Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Apostle or Presbyter?

Michael Barber, writing over at The Sacred Page, has posted a compelling argument that the author of the fourth gospel was the Apostle John. Most of us have always assumed that the Evangelist and the Apostle were one and the same, but many modern "scripture scholars" have turned critical (and doubtful) eyes upon the authors of many of the books contained in the Bible.

Barber is confident that he is correct in attributing authorship to the Apostle (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of course), and he ends with a strongly worded conclusion.

In conclusion, I want to say that, at first blush, it would seem that the "academically responsible" approach would be to remain noncommittal about Johannine authorship. However, I'm coming to the conclusion that the opposite is true. Hedging on Johannine authorship seems to betray an unwillingness to acknowledge the coherence of the early testimony with the internal evidence.

One wonders if such reluctance is motivated by other concerns. Clearly, asserting that someone like the rich young ruler is the author of the Fourth Gospel seems to stretch the limits of credulity. Rather, it would seem the unanimous patristic witness was reliable when it held that the Gospel the manuscripts all call "The Gospel According to John" was written by, well... er, John.

Who are these "scholars" who "betray an unwillingness to acknowledge the coherence of the early testimony with internal evidence?" In Jesus of Nazareth, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (Doubleday 2007), Pope Benedict XVI seems to stake out a postion ("I entirely concur . . .") that draws a distinction between the Apostle John and another John, the Presbyter, who wrote the Gospel.

. . . in Ephesus there was something like a Johannine school, which traced its origins to Jesus' favorite disciple himself, but in which certain "Presbyter John" presided as the utimate authority. This "presbyter" John appears as the sender and author of the Second and Third Letters of John (in each case in the first verse of the first chapter) simply under the title "the presbyter" (without reference to the name John). He is evidently not the same as the Apostle, which means that here in the canonical text we encounter expressly the mysterious figure of the presbyter. He must have been closely connected with the Apostle; perhaps he had even been acquainted with Jesus himself. After the death of the Apostle, he was identified wholly as the bearer of the latter's heritage, and in the collective memory, the two figures were increasingly fused. At any rate, there seem to be grounds for ascribing to "Presbyter John" an essential role in the definitive shaping of the Gospel, though he must always have regarded himself as the trustee of the tradition he had received from the son of Zebedee.

I entirely concur with the conclusion that Peter Stuhlmacher has drawn from the above data. He holds "that the contents of the Gospel go back to the disciple whom Jesus (especially) loved. The presbyter understood himself as his transmitter and mouthpiece" (Biblische Theologie, II, p. 206). In a similar vein Stuhlmacher cites E. Ruckstuhl and P. Dschullnigg to the effect that "the author of the Gospel of John is, as it were, the literary executor of the favorite disciple" (ibid., p. 207).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

For Your Sake God Has Become Man

The Office of Readings for Christmas Eve features a selection from a sermon by Saint Augustine. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened ‘to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

How fortunate we are that God did not leave us to our fallen fate! But clearly, it seems to me, the belief in this truth has vast implications for our whole outlook on life. What would be the implications of being consigned by Original Sin to our sinful flesh without redemption? As Christians, our relationship with God is radically different from those who do not accept the divinity of Christ and his redeeming sacrifice. I'm thinking primarily of Jews and Moslems, who, like Christians, believe in the one God.

At Christmas time, we celebrate the fact that the Son of God took on a human nature and entered the world as one of us so that we might receive the sanctifying grace lost by our first parents. He entered the world as a helpless infant, just as any other man would. On this blessed Christmas Day, let us celebrate our common humanity with Christ and all of God's children.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Outside My Window

The short reading selected by the editors of Magnificat for today’s (December 12, Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) morning prayer was from the Song of Songs. It speaks of the end of winter and the appearance of flowers.

He says to me,
“Arise my beloved, my beautiful,
and come!
For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth.”
(Song of Songs 2:10-12)

Maybe the imagery invoked by the passage is appropriate for the Third Week of Advent. But this is the second week of December. The first day of winter is just over a week away. Here in Ohio, the temperatures have failed to climb above freezing for the last several days, and, although warmer temperatures are coming, the forecast is for rain.

I found it difficult to read without noting the contrast with conditions outside my window.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Clay and the Potter

On the First Sunday of Advent this year (Cycle B), the Lectionary had us read a passage from chapters 63 and 64 of the Book of Isaiah. That’s in the post-exile, messianic part of the book. The last line of the selected passage reads,

Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.

In the New American Bible, this is Isaiah 64:7. In my New International Version and my Revised Standard Version, this is 64:8. The difference appears to be in where to end chapter 63 and start chapter 64. Silly me! I had thought that the chapters and verses were standardized by St. Jerome in the fourth century.

But I digress from what I thought was interesting.

On Friday of the First Week of Advent, the Lectionary directed us to an earlier chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet is leveling his indictment against Israel, describing how she has been unfaithful to the covenant. The passage used at mass begins with verse 17 of chapter 29, but the verse immediately before it draws an interesting contrast to the selection from the previous Sunday:

Your perversity is as though the potter were taken to be the clay: As though what is made should say of its maker, “He did not make me!” Or the vessel should say of the potter, “He does not understand.” (Is 29:16)

Which chapter, 29 or 64, more closely reflects the prevailing attitude of our culture today? Are we clay that acknowledges the potter and are willing to be worked into a useful vessel, or do we think that we can shape the potter to our desires? Israel had to be conquered and sent into exile to move from the hubris of Is 29:16 to the humility of Is 64:7/8. I pray that we might respond to a more gentle correction, even as I doubt that anything short of extreme will get our attention.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Joy and Sorrow

For those who pray the Rosary, Mondays typically bring meditation on the joyful mysteries. During my Monday morning reflections lately, I can’t help but notice the proximity in the mysteries of joy and sorrow. At least two of the joyful mysteries of the Rosary are closely related to two of the Seven Sorrows of Mary.

The fourth joyful mystery is the Presentation, Recounted in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple, in accordance with the Mosaic Law. Yet the joy of the Presentation is tempered by the encounter with Simeon: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) This is the first of Mary’s seven sorrows.

The fifth joyful mystery is the finding of Jesus in the Temple. This scene also comes from the second chapter of Luke, when Jesus is twelve years old. Before he was found, however, he was lost. Mary and Joseph did not find him until the third day. The search for the lost Jesus is the third of Mary’s seven sorrows.

Is there something to be learned about life here? Can we conclude from this that joy and sorrow often walk hand-in-hand?

I thought of this again while attending mass on Thanksgiving Day. The month of November starts with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Throughout the month, our parish has a book prominently located within the sanctuary with a lit vigil candle. The book lists members of the parish who have died during the preceding year. Even on the day set aside to give thanks for God’s blessings, we were reminded that some were no longer with us. We can hope that they are in heaven, or at least being cleansed in purgatory with heaven as their ultimate destination, but we can’t know with certainty. At any rate, we are deprived of their company in this life.

Must every moment of joy be touched with a hint of sorrow?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Courtly, Theological, and Poetic

In his sermon for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Fr. Robert Barron previews some of the prayers in the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which goes into effect this coming Sunday. He ties it all together by noting that the language is more courtly – one would never use street language in a royal court. It is also, he says, more theologically dense and poetic.

After hearing the translation that we’ve been using for all of my adult life, and then hearing the new translation, both supposedly from the same Latin source, it is hard for me not to feel as though somebody cheated me out of my liturgical heritage!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Cost of a Family

Just the other night, my dear wife turned to me in exasperation, asking, “Where is all of our money going?” (She might not have used those exact words, but you get the drift.” Like the answer to a prayer, the United States Department of Agriculture provided the reason way back on June 9. I just happened to hear about it on the radio this morning.

The USDA estimates that a middle-income family can expect to spend about $227K over the next 17 years on a child born today. The government agency even provides a nifty little calculator, allowing you to estimate how much you spend each year for your little ones. We have seven kids – the calculator only allows for six. However, the average cost comes out very close to $10K per child per year. You can do the math for seven kids.

