Category Archives: Evangelization

Our Jealous God

Public revelation was officially closed with the death of John the Apostle.  This does not preclude, from time to time, God raising up prophets, fashioned in the mold of the Jeremiah, Isaiah and Elijah, to help the People of God apply the contents of that revelation to their current times.  History is rife with them—St. Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Faustina to name a few.  The Spirit of Prophecy is a key component in the Mystical Body of Christ even in our own day.  Unfortunately, like the days of Israel of old, the spirit of false prophecy is always lurking at the door.  There will always be those who claim to speak on behalf of God and yet are lending their voices to the enemies of humanity.  It is to one of those groups that I address this post today—the self-styled prophets who claim “God does not care if…”

This spirit of false prophecy is ubiquitous, especially in our “YOLO” culture.  Who among us has not met one of these prophets?   They are quick to tell us, “God does not care if we go to Mass.” Or, “God does not care if we call Him the right name.”  They proclaim, “God does not care how we worship Him.”  And even remind us that “God does not care if you eat meat on Fridays.”  And “God does not care if you smoke weed.”  These are but a few of their prophetic utterances, but you get the point.  These Bizarro John the Baptists repeatedly reassure us that God loves us as long as we are good people and enable us all to relax a little bit, if for no other reason that we have found out that God has sanctioned our drug habit.  They are great prophets of, well, not exactly peace, but at least of “chilling out.”

God’s New Name

Just as Jonah was stopped in his tracks when his message was received, these luminous prophets are often thrown off when they are asked “how do you know God doesn’t care?’  Probing, you find that what they really mean is that if they were God, then they wouldn’t care.  God is really their prophet.  But it is not the audacity of their message that is the most distressing element, but instead the image of God that emerges if we are to worship “I CARE NOT” rather than “I AM WHO AM”.

All of us tend to chill out in our old age, and “I CARE NOT” is no different.  Given all the time of dealing with humanity, He has chilled.  At least that is what our prophets would have us believe.  But the image this God invokes is actually just as scary as the so-called “fire and brimstone” God they are trying to extinguish.  Their God may be laid back, but He is still merely a Divine Auditor concerned only with tallying up our actions.  He may not put as many things in the left-hand side of the ledger, but he still has his ledger.  Presenting him as mellow does nothing to remove this image.  It is a scarier image because we have no way, other than by listening to these prophets, to actually know which belongs in which column.  If “God doesn’t care” does that mean these are good actions then?  Or do we now have an indifferent column?  If he is mostly indifferent about what I do, then how do I even know he cares about me?  Most people will take the God who hates over the God who is indifferent—at least the former also loves.  Indifference and love, bumper stickers to the contrary, cannot coexist.  In trying to avoid sterile moralism, the Prophet of Indifference manages to castrate God Himself.

Why God Cares

These prophets can still challenge us however, even if it is by way of an end around.  They force us to ask the question why God even cares what we do.  As we probe we find that St. Thomas Aquinas asked the same question, framing it in terms of sin as an offense against God.  In Book 3 of the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Angelic Doctor says that “God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good.”  In other words, God cares so deeply about each one of us that He takes offense only when we do something that ultimately harms us.  And what are those things?  We call them sins, but they are essentially things that move us off the path that our nature and our supernatural calling has put us on.  There are some things that help us to advance towards this goal (we call these good), some things that stop us (venial sins) and some things that knock us off the path entirely so that we need His help to get back on the path (mortal sins).  In short, God not only cares what we do and don’t do, He says that He does so as a jealous lover.  He knows that giving ourselves to any other lover than Him ultimately ends in frustration that could be eternal.  But choosing Him as our love, we can love all those other things in Him.  “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:33).  This is not to trivialize just how bad sin is—it is still an offense against Almighty God—but to place it within the context of a filial relationship rather than as Judge and defendant.  God, in all eternity, is Father but only with respect to creation is He judge.  It is of His nature to be Father and not to be Judge.  See, He does care what we call Him.

In his sermon entitled “Jewish Zeal, A Pattern to Christians,” Blessed John Henry Newman reminds us of the best weapon with which to combat these false prophets.  He says that Christians should not be taking up the sword in the manner of Elijah when he encountered the false prophets of his day, but instead to capture the spirit of mind that animated his actions.  Zeal, Newman says,

“consists in a strict attention to His commands—a scrupulousness, vigilance, heartiness, and punctuality, which bears with no reasoning or questioning about them—an intense thirst for the advancement of His glory—a shrinking from the pollution of sin and sinners—an indignation, nay impatience, at witnessing His honour insulted—a quickness of feeling when His name is mentioned, and a jealousy how it is mentioned—a fullness of purpose, an heroic determination to yield Him service at whatever sacrifice of personal feeling—an energetic resolve to push through all difficulties, were they as mountains, when His eye or hand but gives the sign—a carelessness of obloquy, or reproach, or persecution, a forgetfulness of friend and relative, nay, a hatred (so to say) of all that is naturally dear to us, when He says, ‘Follow me.’”

