Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Saint Michael and Me

Many years ago, when I was preparing for Confirmation, we were encouraged to be confirmed under a saint’s name. In doing so, we would establish a kind of patronage, a special relationship with that saint. I don’t remember much from that eighth-grade year, but I remember reading the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel (“defend us in battle ... O prince of the heavenly hosts ...”) and seeing a depiction of St. Michael wearing a breastplate, wielding a sword, and standing over a defeated devil. That warrior spirit appealed to me, and so I was confirmed under the name Michael.

I haven’t done much to live up to that warrior ideal. Too often, it seems as though I don’t even do enough to defend my own family against the assaults of a decadent culture. We keep the worst of it out, but some of the subtle stuff gets in by flying under the radar. I justify it to myself by arguing that exposure to the minor stuff (along with some contextualization) will allow my young charges develop the necessary antibodies (metaphorically speaking) to avoid a full-blown infection when they are finally exposed, as adults, to the really nasty stuff.

As for St. Michael, the Church’s liturgical calendar ensures that once a year (today, September 29!), we celebrate the feast of the Archangels. Therefore, once a year, I am reminded that I chose St. Michael as my patron and am called to imitate his example. It matters not how well I have followed his example in the past, what matters is how well I follow his example here and now. On that day approximately 25 years ago, when I was anointed with the sacred chrism, I received the gift of the Holy Spirit and commissioned into the service of the Lord, and I effectively promised in a particular way to imitate St. Michael the Archangel. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel any different the day after my Confirmation than I did the day before. Yet our faith teaches us that I was marked with a seal that day. St. Michael continues (and will continue) to have a special significance for me.

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray.
And do thou, O prince of the heavenly hosts,
By the power of God,
Thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits,
Who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Science and the New Atheists

It seems as though every way I turn recently, I come upon the intersection of faith and science and the new atheists. Just yesterday, there was an excellent article by Mark Shea at Catholic Exchange, in which he examined the arguments of the new atheists in a Thomistic fashion. Expanding upon some of the comments that he made during his recent appearance on Catholic Answers, Mr. Shea lays out five arguments (two good and three really weak) against the existence of God. Namely,:

Objection 1: The Argument from Evil
Objection 2: The Everything-Works-Fine-Without-God Argument
Objection 3: The Argument from Intellectual Maturity
Objection 4: Argumentum Contra Suckers
Objection 5: Argument from Chronological Snobbery

The first two objections are the only reasonable objections, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, and he dealt with them hundreds of years ago. For a full breakdown of how the five arguments are most commonly expressed in modern times, I encourage you to read Mr. Shea’s article, Padding the Case for the New Atheism.

I said there were multiple dots to connect, besides Mr. Shea’s, and so there are. Very recently, Dr. Benjamin Wiker, author of The Darwin Myth, was a guest on EWTN’s Life on the Rock. Dr. Wiker is not a proponent of a young earth theory, nor does he deny the mechanism of evolution in the development of species. In fact, he asserts that anyone who believes the earth is only 6,000 years old and God planted fossil evidence in order to test man’s faith is flirting with heresy because it implies that God himself is inherently deceptive. What Wiker objects to is the Darwinist ideology that holds a purely materialist view of evolution, with God’s participation excluded. The Church has nothing to fear from science.

Br. Guy Consolmagno was a guest on Catholic Answers for a show titled, The Christian Roots of Science. Brother Guy is a Jesuit with a PhD in Planetary Science, and he has conducted his research from the Vatican Observatory since 1993. As can be expected, the subject of Galileo’s trial by the Church was raised. It really wasn’t about his scientific theories, except maybe to the extent that he might have tried to assert that science trumped Revelation. Plus his persecution had to be among the mildest in recorded history.

Today, I happened to listen to the second hour of Monday’s Catholics Answers Live, in which Mark Brumley, the President of Ignatius Press, was the guest for Why Arguments for God are Important. Mr. Brumley noted that there are three reasons why even faithful, believing Christians should be familiar with the arguments in favor of God’s existence: our own faith is strengthened in the process, it aids our evangelizing efforts in being able to make the case to non-believers, and it clarifies in our own mind exactly who and what God is. It just so happens that Ignatius Press publishes a book, the Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, that has an entire chapter devoted to presenting 20 different arguments for the existence of God. I would be surprised if the five classic proofs of St. Thomas Aquinas weren’t the first five covered.