Can there be any doubt that, in the view of the United States government, children are a tremendous financial drain? The effect of a report like this is to discourage young couples from embarking on the adventure of parenthood.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Stuck on Seven

Every other year, the Lectionary walks Catholics through St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans during the weekday masses (weeks 28 through 31 of Ordinary Time). Those who only attend mass on Sunday take a trip through Romans every third year, in Cycle A (2011 is a Cycle A year). The Sunday readings from Romans occur from the 9th to the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

When the Lectionary takes us through Romans, I try to follow along. I think I do a pretty good job of tracing Paul’s logic through the first six chapters, but I always seem to miss the turn at Chapter seven. I have to back up and re-read, and back up and re-read, and back up and re-read yet again before I start to think that maybe I’m reading it correctly. By correctly, I mean according to the Catholic rules that say it has to fit in with everything else.

Anyhow, because I get hung up on Chapter seven, I tend to fall behind when the rest of the Church moves on. Friday of Week 30 is in Chapter nine (or would be, if it weren’t superseded this year by the Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude), and Saturday is in Chapter eleven. I am truly thankful for the Church’s guidance, but I need to get caught up. I hope I don’t have to read any of Chapters eight through eleven more than twice!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Tax Plans

Herman Cain is enjoying some popularity as a Republican contender for the presidency of the United States. His big idea is a 9-9-9 tax plan. Huntsman, Romney, Perry, and all the others have a tax plan. There’s only one problem: the President doesn’t determine tax policy. He can suggest what he wants to Congress, but the rates and types of taxes that can be collected (legally) are out of his hands. The centerpiece of Cain’s campaign to win the job is something that’s not in the job description.

That’s not to say that the President can’t do anything to affect the economy of the nation. All of the bureaucratic agencies that interpret legislation to impose regulations on businesses and individuals across the country are part of the Executive Branch. The President can negotiate trade agreements (subject to Congressional approval) that impacts imports and exports. Plus, of course, all of those federal government offices spend money, and reducing discretionary spending would reduce the amount of tax revenue necessary to balance the budget (or, more likely, reduce the size of the budget deficit).

So when do the Republican candidates get a chance to shoot themselves in the feet with their foreign policy proposals?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Fifth Question

The gospel for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle A) is the parable of the wedding feast from Matthew 22. The gospel has a short form, verses 1-10, and a long form, which add verses 11-14. Our priest this morning chose the short form, and in his homily, he focused on four questions asked when an invitation is received: the who, what, when, and where. The short form of his homily is that our king, God, invites each and every one of us to communion with him right here and right now.

It all seems so easy - too easy, actually. After all, my name is on the guest list, and I'm right here, and it's right now. If all I have to do is accept the invitation, then I should be golden. But in the long form of the gospel, verses 11-14, some of those who showed up, even though they were invited, were kicked out because they were improperly attired. And although Father covered four standard questions in his homily, a fifth begs to be asked. How?

Clearly, there's more to it than just being me, right here, right now, and saying, "I accept."

Sleepy Football Friday

Friday night in these parts means one thing: high school football. Okay, I'll make a small concession. There is a shrinking group of elderly folks for whom every Friday means BINGO. I worked Friday night BINGO for a while, back before babies five, six, and seven. The Friday night BINGO attendance has been in steady decline for the last ten years.

This Friday night started a little unusually, with a call from my mother-in-law. She wanted to invite her daughter, my lovely wife, to see a movie. This happens less often than a blue moon. Unfortunately, my wife's mom must have forgotten that her grandson plays on the football team, and two (three if you count their cousin) of her granddaughters play in the marching band, which places their dad (that would be me) firmly in the stands watching, while their mom stays home with the youngest children. And so, my wife politely demurred.

Amy really only stays home with Michael and Erin. Catherine is in sixth grade and has discovered the social aspect of going to football games to hang out with her classmates and meet other students from the opposing schools. She promises me that she doesn't talk to the boys. And then there's Jamie, the three-year-old. She looks forward to attending the football game each week, where she cries for popcorn, suckers, and whatever other concession stand confections she sees in the hands of other children. I can usually put her off until half-time.

This week was an away game. Jamie nodded off on the drive there, and the last few minutes before arriving at St. Henry, Catherine and I spent trying to keep Jamie awake. Our team played well and brought home a 34-7 victory, taking their record to 5-2, with good chances for post-season play. The season is going well for them, but the players are starting to feel a little beat-up. Jamie, on the other hand, didn't make it to the end of the game. As the time ran out in the fourth quarter, I carried a sleeping bundle in a blanket to the car for the drive home.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Don John and Lepanto

During my morning rosary run today, I was very much aware that today is the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary. More to the point, I was aware that the Memorial was established in thanksgiving for victory over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The rosary was ardently prayed before (and during, by those not engaged) the battle, and the victory by the Holy League was attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In a spare moment this morning, I reread Chesterton’s Lepanto. It is stirring verse, celebrating the courage of Don John of Austria, at a time when other western leaders couldn’t be bothered to come to the defense of Christendom. 440 years ago, at the age of 24, Don John led a hastily-assembled fleet into battle and, in the process, saved western civilization. He is said to have told his men, “There is no paradise for cowards.”

Here I am, about to turn 42, raising my family in a bucolic village in fly-over country. What am I doing to save western civilization from all the threats that it faces in the modern world? I know God doesn’t call us all to be a Don John. I know about the Little Way of St. Therese, and how some of us are just called to be little purple flowers in God’s garden.

And yet, there’s always the whisper of a doubt in the back of my mind that maybe I was (or am) called to something more and my own laziness or cowardice got in the way.

To all of those who clearly have not been cowed, and who have taken positions on the front line, my hat is off to you. You have my respect, my admiration, and my prayers.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Ennui, Apathy, Acedia

My spiritual life is not being lived at the level it should be. I know that’s always going to be true – even a high-functioning mystic (and that’s definitely not me!) is gong to feel spiritually incomplete on this side of the beatific vision (i.e., the presence of God enjoyed by the holy souls in heaven). But I’ve been occupying a place lower than I should reasonably expect.

I have to admit that it’s largely my own fault. Today’s gospel is about perseverance in prayer. I, however, am easily deterred. I’ve neglected the Liturgy of the Hours (not that it’s required, for lay people), and it’s been a long while since I’ve made a holy hour. I make excuses for the lapses, usually claiming that other responsibilities demand my attention. The liturgy has not been a refuge. I’ve attended, but entering fully into the mystery has eluded me. The only prayer that I can admit to is the rosary, silently recited on a finger ring while running.

Spontaneous prayer has never been a strong suit of mine. When I try to express my prayers in words, two things happen: First, I quickly run out of words and start repeating myself with words that are completely inadequate to begin with. Second, I find myself having to take back the literal meaning of the words themselves. My prayers end up being a vague uplifting of spirit and intentions.

Sometimes, that feels entirely inadequate. My daughter was in the hospital recently. I knew that I should pray for her, but I couldn’t bring myself to do any more than the vague lifting of intentions. I can only guess that this is what St. Paul was getting at when he wrote, “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26)

That’s not the only reason for my spiritual listlessness. I follow the headlines in the Catholic press, but the only stories that seem to be new are the scandalous ones. Every message from the pope or one of the bishops just seems to be a repetition of what’s been said before. No matter how inspirational the words might be, my reaction lately is an indifferent shrug. The need to reject relativism? Already heard it. A new initiative encouraging families to put Christ in the center? Well, duh!

In short, what I feel is at variance with what I know. I know that what is needed is perseverance. I know that the liturgy is the work of the church and that the Eucharistic celebration makes present the entire Paschal Mystery. I know that reality doesn’t depend on my feelings or on my perception of it. I know that dryness happens, and prayer shapes the soul even then. I know these things, but not feeling the fire is a real drag.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Advice to Timothy

According to Magnificat, the Lectionary gives options for today’s first reading: “Today, the Gospel of the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows is obligatory. However, for the first reading and the psalm, one can choose between the texts fo the Thrusday of the Twenty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time or those of the memorial.” I had two observation upon reading the selection from the first Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12-16).

First, what a wonderful reference to the sacrament of Confirmation: “Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity. Until I arrive, attend to the reading, exhortation, and teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands by the presbyterate.”

