoke this to him. Francis was overwhelmed by the miraculous vision, and sought at once to repair, literally, the chapel at San Damiano. Initially he sold some of his father’s possessions to pay for the repairs at the chapel. Later, under direction from the Bishop, he understood that it was wrong for him to have taken his father’s wealth. At last, to the astonishment of the Bishop, his father, and many witnesses, Francis stripped his fine garments off piece by piece, and renounced all his possessions, save a hair shirt he had on. With this nakedness, Francis officially detached himself from his father and the world, and embraced a life of poverty.

For several years Francis lived in a small cottage, in an intense life of prayer and severe bodily discipline. He also begged for money to continue repairs to the chapel and other churches. After repairing San Damiano, he moved on to repair San Pietro della Spina, and then, the Portiuncula, or Little Portion, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels. St. Bonaventure later recounted that Francis’ restoration of these three churches symbolized the three orders he would later establish: the Order of Friars Minor, the Poor Clares for women, and the Third Order of St. Francis for the laity. During mass at the Portiuncula, he heard the gospel reading, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” (Lk. 9:3) This made a profound impact upon Francis as if Jesus Himself had commissioned him. He set off with only a common peasant’s tunic tied by a cord, to preach the good news of penance and salvation to all he met.

Francis, the “poor man of Assisi,” continued to live the life of renouncement and poverty. With Francis’ tremendous charisma and preaching, he soon began to develop a large group of followers. They too were converted to a life of radical poverty of Christ, of begging and serving the poor and preaching the Gospel. Their life of self-martyrdom consisted of mortifications, penances, and prayer. In 1209, after Pope Innocent III had a remarkably vivid dream of Francis holding up the papal Lateran Basilica, he gave approval to the first Rule of the Order. They had tonsured haircuts and an austere habit made of coarse grey cloth with a pointed hood and a knotted cord around their waist. Francis was also ordained a deacon; in his profound humility, he did not deem himself worthy to be ordained a priest. Once his Order was established, the friars lived by the rules of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Roman Catholic Church.

Francis also sought to evangelize others and save souls, which manifested itself in his missionary work. In 1219, Francis travelled with the crusaders to Egypt, but not as a knight in battle as he had imagined in his youth, but now as a missionary for Christ. Pope Honorius III had enacted the Fifth Crusade to retake the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Since his initial conversion, Francis had been living a life of spiritual martyrdom and physical mortifications. Now, with the crusaders surrounding the Egyptian city of Damietta on the edge of Cairo, Francis was prepared to offer up his life as a true martyr for Christ. After warning the crusaders that they would lose the battle and suffer horrible losses, they attacked anyway. Once the Muslim forces won the battle, with some 5,000 crusaders killed and another 1,000 taken prisoner, a truce was called. It was at this time with the battle barely simmered down that Francis and one of his companions were permitted to enter the camp of the Saracens and approach the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.

Francis boldly entered enemy territory, prepared to die, armed only with his zeal to save souls. He was immediately beaten and chained by the Saracens, and brought before the Sultan. There, he informed the Sultan that he came as a messenger of God to reveal the truth of Christianity and save the Sultan’s soul. Despite the Imams’ urging to cut off Francis’ head, the Sultan was moved by Francis’ concern for the Sultan’s eternal salvation. One of Francis’ companions described the Sultan, “that cruel beast,” who in response to Francis, “became sweetness itself.” By God’s grace, Francis was allowed to stay for weeks in the court of the Sultan, discussing theology and evangelizing him. The Sultan refused to convert to Christianity, at least publicly and be killed by his followers, so Francis eventually returned to the crusader encampment, undoubtedly to their amazement. According to oral tradition, the Sultan converted on his deathbed and embraced the faith of St. Francis. Francis’ companion, Brother Illuminato, said that after hearing Francis preach, the Sultan “always had the Christian faith imprinted in his heart.” As a lasting legacy of Francis’ encounter, the Franciscans were later made custodians of the Christian holy sites in the Holy Land and Middle East, a position they still hold today. After his brush with martyrdom, St. Francis updated the Order’s Rule of 1221, Regula non Bullata, chapter XVI, on travelling and evangelizing in Muslim territory by quoting the Lord thusly: “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Mt. 10:16) His recommendation was to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Christ, even if it meant persecution and death.

In 1224, St. Francis climbed a remote mountain La Verna for a forty-day fast and spiritual retreat for the feast of St. Michael. On the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, September 14th, while contemplating the passion and death of Christ, St. Francis had a vision of a six-winged Seraphim fixed on a cross and flying towards him. As it came closer, he recognized that it was Jesus with his hands and feet nailed to the cross. St. Francis understood the vision to mean that he himself would be transformed by his seraphic love of God into a perfect image of the crucified Christ. Waking from the vision, St. Francis found he had received Christ’s wounds into his very own body, holes in his hands and feet, and a wound in his side. He had received the sacred stigmata as a testament to the oneness of spirit he had with Christ, recalling the words of St. Paul, perhaps the Church’s first stigmatist, “For I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal. 6:17) For the next two years until his death, St. Francis bore the stigmata as a sign for all, enduring this painful martyrdom supernaturally manifested in perfect unity with Christ’s passion.

St. Francis embraced his sufferings out of love for God and his neighbor. St. Bonaventure quotes him as saying, “Nothing would make me more happy than to have you afflict me with pain and not spare me. Doing your will is consolation enough, and more than enough, for me.” It was at this point that the saint composed his “Canticle of Brother Sun,” including the line “May thou be praised, my Lord, for those who forgive for the sake of They love and endure infirmity and tribulation.” Having trouble walking from the wounds in his feet, and his eyes now nearly blind, the little poor man of Assisi approached death on the evening of October 3, 1226. In recollection of his initial conversion, and in perfect imitation with the poverty and death of the Lord, he asked to be placed naked on the ground in anticipation of his own death. With his dying breaths, St. Francis implored his followers to hold fast to the Gospel and the faith of the Church. With that, he entered into his eternal reward.

In meditating on the life of St. Francis we are reminded of the stages of martyrdom he went through in his life, from renouncing his wealth and possessions, to serving lepers and the poor, to placing himself in danger by evangelizing Muslims, to suffering through infirmities, to eventually receiving the very wounds of Christ Himself with the stigmata. As much as anyone in the history of the Church, he imaged Christ perfectly. St. Francis believed in a life of sacrifice, poverty, and humility. It was St. Francis’ seraphic love and humility that led him to create the first creche, or manger scene, in its beautiful simplicity and reverence on one Christmas night for midnight mass. He lived his whole life out of this great love for the Lord, in imitation of the life of Christ. He also believed that vicarious and redemptive suffering, when offered to God, can be meritorious for the salvation of souls. His concern for the salvation of all souls was central to his life. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are all called to complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ and share in His redemptive work, for as Jesus said, “where I am, there shall My servant be also.” (Jn. 12:26) Let us be there now, with St. Francis, our brother, as we honor him on his feast day.

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The Holy Name of God – September 18, 2016

According to Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the recently passed Chief Exorcist of Rome, who has performed seventy thousand exorcisms, demons generally do not and cannot say holy names. Instead, they call Jesus “he” or “your Boss.” If our most abhorrent spiritual enemies shudder at the idea of speaking the holy name of God, why then do we say it with such carelessness and recklessness? It seems everywhere these days people take the name of God in vain. It should stop us in our tracks whenever we hear it. It is after all the Second Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” (Ex. 20:7) included among the other Ten Commandments like “you shall not kill,” “you shall not commit adultery,” and “you shall not steal.” Taking the Lord’s name in vain, if done with full knowledge and consent, is blasphemy. That makes it a mortal sin, which could send a soul to hell. This echoes the warning from Jesus, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt. 12:36-37) We should be very careful to heed the Second Commandment and treat the holy name of God with the utmost reverence and respect.