Finally, at least for now, was last Thursday’s Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours:

Lord, it is your will that men use their minds to unlock nature’s secrets and master the world, may the arts and sciences advance your glory and the happiness of all peoples.

Now I have to ask, does that sound like a Church that is hostile toward science?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Extraordinary in the Ordinary

In my bedroom hangs a portrait of a parish priest – Fr. Michael McGivney. For those who might not be familiar with Fr. McGivney, he is responsible for founding the Knights of Columbus in 1885, and his cause for beatification is under review. The postulator for his cause, Fr. Gabriel O’Donnell, was recently a guest on Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s Wednesday evening EWTN Live program, where they discussed the Church’s canonization process and two causes that Fr. O’Donnell is involved with, that of Fr. Michael McGivney and that of Rose Hawthorne. Fr. O’Donnell currently serves as the Academic Dean at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.

Fr. O’Donnell on why the Church canonizes saints:

The Church chooses certain individuals to canonize so that the ideal for holiness can be enshrined in flesh and blood, we have examples, and the glory of God is manifested in people in their ordinary lives. In fact, I think some theologians today would say that modern saints are often saints of ordinary life. The classic example would be Therese of Liseux, someone who did nothing extraordinary. She was a simple Carmelite nun, but she was extraordinary in the quality of her life – the way she loved, the way she lived with her sisters, etc. And in a way, that’s true of Fr. McGivney. He’s one of those people who lived the ordinary life of a parish priest in an extraordinary way.

Fr. O’Donnell on the canonization process:

The primary issue is, can the Church see in this individual the qualities of what is called heroic virtue. In other words, this person isn’t just a good Christian, but goes above and beyond and is virtuous to such an extent that it’s a kind of martyrdom. They endure all things for Christ. And so the Church’s judgment is always, “Does this candidate have the quality of heroic virtue?” And the whole canonization process is unearthing the proof of whether that’s true, also unearthing the things that might say that it’s not true. So the long process from beginning to canonization is really all about constantly looking at this individual, his life or her life, writings, activities, what they did, what they didn’t do, and always trying to probe, “Can we see the heroism of Jesus Christ in this person?” … Today the process is long, and it’s very complex. There are norms from the Church that govern every step along the way, and the main thrust of the canonization process is really, almost more scientific. You’re gathering a tremendous amount of information through research and then interviewing people who may have known the person or, if the person is long dead, people who know the reputation for holiness. The point of it all is that the norms are only meant to legitimate the ultimate conclusion that this indeed is someone in whom we can see Christ clearly through their life of virtue. And both Fr. McGivney and, I think, Rose Hawthorne qualify for that, even though they’re not yet canonized.

During the question and answer period, a viewer asks whether a Protestant can be canonized. Fr. O’Donnell’s answer:

No, they can’t, because canonization is an act whereby the Church takes a member of the Church and brings him or her forward as an example of heroic virtue. The Church would have no right to investigate or lay claim to that person’s life. I mean, ti would be an invasion, you might say. You can imagine how a family or a church body would be terribly upset if you ever tried to coopt one of their members as a Catholic martyr or saint. So no, the church only beatifies and canonizes baptized Catholics.

As with most EWTN programs, a podcast of the program is available in the archives (I really love those archives). For more information on Fr. McGivney and his cause, visit the website of the Father Michael J. McGivney Guild.

Friday, September 18, 2009

You Pull, I'll Push

Last week was the one-year anniversary of the death of a remarkable man. Remarkable in the sense that his life and death are worthy of being remarked upon. That man was Thomas Vander Woude, who died in Virginia on September 8, 2008.

Mr. Vander Woude, a retired airline pilot, was tending to his small farm when his youngest son, Joseph, fell through the cover of a septic tank. Joseph, 20 years old at the time of the accident, is the youngest of seven brothers, and he happens to have Down Syndrome. Mr. Vander Woude jumped into the tank to save his son. It is reported that his last words, spoken to a hired hand, were, “You pull, I’ll push.” Joseph was saved, and spent five days recovering in the hospital. Thomas was lost, his life sacrificed for that of his son.