The second requires a little background. We’ve got a fellow in our men’s group who is of the faith alone, once saved, always saved variety. Paul advises Timothy, “Attend to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you.” If Timothy’s salvation was assured and could not be lost, then why is Paul telling him that he will save himself by perseverance?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Centurions and Widows

It’s a fairly common practice, when meditating upon the scriptures, to put oneself in the story. In some narrative passages, there a multiple characters with whom we are invited to identify.

Monday’s gospel reading (Luke 7:1-10) was the healing of the Centurion’s servant. The Centurion, a gentile, recognizes the power and authority of Jesus, and makes profound statements of humility and faith: “I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof . . . but say the word and let my servant be healed.” We echo these words at every mass when we say before receiving communion, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” [The words of the response will be changed in the new translation of the missal to further highlight the relation to the scripture passage in Luke.] In our paraphrase of the Centurion, we take on the role of both him and his servant.

The same can be said of Tuesday’s gospel (Luke 7:11-17), in which Jesus brings back to life the dead son of the widow of Nain. We are invited to see ourselves as both the widow, upon whom Christ has compassion, and the son, whose life He restores.

The Centurion, in his faith approached Christ through the elders of the Jews. We often approach Christ in the sacraments through the mediation of His Church. The widow, weeping for her dead son, is like the Church, weeping over the spiritual death of her children brought on by sin.

He wants us to be alive in the Spirit and not dead in sin. Reconciliation and new life await us in the sacraments. The only thing that He asks of us is humility and faith.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Human Energy

There are occasional signs that I’ve drunk deeply from the well of popular science fiction. Today, for instance, I received a magazine in the mail. On the back cover was an advertisement, the left half of which was a picture of an attractive, middle-aged Asian woman. On the right, in progressively large text, were the words, “The world needs more than oil.” Below this statement, in a hand-stamp styling were the words “We agree” and two signatures. Back on the left, near the bottom of the Asian woman’s photo, was an oil company logo and “Human Energy ®.”

“Oh my God!” I thought. “They’re sticking people in stasis pods and harvesting them for electricity just like in The Matrix!”

Ha! That was just some silly movie. They couldn’t really do that, could they?

[Note: the ad is really promoting natural gas, but it’s necessary to read all the fine print to find that out. I’m no marketing genius, but this strikes me as a really lousy advertisement. The agency that designed the ad should be fired, and whoever approved it should be demoted.]

[Further note: I showed the ad to my 17-year old son, who’s never seen The Matrix. He said that it made him think of a bunch of Chinese folks pedaling away on stationary bikes to generate electricity.]

Monday, September 12, 2011

Casual Sundays

There’s a stereotypical view out there that anyone who complains about the way people dress for mass is either a grumpy old fogey or a sexually repressed prude. I’ve come to accept that my views on proper church attire probably make me a fogey.

Then came some affirmation of my view from a surprising source: ABC News! If even ABC News is noticing that Catholics are really dressing poorly for worship, then there must really be a problem!

Go read the story for yourself, and watch the video!

My hope is that, with the fundraising drive of our parish Church to install air conditioning, grown men won’t feel the need to wear short pants and beach shoes to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass next summer.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

25 Years

I was chatting with my older sister this weekend. She related how, when she was first entering the work force, she was told not to count on Social Security being around when she reached retirement age. That was more than 25 years ago. I can’t remember anybody in my generation ever thinking anything other than that Social Security would go bust before we ever got a chance to claim the benefits for which we were allegedly paying into the system. We all knew that our contributions were being spent, and the only thing in the “lockbox” was a stack of IOUs.

My point is that we’ve known for at least 25 years that we had a problem. It’s not exactly true that we’ve done nothing. We’ve invented Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and 401k plans. But at the same time, we’ve left the charade that is Social Security go unreformed.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Racing for the Finish

I heard something recently, I think it was over the television, that left me shaking my head, muttering, “I don’t think so.” The basic thrust of what I heard was that the person wanted to be racing for the finish late in life.

Sure, it sounds life a fine sentiment. Make a strong finish! But my experience running in the 5K tour this summer has me thinking that I’d rather not spend my last years that way.

Don’t get me wrong! I’ve been running pretty well this year. I’ve been able to mix long distance, middle distance, and speed work into my training schedule, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a really bad workout. My race times have been great – I haven’t been over 20 minutes since early June. But in nearly every race that I’ve run, the third mile has been my slowest, taking all the effort that I could muster just to keep running. I cross the finish line dripping with sweat, gasping for breath, barely able to keep from collapsing.

I’d really rather not spend the last third of my life the way that I spend the last mile of a 3.1 mile race.

Friday, September 2, 2011

This Year's Sophomores

After a hiatus of a couple of years, I am returning to the classroom this year as a high school catechist. In the fall session, I will have one of three classes of sophomores preparing for Confirmation. Our first session falls on Sunday, September 11 – the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that changed the world for so many of us. I was a little stunned to realize that this year’s sophomores would have been 5 or 6 years old on that fateful day.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Clothe Yourself

The reading selected by Magnificat for Morning Prayer on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:

That which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor 15:53-54)

I would like to make two quick observations.

First, this sounds awfully Lutheran, in the snow-covered dung sense. However, we have to note that this passage comes near the end of a fairly long letter. These words can’t just be pulled out and interpreted in isolation from the previous chapters. If I were more energetic, I would read the whole thing, trying to follow Paul’s train of thought (maybe a useful exercise for after dinner).

Second, I often say a prayer to the Blessed Virgin when I am about to receive Communion. I ask her to cover me with her mantle, and make me presentable to her Son. It is an acknowledgement of my unworthiness to receive the gift that I am about to receive, as well as of her intermediary role as the Mother of the Redeemer.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Liturgical Sins

Solomon's wisdom failed him in Chapter 11 of 1 Kings. His love for his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines turned his heart after other gods. Even from the beginning of his reign, he "sacrificed and burnt incense at the high places." (1 Kings 3:3)

A note in my Ignatius Bible asserts that Solomon's failing is a warning against sexual excess. It occurs to me, however, that his sin follows a pattern of liturgical aberration. After all, wasn't King Saul's first offence against God a liturgical violation in 1 Samuel 13, when he sacrificed burnt offerings on his own rather than waiting for Samuel? Even before that, in Numbers 16, the rebellion of Korah was essentially liturgical. The death of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 was due to a liturgical over-step.

Many of the sins of the kings of Israel and Judah could be seen as liturgical in nature. It is not always the case that they turned completely away from the one true God to false gods. Sometimes it was that they tried to worship God in the wrong way, after the fashion of the local pagans. Even in the time of Christ, the problem with the Samaritans was not that they didn't worship God, but that they didn't do it the way He set up, but rather in the way that they thought best (see John 4).

So yes, I take it seriously when I see the liturgy abused, even in small ways. Only the Church, and not individual priests or "liturgists" has the authority to change the rites, and the rites of the Roman liturgy will indeed be changing after the end of this liturgical year. Meanwhile, I can only hope that the Creed, which has been strangely absent from the Sunday masses at my parish, finds it's way back to its proper place.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wisdom Is Not Enough

At mass this morning, we heard of how a youthful Solomon, on becoming king, asked God for "an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong." (1 Kings 3:9) This request pleased God: "I do as you requested. I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you." (1 Kings 3:12)

A chapter later in 1 Kings, we learn more: "And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men, . . . And men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom." (1 Kings 4:29-31,34)

Solomon received the gift of a wise and understanding heart from God, and he became famous for this gift. So it has always amazed me that, in spite of all of his wisdom, we find that, in the end, Solomon's judgment failed him. "Now King Solomon loved many foreign women . . . from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, 'You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods'; Solomon clung to these in love. He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father." (1 Kings 11:1, 2-4)

Wisdom and understanding are not enough. It is not sufficient just to know right from wrong, it is also necessary to do it, and we must be careful to guard against the influence of the things that might turn us away from God.

NFP Ain't Easy

Pope Paul Vi released his encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) on July 25, 1968. In commemoration of that date, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has established July 24-30 as Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week. The Catholic practice of NFP typically finds it’s foundation in paragraph 16 of Humanae Vitae:

If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier.

As a married Catholic struggling to be faithful to the teaching authority of the Church, I have to say that NFP ain’t easy. Those responsible for promoting the practice often point to some statistics that I think might be a little misleading.