Let us go forth in this same spirit.

Joining the Choir

In the midst of one of the greatest Christian persecutions, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan seeking his counsel for dealing with Christians.  What makes this letter especially noteworthy is that it is the earliest non-Christian account of Christianity itself, with specific details about the religious practices of the early believers.  In particular, he mentions how those former Christians whom he had met all said that their supposed error was that they “were accustomed to gather before dawn on a certain day and sing a hymn to Christ as if He were God.”  Although understated, it appears remarkable that of all the Christian practices, they remember the liturgical singing best.  It is as if it was so intoxicating that it was a primary cause of their “error.”  They were not alone, even the great St. Augustine expressed a similar conviction, finding the Church mostly vulgar until he heard her singing: “I wept in Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church” (Confess. ix, 6).

Would either of these two pagans would say anything remotely similar if they were to find harbor in a church during Mass in our own time?  More than likely, not.  Like many aspects of the Sacred Liturgy, liturgical music is approaching a crisis point.  Banal at best, many places throw in a dash of irreverence confusing Mass music with the music of the masses.  Liturgical music ought to be different.  No mere sing-along, it is meant to vest and adorn the liturgy by bringing clarity to what is truly going on around the Faithful. Or, as Pope St. Pius X put it,

“Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” (Tra Le Sollecitudini Instruction on Sacred Music)

Bad Theology Leads to Bad Music

This is not really a critique of the skills of choir directors or choir members, but a critique of their underlying philosophy.  Many have been trapped within a mindset Pope Benedict XVI calls a “puritanical functionalism of the liturgy conceived in purely pragmatic terms.”  This pithy explanation is rich in substance, saying a number of things all at once.  Foundationally, it lies in a (mis-)application of the call of the Second Vatican Council for the Liturgy to be marked by active participation of all present.  Many have interpreted this to mean that everyone has a function to perform during the liturgy.  But, as the Pope Emeritus points out, the “earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process.”  That is, we are merely participating in God’s work, a work that is cosmic in its dimension.  Our part(-icipipation) is not merely to do a bunch of external activities, but to actively and internally unite ourselves with this Opus Dei, praying that we will personally take ownership of the sacrifice and make it our own.  It is a sacrifice given in “spirit and truth” and thus, first and foremost, requires hearts that are into it.

Anyone who has gone to a concert knows that attentive listening, even if you are not singing or humming along, is a form of participation.  In fact someone doing that, especially when they are out of tune or otherwise don’t have particularly good voices, can ruin the experience for those around them.  Likewise, with musica sacra—listening intently and devoutly to a choir fits the Council’s call for active participation.  But there are those in the congregation who, to quote Pope Benedict XVI again, “who can sing better ‘with the heart’ than ‘with the mouth’; but their hearts are stimulated to sing through the singing of those who have the gift of singing ‘with their mouths.’”  The flip side is that by compelling those to sing who cannot we are not only silencing their hearts, but those around them as well.

The problem, as I mentioned, is not particularly related to skill but to ideology.  With the goal being external uniformity in activity, sacred music suffers.  Musical selection is based upon the ease in which those present may sing along and its capacity to build community through singing.  These two criteria however conflict with what Pope St. Pius X said was the authentic goal: namely that the music be holy and have “goodness of form.”

What Makes Good Liturgical Music

That the music should be holy simply means that it should be set aside as specifically liturgical, that is “closely connected with the liturgical action and… conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (SC 112).  “Praise and worship” music, Christian rock, and secular “feel-good” music each have their own place, but the liturgy is not that place.  It should be a musical setting of a liturgical text.  This is why the Church has always given the works of Palestrina and Gregorian Chant pride of place because of it solemnity and close connection to the spirit of the liturgy.

Liturgical music should also have “goodness of form” by which Pius X means it should be of high artistic quality.  He said, “it must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.”  This is where choirs and choir directors should not fear to shine for the glory of God.  They should strive to play and sing beautifully even if the rest of the congregation cannot join them.  They should see themselves properly as sacraments, making the singing of the angels and saints present.  Their music should raise our minds and hearts to the heights of heaven.

When these two criteria, holiness and beauty, are met, then a third one, universality emerges.  This is what St. Augustine experienced early during his conversion.  By universal St. Pius X means it “in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”  One does not need to understand all the words of the music, let alone the Liturgy itself, in order to participate.  As St. Thomas says, “Even if those who listen sometimes do not understand the words being sung, they do understand the reason for singing, namely the praise of God.  And that is sufficient to arouse men to worship” (ST II-II, q.91 art 2).  If the music has beauty, then the clarity of its purpose will emerge and move all those present to worship God more fully during the Mass.