What became obvious in the days following Thomas Vander Woude’s death was that he died as he had lived. In life, he embodied many of the ideals of the loving husband and father. He was able to die well because he had lived well.

His oldest son, a priest for the Diocese of Arlington, VA, was a guest on EWTN’s Life on the Rock last week. He noted that his father would have been mortified by all of the attention being paid to him. He also noted that his dad would have been among the first to note his own faults. And yet, he remains an individual who embraced and lived out his Catholic faith to the fullest. As a husband and a father, he provides a role model for the rest of us to emulate.

At one point in the program, a viewer asks Fr. Vander Woude via email, “I would imagine your father’s glorious death was the crown of his spiritual journey. Can you mention some of the times you noticed your father’s growth in sanctity and in what ways he acted in accord with Our Lord’s grace in order to grow over the years?” Fr. Vander Woude responded, “Definitely. My dad’s life was a very joyful life, but as he grew and got older it was definitely a balance in life as far as the joys and being able to be patient with the inconveniences of life, and whatnot. And so I definitely saw that. And to the point that with my youngest brother, Joesph, doing things that, ultimately you have to laugh. He keeps reminding you of what is most important in life, and that’s what I saw in a particular way with my own dad (and mother). These little things that people oftentimes get upset about, inconveniences around the house – nah.”

At this point, Fr. Mark, who co-hosts the program with Doug Barry interjected, “I’ve heard that so many times from parents of a child who has Down Syndrome or something like that, that it really helps them to shake up their priorities and focus on what’s really important.” To which Fr. Vander Woude added, “And there’s a lot of joy in that as well, and being able to – now it’s just more of a focus out of self. Pope John Paul used to talk a lot about total self-giving. There’s joy in that.”

The audio from the September 10 episode of Life on the Rock is available in the audio library section of the EWTN website. Fr. Roger Landry wrote an excellent account of the life and death of Tom Vander Woude.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Widow of Niam

by William Baer

Copyright (c) 2008 First Things (June/July 2008).

I follow the rank corpse, holding my breath,
prepared to bury my son forevermore;
a widow left with nothing, nothing but death,
who prays, but doesn’t know what she’s praying for.
Suddenly, the multitudes appear
following the Rabbi at Niam’s Gate,
who meets my eyes and whispers, “Have no fear.”
The funeral procession stops. I wait.
He turns to sees the corpse of my dead son,
then calls out loud, “I say to thee, arise.”
My son sits on his bier, his death undone,
the flash of heaven gleaming in his eyes.
Then, watching Jesus leave, though shocked and numb,
I know that He’s “the one who is to come.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

Killing Cars

Got my October 2009 issue of First Things today. In the back of the journal, where Fr. Richard John Neuhaus used to make his observations, Editor Joseph Bottum now carries the mantle. Among many other things, he comments on an article that appeared in the August 4, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal.

Believe it or not, sodium silicate ("liquid glass" to its friends) is in the news. The gederal government gave this unassuming compound a huge boost in popularity by making it the official poison for killing fuel-inefficient cars under its now, alas, bankrupt "Cash-for-Clunkers" program. In a detailed, 136-page manual distributed to dealers, the government mandated that "clunkers" be permanently disabled by running the engine with sodium silicate instead of oil, thereby abrading the engine beyond repair.

Suppliers happily scrambled to meet the sudden demand (the Wall Street Journal reported that one distributor was working "sixteen-hour days"), and across the nation, mechanics were energized by the prospect of a novel thrill: "At dealerships across America, mechanics accustomed to fixing engines are battling for the chance to ruin them. 'Everybody wants to go first, so I'm probably going to have to make them draw straws,' says Jim Burton of Randy Curnow Buick Pontiac GMC in Kansas City, Kansas. As service manager, however, he might reserve that thrill for himself. 'I can't wait,' he says."