First is the claim that the divorce rate among those who practice NFP is remarkably lower than the national average. It is implied that this is so because of NFP. Baloney! It’s because the factors that lead a couple to practice NFP are also likely to be same factors that lead a couple to view marriage as indissoluble. In other words, rather than long and stable marriages being caused by NFP, both long marriages and NFP use are caused by faithfulness to the Magisterium. If a couple is faithful to Church teaching, they will enter into marriage understanding it to be a life-long union. Similarly, they will reject contraception and turn to NFP for regulating the size of their family.

Another common claim is that NFP requires the couple to abstain from sex during only one week of the woman’s cycle. The window of opportunity includes the pre-menstrual and menstrual period. The small window of abstinence requires regular and accurate readings of base temperature, mucus, and cervix. Any illness or disruption in sleep patterns (common occurrences in a house full of kids) can affect the readings. These cause the window of abstinence to grow larger. In addition, the desire for intimacy seems to peak during ovulation, right in the middle of the abstinence window.

In our experience, the advertised one week of abstinence to three weeks of opportunity ends up being inverted. We end up with one week each month during which it is “safe” to be intimate. That one-week window ends up getting further reduced as a result of sharing the house with seven kids. Throw in the absence of the ovulation hormones and pheromones, and you have a scenario that is definitely less than optimal.

The options are to either (a) abandon ourselves to passion with the full knowledge that we are fertile and will probably end up with another little Hilgefort in diapers, (b) violate Church teaching and conscience and, in the process, corrupt the very act by which we seek to strengthen our marriage, or (c) exercise restraint and responsibility.

Nobody ever said that obedience was easy.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


I await with great delight the first translation of the Novus Ordo Mass into English. The bland, Scripture-muffling, colorless, odorless, gaseous paraphrase American Catholics have had for forty years often was not a translation at all, nor even a paraphrase into English. It was a paraphrase into Nabbish, the secret official language of the New American Bible.

With an opening paragraph like that, how could I not go on to read the whole thing? That’s from an opinion piece (“A Bumping Boxcar Language”) in the June/July issue of First Things. I’d provide a link if it weren’t for the subscription firewall.

The whole bit was fun to read, as it pointed to all of the failings of the NAB translation of the Bible that has been used for the English translation of the mass. Unfortunately (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the new translation of the missal applies to the prayers and responses. The Lectionary readings will still be based on the NAB.

I’d also like to point out that American Catholics aren’t alone in their language woes. Based on my casual reading, Nabbish, as described by Anthony Esolen in his First Things rant, looks to be a close relative of Nivish, the secret official language of the New International Version.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Christian Men

I really enjoyed this passage from an Owen Strachan post, Men, Temptation, and the Gospel, that appears to argue that Christian men need to embrace the good aspects of manliness and are empowered to overcome the negative aspects:

When God gets a hold of a man, he doesn’t merely tinker with him, making him cuss less and smile more. When God saves a man, he looses him to destroy sin and bless his family, church, and society. Christian men are not normal men who sleep less on Sunday and wear Dockers with no creases. Christian men are transformed men, other-worldly men, residents of a new kingdom, servants of a great king…

It’s much to easy to grow complacent and forget what we men are called to.

(H/T: Joe Carter)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Consecration to Jesus through Mary

Fourteen year ago yesterday, on the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in 1997, my wife and I consecrated ourselves to Jesus through Mary, according to the formula of St. Louis de Montfort. The parish that we were members of at the time hosted the four-week preparation program, and on the last day we made the consecration and were invested in the brown scapular. Pope John Paul II was a big fan of St. Louis de Montfort, and even, so I am told, took his papal motto, Totus Tuus, from de Montfort’s defining work, True Devotion.

I’ve certainly not always maintained the pious devotion that I once had, but I think that I’ve grown in other ways. I remain a work in progress. I need to somehow recover some measure of the enthusiasm (and practice!) that I had those many (and not so many!) years ago.

The Consecration Prayer of St. Louis de Montfort follows.

Act of Consecration

Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom, most lovable and adorable Jesus, true God and true man, only Son of the eternal Father and of Mary always virgin, I adore you profoundly, dwelling in the splendour of your Father from all eternity and in the virginal womb of Mary, your most worthy Mother, at the time of your incarnation.

I thank you for having emptied yourself in assuming the condition of a slave to set me free from the cruel slavery of the evil one.

I praise and glorify you for having willingly chosen to obey Mary, your holy Mother, in all things, so that through her I may be your faithful slave of love.

But I must confess that I have not kept the vows and promises which I made you you so solemnly at my baptism. I have not fulfilled my obligations, and I do not deserve to be called you child or even your loving slave.

Since I cannot lay claim to anything except what merits your rejection and displeasure, I dare no longer approach the holiness of your majesty on my own. That is why I turn to the intercession and the mercy of your holy Mother, whom you yourself have given me to mediate with you. Through her I hope to obtain from you contrition and pardon for my sins, and that Wisdom whom I desire to dwell in me always.

I turn to you, then, Mary immaculate, living tabernacle of God. The eternal Wisdom, hidden in you, willed to receive the adoration of both men and angels.

I greet you as Queen of heaven and earth. All that is under God has been made subject to your sovereignty.

I greet you as Queen of heaven and earth. All that is under God has been made subject to your sovereignty.

I call upon you as the unfailing refuge of sinners. In your mercy you have never forsaken anyone.

Grant my desire for divine Wisdom and, in support of my petition, accept the promises and the offering of myself which I now make, conscious of my unworthiness.

I, and unfaithful sinner, renew and ratify today through you my baptismal promises. I renounce for ever Satan, his empty promises and his evil designs, and I give myself completely to Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Wisdom, to carry my cross after him for the rest of my life, and to be more faithful to him than I have been till now.

This day, with the whole courts of heaven as witness, I choose you, Mary, as my Mother and Queen. I surrender and consecrate myself to you, body and soul, with all that I possess, both spiritual and material, even including the spiritual value of all my actions, past, present, and to come. I give you the full right to tdispose of me and all that belongs to me, without any reservation, in whatever way you please, for the greater glory of God in time and throughout eternity.

Accept, gracious Virgin, this little offering of my slavery to honour and imitate that obedience which the eternal Wisdom willingly chose to have towards you, his Mother. I wish to acknowledge the authority which both of you have over this little worm and pitiful sinner. By it I wish also to thank God for the privileges bestowed on you by the Blessed Trinity. I solemnly declare that for the future I will try to honour and obey you in all things as your true slave of love.

O admirable Mother, present me to your dear Son as his slave now and for always, so that he who redeemed me through you, will now receive me through you.

Mother of mercy, grant me the favour of obtaining the true Wisdom of God, and so make me one of those whom you love, teach and guide, whom you nourish and protect as your children and slaves.

Virgin most faithful, make me in everything so committed a disciple, imitator, and slave of Jesus, your Son, the Incarnate Wisdom, that I may become, through your intercession and example, fully mature with the fullness which Jesus possessed on earth, and with the fullness of his glory in heaven. Amen.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Generation X and Divorce

There was a heart-breaking essay recently in the Wall Street Journal that purported to speak for my generation. As a baby of 1969, I fall within what is commonly referred to as “Generation X.” The WSJ essay paints us Gen-X-ers as being children of divorce who are determined not to let that fate fall upon our own children.

Neither I nor my wife matches the picture presented of our generation (nor, for that matter, do the majority of my Gen-X friends). My parents have been married for over 55 years. My wife’s parents have been married for over 45 years. My wife and I have now been married for over 18 years.

What makes the essay so heart-breaking is that, in spite of the author’s determination to make her marriage last, it still falls apart. Buried and dismissed within the jumble of words is this paragraph:

We also paid no heed to his Catholic parents, who comprised one of the rare
reassuringly unified couples I'd ever met, when they warned us that we should
wait until we were married to live together. As they put it, being pals and
roommates is different from being husband and wife. How bizarrely old-fashioned
and sexist! We didn't need anything so naïve or retro as "marriage." Please. We
were best friends.

Nowhere is she willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, her husband’s parents were right.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Easy Yokes

Today’s gospel contains some of the most comforting words ever uttered: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Mt 11:28-30) Who, upon hearing such words, wouldn’t rush to join up?