In Hebrew tradition, names are not merely labels but are linked inseparably to the identity of the person. When Jesus chose Simon to be the foundation of His church, He gave him a new name, Peter, from the word for “rock.” In this Jewish understanding, names reveal the identity and essence of a person. The catechism builds upon this saying, “Everyone’s name is sacred. The name is the icon of the person.” (CCC 2157) Yet, God had not revealed His name, even to the Patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was not until Moses comes to the burning bush on Mount Horeb that God reveals His name to His people. After God gives His mission to Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses says if they ask me, “‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” (Ex. 3:13-14) God reveals the divine name, Yahweh, to Moses and Israel, and establishes a personal relationship with them as their God. God’s name “I Am” reveals that He is existence and being itself. Later, after Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, he again comes before God on the top of a mountain. Yahweh is wrapped in smoke and fire, and lightning and trumpet blasts, as Mount Sinai quakes and trembles at His presence. It was here, in that terrifying scene, that Moses receives the Ten Commandments, and the voice of Yahweh speaks in thunder, commanding humanity not take His name in vain, for “the Lord will not hold him guiltless.” (Ex. 20:7) To this day, religious Jews will not speak the name of God, but instead refer to Him as Adonai (Lord), or simply “Ha Shem” (the Name).

The revealing of God’s name to man is a sign of trust and intimacy. (CCC 2143) It is part of His sacred mystery in revealing Himself to us. It is not a surprise then that Isaiah prophesied that a virgin would give birth to the Messiah, and His name would be Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” (Is. 7:14) In fulfillment of this, when the Virgin Mary was pregnant, an angel revealed to Joseph in a dream that they should name the child Jesus, “for he will save His people from their sins.” (Mt. 1:21) Jesus Himself claimed equality with the name of Yahweh. He tells the Pharisees who are questioning Him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.” (Jn. 8:58) Jesus claims He is one with God, the I Am. As such, the name of Jesus is synonymous with the name of God. Jesus is God. It is because of this that St. Paul writes “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Phil. 2:10) For, the very name of Jesus is imbued with power. All who call upon the name of Jesus Christ will be saved. (Acts 4:12) In the “Our Father” prayer, Jesus teaches us how to pray and the importance of God’s name. He starts it with “hallowed be Thy name.” We should hold the name of God in reverence, adoration, and praise. Jesus similarly warns us not to take any oath by the name of God lest we be judged for failing to meet the promise. (Mt. 5:34)

The name of Jesus Christ is powerful and efficacious enough to bring grace in Baptism and cast out demons in those who are possessed. In Jesus’ final instruction to His disciples He commands them to baptize all people in the “name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28:19) The name of God is associated with the sacrament of initiation into the Church. It is in the rite of Baptism too that a minor rite of exorcism is performed. Jesus tells His disciples “in My name they will cast out demons.” (Mk. 16:17) Jesus Himself performed many exorcisms casting out demons by His own authority, leaving many in amazement at the power of His word. (Lk. 4:36) Jesus’ disciples similarly cast of demons through the power of Jesus’ name, as St. Paul did. (Acts 16:18) The power of Jesus’ name is not something relegated just to the pages of the Bible either. As modern day exorcists attest, they are able to command the demonic spirits in the midst of exorcisms by invoking the authority and power of the name of Jesus Christ. As exorcist Fr. Jose Antonio Fortea explains, “Rather than asking the demon anything, the priest orders or commands him in the name of Jesus.” With this authority, the demon, under the guise of the possessed person, is forced to submit to the name of Jesus. This confirms the disciples’ joyful exclamation “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” (Lk. 10:17)

The name of God and Jesus Christ are holy and powerful, and we should take great care not to utter them carelessly or profanely. The name of God is the means of our sanctification, consecration, and salvation. It should be spoken in prayer, worship and praise, not in idle or empty talk, and most certainly not as a curse word! Even as found on social media in everyday expressions, like OMG, this similarly expresses a lack of respect towards the holy name of God. It is interesting that that phrase is almost like a mocking of the first words of the Act of Contrition that we say in Confession, “O My God… I am heartily sorry for having offended You.” I find it deeply offensive, on behalf of how I am sure God feels, when I hear someone say the name of God in vain or curse using His name. I prefer to say a small prayer in reparation for this offense against God and for the person who said it, something like “Sit nomen Domini benedictum,” or “blessed be the name of the Lord.” Rather than using the Lord’s name in vain, we should consecrate all of our words and deeds in the name of Jesus. (Col. 3:17) He is our hope, for “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:13) We know too that Jesus calls each of us, His sheep, by name (Jn. 10:3) If we follow Him, God will inscribe His name on our foreheads, sealing us as His for all eternity. (Rev. 14:1) This is His promise of eternal life and our hope for Heaven. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

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We All Need Leisure – August 1, 2016

“No philosopher has ever been able to grasp the being of a single fly,” pondered St. Thomas Aquinas. The scientist ceases to wonder when he receives his results. Yet, those who philosophize and contemplate the nature of the world, reality, and God, can never fully comprehend, and never cease to wonder. To contemplate spiritual and eternal things is to wonder and to hope, never fully grasp the infinite nature of God. The philosopher Josef Pieper calls this wonder and holy puzzlement “leisure.” Leisure, he says, is the basis for all culture. Derived from the same word, the ancient Greek “skole” means to educate or to teach.. They understood that the idea of leisure as something more than our limited interpretation today.

Here in the summer month of July and heading into the dog days of summer, with families focused on vacations, cookouts, swimming and the beach, taking a break from work, it is fitting to reflect upon leisure. What is leisure? To Pieper, leisure is not a break from an activity or a distraction, but a state of the soul. It is a contemplative and spiritual attitude consisting of an inner silence. It is receptivity to the world and an embrace of who we truly are.

One unfortunate tendency of the modern age is to idolize work. In the West, we tend towards careerism, to be workaholics. On the other side, under Communism and Marxist rule, all of life was oriented towards “the worker,” with all activities focused on material economics and work itself. In either extreme, the idea of the worker becomes an idol, and work becomes idolatry. The person lives to work, rather than work to live. The dignity of man and his personhood is subsumed under his utility. How useful is he to society? Utilitarianism is the ultimate purpose of the worker. There is no higher dignity, no contemplation of God, no comprehension of spiritual things. In short, no leisure.

It was not always so. Although modern philosophy and science focuses primarily upon utilitarian ends, the ancient Greeks and Romans considered liberal arts an end in themselves. In our current times the “hard sciences” of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, engineering, and medicine are favored culturally, and monetarily, over the “soft sciences” of philosophy and theology. The Aristotelian and Thomistic views of knowledge, however, focused not exclusively on the empirical senses, but also on a broader spiritual base of knowledge. Knowledge to them meant more than materialism, but also an understanding of ultimate things. It does not necessarily need function or utility, and the worker does not need to be tied to the State or production. Pieper called this the “de-proletariarizing” of the worker. Higher work and higher knowledge in ancient times were generally non-utilitarian and spiritual in nature.