Music has the power to move us in ways that even the best homily could never do.  This power, once harnessed and properly applied, can be the “heart of the Liturgy.”  The crisis point has been reached—it is time to reclaim liturgical music and restore it to its pride of place.

The Heart of Sacrifice

It is part of the canon of frenzied modern man—“showing up is 80 percent of life.”   Whether the percentage is correct or not, rarely do we hear the proverb’s obverse that “20 percent of life requires more than just showing up.”  The challenge, and it is a challenge whose success determines a life well-lived, is to know which arenas to apply the 80/20 rule to.  Unfortunately, for many Catholics, the Mass falls into the 80 percent category.  But the Church, at least according to the Second Vatican Council, thinks it is in the 20 percent exhorting that “fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concillium, 14).  In short, we must do more than just show up.

One could wallpaper the entire Vatican several times over (or, if you prefer, fully clog their sewer system) with all that has been written about the meaning of the phrase “fully conscious and active participation” so I will not add to the growing detritus.  Regardless of how you interpret that phrase, we can all agree that little, if any, headway has been made towards this “aim [that is] to be considered before all else” (SC, 14). Why is this?  Because the Mass, like many parts of our divine faith, has become an ideological battleground whose smoke has obscured the reason that the Mass exists in the first place.

The Sacrament of the Body and Blood

Each of the Sacraments are visible signs, instituted by Christ, by which invisible grace and inward sanctification are communicated to a person.  We all remember this definition from our early Catechism lessons.  But what we may not have grasped is the uniqueness of the Eucharist and the grounds for the assertion that it is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (SC, 10).  Like the other six Sacraments the Eucharist bestows grace, but it also contains the very Author of grace, Jesus Himself.  The Son is really and truly present upon the altar after the words of consecration.  The truth of the Real Presence is overwhelming, but we must take care to not allow its brightness to blind us to the fact that the Eucharist is also a sign.  It is a sign that points to the reality of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  It is the Divinely instituted sign that invokes His power and makes that same sacrifice present under the form of bread and wine.  It is the Sacrament of His Body and Blood first, Real Presence second—not in the chronological sense but in the order of the Divine intention.  Christ says not, “this is Me” but “this is My Body…this is My Blood.”  This is not to deny the Real Presence, only to frame it within the context of what happens in the Mass.

By turning our gaze upon the Body and Blood of Christ we see the Mass rightly as a sacrifice.  In an age of exaggerated ecumenism it is vital for us to grasp that the “Mystery of Faith” is the sacrifice that occurs on the altar.  It is not the same sacrifice as the one on Calvary; Christ was sacrificed once for all.  Yet this sacrifice is one with that sacrifice in that it is the perfect re-presentation of the same Victim and the same Priest.  The only difference between the two sacrifices are the mode in which they are offered.  The natural mode saw the separation of His physical Body and Blood on the Cross, while the Sacramental mode sees the separation of His Body and Blood Sacramentally—an unbloody offering of the one Sacrifice of Calvary.  As the Council of Trent puts it “[I]n the two sacrifices there is one and the same victim, one and the same priest, who then on the cross offered Himself, and who now, by the instrumentality of His priests, offers Himself anew, the two sacrifices differing only in their mode” (Council of Trent, Disp 13, q. 3, nos 48,50).

This distinction enables us to see a deeper aspect of the Sacred Mystery.  Just as her Divine Head had His natural sacrifice, the Church has her own sacrifice in the Eucharist.  The Sacrifice of the Cross belongs to the world, while the Sacrifice of the Mass belongs only to the Church.  It was instituted by Christ specifically for the members of His Mystical Body.  The Church as the Body of Christ is no mere metaphor, but a profound truth that we are comprised of members who have been bodily united to the Lord in the Eucharist (c.f. 1Cor 6:12-19).  Likewise, Communion as the consummation of the Eucharistic Sacrifice becomes a necessary, and uniquely privileged, element of the sacrificial act.

“Pray Brethren that My Sacrifice and Yours…”

Taking ownership of the sacrifice means not only that we receive sacred benefits from it, but that the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is put into our hands to use.  The Mass is not just about receiving forgiveness and grace but also about exercising our share of the Priesthood of Christ.  Calvary comes to us so that we might participate in it and have a share in distributing its fruit.  This is why simply mailing it in deprives each of us and the Church as a whole of a great spiritual benefit.  “Fully conscious participation” consists in recognizing “my sacrifice and yours” as an exercise of our own priesthood.  Mary was mankind’s representative at the foot of the altar of Calvary and in that way participated in the sacrifice so that its benefits my spread to her spiritual children.  We ought to have her as our model in participating in the unbloody Calvary of the Mass.  The point is that we must be fully present in order to not only receive its benefits but also to apply them.  As co-sacrificing priests, we ought to have specific intentions for which we offer the Mass—intentions that are distinct from the general intercessions and the special intention of the Priest for the Mass.