However, we do ourselves and other potential recruits a disservice if we read these words in isolation, for just a chapter earlier, Jesus was promising his apostles that they would be handed over to courts and scourged in synagogues (Mt 10:17), hated by all (Mt 10:22). He proclaimed that he had come to bring not peace, but the sword (Mt 10:34) and those who did not take up their crosses and follow him were unworthy of him (Mt 10:38).

It is as if we are being told that terrible things are going to be done to us, but we’ll learn to like it, in a masochistic kind of way. I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong way to read it.

Yes, we can expect physical persecution (or at least discomfort and inconvenience). The crosses that followers of Jesus bear are not always unto death. But there is a joy to be found in following His will. It helps to remember that a yoke is never placed on a single ox in isolation. A yoke is used to couple oxen so that they work as a team. When we take on the yoke of Christ, we are uniting ourselves to him. All of our sufferings, works, prayers, and joys are joined to those of Christ, who purifies and magnifies them.

Even so, the cross needs to be re-shouldered daily, and while the yoke is easy and the burden light, the daily life of the Christian is not easy, and even a light burden can feel heavy when it has been carried for a long time. One is reminded of the story of St. Teresa who, having been dumped in the river cried out to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few of them.” St. Paul recounted a long list of beatings, shipwrecks, and trials that certainly did not indicate that acceptance of the Lordship of Christ brought with it a life of ease.

We accept that life is hard. We choose the harder life, because that it what Christ calls us to, and there is peace and joy in that.

To Run Is To Be Human

The Independent newspaper of the United Kingdom has a Lifestyle feature (brought to my attention by Drudge), arguing that the Masters of the Universe (i.e., the rich and powerful men who run the world) should avoid public exercise. This was the passage that particularly got my attention:

To run is to be human. It's as natural as sex or sleep and the carefully maintained façade of the politician cannot survive it. The face of a man or woman pushing themselves to run reveals a humanity that can't be hidden as it is in ministerial photoshoots. Don't believe me? Go and stand at mile 24 of a marathon route. The looks in the eyes of the runners are less a window in their souls than conservatories.

Yes, running is very humanizing, especially if you exert yourself to the point of exhaustion. I should be thankful that nobody’s snapping photos of me in the last mile of my distance run.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Fr. Dwight Longenecker makes some interesting comments over at his blog regarding male psychology and compartmentalization of personalities by men ordained to the priesthood. In my own experience, I clearly recall spending most of a day with a priest who was quite jocular in his collar and ball cap, but seemed to become a completely different person as soon as he donned his chasuble and vestments. In a way, this is a good thing, as it showed his appreciation of his sacramental role in persona Christi. At the same time, though, the change was a little alarming

At the other extreme is the priest I know who seems to be the same guy at the altar that he is when he’s off-duty and out-of-uniform. With him, there appears to be very little compartmentalization, and therefore no threat of a split personality. In his case, that leads him to occasionally do or say things in a sacramental context that are inappropriate for one who is supposed to be acting in persona Christi.

As Fr. Dwight notes, “What makes it all the more complicated is that the priest really is supposed to ‘grow out of himself and grow up into the full stature of Christ Jesus.’ We really are supposed to fill the vestments and become the ‘alter Christus’ that we are called to be. To do this we have to pretend sometimes. We have to try hard by God’s grace. We stumble and fall and get up again, but what we can’t do is compartmentalize our dark side, deny our wrongdoing and justify our sins. That we lies destruction.”

The ideal is a priest who, while retaining his own personality, has conformed himself to Christ. His personality would be evident even when celebrating the mass (primarily in the homily – everything else is pretty much scripted). As always, we need to remember that what’s good for the priest is good for the laity. We too need to conform our lives to Christ and be the same person on Monday morning and Friday evening that we are on Sunday.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Synoptic Demoniacs

If Wednesday hadn’t been a solemnity, the gospel would have been Matthew 8:28-34. In that passage, Matthew recounts how Jesus, coming into the region of the Gadarenes, cast the demons from two possessed men into a herd of swine, which then destroyed itself by running down a hill and into a lake.

Wait a second! Two demoniacs? I’ve commented before on the parallel passage from Mark 5:1-20. In Mark’s account, there was only one demoniac.

The skeptic would be quick to pick up on this and crow, “Aha! Your gospels contradict each other! How can they possibly be considered reliable? Any religion based on such flimsy texts must be false!”

Well, not necessarily. If you’ll indulge me, I’m about to engage in some wild hypotheticals. I make no claim that any of what follows has any firm basis in anything other than my monkey brain.

First, we don’t know for certain how the individual gospels are related in terms of chronology or dependence. The most popular school of thought seems to be that, of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Mark was written first and all three borrowed from a mysterious source document known as Q. I’m very skeptical of this, since there doesn’t appear to be any external evidence for the existence of Q. There is a traditional position, which was held by the early Church fathers, that Matthew was the first gospel written, and there are modern scholars who defend Matthew’s priority.

Let’s assume for the moment that Matthew was written first, and that Mark (or Peter, if you believe that Mark was putting quill to paper on Peter’s behalf) had a chance to read it. On reading the tale of the Gadarene demoniacs, he might have said to himself, “Ah yes, I remember that incident, but Matthew left out the most important part! One of those chaps came back and wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus wanted him to stay behind and share his story. I’ve got to write that down, but if I include both demoniacs, that will just blur the point that I’m trying to make. Therefore, I’m only going to mention the one that I want to focus on.”

Mark doesn’t say in his gospel that there was only one demoniac. He just says that there was this guy who had a really bad case of demonic possession. The difference between Matthew and Mark is a difference of emphasis, with Mark adding details that Matthew lacks in order to highlight the situation of the one possessed man upon whom he wishes to focus.

This makes sense if Matthew wrote his gospel first. If Mark was first, then part of the explanation can still be used, but you would have to assume that the gospels were written independently of one another.

The Hard Sayings

This past Sunday was the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (formerly known as Corpus Christi). The mass that I attended also happened to be the celebration of a 50th wedding anniversary. The coincidence of the two events reminded me of an essay comparing marriage with the Eucharist that I read some fifteen or so years ago.

The gospel reading for Corpus Christi was from John’s Bread of Life Discourse. The sixth chapter of the gospel of John has a heavy influence on Catholic Eucharistic theology. Jesus tells his followers, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (John 6:53) This is too much for many of his followers to accept. “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (John 6:60) Jesus didn’t backpedal or nuance his words; rather, he let go those who rejected them.

Today, we find that the hard teachings – those that so many people are unable to accept – are those that deal with marriage. Jesus, through the Church, teaches that marriage is an indissoluble and exclusive union of one man and one woman. That means that polygamy, polyamory, remarriage after divorce, “open” marriages, and homosexual unions are excluded. The Church teaches that sex is reserved to marriage and must be open to the transmission of life. That means that fornication, adultery, contraception, and direct sterilization are excluded. To many people, these teachings are seen not as affirmations of what marriage is, but rather as prohibitions of behavior that they are unable to see undermines and corrupts marriage.

I’ve seen estimates that as many as 95% of married Catholics ignore Church teaching regarding contraception. The Guttmacher Institute (yes, I’m aware of its connection to Planned Parenthood) asserts that 68% of Catholic women who do not want to become pregnant “use a highly effective method” of contraception and that only 2% of Catholic women practice Natural Family Planning. Polls show that the attitude of young Catholics regarding sex outside of marriage or homosexual “marriage” are badly out of line with what the Church teaches. A 2010 Marist poll found that, among Catholic millenials, 80% believe that fornication is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue. It is as if they have said to themselves, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Rather than leave, though, they just choose to ignore what they believe is too hard to accept.

To them, and to us, Jesus asks, “Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:67) It’s a painful question to be asked, and all too often, the answer, for me at least, is “Of course I do! Life looks so much easier over on the other side, without all the burdens of being moral!” But there’s always the not-so-apparent knowledge that license and pleasure do not, in fact, lead to happiness, and that the yoke of Christ is easy and the burden light. May we always be open to the grace to answer, with Peter, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trinity Sunday

The Sunday after Pentecost is celebrated as Trinity Sunday. The Blessed Trinity of three persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - in one nature - God - is a mystery impossible for us to fully comprehend. Nevertheless, we try, because a more perfect (though still imperfect) understanding of God leads to a more perfect love of God.

