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)