Although in some circles the idea of Christians presenting sacrifices to God has the odor of “the Law,” it is something that we are commanded to do.  After preaching the essence of the gospel to the Romans for 11 chapters, St. Paul begins the 12th by exhorting them to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).  According to the Apostle to the Gentiles, the essence of the Christian life is to offer sacrifice.  But it is a sacrifice that on our own we can never offer—this sacrifice must be visible (your bodies), living, holy and pleasing to God.  It is God who supplies the Lamb.  The Eucharist is the only living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God.  By its reception we become one flesh with its Victim thus His Body becomes ours.  The Eucharist becomes the source and summit of all Christian sacrifice.  All our sacrifices—big and small even when mixed with impure motives—are offered in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood and thus become holy and pleasing to God.  All of life finds its meaning and fulfilment in the Mass.  The great challenge of the Christian life—pleasing God—becomes conceivable.  Eighty percent of life may be showing up, but Life itself requires much more.

Making Supermen

A friend of mine often wears what he calls his “favorite conversation starter” t-shirt.  It features a bunch of Marvel and DC superheroes sitting on top of a building listening to Jesus regale “and that is how I saved the world.”  This clever t-shirt is a conversation starter indeed, but not for the reason that you might think.  For most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, know the story of how Jesus saved mankind.  What they do not understand is how Jesus saves individual men.  It is this distinction between the universal and the particular, between all men and each man, that has both evangelical and ecumenical implications.  It is towards this distinction that we need to turn our gaze, not only to grasp it intellectually, but to embrace it more fully with our hearts.

The logic of the Word pitching His tent among us is twofold: atonement and redemption.  He came to return to the Father all the external glory that was lost through mankind’s offense.  But He did not just leave mankind in travail, but also redeemed us.  This is how He saved the world.  But not all members of the human race are redeemed so that simply being a member of the human race is not sufficient.  There is still the question as to how you and I enter into the orbit of the redeemed.  In Protestant parlance, the question is how does Jesus become my personal Lord and Savior?

How You and I Are Saved

The obvious, and somewhat simple answer, is faith.  Although the answer is simple, all too often we equivocate on the word faith and do not truly grasp what it means.  Faith, in the broadest sense, means to believe.  According to St. Augustine believing means to give assent to something one is still considering because one does not have a finished vision of the truth.  That is, rational inquiry into the object is not yet complete and therefore the person’s assent is not in the reason but in the will.  One trusts the Source and therefore proceeds as if the object has been sufficiently proven.

Faith is not complete until it has an object.  It is not enough to say “I believe” but one must say what he believes in.  To say that one has faith in Christ, he must believe that “there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  That is the man trusts that all Christ did and said was true and that his act of redemption was sufficient to overcome his slavery to sin and power of death to hold him.

So far, the Catholic and non-Catholic Christian would agree.  Faith is necessary for salvation but it may not be sufficient.  Faith in Christ could exist prior to His appearance.  This is the faith of the father of the Old Testament, “the faith of Abraham which was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:22).  Faith by itself is not tied to the historical appearance of the Son of Man per se.  In other words, faith’s object remains blurred until it is bound to the Passion of Christ.

To bring the power that flows from the Passion of Christ, that is our personal possession of His act of redemption, into focus requires something further.  As Aquinas puts it, “the power of Christ’s Passion is united to us by faith and the sacraments, but in different ways; because the link that comes from faith is produced by an act of the soul whereas the link that comes from the sacraments, is produced by making use of exterior things” (ST III, q.62 a.6).  The sacramental system is joined to faith so that there is not just a psychic connection between the believer and Christ but also a physical one.

Just as the physical encounter that St. Thomas the Apostle (and all the witnesses to His resurrection) had with the risen Christ that strengthened his faith, so too with the physical encounter with the Risen Lord in the Sacraments strengthens our own.  That is the Sacraments do not diminish our faith but greatly supplement it.  Aquinas says that the Sacraments are indispensable to a full life of faith for three reasons.  First is because of our nature as spirit/matter composite.  Faith, as an act of the soul, is strengthened by acts of the body.  Second, our slavery to material things can only be remedied by a material thing that contains spiritual power to heal.  Finally, because man finds in them a true bodily exercise that works for salvation (ST III q.61, a 1).