The complexity of the dogma is highlighted, for me, by the Athanasian Creed. The three persons are separate and distinct, yet there is but one God.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Grace in Persecution

With every news account of attacks upon Christians, whether in Egypt, Pakistan, or London, I wonder whether I would have the faith to follow Him to the cross. In today’s readings, He tells us not to resist an evil person, but to offer both cheeks when struck on one, our cloak as well if sued for our tunic, and two miles if pressed for one. (Mt 5:38-42) St. Paul writes of commendability in great trials, troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. He goes on to note that they are dying, yet alive and beaten, yet not killed. (2 Cor 6:3-10)

I am blessed to live in a community that is overwhelmingly Catholic. I pray that persecution never comes to us here, but that if it does, may He grant me the grace to accept it in a Christian manner. Unless, of course, He prefers at that time a more Maccabean response.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Moral Obligations" and Reproductive Genetic Technologies

A couple of months ago, I read the novel Motherless, by Brian Gail. The book is a sequel (actually the second in a planned trilogy) to Fatherless. Motherless picks up the lives of the four main characters of Fatherless twenty years later. Where Fatherless took place some time in the late eighties or early nineties, Motherless clearly is set in 2008, with thinly veiled references to the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

While the story lines in Fatherless were loosely connected, those in Motherless are much more tightly intertwined, with the common arc being the impending life sciences revolution.

After reading Fatherless, it seemed as though related items were appearing all over the news. In a similar way, two items from the May 2011 issue of First Things were clearly related to the theme of Motherless.

The first was an item from the “While We’re At It” section in the back of the magazine:

We should only keep the smart ones. So says Oxford ethicist Julian Savulescu, who recently declared that we will have a “moral obligation” to reproduce via in vitro fertilization and screen the resulting embryos for intelligence as soon as it becomes technologically possible to do so. Embryos not passing the test for intelligence should be destroyed for the good of society – the “economic and social benefits of higher cognition,” as he puts it.

God save us from the “moral obligations” of university ethicists!

The second item was a review by Wesley J. Smith of the book Contested Reproduction by John H. Evans. Evans, says Smith, “searches for common narratives and themes that those with religious views can employ when debating RGTs.” RGTs are reproductive genetic technologies – the life sciences revolution that are the subject of Brian Gail’s Motherless and Julian Savulescu’s “moral obligations.” Smith writes:

Evans concludes his call to find common ground with that he considers an obvious point: “We can all agree that an effective debate about RGTs would be healthy for the human future.”

No, we can’t – not if it requires diluting the discourse to the point that it amounts to forfeiting the game. We should heartken to the wisdom of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ observation that bioethicists are too often advocates who “professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable until it is finally established as the unexceptionable.” A debate sapped of first principles would likely result in RGTs becoming viewed as unexceptionable. In fact, given the thousands of IVF births each year that involve embryo selection and/or “selective reduction” abortion, one could plausibly argue that we are already there.

In other words, as soon as you enter into serious debate with a fringe position, you grant that position a degree of legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. The moral position is portrayed as repressive and standing in the way of progress.

I have my doubts about the life sciences revolution that Brian Gail envisions, partly based on technological hurdles and costs of implementation, but I also want to believe that there’s enough moral sense left in the world to reject the underlying utilitarian philosophy. There are people working hard to erode that moral sense. We have to work just as hard to maintain and strengthen it..

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

James or James?

Every year during the Easter season, the Lectionary takes us on a trip through the Acts of the Apostles. Yesterday’s selected passage was Acts 11:19-26. Today’s passage was Acts 12:24-13:5a. What got my attention today was the verses in-between, which tell of Peter’s arrest by Herod and his rescue by an angel.

First we learn that “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.” (Acts 12:1-3).

Clearly, Peter was arrested after the execution of James. What then, is the first thing that Peter does after his escape? He goes to the house of Mary, the mother of John (also called Mark) where “Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quite and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. ‘Tell James and the brothers about this,’ he said, and then he left for another place.” (Acts 12:17) James also figures prominently at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13).

If you’re going to have this many people running around with the same names (John, James, and Mary), it would really help to have surnames to tell them apart, especially when they’re mere verses from each other!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Joining Hearts and Hands

It’s always nice to see your own views and practices vindicated by somebody who can actually claim some degree of competence in the matter.

Lots of people in our parish hold hands during the Our Father at mass. I do not. I typically fold my hands in front of me, even when our priest, from the altar, invites us to “Join hearts and hands.” He has no right to do that.

If people want to spontaneously join hands, that’s fine. It’s not part of the rite, though, and Father has no authority to add it. Lest those around me think that I’m a grumpy curmudgeon, I find it necessary to go out of my way to offer a smile and a firm handshake during the sign of peace immediately following the Our Father.

It’s nice to know that Fr. Z of What Does the Prayer Really Say pretty much shares my view.

There is no specific prohibition against holding hands during the Our Father, or any other time at Mass for that matter. However, there is no provision to ask or invite people to do so, and were a priest or deacon to do so during Mass he would be committing a grave liturgical abuse. Priests can’t just make stuff up and impose things because they think it is meaningful.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I Need A Plan

The 2011 5K tour is underway! The first race was Saturday, and I can verify that I finished! I can’t complain too much about my time, especially when I back-calculate the minutes-per-mile pace that was required. When I think about the kind of time that I want to run, I know that I must increase my pace. That requires a training program. I need a plan, and I need to stick to it.

That is equally true of my spiritual life. I’m not satisfied with where I am. I need a plan that I can follow if I want to make any progress toward my goals.

It’s been a while wince I’ve sat down and prepared a program for life, in which I identify what I believe to be my root sin and it’s manifestations, and I establish concrete achievable goals that I can take to attack my vices and develop virtues. Running-wise, I tend to decide on a moment’s notice what kind of workout I want to do on any given day, and I’m as likely as not to decide half-way through to do something else. That’s no way to pursue running excellence. It’s also no way to pursue holiness.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Real Runners

I like to think of myself as a runner. Several times each week, I’ll lace up a pair of running shoes and pound out four or five miles. In addition, I participate in several 5K (3.1 mile) races over the course of the summer, topped off with our Oktoberfest 10K (6.2 mile) race. Ever now and then, though, I am confronted by the traits of real runners, and I have to admit to myself that I’m really just playing at it.

I usually feel like I’ve accomplished something if I cover 15-20 miles in a week. A real runner regularly covers half that distance in a single outing. I am easily deterred by wind, rain, snow, and ice. Not so, the real runner. If the air is cold enough to numb exposed flesh, I’m staying in. The real runner either lets the flesh get numb or bundles up and defies the frigid temperatures. Real runners are disciplined in their training, their nutrition, and their equipment. I have one pair of shoes for running and the cheapest gym shorts I can fine. I eat anything that passes within reach, and I have no real training program.

In short, if you want to see what a runner looks like, don’t look at me!

Have I sufficiently telegraphed the spiritual analogy?

I like to think of myself as a Christian. I participate in the liturgy, say a few prayers, read the Bible once in a while, and try to live a moral life. Every now and then, though, I meet or read about a real Christian, and then I have to admit to myself that maybe I’m just playing at it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Grace of a Poor Run

On the day before Easter, we had a break in the rain that’s been an incessant feature of our Ohio spring this year, and I ventured out for a run. With the start of this year’s 5K tour just a week away, I felt the need for some outdoor miles. The vast majority of my running since Autumn has been indoors. Nevertheless, I was getting miles in, and I was hopeful for a good tour.

I was barely ¼ mile into my 4½ mile loop when the thought hit me: “I am going to be so disappointed next week.” That Holy Saturday run ended up being miserable. At 2½ miles I diverted onto the high school track and ran another ½ mile before slowing to a walk. I was able to tack on another ½ mile of jogging before walking home with my head hanging, hoping that nobody would see my personal walk of shame.

