Author Archives: Brian

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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)

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.