Leisure is a form of rest. It does not necessarily mean “non-work.” It is an attitude of the mind, a state of the soul, whether working or not working. It does not imply that work is bad. God commanded man in the book of Genesis to work, then declaring, “it was good.” Work is good, but God also gives us the Sabbath. Sabbath is derived from the Hebrew word for rest. In the Creation story, on the seventh day, God rested. God commands us to rest on the seventh day as well and observe the Sabbath by doing no work. It is not a rule whimsically imposed on us by God. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man,” or, in other words, for our benefit. Rest in this Judeo-Christian sense does not mean to do nothing. It means to engage in restful contemplation and thanksgiving towards God. We are to worship in awe at all that God has created and wrought for us. As the psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)

Leisure involves true knowledge. It involves recognition of who we truly are, in light of the knowledge of God. We can rest and be still in the knowledge that God created us, redeemed us, and it is to Him that we are ultimately to return home for eternity. This is the peaceful spirit of leisure that should inform our lives whether we are working or not working. The spirit of leisure can be our constant state of mind.

The ancient philosophers also had a term for idleness, “acedia.” It was not meant in the modern notion of laziness, or a lack of work or activity, but rather a sense of restlessness. It is a restlessness of our being when we refuse to receive God’s command to rest in Him. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in Him.” The restlessness of acedia is to ignore the third Commandment to observe the Sabbath, and take our rest in God. When we refuse God’s rest, we will remain in a spirit of restlessness. Jesus renews the gift of the Sabbath: “Come to Me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… For My yoke is easy and burden is light.” (Mt. 11:28, 30) Jesus here is speaking of leisure of the soul.

Whether we are steeped in work or driven to distraction, God calls us first and foremost to rest in Him. This is our true leisure. We are not called to withdraw from the world, but rather, to fully reconnect to reality. The term religion comes from the Latin “religare” meaning to bind or to connect. When we engage in religion, and specifically the Church and the Mass, we are re-engaging with God, with spiritual things, with reality and ourselves, who we truly are. This is our leisure. Leisure is that briefest of glimpses of eternal rest when we will, with awe and wonder, behold the Beatific Vision.

This summer as we take our vacations, let us remember to embrace leisure in our minds, for we are not made for work alone. We are made for God. As St. Josemaria Escriva wrote of being “contemplatives in the midst of the world,” we can seek leisure in the midst of all our summer activities, as we orient all of our work and relaxation towards its proper end, with the true knowledge of God and of ourselves. In so doing, we will use our work and our rest to “consecrate the world itself to God.” (Lumen Gentium, 34)

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St. Irenaeus and the Gnostics – June 28, 2016

How common is it today to hear someone say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” A very Gnostic-esque statement. One need only to glance at your local bookstore’s religion shelves to see that Gnosticism, that ancient heresy and foe of Christianity, is alive and well in the modern world. There you would find a smorgasbord of spirituality, with topics on “New Age,” transcendentalism, astrology, reincarnation, and ways of attaining a “secret knowledge.” Cults and belief systems for attaining secret knowledge, or gnosis, were all the rage back in the second century as well. Gnostic sects were in direct competition with the nascent Christian Church. It was amidst the threat of Gnosticism that perhaps the greatest Church Father of the second century emerged, Saint Irenaeus.

Irenaeus was born in 130 A.D. in Smyrna (modern day Turkey), and died in 202 A.D. in Lyons, France, where he had become the bishop. In his youth Irenaeus was a disciple of Saint Polycarp, who was martyred in 155 A.D, but who had himself been a disciple of the Apostle Saint John the Evangelist. Thus, Irenaeus’ close historical connection to John lends a distinct apostolic credence and weight to all his writings. His greatest work is the massive five-volume set of books Adversus Haereses, or Against Heresies, a refutation of the doctrines of Gnosticism. In addition to his close proximity to John and the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus’ writings are all thoroughly Catholic. It is as if we are reading the modern Catechism (on such topics as the Real Presence of the Jesus in the Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Mass, Apostolic succession, and Mariology) inserted within the second century.

The heretical Gnostic movements led Irenaeus to develop Church sacramental theology and Christology, or an understanding of exactly who Christ is. Irenaeus developed the idea of the necessity of a bodily atonement and redemption through Jesus’ sacred humanity. This is simply the “Recapitulation theory of Atonement.” In order to understand this better, we should first look at the false teachings of Gnosticism.

The Gnostic sects emphasized a secret, pseudo-mystical knowledge that had to be gained for salvation, and generally reserved only for the few who were deemed spiritually worthy. As such, Gnosticism became associated with elitism. Most Gnostic myths, relying heavily upon Greek pagan philosophy, taught that worldly things were created by a wicked demi-god, Demiurge, and thus, evil. The evil material universe is then at odds with the goodness of the Supreme Creator and the spiritual world. Gnosticism descended into a form of Dualism, where the body and all matter are evil, and all that is spiritual is good. The world, and all that is in it, is to be rejected. Man is seen as a spark from the spiritual God, but entrapped in the evil material world and imprisoned in the body.

This is in direct contradiction to the teachings of Christianity. Man is not simply a spiritual being, who discards the body at death. Man is a composite being of body and soul. In the Book of Genesis, God calls all creation “good,” and later, on the sixth day, when God creates Man, He calls him “very good.” (Gen. 1:31) Orthodox Christianity’s major objection to Gnosticism focused around its denial of the goodness of the material world. St. Irenaeus fought such heresies vigorously, including the denial of the physical atonement of Jesus as well as the rejection of the material sacraments.

Before long, the Gnostics had devolved into a form of Docetism that denied the corporeal incarnation of God into the world. To them, Jesus only “appeared” to be human, and wore a body like a mask or shell. By their beliefs, it made no sense that God would enter into an evil material universe.

Irenaeus, in response, seized upon the teachings of St. Paul that Christ did unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:10) St. Irenaeus taught that Christ had to enter into the world, and into humanity, in order to atone for the sins of the world and redeem humanity. In his theory of Atonement by Recapitulation, Irenaeus says, “The Word, becoming man, recapitulates all things in Himself, so that just as the Word is foremost in things super-celestial, spiritual, and invisible, so also in things visible and corporeal He might have the primacy.” Jesus lived a life in the body like one of us, redeeming our humanity through His divine-humanity. Irenaeus goes further in saying that Jesus lived through all the stages of man, from birth, to infancy and childhood, maturity, old age and even unto death, thereby sanctifying all the stages of a man’s life. Here the Catechism concurs stating, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption… and a mystery of recapitulation. All Jesus did, said and suffered had for its aim restoring fallen man to his original vocation.” (CCC 517-518)

Just as the Gnostics professed that God as Spirit would not incarnate into the evil world, so too, according to their belief, would His Spirit neither enter into the material sacraments of the Church. According to their teachings, God would not enter into bread and wine, or water, oil or chrism. St. Irenaeus fought vociferously against this heresy with an explicit defense of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. He writes, “For as the bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist . . . so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible but have the hope of resurrection into eternity.”