I had no energy that day. I was dead, I thought. Then the additional thought came, “As dead as Christ in the tomb on Holy Saturday.” Shaking my head, I thought, “There I go, spiritualizing my running again.” I can’t help but wonder whether other runners do the same, and I thanked God for granting me the reminder of the day’s significance.

To be honest, I don’t know whether my miserable runs are actual graces or not. They are certainly sources of frustration, and I often wonder whether the causes are primarily mental of physical. Was my Holy Saturday fatigue a result of the Good Friday fast, or was my will to run particularly weak that day?

Whatever the true cause might be, I find that my faith places even my failures within a spiritual context, providing opportunities for growth at least in understanding, if not holiness.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Flirting With Despair

I’ve been strolling along the edge of despair lately. Or so it feels. A handful of voices, past and present, have been calling me back from (or are they edging me closer to?) the brink. Elizabeth Scalia (aka the Anchoress) wrote a reflection, Another Long Lent, and Broods of Vipers, earlier this week that was featured in the On the Square section of the First Things website. She points to all of the scandals and rumors of scandals that continue to plague the Church, then reminds us to look up. The One that we follow, the only one who will never let us down, is Christ. He (in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit) is the proper focus of our faith, not any of the Church’s human members.

Her words were reassuring.

Then I read some of the comments and was brought back to the edge of despair.

Then there’s Patrick Madrid’s contribution, Don’t Be Discouraged. Subtitled “Hold Your Head Up High, This is a Great Time to be Catholic,” the Envoy Special Report comes complete with an illustration of a band of Christians praying in the stadium dirt as hungry lions and tigers are released to do what hungry lions and tigers do to helpless humans. Patrick has two essays, one on what we can learn from St. Francis DeSales and one on common excuses for not evangelizing. His message seems to be something akin to “Man-up and accept your mission! It might be a tough time to be a Catholic, but do it anyway! If you aren’t suffering like the saints, you should be!”

This is supposed to be comforting?

A significant portion of my temptation to despair stems from the realization that, as our country hurtles toward a debt crisis like a car speeding toward an abyss, we are incapable of doing anything about it. While a handful of politicians frantically try to slam on the brakes, it has become evident that the brake lines are ruptured, and their efforts result only in the spurting of fluid on an over-heated engine. I desperately want to believe that enough of my fellow Americans are awake to the danger to make avoiding the catastrophe possible. Unfortunately, as Peter Robinson recently learned from conversations with Mark Steyn and Tucker Carlson, too much of the electorate is on the receiving end of government largesse, and they are not inclined to give it up.

My thoughts have turned from whether there will be a reckoning to when. If we’re lucky, it won’t be for another 15-20 years, but any perturbation could spark the panic. If you thought 2008 was fun, just wait until the next big financial crisis arrives. I don’t know what happens then, but it fills me with dread.

And that is exactly what Wormwood wants.

Yes, I’ve been reading The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis. In the 15th letter, Wormwood is advised by his uncle, Screwtape, to keep his man’s attention on either the past or the future, whether a future of hope or of anxiety. Anything that takes his attention off of the present will do, so long as he is not “aware that horrors may be in store for him and is praying for the virtues, wherewith to meet them.” Preparing for tomorrow doesn’t count, either, since the duty to prepare is today’s duty.

So, then, my task is to remain focused on embracing and fulfilling God’s will today, to pray for the virtues that I will need tomorrow, and to make preparations. If I had the resources, I think I would be building and stocking my bunker.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Vincent's Pope

Yesterday was the feast day for St. Vincent Ferrer. His feast day rolls around every year on April 5, although it wouldn’t be observed if it were on a Sunday, during Holy Week, or during Easter Week. The same could be said of St. Isidore (April 4) or St. John Baptiste de la Salle (April 7). Yet St. Vincent Ferrer got an awful lot of notice this year. It wasn’t a particularly significant anniversary of his death (592 years ago, yesterday), so I am genuinely puzzled as to why he got all of this sudden attention.

I don’t know much about St. Vincent, but I can’t call myself a fan because he got one of the biggest questions of his day wrong.

After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, the cardinals elected a new pope, Urban VI. When Pope Urban VI didn’t do what the cardinals expected him to do, they tried to invalidate his election and elect a new pope who took the name Clement VII. There were two men who claimed to have been elected Bishop of Rome – one of them had to be an anti-pope. St. Vincent Ferrer backed Clement VII. St. Catherine of Siena supported Urban VI. Both St. Vincent and St. Catherine were Dominicans, and indeed, the whole Dominican order fractured at the time.

Eventually, there were three claimants to the papacy, which was reduced back down to two at the Council of Constance in 1415 and finally to one in 1429 (ten years after St. Vincent’s death). Today, most Catholic scholars acknowledge that Urban VI was legitimately elected and that the Office of St. Peter was handed down through his successors. In other words, St. Vincent was backing the wrong horse. Nevertheless, 36 years after his death, Vincent Ferrer was canonized by Pope Calixtus III.

The main things that I draw from this episode in Church history are that even a saint, with all the gifts of grace and holiness that is implied in that title can make wrong judgments; and making a wrong judgment about a person does not necessarily reflect negatively on an individual’s personal holiness. The most glaring modern example would be the judgment of Pope John Paul II regarding Fr. Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

It follows from this that I am wary of appeals to holiness and legitimacy by association. So, when somebody tells me that an alleged visionary’s confessor was a canonized saint, therefore her visions are legitimate, I immediately think of the counter-examples cited above. Vincent Ferrer might be a canonized saint today, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t follow the wrong pope during his life on earth.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Treadmills and Comfy Pews

Over the last several years, I’ve participated in a summer-long 5K racing tour – a series of 3.1 mile races that begins in late April and wraps up in mid-October. Last year, there were 12 races in the tour. The knowledge that the next race is coming up, along with some competitiveness as points add up in the age categories, keeps me running through the summer.

My experiences with training and racing have led me to draw many parallels between running and the spiritual life. Last year was a bit of an off year for me, as I expected it would be. Even with my lowered expectations, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in my race times and general performance.

I’m a heavy runner. Through most of last year, I tipped the scales at about 230 lbs. By the end of last year’s tour, my knees were ready for a rest. Around mid-November, I started running on a treadmill at the local YMCA. I reasoned that the flex of the deck would be easier on my joints than the unyielding pavement. Plus, I’m a fair-weather runner, easily deterred by snow, ice, and temperatures that numb exposed flesh. I’ve been running indoors almost exclusively, mostly on the treadmill, for four months now. It’s been a long, cold winter.

I know that the day is fast approaching when I will have to venture back out onto the roads. It just doesn’t seem right to pound out miles on a treadmill when a beautiful day is happening on the other side of the window glass. Even aside from that, though, I’ve discovered that there might be another reason to hop off the treadmill.

Jeff Smith, aka Coach Jeff, produces The Running Podcast Coach Jeff has been coaching and training athletes for 26 years. On a recent podcast, he fielded a question from a listener regarding long distance training runs on a treadmill. Now, when they say long distance, they’re talking about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. That’s much longer than anything I do. Even when I’m ramping up for the Oktoberfest 10K, my longest runs are in the 6.5 mile range and last just under one hour. Still, the Coach’s response was interesting.

The problem with running on a treadmill, according to Coach Jeff, is that there is no variation. Every foot plant is the same, and that can lead to repetitive motion injuries. I never would have guessed that what I was assuming to be less jarring and therefore less injurious to my joints could harbor unknown dangers.

That’s where the spiritual parallel drops into place. The equivalent of the treadmill might be what we can call “the comfortable pew.” The phrase comes from a book of the same title written over 40 years ago and referenced by our pastor emeritus in a recent homily at our clustered parish. We Catholics can become complacent, lured into thinking that just coming to mass every Sunday and parking ourselves in a pew is sufficient. It isn’t. While there is something to be said for stability and perseverance, the mindless repetition of any pious devotion brings with it the risk of complacency and presumption.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Knicker Knotting Translations

Have you heard about the new translation that's been in the news? There is, of course, the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which takes effect in the United States this coming November. That's been in the news for about a year now, and will continue to be in the news right up until, and probably several months after, its use begins. However, there's been another new translation in the news recently.