The Sacraments and the Link to the Incarnation

These same three reasons can also be given for why God should appear before men.  As the “image of the invisible God” Our Lord comes only because of our needs.  The Sacramental system is seen most properly as an extension of the Incarnation.  Those who reject it, tend towards Gnosticism, that is, seeing themselves saved based on some secret knowledge they have been given.  They reject the notion that material objects can be instrumental causes of grace just as the Gnostics rejected the Incarnation, thinking that the human body of Christ could not be an instrumental cause of saving grace.   A sacramental system free view of salvation is an over-spiritualized salvation—one that is both theologically and practically unlivable.

This is why my friend’s t-shirt is so compelling—not because Christ is the greatest superhero but because it leads to a deeper truth.  Christ does not merely offer us redemption nor make us super-spirits like angels, but into supermen.  Faith unites us to Him, the Sacraments incorporate us into His life making us into something wholly other (or holy) than we are.


The Christ-Bearer

There once was a society that fell in love with the equality of its citizens.  They saw it everywhere and in everything so much so that fought to remove its enemy, excellence.  They did not lift up the lowly, but lowered the mighty.  Heroes became a thing of the past and then past heroes were erased because they might inspire noble acts among the citizenry.  Heroes simply never existed.  Then one day a great crisis came upon that society and for want of enough heroes, they perished.  They were all equally dead.

Is this just a story, or is this a glimpse of what the future will say about us?  We might gauge by asking, which is easier, to name three modern day heroes or three celebrities?  Most certainly the latter.  Heck, even most our fictional super-heroes are deeply flawed bullies lacking nobility.  For want of heroes, the people perished.

We look down on Achilles because we can’t take our eyes off his heel.  Paradoxically we abhor excellence while at the same time demanding perfection.  That is because we have forgotten what a hero is.  The heroes of the past and the present are all fallen men and women.  They are not heroes because they are perfect, they are heroes because they are magnanimous and courageous.  They do great and noble things, even if not all the things they do are great and noble.  All saints are heroes, but not all heroes are saints.  I can think of no better example of this principle than the former hero Christopher Columbus.

Christopher Columbus may not have been a Catholic saint, but he is a great Catholic hero.  As Leo XII said of the great explorer “[F]or the exploit is in itself the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man; and he who achieved it, for the greatness of his mind and heart, can be compared to but few in the history of humanity” (Quarto Abeunto Saeculo [QAE]).  His unflappable courage in literally “setting out into the deep” and his noble intention of winning souls to Christ, that set the course of history off in an entirely new direction.  For generations, his life was a model and inspiration.  For our generation he is a scoundrel.

Why He Went

There are those who would challenge the contention that he set off from Spain in August of 1492 with anything more than a desire for fame and riches.  They allow the men holding the eraser to tell the whole story rather than letting the man himself tell it.  Leo XIII summarized it best when he said that  it is “indubitable” that the Catholic faith was the strongest motivation for Columbus and for this reason the whole human race owes “not a little to the Church.”  After 30 plus days without the sight of land mutiny threatened and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea reminded his crew of their mission.  His log for October 10, 1492 records:

They could stand it no longer. They grumbled and complained of the long voyage, and I reproached them for their lack of spirit, telling them that, for better or worse, they had to complete the enterprise on which the Catholic Sovereigns had sent them. I cheered them on as best I could, telling them of all the honors and rewards they were about to receive. I also told the men that it was useless to complain, for I had started out to find the Indies and would continue until I had accomplished that mission, with the help of Our Lord (The Log of Christopher Columbus, p. 72).

After discovering Hispaniola, he wrote (again in his log) to Isabel and Fernando:

I have to say, Most Serene Princes, that if devout religious persons know the Indian language well, all these people would soon become Christians. Thus I pray to Our Lord that Your Highnesses will appoint persons of great diligence in order to bring to the Church such great numbers of peoples, and that they will convert these peoples. . . . And after your days, for we are all mortal, you will leave your realms in a very tranquil state, free from heresy and wickedness, and you will be well received before the Eternal Creator (Nov. 6 entry).

Even one of his contemporary critics, Fr. Bartolome de Las Casas, the great champion of the rights of the Native Americans, labeled him “extraordinarily zealous for the divine service; he desired and was eager for the conversion of these people…And he was especially affected and devoted to the idea that God should deem him worthy of aiding somewhat in recovering the Holy Sepulchre” (quoted by Samuel Eliot Morison in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Admiral of the Ocean Sea pp.45-46).

This quote is particularly appropriate because it helps to explain one reason why Columbus has become an object of scorn in recent times.  His name, Christopher, or “Christ-bearer”, was his mission.  In an age of religious subjectivism anyone who acts must be acting for some other motive.  To act for the glory of God is deemed to be absurd and bears the label fundamentalist or extremist.  Not only that, but his motive was also politically incorrect.  Columbus saw his mission as an extension of the Crusade to capture the Holy Land.