When we say the Apostles’ Creed, we are reminded of the early Church’s constant spiritual battle with Gnosticism. We say God is the creator of heaven “and earth.” Jesus was physically born into the world, physically suffered and died. We believe in the “resurrection of the body.” The Creed reveals a constant push back against those who denied the goodness of the material world, the body, and the corporeal redemption by Jesus. As one of the earliest and greatest defenders of the faith, St. Irenaeus counteracted the polymorphic pagan influences of Gnosticism, dispelling their dualism and wishy-washy spirituality, which St. Paul refers to as the profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge.” (1 Tim. 6:20) And so, as we remember St. Irenaeus on his Feast day, June 28th, we should retain the true faith, clinging to the doctrines of our Apostolic religion, believing in the sacred humanity of Jesus, crucified on the Cross, and whose Real Presence is in the Eucharist. May He resurrect us bodily to eternal life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Blood and Water of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – June 2, 2016

It was at the Last Supper that John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” reclined on the Sacred Heart of Jesus. (Jn. 13:23) Just hours later, at the foot of the Cross, it was John again who witnessed Jesus’ Sacred Heart being pierced by a lance. He noted that one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” (Jn. 19:34) The early Church Fathers interpret the blood and water sacramentally, as symbols of the blood of the Eucharist and the waters of Baptism. The sacraments and the Church sprung from the wound of Christ’s Heart. St. Augustine makes the connection that just as Eve was drawn from the side of Adam during his “deep sleep” (Gen. 2:21), so too, was the Church, the bride of Christ, drawn from the side of Jesus in His death. It is in the waters of Baptism and the blood of the Eucharist that the Church is born and sustained. The Church appropriately venerates the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which “He allowed to be pierced by our sins,” as the definitive symbol of divine love towards humanity. (CCC 2669)

The 1956 encyclical Haurietis Aquas, on the Devotion to the Sacred Heart, opens by quoting the prophet Isaiah, who writes about the life-giving waters of the suffering Messiah. Isaiah declares, “You shall draw waters with joy out of the savior’s fountains,” (Is. 12:3) and “every one who thirsts, come to the waters.” (Is. 55:1) The other prophets too, Joel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, speak of these life-giving waters of the Savior. Jesus Himself quotes the prophets saying that whoever believes in Him “rivers of living water will flow from within him.” (Jn. 7:38) What is this life-giving water? The early Church Fathers recognized the water that flowed from His Sacred Heart as the grace from the sacraments. It is a symbol of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The living water is the sacramental water of Baptism, in which the Holy Spirit cleanses us of sin and comes to dwell within us. Jesus tells Nicodemus we must be born again of “water and spirit,” just as He tells the Samaritan woman at the well, “the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn. 4:14)

It is not a coincidence that the feast day of the Sacred Heart of Jesus comes in the liturgical calendar just after Pentecost, commemorating the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the depths of Jesus’ Heart. The feast of the Sacred Heart is also the first Friday within the Octave of Corpus Christi, celebrating the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist. This is fitting, as the Sacred Heart of Jesus is part of His physical body. In that sense, when we receive the Eucharist, we are receiving the Sacred Heart of Jesus. (H.A. 122) The blood that pours forth from His pierced heart at Calvary symbolizes the “blood of the new covenant” that Jesus offers up at the Last Supper, in which we partake at every Mass.

By the 17th century, the Faith was in tumult, particularly in France, dealing exteriorly with the Protestant Revolution and interiorly with the Jansenist heresy. Jansenism denied the free will of man, advocating that only those predestined by God would receive sanctifying grace. These teachers purported a moral rigorism, resulting in many people being denied Holy Communion due to their faults and sins. It was against the backdrop of this narrow worldview, constricting the sacraments of grace to only a few, that Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and said, “Behold this Heart, which has loved men so much, that It has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify to them Its love.” Jesus shows that He offers Himself up, not for a few, but for the love of all people, and desires them to receive Holy Communion frequently. He requested that a feast day be established in honor of His Sacred Heart, and that people should go to Holy Communion on the first Friday of every month, as well as regularly keeping Holy Hour adoration. Jesus did, in fact, renew the life of the Church, enlivening the hearts of believers, with this devotion to His Sacred Heart.

Jesus also made a number of famous promises (more than the generally assumed twelve promises) to St. Margaret Mary regarding those who would have a devotion to His Sacred Heart. These included, among others, bringing peace to their families, consoling them in their troubles, granting them all the necessary graces in their lives, helping them become more fervent and perfect in their faith, and inscribing their names on His Heart forever. In a letter from May 1688, St. Margaret Mary wrote about “the Great Promise” that Jesus told to her. He said, I promise you that My all powerful love will grant to all those who will receive Communion on the First Fridays, for nine consecutive months, the grace of final repentance.” As wonderful as this promise is, we should remember this is not an automatic guarantee to heaven. We should discern away any superstition involved with this. As Fr. James Kubicki, S.J., the National Director of the Apostleship of Prayer, writes this is “not magic but the natural consequence of a life lived in union with the Heart of Jesus.” We are not called to superstition, but to devotion.

Our devotion to the Sacred Heart is most fully expressed in our devotion to the Church. The blood and water of the Eucharist and Baptism make us anew. His Spirit dwells within us giving us eternal life. This is the fulfillment of the great prophecy of Ezekiel. The scripture says, “And I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.” (Ez. 11:19-20) And so it is with us. Our hearts are conformed, and remade, in the sacraments to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

As Jesus hung on the Cross, He cried out “I thirst.” In the lens of Christianity, Jesus’ thirst is to save souls. We can in a very real way console the Sacred Heart of Jesus and His thirst to save souls, through our reparation and devotion to His Sacred Heart. (Miserentissimus Redemptor, 13) Properly understood, Baptism and Eucharist transform us, who partake in them, into the Body of Christ. Through the life-giving waters of Jesus we are made clean, and through His body and blood we are transformed. In this, the beloved disciple, St. John, is our example; resting our heads on the breast of Jesus, listening closely to the sublime beats of His Heart, He makes us new creations.

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Trinitarian Life of the Family – May 19, 2016

God is one, but He is not alone or solitary. God is a communion of Persons. He is the Most Holy Trinity, an eternal communion of three divine Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the central mystery of the Christian faith. (CCC 261) St. Patrick converted Ireland with the Trinitarian analogy of the Shamrock: three leaves, one clover. God is an eternal unity of three distinct divine Persons, each of whom is wholly and substantively God. They are consubstantial and equal to each other. The three Persons of the Trinity are relational to one another in two internal divine processions: The Father eternally generates the Son, and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. (CCC 254) The one Godhead is an inter-relational Being of three Persons. In short, God is a family.

Man is ontologically created in the image of the one Trinitarian God. As God is a family, so is man created in His image as a relational being made for families. After God creates Adam, He says, “It is not good that man is alone.” (Gen. 2:18) Man by himself did not yet fully represent the relational nature of God. With that, God creates Eve, the first woman, so that man cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24) This is the primordial sacrament of marriage. It is Trinitarian by nature. Husband and wife become a communion of persons in the natural order, where the two become one, reflecting the communion of Persons in the Godhead in the heavenly order. The perfect self-knowledge of the Father eternally begets the second divine Person, the Son; and from the perfect self-offering of will and mutual love between the Father and the Son proceeds the third divine Person, the Holy Spirit. In an infinitely imperfect but analogous way, husband and wife come together in a mutual self-offering of love, consummated in the sexual union, which conceives a third independent being, a child, just as from the mutual love of the Father and Son comes the Holy Spirit. Although with obvious and profound dissimilarities, this is our closest imitation of Trinitarian relations within the natural realm. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his Theology of the Body series, “Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion.”