By all accounts, the prescribed method is quick, safe, and effective. At one dealership in Kansas, sodium silicate killed a 2002 Ford Windstar and a 1999 Jeep in approximately two minutes. (A 1988 Jeep held out for six minutes. "Sometimes," observed the dealership president, "those old engines are hardest to kill.") The simplicity , efficiency, and dispatch with which this debut federal euthanasia program was administered should help quiet fears that the federal government is incompetent to administer health care.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why Catholic to Threshold

Over the last four years, many of the parishes in our area have participated in the Why Catholic program from Renew International. Over the course of those four years, participants made their way through the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church, with each year devoted to one of the four pillars of the Catechism. Participation was widespread. When the program started, there were over three hundred registered participants from our parish cluster alone. As could be expected, the numbers dropped off a bit over the course of the program, but it still is significant. Regardless of how the individual group leaders might have facilitated the discussions within their groups, it’s hard not to recognize that, at the very least, a large number of adult Catholics in our area became aware of the contents of the Catechism.

The obvious task for those involved in adult faith formation is finding a way to build upon the success of the Why Catholic program. With that in mind, the St. Marys Deanery is promoting the Threshold Bible Study (TBS) within its member parishes. TBS is a topical Bible study. Rather than look in-depth at a particular book of the Bible, each study takes a topic and surveys what the canon of scripture says as a whole about that particular subject. For the first year of the TBS program, the Deanery has selected the study on the Eucharist.

Although I (along with my wife) was a small group facilitator for Why Catholic, I decided already last spring that with all the other things going on, I was not going to sign up to be a facilitator for whatever came next. I’m on the fence about whether to be involved in one of the TBS groups. It’s hard to find the time without taking it away from the family, and, as a participant, you risk having a facilitator who will try to dominate the conversation and take it far off-subject. At the same time, I want to be able to follow along with what everyone else (OK, maybe not everyone) in the parish is studying, just in case it comes up in conversation. So, I purchased the Eucharist study through Amazon.

It looks like it has some pretty solid content to it. The publisher has collected positive blurbs on the TBS series from prominent bishops and theologians, including such figures as Archbishop Chaput of Denver, Cardinal George of Chicago, and Dr. Scott Hahn of Steubenville. The Eucharist study is divided into 30 lessons. For group study, the text recommends six sessions, one for the introduction and then six lessons per session. The parish and deanery plan to follow the Why Catholic model with six fall sessions and six spring sessions.

It will be interesting to see whether the TBS program has as much participation as the Why Catholic program did. My inclination is to believe that Why Catholic, which was billed as a journey through the Catechism, appealed to people who were hungry for doctrinal content and wanted to know what official Church teaching was. I don’t think that the Bible study format will have as wide an appeal. I hope that I’m wrong – it surely wouldn’t be the first time. In the meanwhile, I’ll be following along from home.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Our local religious education program for high school students will be starting this weekend, and for the first time in nearly ten years, I will not be a part of it. It seems as though, in general, I have been disentangling myself from various commitments, and yet when I sit down with my wife and we look at our weekly calendars, we’re both still incredibly busy, just with different stuff.

I had a list of excuses prepared for why I would not be returning as an instructor this year, but I was not asked why I didn’t want to return, and I was easily replaced. Had I been asked, I would have explained that I never seemed to achieve any kind of rapport with my students and, while I think I did a pretty darn good job in the classroom, the curriculum is explicitly not instructional (it follows a youth ministry model) and as such, it is not suited to my personality type, and there are other people out there who can do as good a job (better, even) than I can.

That doesn’t exactly mean that I’m no longer a catechist. I still have to instruct my own children. With my oldest entering high school this year, I recently purchased the Didache Series for just that purpose.

There was a time when I was deeply involved in my parish: not only was I a high school catechist, I also served on the Parish Council, facilitated a small faith group, took classes in the Lay Pastoral Ministry Program, and was discerning a vocation to the diaconate. Since then, it feels as though a gulf has grown between me and my parish. I’ve been attending mass elsewhere for liturgical reasons. Last week, I needed to go to mass on Saturday, so I gave my own parish a try for the first time since March. We skipped the Creed and sat through the general intercessions. The prayer over the gifts was flubbed and there was a bit of ad-libbing in the Eucharistic Prayer. We were told to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer. I might be ready to try my parish again after another three months away.

None of this disentanglement has been the result of a conscious effort. It’s just happened. I remain convinced of the need for faith to be actualized through works of apostolate. And so, I remain an officer in my Knights of Columbus council (albeit a minor officer, after two years as Grand Knight and six years as a Trustee) and a volunteer with our local ConQuest club.