The tellers of history often speak of the reason why explorers set out to find water routes to the Orient based on strictly on economics, but do not explain why the land route was so costly and dangerous.  The reason is simple—the lands that needed to be crossed were controlled by Muslims who heavily “taxed”, robbed, enslaved and killed merchants from the West.  Columbus and his generation thought this could be avoided by finding a water route.  What set Columbus apart however was that he thought he could convert the East and then squeeze the Islamic lands between East and West and recapture the Holy Land for good.

Although these were Columbus’ primary motivations, they were not his only.  He did also seek riches.  Riches are a “second thing” and provided that the First Thing remain first there is nothing wrong with that.  He wanted to fund the Crusade to recapture the Holy Sepulcher, but he also had investors that he had to satisfy.  He also sought to increase his own wealth and like the rest of fallen mankind these secondary goals were wont to make him forget the primary goal at times.

A Great Hero, but a Fallen Man

There is no need to whitewash all that Columbus did.  He failed to live up to his noble mission at times, especially in his inability to transcend his own circumstances.  When he arrived in Hispaniola he found two peoples, the peaceful Arawaks and the brutal Caribs.  The Caribs committed all kinds of atrocities including human sacrifice and cannibalism, mostly directed at the Arawaks.  Columbus viewed the peaceful Arawaks as Spanish citizens and thus worthy of protection.  When he conquered the Caribs, he, as was the accepted custom of the time, enslaved the conquered peoples.  He was gravely wrong in doing so, although he may not have realized the full import of what he had done at the time by blindly accepting the cultural norm.  It is easy to condemn him thinking we are more enlightened now about slavery, except we are far less enlightened about the barbarity of human sacrifice to our own gods.

He also was a much better explorer than an administrator.  Despite objections to the contrary—he told the King and Queen that only “good Christian men should be sent”—the Spanish sovereigns sent him back to govern Hispaniola with 1200 colonists.  These men were included corrupt nobility and convicts whose death sentences were commuted for going.  Rather than accept this role wholeheartedly, he often left the island for long periods of time to continue exploring.  While the cat was away the mice played and he returned to find the peaceful Arawaks enslaved to the Spanish men there.  Rather than putting an end to it, he allowed it to continue and eventually ended up returning to Spain in chains  This ultimately cost his governorship, but he was allowed to return a fourth time strictly as an explorer.

Before closing, it is also worth addressing the other common accusation lobbed at Columbus, namely that he stole the land.  The fact that this is an accusation at all shows how chronologically bias we are.  There is no evidence that the natives themselves viewed the land as their own.  They were for the most part nomadic peoples among nomadic peoples so that even if there were stationary groups you have to ask whether the land they occupied was rightfully theirs.  How did these primitive peoples make land claims and how were the recognized?  Did they merely use the land for a certain amount of time and move on, or did they actually own it?  What is sure is that they did not have any understanding of property the way the Western Europeans did or we do today.  So, even if the Spanish were guilty of exploiting them in many ways, the accusation that they had their land stolen from them is really meant to excite modern prejudice.  In any regard this is not as cut and dry an issue as it is often presented to be.

It is Leo XIII that seems to best summarize why we as Christians should redeem the history of Christopher Columbus and rank him among the great American heroes of the past: —“ He was distinguished by this unique note, that in his work of traversing and retraversing immense tracts of ocean, he looked for a something greater and higher than did these others. We say not that he was unmoved by perfectly honorable aspirations after knowledge, and deserving well of human society; nor did he despise glory, which is a most engrossing ideal to great souls; nor did he altogether scorn a hope of advantages to himself; but to him far before all these human considerations was the consideration of his ancient faith, which questionless dowered him with strength of mind and will, and often strengthened and consoled him in the midst of the greatest difficulties. This view and aim is known to have possessed his mind above all; namely, to open a way for the Gospel over new lands and seas” (QAE).  This Columbus Day let us come to his defense.  For want of heroes, the people will perish.


Catholic Culture and the Filet-o-Fish Sandwich

The Bishops of England and Wales recently made a change to their liturgical calendar, effective the first Sunday of Advent, that added back to the calendar two Holy Days of Obligation—Epiphany and Ascension Thursday.  While this decision obviously only effects those Catholics in England and Wales, their decision is remarkable because it is counter to a trend that has plagued the Church since the Second Vatican Council that has seen the reduction of Liturgical Feasts of Obligation.  One can hope that this will spur other Episcopal Conferences to follow suit.

The Code of Canon Law (1246) has this to say about Holy Days of Obligation:

  • Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
  • However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.

In Advent of 1991, the NCCB of the United States (now known as the USCCB) issued a general decree defining the Holy Days of Obligation (in addition to all Sundays throughout the year) for Latin rite Catholics in the US as follows:

  • January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
  • August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
  • December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Whenever (1), (3) or (4) fall on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated.  The Feast of the Ascension, in most dioceses in the US, has been moved to the following Sunday, effectively reducing the number of feasts of obligation from ten to five.