The Trinitarian image is reflected in our families, and the family is the icon of Trinitarian life. As the Catechism teaches, The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 2205) The family is a mythic archetype of the relationships within the Trinity. Living with a husband or wife and children necessarily draws us out from ourselves. It challenges our pride and selfishness. It forces us to minimize ourselves for the sake of others. It pushes us to focus on someone else, not just our own well-being. It challenges us as a form of preparation, within the concreteness of our flesh and blood relationships, to be holy as God is holy. The family, as the “domestic Church,” is the foundational building block of the greater Church, and of society on the whole. It was part of God’s plan for humanity from the beginning. Indeed, Jesus Himself incarnated into a family, in order to highlight its institutional importance, and to personally sanctify them. (CCC 533)

Of course, living a self-sacrificial marriage and complete self-offering to family is easier said than done. Marriage and parenthood are hard work. Our selfish pride and egocentric desires get in the way. Overcoming these requires a lifetime of tiny steps to incrementally grow in holiness and virtue. It is difficult to reflect at times that Trinitarian love and vision amidst the exhaustion of crying babies, soiled diapers, sibling squabbles, spousal arguments, stressful jobs, washing dishes and baskets of laundry. This is part of our daily Cross, to take up and follow Jesus, by denying ourselves and serving others. Yet, we should also remember that the supernatural spirit of God works in the ordinary and mundane activities of our everyday lives. The family is meant to be holy, reflecting here and now, in time and space, the eternal beauty of the Trinity’s relationships. Tragically, we need only look at the current sad state of fractured families and marriages today to see the greater challenges. Families are riddled with every type of pain and suffering, abuse and abandonment, dysfunction and dissolution. The Trinitarian image in many modern families is badly disfigured.

Fortunately, God has not left us orphans. He has left us His Church. He has left us the sacraments, which can heal and make us whole again. Even if we come from irreparable marriages and broken families, God has provided us with the communion of persons found in the Church. This is the supernatural family of God. (CCC 1655) Jesus Himself points to the Communion of saints, not biological or hereditary bonds, as His true family in faith, saying, Here are My mother and My brothers!(Mt. 12:49) Our families are the closest natural approximation to the spiritual communion of Persons in the Trinity. However, beyond that, we have our supernatural communion of Persons in faith and the Church, in which, we can also live a Trinitarian life. The Catechism states, For if we continue to love one another and to join in praising the Most Holy Trinity – all of us who are sons of God and form one family in Christ – we will be faithful to the deepest vocation of the Church.” (CCC 959) Our deepest vocation is to live in communion with each other in our marriages, in our families, and in our Church, serving the universal brotherhood of man, with mutual self-sacrifice and life-giving love, in imitation of the Most Holy Trinity.

  

 

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Running to Win the Spiritual Race – May 19, 2016

William Shakespeare famously wrote “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” and so it is with us. Each of us “performs” each day on the world’s stage before the spectacle of our fellow man, and before the saints and angels in heaven, and under the watchful eyes of God. We act out our lives from moment to moment, for good or for ill, before the human and the heavenly audience. St. Paul says, “..we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.” (1 Cor. 4:9) The letter to the Hebrews depicts us as competing in a packed stadium filled with all the saints and heroes that have gone before us, cheering us on, competing in a race around the track. “..since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . . let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..” (Heb. 12:1) St. Paul urges us to shed “every weight” of sin that slows us down so we can persevere and win the race. The cloud of witnesses, the saints in heaven, are not only cheering us on but also offering personal intercession for us. (CCC 2683) St. Paul must have been a great admirer of runners and athletic competitions, such as the Isthmian and Olympiad Games; he uses the running metaphor a number of times in his letters. To the Corinthians he says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Cor. 9:24-25) St. Paul compares the spiritual life to an athletic competition, in which we should strive not for a laurel victory wreath but for the crown of eternal life.

How should we compete for this crown of eternal life? Much in the same way that an athlete must plan his or her exercise regimen each day to prepare for the race, so should we plan our spiritual regimen each day. We can exercise our souls with a schedule of daily prayer. In this way we can grow in faith and holiness, pleasing to God, and on the path to eternal life. First, we must discipline and train our spiritual selves. This can be difficult. It can be so much easier to sit back and watch a TV show or surf the internet rather than pray. I can find a million excuses not to pray at any given moment, but I have found my day is so much better if I do pray. My day is given direction and satisfaction, and a sense of purpose and connection to God. It sacramentalizes my whole day. The best way to approach our spiritual training is to have a simple, fixed schedule of prayer. Basically, we need a plan. It should be a simple one, accommodating our individual circumstances and responsibilities. The key is to faithfully stick to the plan as best we can, and repeat it each day and each week. If we do this, we can “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) We can become, as St. Josemaria Escriva described, “contemplatives in the midst of the world.”

Here are some suggestions for us to include in our daily spiritual exercises:

  • The Morning Offering upon waking up
  • Pray the Rosary
  • Attend Mass and receive Communion
  • Pray the Angelus at noon
  • Pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet (maybe at the 3:00 hour)
  • Small acts of penance or mortification throughout the day
  • Grace before meals
  • Attend Adoration
  • Pray the Liturgy of the Hours (particularly, in the morning and evenings hours; see phone apps to assist with this)
  • Short conversations of mental prayer (a “heart to heart” talking and listening to God)
  • Spiritual Reading (Bible or other spiritual reading)
  • Meditate on the Stations of the Cross
  • A Nightly Examination of Conscience and Act of Contrition before bed

Of these, I have found it particularly important to never miss the Morning Offering or the Nightly Act of Contrition. These help frame our day and orient it completely towards God, sanctifying the hours of the day from morning to night. I also find saying the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy particularly powerful, but this is my own particular spiritual affinity. Each of us should determine what we are drawn to personally.

It does not take much time to speak to God each day, even mere minutes. Yet, it can still be difficult. Much like our regular muscles, we need to exercise our prayer muscle to improve. The more we exercise our prayer life, the stronger and easier it will become. Prayer is our connection to Him. Our relationship with God will take on a much more personal flavor and commitment. God calls us friends and His children. He is personally interested in us, even down to the most minute details of our lives. Jesus said, “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Mt.10:30) This should give us comfort. God knows our hearts and thoughts. He hears everything we ask and tell Him. He cares about us more than we could ever imagine. We just need to make the time to speak and listen to Him. Our daily prayer schedules are part of our commitment to Him, and proof that we love Him. If we live this way, each and every day, and continue this over our lifetimes, a “compounding interest of prayer,” if you will, this is the stuff of saints. Then, we can come to the end of our lives, the end of our race and competition, and declare as St. Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim. 4:7)

 

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One in the Eucharist – April 27, 2016

Sacraments are rituals instituted by Christ, woven together with signs and symbols, (CCC 1145) that “make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.” (CCC 1084) St. Augustine described them as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” They are not just symbolic, but are “real symbols,” which actually make present that which they signify. Sign and reality are one. Initiation into the sacraments initiates us into the mystery, or mystagogy, of Christ. (CCC 1075) They draw us ever deeper into Himself.

One such “real symbol” is the Eucharist. It is the real presence of Jesus Christ: body and blood, soul and divinity. The whole liturgical life of the Church is oriented towards the Eucharist. It is communion with the sacred flesh and blood of Christ into our bodies, and the sanctifying grace of His soul and divinity into our souls.