At first, I thought that maybe God was clearing out my schedule to make use of me for something else. As I mentioned, though, my wife and I still find that our schedules are full. As our family grows, it is becoming necessary for us to direct more of our attention inward, to their needs. It makes little sense for me to spend hours catechizing other people’s kids while neglecting the religious education of my own. In addition, my wife’s work schedule will take her out of the home several times during the week, and while our older kids are able to babysit occasionally, we believe that an adult presence is important. It’s all too easy to forget that a parent’s first apostolate should be the family.

For several years, it was popular to ask, “What would Jesus do?” The letters “WWJD?” could be seen everywhere, it seemed. I don’t see it much anymore. As a husband and father, I would occasionally turn that into “What would Joseph do?” Almost invariably, I would conclude that Joseph would never allow himself to become entangled in anything that would get in the way of his primary vocation. It’s a lesson that I’m still trying to learn.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What's a Hypocrite to Do?

Not long ago, a Facebook friend expressed a desire to see hypocrites just shut up. Last week, the weekday mass readings from the Lectionary featured the woes that Jesus declared to the Pharisees in chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel. This past Sunday’s Gospel featured a parallel condemnation from chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. These passages have led to the term Pharisee being listed at dictionary.com as a synonym for hypocrite. It’s impossible (for me, at least) to read these passages without a degree of introspection.

My actions are not always in accord with what I say. By most measures, that makes me a hypocrite. Nobody likes a hypocrite. The typical attitude was given voice by the Beastie Boys when they rapped, “Your dad caught you smokin’ and he said, ‘No way!’ That hypocrite smokes two packs a day!” What’s a hypocrite like me to do?

Option 1: Shut up. That seems to be what my Facebook friend and the Beastie Boys would have us do. The problem with this approach is that it seems to say that only canonized saints are allowed to speak against sin. Since the rest of us (including the Pope!) have fallen natures which incline us toward sin, we would be automatically disqualified from pointing out that sin ruins lives, and we are called to something greater. Admittedly, our sinfulness varies by degree; but the Church teaches that anger (not the righteous sort) is a violation of the fifth commandment (thou shalt not kill). If anger and murder are violations of the same commandment, but to different degrees, does that make the angry man who denounces murder a hypocrite? Do we really mean to suggest that the nicotine-addicted smoker who wants to quit but can’t is not able to urge others not to smoke without being labeled a hypocrite?

Option 2: Embrace hypocrisy. If I say one thing and do another, so what? A variation on this option would be to argue that most people have to live a certain way in order for us to have a society that doesn’t implode into chaos, but society won’t collapse if I don’t follow the rules. The rules apply to other people, not to me. This option has roots in pride and relativism. The only logical conclusion is that morality is for other people, not for me.

Option 3: Change what I say. If I am unable to make my actions match my rhetoric, then I should make my rhetoric match my actions. The family man with a mistress should promote the benefits of infidelity, even if it hurts his political career and destroys his family. Whatever I want to do is moral, and I’ll be happy to tell you why: because I want to do it. This option can’t possibly work because of all the contradictions that pile up on themselves.

Option 4: Change what I do. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. If I am going to say that the moral thing to do is X, then I should do X and not Y. At the very least, I should want to do X and try to do X. Thus, the smoker from Option 1 should want to quit smoking and try to quit smoking, even if he finds the addiction overpowering.

Clearly, we can’t let accusations of hypocrisy cow us into silence regarding moral obligations. At the same time, we can’t hold ourselves up as the standard. The standards for virtue and morality are absolute and external to ourselves. None of us on this side of heaven is going to meet the standard. However, our inability to meet the standard doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to try or to encourage others to strive for the ideal. While we can’t perfectly meet the standard, we can get reasonably close (but again, only if we try).

Being told to do something by a hypocrite galls us. The actions of the hypocrite are scandalous and tempt us to dismiss what they say. Our own weakness tempts us to refrain from rebuking the sins of others. Jesus, though, neither told the Pharisees to stop teaching, nor did he tell people to ignore their teachings. To the contrary he acknowledged their authority and told the crowds to do what they say.

Just because something is said by a hypocrite doesn’t make it wrong, and just because I might not measure up to the standards I set for myself and others doesn’t mean that those standard need to be compromised.