Plummeting Mass Attendance

When faith is in decline, the power of binding and loosing enables the shepherds of the Church to make the practice of the Faith “easier.”  Although this is often abused (I will avoid that rabbit hole here), the shepherds may alter Church disciplines in order to keep the sheep from falling to grave sin.  Seeing regular Mass attendance drop precipitously from 55% to 41% in the years from 1965 to 1990, the Bishops thought that by reducing the obligation, it might keep at least some from committing the serious sin of missing Mass.

That this approach proved ineffective seems obvious, especially since regular Mass attendance dropped to 22% in 2016.  Likely, it had the opposite effect by contributing to it.  Removing some obligations is always a danger because it challenges all obligations, especially when their removal goes unexplained.  Perhaps, the thinking goes, if those days really weren’t obligatory, then the ones they say are obligatory now aren’t either.  After all, one can still be “spiritual” without religious obligation.

The crisis in Mass attendance was not really the problem, but merely a symptom of a larger disease that the Doctors of the Church failed to properly diagnose.  While the reasons are legion, the issue was the death of Catholic culture.  There may have been some compromises with the surrounding culture, but Catholics always stood out because of their religious practices. Think of the Catholic practice of no meat on Fridays throughout the year (another one that has been done away with) and how restaurants made special accommodations to win Catholic patronage.  Once that practice was no longer obligatory even the meat fasts of Fridays in Lent went ignored.  The point is that these practices, even when done with less than pure intentions, bind Catholics together.

The point is that there can be no culture without cult so that if you take away from the liturgical life of the Catholics, you will most assuredly do harm to the sheepfold.  It is not only, or even primarily, for the natural reason that it creates, for lack of a better term, Catholic “identity.”  It is also for the supernatural reason of Communion.  The more often the believers come together and receive life from the Altar of Sacrifice, the closer they will be to Jesus.  The closer they are to Jesus, the closer they will be to one another.  The closer they are to one another, the greater their witness to the world.  The Eucharist is like the nucleus of a primordial atom drawing each negatively charged man to Itself.

When faith is in decline you should increase the obligations, not reduce them.  Fear of hell, while imperfect motivation, can still keep you from hell.  Someone may come to Mass out of obligation, but Our Lord will not be outdone in generosity giving actual graces to those present to receive Him more purely.  There are always those who will go to Mass regardless of whether it is a Holy Day of Obligation, but there are also a great number who will only go because it is.

Catholic culture has to be built from the ground up and is something that needs to be instilled in the young.  I find it very strange that Catholic schools all treat the few Holy Days of Obligation as “regular” days, instead of true holydays.  Should they really celebrate Labor Day while simultaneously demanding work from students on the day when we celebrate all those “who from their Labor rest?”  Going to Catholic school in the 1980s was certainly a confusing time, but one thing they always did right was give us off from school on all the Holy Days of Obligation.  That has always stuck with me and left me with the awareness that these days were no ordinary days.

The Fullness of Time

This leads to one further point that could come under the heading of unintended consequences.  One of the great heresies of modern times is compartmentalization, that is creating a “wall of separation” between Church and the rest of life.  God can have Sunday (even if only for an hour) but the rest is mine.  The Incarnation made it glaringly obvious that God is with us, not just on Sundays, but all days.  The Son came in the “fullness of time” not just because everything was Providentially ready for His arrival, but also because when time and eternity meets in His Person time is filled.  This is part of the reason the Church celebrates Mass not just on Sundays, but every day.

If you really believe that God is actively participating in every moment at every time, you will reject compartmentalization.  The great Christian feasts mark those moments in history when God stepped into the ordinary.  They not only mark them, but make them present.  It brings God into the humdrum, or rather, shows that there really is no humdrum.  It shows them to be real, as in really,really real and not just something relegated to the past.  Take away these celebrations and you move God to the periphery.  Move Ascension Thursday to Sunday and you make it nearly impossible to fully prepare for your share in Pentecost.  Pentecost was not a single event, but one that unfolds throughout time and also at specific times on each Pentecost Sunday.  The Apostles and Our Lady taught us how to prepare for it by nine days of prayer.  Seven days may be more convenient, but it isn’t how it’s supposed to be done.  It makes it all seem manufactured (work of man) and just ceremonial rather than truly liturgical (work of God).

Likewise with Epiphany—we complain about keeping Christ in Christmas, but meanwhile we don’t keep Christmas in Christmas.  Want to win back Christmas from the clutches of commercialization, restore Epiphany to its rightful place in the calendar.