It is Jesus Himself who first speaks about His real presence in the Eucharist: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (Jn. 6:53-54) The word John uses for “to eat” is the Greek word “trogein,” which literally means “to gnaw”; you gnaw on real meat, not a symbol or an idea. Many of Jesus’ disciples and non-disciples alike are aghast at this, believing He is speaking of cannibalism. Roman pagan historians would later record false rumors of Christians participating in cannibalistic rituals – a clear misunderstanding of the Mass and the real presence. Jesus knows, of course, that this is difficult for them to believe, and says, “Does this shock you?” (Jn. 6:61) We know it did, because, as John records, many of His disciples abandon Him at this point. (Jn. 6:66)

After they leave, Jesus reassures His skeptical Apostles, telling them, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (Jn. 6:63) They cannot understand this with their fleshy, materialistic minds, but rather, by trusting in God’s supernatural power. This is not a cannibalistic ritual but a heavenly sacrament. Directly before Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse, John relates two other miracles, Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and Jesus walking on water. Both miracles reveal that physical matter, nature itself, is subject to Jesus. Immediately before we see the bread and wine becoming His flesh and blood, John demonstrates with these miracles that material boundaries are no constraint upon Jesus.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, His appearances to His disciples further establish the importance of the sacraments. When Jesus first approaches the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “their eyes were kept from recognizing Him.” (Lk. 24:16) After He took bread and broke it, Luke says, “then their eyes were opened,.” (Lk. 24:31) Jesus illustrates that He is no longer with them as He once was, but will now remain with them sacramentally in the form of the Eucharist. He has demonstrated the Eucharistic formula for the disciples starting with the Last Supper. Now, the disciples continued this going forward as the beginnings of the Mass and Eucharist, devoting themselves “to the breaking of bread.” (Acts 2:42)

A millennium and a half later, at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the doctrine of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist was reaffirmed in precise language. Transubstantiation is ultimately the term they arrived at to define what happens in the mystical sacrament of the Eucharist. Under the veiled appearance of bread and wine, “the whole of Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (CCC 1374; Trent 1551) Jesus becomes our spiritual food, and our “medicine of immortality.” (St.Ignatius, 110 AD) Receiving Holy Communion brings us into intimate union with Christ. Just as material food nourishes our bodies, so Holy Communion nourishes our spiritual soul. (CCC 1392)

Moreover, it also transforms us as a whole community of believers, the Church, into the Mystical Body of Christ. In the Mass, after the priest invokes the Holy Spirit, an epiclesis prayer, to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, he again, invokes the Holy Spirit, a second epiclesis, that those who eat the body and blood of Christ may be “one body, one Spirit in Christ.” He says, “Grant that we, who are nourished by His body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ.” This is, in effect, a second transubstantiation: the transformation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of those who eat the Eucharist into the one Mystical Body of Christ. This recalls Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane to the Father that His followers “may be one, as We are one.” (Jn. 17:11) The Eucharist unites us mystically together in Him as living sacramental realities.

As such, the Church comes together to offer “praise, sufferings, prayer, and work” in union with the sacrifice of Christ. (CCC 1368) We, by virtue of our common priesthood, can unite all that we are and do with the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass.  Jesus put an end to the millennia-old, ritualistic and violent bloodletting of the pagan ancient world.  Alas, He is the pure offering. For from the rising of the sun to its setting My name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (Mal.1:11). Christ in the Eucharist transforms us into His image, so that His presence enters into the world again, and in us, continues His pure offering to the Father.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Octave of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday – March 25, 2016

Easter Sunday is not the end of our Easter celebration. After forty days of preparation with Lent, and the Easter Triduum, from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, it is easy to miss looking ahead on the Church’s liturgical calendar. This is, after all, the climax of the Christian year with the celebration of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Catechism calls Easter the “Feast of feasts” and the “Solemnity of solemnities.” Yet, Easter Sunday is actually just the first day of the Easter Octave, the eight-day festal period, in which we continue to celebrate the momentous conclusion to the Paschal mystery and the economy of salvation played out in liturgical time. The eight days of the Easter Octave are a special time to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection and more deeply contemplate its mysteries. The Church punctuates the special importance of this feast by assigning it the highest liturgical ranking, that is, as a Privileged Octave of the First Order. This means each of the eight days is counted as a solemnity, the highest-ranking feast day, in which no other feast can be celebrated. It begins the fifty days of the Easter celebration to the feast of Pentecost, but these first eight days of the Easter Octave culminate with the second Sunday of Easter: Divine Mercy Sunday.

It is entirely fitting that Divine Mercy Sunday is the culmination of the Easter Octave, for as St. Pope John Paul II stated in his Divine Mercy Sunday homily in 2001, “Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity..” Divine mercy is the grace and merit won by Christ on our behalf in His Passion and Resurrection. The grace of Easter naturally flows into Mercy Sunday. Even before the official designation, the Church has historically designated these eight days of Easter to celebrate the Paschal mysteries of divine mercy. The early Church celebrated the Sunday after Easter as the feast day, Dominica in Albis depositis, “the Sunday dressed in white linen.” St. Augustine is attributed to have called it “the compendium of the days of mercy.” Indeed, in his Regina Caeli address on Divine Mercy Sunday on April 26, 1995, Pope John Paul II said “The whole Octave of Easter is like a single day,” and that Octave is “thanksgiving for the goodness God has shown man in the whole Easter mystery.” In these eight feast days, we offer thanksgiving for the divine mercy and salvation wrought for us on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The modern Divine Mercy devotions began with the Polish mystic, St. Faustina Kowalska, who dutifully recorded in her well-known diary, everything that Christ commissioned to her regarding His Divine Mercy. These devotions included the spiritual practices of venerating the image of Divine Mercy, with its simple prayer “Jesus, I trust in You!,” praying the Chaplet and Novena of Divine Mercy, and establishing Divine Mercy Sunday. St. Pope John Paul II said he had felt spiritually “very near” Saint Faustina, and he had “been thinking about her for a long time,” when he began his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, “Rich in Mercy,” in which he calls mercy “love’s second name.” It is not surprising then that he later, on April 30 2000, at the canonization ceremony of St. Faustina, designated the Easter Octave, Divine Mercy Sunday.

It is fitting that Divine Mercy is a continuation of Easter because of its inherently Paschal and Eucharistic imagery. In the Divine Mercy image, Jesus is pictured with two rays of light coming from His heart, one red and one white. These depict the blood and water, which flowed forth from His heart after He was pierced by a lance on the Cross. The red ray of light reminds us of the blood of the Cross, and the blood of the Eucharist; whereas, the white ray of light reminds us of the waters that flowed from His pierced-side, and the waters of Baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The image embodies the Paschal and Eucharistic mysteries.

In the Divine Mercy Chaplet and Novena there are similar Paschal and Eucharistic overtones. In the Divine Mercy prayers we offer up to the Father, the “Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity” of Our Lord Jesus Christ, “in atonement for our sins and for those of the whole world.” This hearkens us back to Holy Thursday, when Jesus instituted the first Mass, offering up His Body and Blood in the Eucharist; and then, on Good Friday, He suffered Bodily and Spiritually in His Passion and Crucifixion. The Divine Mercy prayers walk us through this same prayer language in Paschal and Eucharistic imagery. This is why we pray “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy upon us and the whole world,” for through His suffering, we have gained mercy. The Divine Mercy prayers encapsulate the Paschal mystery and the Eucharistic offering.

Therefore, we continue to celebrate the Paschal and Eucharistic mysteries in these eight days of Easter, culminating with the Easter Octave of Divine Mercy Sunday. Christ has promised us great mercies if we observe the Feast of Divine Mercy. As Jesus told St. Faustina, “I want to grant a complete pardon to the souls that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion on the feast of My mercy.” This is a particularly great indulgence promised by Jesus for the complete remission of our sins and punishment. So, as we celebrate Easter, let us recall the spark that came from Poland with Sts. Faustina and Pope John Paul II, and put mercy into action by dedicating ourselves to the devotions associated with its message: the image of Divine Mercy, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Novena of Divine Mercy, and the Sunday of Divine Mercy. Easter Sunday is not the end of the Church’s celebration. It is the beginning of the full Octave of Easter. Let us celebrate all eight days of this feast, all the way to Divine Mercy Sunday. How fitting it is, especially this Jubilee year, the Holy Year of Mercy.