In January, the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) was released. The NABRE is the fourth edition of the New American Bible (NAB), which is the translation on which the Lectionary readings used for mass are based. There are a handful of differences between the NAB translation and the text used in the Lectionary, most notably in Luke 1:28, where the angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary is translated as "Hail, favored one!" in the NAB and "Hail, full of grace!" in the Lectionary. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) that I favor uses the "full of grace" translation, with a footnote. My understanding is that neither translation captures the full meaning of the Greek.

Some Catholics have their knickers in a knot over the NABRE. Again, I'm no expert, but my understanding is that the NABRE differs from the NAB only in the translation of the Old Testament and Psalms. Of particular concern to the knicker-knotted is the choice of words for Isaiah 7:14, where the phrase "the virgin shall be with child" has replaced "virgin" with "young woman." There might be problems with the new translation, but I can't get too worked up about this one. Why? Because my RSV translation already reads, "Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear and son, and shall call his name Immanuel." With a footnote, of course.

The footnote for a "young woman" states that other sources use "virgin." The ambiguity comes from the fact that the oldest copies of Isaiah 7:14 in Hebrew use a word meaning "young woman," whereas the oldest copies of Isaiah 7:14 in Greek (i.e., from the Septuagint) use a word meaning "virgin." The translators have simply chosen to place greater emphasis on the Hebrew texts than on the Greek ones.

Regardless of the translation used for Isaiah, the translation used in Matthew 1:22, which references Isaiah 7:14, still uses the word "virgin." It seems to me that the evangelist implicitly endorses the Greek translation of Isaiah found in the Septuagint, with a collateral endorsement of the deutero-canonical books of the Septuagint.

I'm not likely to run out and buy a new NABRE Bible. But as long as it has the footnotes that identify where alternate sources use different words, I don't think it's anything to knot my knickers over.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Render Unto Millard Fillmore

Tuesday’s Gospel reading (the last for Ordinary Time until June) saw the Pharisees and Herodians trying to embroil Jesus in a tax controversy. Jesus asked to see a coin, which was stamped with the image of Caesar. Noting that the image on the coin was Caesar’s Jesus replied to his questioners that we should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

I had two quick thoughts, one serious and one light. The first is that the coin was created by the Roman government in the image of Caesar. The human person, on the other hand, is created by God in His image. In one sense then, when we talk about what should be rendered unto God, we can speak of the entire human person.

In a lighter sense, I wondered what it would be like if Jesus asked a modern American for a dollar coin. The image on the coin might be Milllard Fillmore, Rutherford B. Hayes, Sacajewea, or Susan B. Anthony, among others. It just wouldn’t do to say, “Render unto Millard Fillmore the things that are Millard Fillmore’s.”

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Withered Fig

What are we to make of the fig tree in today’s gospel reading from Mark? On my first reading, I’ve always see it as a warning to us, that we had better bear fruit. Interpreting the fig tree this way, though, causes Jesus to come off as capricious and petulant for cursing a tree that is not bearing fruit when it isn’t even in season.

As usual, however, there’s much more going on here than is initially apparent. Consider the timeline given by Mark. On the first day, Jesus comes into Jerusalem, spends some time at the Temple, and then retires to Bethany. On the second day, Jesus returns to Jerusalem, cursing the fig tree on the way, then enters the Temple and chases out the vendors and money-changers. Again, he retires to Bethany. On the third day, he again heads for Jerusalem, and the disciples notice that the fig tree is withered.

Note that the timeline in Matthew 21 is a little different. I’m not going to try to deal with that right now. I’m concentrating on the fig tree.

In both gospels, the cursing of the fig tree is within the context of the cleansing of the Temple. It seems clear to me, therefore, that in this instance, the fig tree represents not the individual believer, but the Temple and the Old Covenant system of sacrifices associated with it. The Temple might appear outwardly healthy and might have born fruit in the past, but its days have come to an end. The withering of the fig tree foreshadows the destruction of the Temple.

There are, of course, other questions that are raised by Mark’s account. Why does he note that Jesus was hungry? Why does Jesus cleanse the Temple on the second day and not the first? Is it possible that Jesus was hungry because he had spent the first day and night in fasting and prayer, seeking guidance from the Father regarding what to do about what he had seen in the Temple on the first day?

I dunno. I’d love to hear some reasonable theories. The only thing that I have left to say is that I find some of the arguments that Jesus cursed the fig tree as a demonstration of his power or that his hunger was merely the supposition of the disciples to be unconvincing.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lenten Expectations

Lent is nearly upon us. It comes late this year, with Easter falling on April 24th (the first Sunday after the first full moon – April 18th – after the first day of Spring – March 20th). My wife recently proclaimed, “I can’t believe it’s almost Lent already,” to which I (predictably) replied, “It’s late this year.”

As strange as it might be to say, I’m looking forward to finally entering the season of Lent. I am sorely in need of an extended period of penance. Having said that, I fear that I am once again setting myself up for disappointment. My desire for conversion, repentance, and renewal does not guarantee a spiritual experience and response on my part. Although I might want to be moved, that does not mean that I will be moved. Unfortunately, recent Sunday homilies on kindness and affirmation, going the extra mile, and Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy just haven’t met my spiritual needs.

Where does the desire to be contrite end and true contrition begin? I pray that contrition is more than, or at least not dependent upon, emotional sorrow, for my emotions have failed me. Instead, let it be an act of the will. Let true contrition be indicated not be feelings, but by actions to atone for and separate oneself from sin.

By that measure, the success of my Lent will be entirely up to me (although a little spiritual consolation would surely help).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

There's No App for That

I was at the YMCA this morning when an acquaintance came into the locker room and announced that the Catholic Church had approved an i-phone app for confession. I stated my incredulity, but he insisted that the Vatican had approved it because he had just heard about it on the radio.

This reminded me of a case several years ago when a European company set up a telephone hotline to hear confessions by phone. That one did not meet with Church approval. I told my acquaintance that I would have to look it up, and that it was probably not confession, but an examination of conscience.


First, the app in question was approved not by the Vatican, but by a bishop in Indiana. Second, the app does not replace confession, but can be used by a penitent to assist in examining his conscience before entering the confessional.

Fox News reports:

The app is not designed to replace going to confession but to help Catholics through the act, which generally involves admitting sins to a priest in a confessional booth. Catholics still must go to a priest for absolution.

Little iApps said Bishop Kevin Rhoades, of the Diocese of Fort Wayne in Indiana, officially authorized the app for Catholics to use.

I can’t help but wonder how many Catholics (and non-Catholics) have been fooled into thinking that either (1) they can purchase an application for their mobile device that will absolve them of their sins; or (2) that “the Church” would approve the sale of such an application.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The President's Abortion Statement

It seemed like an amazing statement at the time, and I was sure that somebody else - a professional writer far more capable than I of forming thoughts into coherent sentences - would jump all over it. However, in the two weeks following the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, in which the Supreme Court made killing one's unborn child a Constitutional right, I haven't seen it noted by any of the pundits and prognosticators that I read regularly.

President Obama chose to frame his statement this year around what would appear to be a misunderstanding of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. The Acton Institute defines it this way: "This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be." President Obama, in his statement, said, "Government should not intrude on private family matters."

This is absurd nonsense! The government intervenes in cases of domestic violence on a routine basis, and quite justly so. It is hard to imagine a surgical abortion as anything other than an act of violence. What makes state intervention imperative when the victim is a spouse or a child, but forbidden when the child is unborn? Indeed, if a pregnant woman is assaulted and the baby in the womb dies, the person responsible will be charged with a crime for the death in addition to the assault.

When the British Empire ruled India, so a commonly cited anecdote goes, an upper-class Indian man died, and his body was to be burned. It was customary, the local British official was told, to burn the surviving widow with the dead body. The official replied that Britain also had a custom of hanging any man who burned a woman alive. "You carry out your custom, and we shall carry out ours," he said.

The principle upon which President Obama claims to base his acceptance of abortion, if logically extended, would likewise require acceptance of things like honor killings, infanticide, and euthanasia - so long as it is kept within the family. It is a misunderstanding of subsidiarity and a concept foreign to the Common Law principles upon which our system of jurisprudence is based.

Either he hasn't thought through the implication his own stated principles or, worse yet, he has.