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The 100th Anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima

This spring will mark 100 years since the Fatima apparitions, and an opportunity to reflect deeply again upon their message. The Angel of Peace appeared three times to the shepherd children, Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, beginning in the spring of 1916 in Fatima, Portugal. These visitations prepared the way for the six apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima the following year. The message of Fatima may be lost sometimes in the mysterious and the spectacular: the apparitions; the “three secrets;” the “dancing of the sun.” Yet, the main entreaties from Heaven concerned our day-to-day earthly activities and how these will forge our eternal destiny. The everlasting consequence of unrepented mortal sin is Hell; knowing this, we should live our lives according to the laws of God, in obedience, purity and virtue. The central message of Fatima was an urgent plea to stay on the narrow path to Heaven.

Fatima calls us to conversion, and a daily turning away from sin. In order to convert the unrepentant, the Angel first taught the children the great value of intercessory prayer. Underscoring the importance of our intercession, the only thing the Virgin Mary requested at all six appearances was for us to pray the Rosary, every day. She told them that our prayers can help save souls, “Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to hell, because there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.” It is not only intercessory prayer, but also our intercessory sacrifices and sufferings that are efficacious. By virtue of our Baptisms, we are all brought into the Body of Christ and partake in His priesthood, as part of the common priesthood of the faithful. Acting in our priestly role, we can offer ourselves up as “spiritual sacrifices” acceptable to God and in atonement for sins. (CCC 1141)

Further linking us to the Body of Christ, the Angel and the Virgin Mary said we should seek to console God through worthy reception and adoration of the Eucharist. While the idea of consoling an all-powerful God may seem counterintuitive, we are reminded by Pope Pius XI that “we can and ought to console that Most Sacred Heart,” which is continually wounded by our sins (Miserentissimus Redemptor, 13). In a similar way, the Angel offered the children holy Eucharist to make reparation for sins and to “console your God.” This was later echoed in Our Lady’s Eucharistic prayer: “O Most Holy Trinity, I adore You! My God, my God, I love You in the most Blessed Sacrament!” The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (CCC 1324), and the Fatima apparitions remind us that worthily receiving Jesus in Communion has the grace to save our souls and console our God.

The Virgin Mary also asked us to make reparation through the “First Five Saturdays” devotion. Our Lady promised Sister Lucia, “to assist at the hour of death with the graces necessary for salvation” those who will practice this devotion of Confession, Eucharist, recitation of the Rosary, and meditation upon its mysteries. The Church rightly honors the Mother of God, because it was through her, and in consent of her freewill, let it be done to me, that the Savior was born into the world. (Lumen Gentium, VIII) This is what we proclaim in the words of the Rosary: the moment of the Incarnation of God. As Pope Paul VI issued in his 1967 Apostolic Exhortation, Signum Magnum, on the 50th anniversary of Fatima, it is fitting that we consecrate ourselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as the spiritual Mother of the Church, for her mediatory role in the salvation of the world.

Now, on this 100th anniversary of Fatima, we are reminded again to contemplate its message and embrace its devotions. Although the Angel of Peace and Our Lady of Fatima appeared during the carnage of World War I, the divine messages are perhaps even more relevant today, in an age of nuclear weapons and renewed militancy across the globe, rampant atheism, materialism and loss of faith, a diminishing Church in the West, and a rapidly growing permissive society. As faithful disciples, we are called to be holy, and intercessors for each other. Fatima was a wake-up call. In it, Jesus’ last words from the Cross come alive “Behold, your mother.” (Jn. 19:27) In the midst of a passing world, we need to get right with eternal things: by penance, Confession, the Eucharist, prayer, especially the Rosary. Our Lady of Fatima renews this call again, to stay on the narrow path to Heaven.

 

 

 

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Examining Our Consciences for Lent – February 10, 2016

Lent is our time to be with Jesus in the desert, where He, in His humanity, experienced weakness, hunger and temptation. Jesus entered fully into our humanity, and was like us in all things, except sin. This is the unique mystery of the Incarnation, where our God suffers as one of us.

Jesus can identify with each of us in our hunger, and we can identify with Him in His hunger. The Catechism states, “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540) Jesus’ fasting was a preparation for His public ministry, and His Passion and death.

Lent is similarly a preparation for us, readying us for Good Friday and Easter, but it is also a stark reminder of our own mortality. On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, we place ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves that we too, one day, will die. We face our mortality, saying “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen.3:19)

Yet, is not each day and night a microcosm of our entire life? Our sleep anticipates our death, and our waking in the morning anticipates our resurrection. If we will seek pardon and forgiveness at the end of life, in anticipation of the final judgment, should we not also seek to examine our lives and ask for forgiveness, each and every day?

After all, we do not know when our end will come, it may be fifty years from now, or fifty minutes from now. As Jesus cautions us, in the parable of the faithful servant, the end may come for us at an hour we do not expect, and so, we must be like the faithful servant, always vigilant and ready.

How do we remain vigilant and ready? Of course, we must remain faithful servants, obedient to the Church, living closely to the sacraments, have an active prayer life, read the word of God, and live a life filled with good and merciful deeds, in short, we must love God and our neighbor. All of these activities contribute to us having a well-formed moral conscience. The more we examine our lives and seek forgiveness, particularly in Confession, the more clearly we will know right from wrong, that is, have a “correct” moral conscience.

The Catechism teaches us that God’s law is inscribed on every man’s heart, and His voice echoes in the depths of our consciences. (CCC 1776) Before we go to sleep each night, we can examine in our minds, the events of the day, and everything that we said or did, or failed to do, for good or for bad. After having examined our whole day, from beginning to end, and asking forgiveness for our sins, we should pray an act of contrition.

Indeed, the act of examining our consciences is part of the nightly prayer, Compline, from the Liturgy of the Hours, in which we consecrate to God the phases of the day. More than a simple private devotion, it is said as a form of prayer in unity with the broader body of believers. Thus, by examining our consciences we are also coming together with the universal Church every day in liturgical, public worship. At the end of which, we pray, “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.”

Lent is our time in the desert with Jesus. In it, we hunger for righteousness and holiness. But, unlike Jesus, we are not perfect and fall regularly in sin. By examining our consciences each night to see where we fell, and ask forgiveness in our hearts, we can strive to be like the faithful servant, prepared always for the moment when our bodies return to dust, and our souls appear before the judgment seat of the Lord. So then, after our sojourn in this earthly wilderness, we can hope to awaken to eternal life in heaven.

(article as published on CatholicExchange.com)

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The Incarnation of God into Our Lives – December 25, 2015

The Incarnation of God as man is a scandal. The first century Jews were expecting a Messiah, but did not conceive that he would be the Son of God Himself. They expected a messianic political leader. Jesus, being the second person of the Trinity, could very well have descended from Heaven ablaze in His divine power and majesty to establish His kingdom. Yet, we know this is not what happened. The Son of God came in obscurity, humility and poverty. This is the second scandal of the Incarnation. The divine being was born as a baby, completely dependent and helpless, to a poor family in a small village, placed in an animal manger. God came as the least among us. Chesterton called this “an idea of undermining the world.” This is the great paradox of Christianity, God as man, and even, God as an infant, the divine hidden in the ordinary, the exalted humbled. So intimate is His love for us that the Creator entered His creation, coming personally in search of us. How few recognized the extraordinary baby in their midst in that most ordinary scene in Bethlehem? How often still do we fail to see God in our ordinary circumstances each day?

The Incarnation is, at its most basic and profound level, a love story. It is the love of an infinitely merciful God for a broken and lost humanity. God came into our world on a search and rescue mission, to save us from our sins. Jesus did not come as the expected conquering king, rather, He came as the unexpected suffering servant. He chose to enter into our state of life, to follow the same path as all of us, of being born, growing up, laboring as an adult, and ultimately, dying. In doing so, He chose to take on the lowliness of our human nature, the ordinariness of our circumstances, and the drudgery of our every day lives. This is truly an amazing thing to contemplate. Jesus, the divine being, chose to spend most of His life, approximately thirty years, living a private, ordinary existence just like yours and mine. God chose to live like us in the small, mundane details of our lives. But why?

We know the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation is the Redemption, culminating in Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. Yet, to state the obvious, Jesus was God even before His public ministry. When He worked as a carpenter in Joseph’s workshop, He was God. When He obeyed Mary His mother, He was God. Jesus’ redemptive mission did not begin with His public ministry. It began with His Incarnation and birth, and continued along the spectrum of His whole life. As the Catechism states, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption.” (CCC 517) One aspect of Jesus’ mission was to restore humankind to its original dignity and vocation. Jesus recapitulated within Himself all of our ordinary human actions, our daily routines, our human institutions, such as the family, our sufferings, our jobs, and our ordinary human vocations. Jesus lived all of this. God deemed no stage or circumstance of life unworthy of His presence. He lived these in order to sanctify them, consecrate them, and restore them.

Each of Jesus’ actions were performed with the salvific power of the Godhead, infusing them with infinite moral value not limited by time or space. We can be united, even now, with Jesus in our humanity. This is part of the on-going love story, and is perhaps the third scandal of the Incarnation. We can partake in Christ’s mysteries, and He can continue to live them in us and through us. If we do so, in communion with the Church, the infant Christ of Bethlehem will be born again into our hearts and our souls. And, we too, like the Magi in the Epiphany, can recognize Christ in our midst and adore His presence in our lives each day.

The Chaplet of Divine Mercy in St. Faustina’s Diary – April 21, 2017

Easter is the momentous culmination of our Christian faith. As the “Feast of feasts” and the “Solemnity of solemnities,” the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection could not be contained to just one day in the liturgical calendar. So, we celebrate the Easter Octave – the eight-day festal period from Easter to the Feast of Divine Mercy. The grace and merit won by Christ on our behalf naturally flows from Easter Sunday to Divine Mercy Sunday.

The Divine Mercy devotion is comprised of many aspects: the Feast Day, the image, confession, the great Promise and Indulgence, the three o’clock hour, the novena and finally, the chaplet. The power of the Divine Mercy chaplet is highlighted throughout St. Faustina’s diary, including the power to save the dying, the power to forestall divine justice, and even, power over nature.

The primary intention of the chaplet is to save souls, especially sinners. Jesus tells St. Faustina: “At the hour of their death, I defend as My own glory every soul that will say this chaplet; or when others say it for a dying person, the indulgence is the same.” (diary, 811) This point is reinforced a number of times throughout the diary with concrete examples of the chaplet saving souls. In one instance, St. Faustina is mystically transported to a dying sinner surrounded by a “multitude of devils.” As she prays the chaplet, she sees Jesus appear just as in the image and the rays from His heart envelop the man, saving him and giving him a peaceful death. St. Faustina realizes “how very important the chaplet was for the dying. It appeases the anger of God.” (diary, 1565) As Jesus had advised St. Faustina: “Say unceasingly the chaplet that I have taught you. Whoever will recite it will receive great mercy at the hour of death.” (diary, 687)

St. Faustina also sees the efficaciousness of the chaplet to mitigate divine chastisement. On a number of occasions in the diary, she describes how reciting the chaplet disarmed an angel about to deliver imminent divine justice. In one instance, St. Faustina sees an angel, an “executor of divine wrath,” about to punish a certain part of the world. In trying to plead for mercy, she begins to pray the words of the chaplet. Then, as St. Faustina recounts, “As I was praying in this manner, I saw the angel’s helplessness; he could not carry out the just punishment which was rightly due for sins. Never before had I prayed with such inner power as I did then.” (diary 474) After a similar occurrence of angelic restraint later in the diary, St. Faustina proclaims “this chaplet was most powerful.” (diary, 1791)

As if to reinforce the power of the chaplet, one day St. Faustina was “awakened by a great storm” of wind, torrents of rain, and thunderbolts. She then was prompted to pray the chaplet so the storm would not harm anyone. As she recounts, “I began immediately to say the chaplet and hadn’t even finished it when the storm suddenly ceased, and I heard the words: “Through the chaplet you will obtain everything, if what you ask for is compatible with My will.” (diary 1731)

The Divine Mercy chaplet is a powerful way for us to show mercy towards others through prayerful intercession. It is particularly fitting during Eastertime with the chaplet’s Paschal and Eucharistic language. Each time we pray the chaplet, we offer to God the Father the passion and sacrifice of Christ, on behalf of our sins and for those of the whole world. It is a microcosm of the Mass in prayer form. The Divine Mercy devotion inevitably leads us to the sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist, which we can partake in this Sunday for the Feast of Divine Mercy.

God’s Presence in Confession – January 24, 2017

A number of years ago I approached the confessional booth in the crypt church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. It was there that something somewhat miraculous happened, or at least that is how it struck me.

I was a regular visitor at the crypt church for Confession and to attend Mass. On this particular day, however, I was also there to pray for my friend. At the time, a close childhood friend of mine had recently and unexpectedly passed away. He had become an avid mountain climber, and had gone on an adventure to climb one of the tallest mountains in the world in Pakistan. Then, one fateful day I received a phone call that he had gone missing after an avalanche. Soon after, our worst fears were confirmed. Obviously shocked and saddened I turned towards prayer and the Church.

After praying before the Blessed Sacrament, I went to Confession. Once I had confessed my sins, I spoke to the priest about concerns for my friend. I never once mentioned to him who he was or what had happened. I told him only that he had died outside the Church, and I asked if I should pray for him? His answer amazed me.

In part, he said, “sometimes I will pick up the paper and read, for example, about people who died while mountain climbing in Pakistan, and yes, I would pray for them.” I took this as a miraculous intervention of Christ in the sacrament, and as a direct response regarding my friend. The unknown priest, I am sure, had no idea of the prophetic words he had just spoken to me. Yet, his words resonated loudly in my soul.

As believers, we know that God always hears our prayers, even if sometimes it may not feel like it. As Catholics, we also know that God is present to us in a special way in the sacraments. The priest works in persona Christi Capitis, in the person of Christ the head, or as the Church teaches, “it is Christ Himself who is present.” (CCC 1548). This is of great consolation in Confession – the sacrament of divine mercy – when we are blessed to hear those most comforting of Jesus’ words, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” (CCC 1484)

The priest’s words that day had a number of effects on me. First and foremost, it powerfully reconfirmed the efficaciousness of the sacrament. Christ is truly present and truly forgives. It also affirmed to me that we are called to be intercessors, for our family and our friends, and in fact, for all those entrusted to us. This is our privilege and important responsibility as Christians. Lastly, we should not judge, but rather, entrust everyone by prayer and sacrifice to the divine mercy of God. Even today, years later, I pray for my friend’s eternal rest.