Please God that all the Bishops will follow those of England and Wales and reinstate all the Holy Days of Obligation!

Sacramental Momentum

At the beginning of his extended treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas draws a parallel between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives that helps explain the inner logic of the Sacraments.  Specifically he says “the spiritual life is analogous to the corporeal, since corporeal things bear a resemblance to spiritual. Now it is clear that just as generation is required for corporeal life, since thereby man receives life; and growth, whereby man is brought to maturity: so likewise food is required for the preservation of life. Consequently, just as for the spiritual life there had to be Baptism, which is spiritual generation; and Confirmation, which is spiritual growth: so there needed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is spiritual food” (ST III, q.73, a.1).  While it is certainly a clever way to teach about the need for the Sacraments, to see it as only that would be to miss an important analogical corollary; one that has practical applications for our apostolic approach to those in various stages of conversion.

In mitigating the factions that had arisen within the Corinthian community, St. Paul reminds them of his (and our) role in the conversion of others.  It is by way of cooperation that we participate in the conversion of another, but it is ultimately God Who provides the growth (c.f. 1Cor 3:6-7).  We all intuitively grasp this and realize that our role is secondary (at best) and that only through grace does another person “grow to the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13).  Nothing new has been said so far.  But how that growth is provided is not at all intuitive.  In fact we might be tempted to think it is a mystery and only according to God’s good pleasure.  As Catholics we do know that there is one sure way that God causes growth—through the Sacraments.


Sacramental Inertia

This is where St. Thomas’ analogy between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives fits in.  The analogy is not just about the inner logic of the Sacraments themselves but also represent a progression in our Spiritual lives.  Just as a living person has a natural drive toward food, the person who has been born again in Baptism has a supernatural drive to feed on the Bread of Life.  Just as the child who has been born and has nourished his life with food desires to grow up, so too in the Spiritual life there is a supernatural desire for Confirmation.  What St. Thomas doesn’t say, but which is implied, is that this supernatural desire is contained as a grace within the Sacraments.  Baptism leads to a desire for the Eucharist.  Baptism and the Eucharist lead to a desire for Confirmation.  Baptism and Confirmation lead to an increased desire for the Eucharist.  Each reception of the Eucharist leads to a more fervent desire for the Eucharist itself.  And so, through this analogy we see that within the Sacraments there are graces pushing the recipient towards the other Sacraments, most especially towards the “source and summit” in the Eucharist.  It is like Newton’s first law applied to the Spiritual life—that which is set in motion in Baptism stays in motion through the other Sacraments.

Like all theological truths, this (super)natural progression also has practical consequences, one which we ought to make profit of in our apostolic endeavors.  If we know that an infallible means of growth is the Sacraments and follow St. Paul’s model then we ought to push others towards the Sacraments.  When we meet someone who does not know God at all and is unbaptized, our focus ought to be to lead them to the Baptismal font.  Why?  Because the grace of conversion contains within itself a desire to be baptized.  If the person is Baptized, then our focus ought to be on pushing them towards Confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  Because the Baptized person is already being inwardly pushed towards those Sacraments.  They may not be able to identify the specific impulses, but they will know them when they see them.    Lukewarm Catholic already in communion with the Church?  Push them towards Jesus in the Eucharist Who is the fire that will set ablaze the most lukewarm of hearts.

I knew of a man who did nothing else but invite his Protestant friends to Eucharistic Adoration.  He reasoned that if his Protestant friends really knew Jesus, they would recognize Him when they met Him in the monstrance.  It might not happen immediately, but in many of the cases they kept going with him until it did.  If Jesus is really there, and He is, then it is hard to find a flaw in this approach.

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

Our apostolic endeavors are only effective insofar as we cooperate with grace already working interiorly in the person.  By making use of this principle of Sacramental Inertia we are assured that we are on the same page as the Holy Spirit.  The Sacraments become a sort of apostolic blueprint that represent a goal.  In Latin, the Mass ends with Ite Missa Est, literally “she is sent,” meaning that we are sent out into the world to bring others back with us.  Like John the Baptist our goal is simply to point out and bring others to Jesus.  If we really believe the Sacraments are what the Church teaches they are, we will make them our apostolic goals.

One last point merits our attention as well, especially if it seems that the picture I have painted is overly simplistic.  It is no coincidence that the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (and Confession), as next steps are also the biggest obstacles.  The principle of Sacramental Inertia is not foreign to mankind’s greatest spiritual foe.  They are either mocked by direct attack, counterfeited or else indirectly attacked by attacking the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  We should be constantly aware that the last thing the Devil wants is for a non-Catholic to begin a Sacramental life and he will do all that he can to impede that.  Our approach, when not leavened with prayer and sacrifice, will always become mere apologetics.  The Sacraments are the greatest treasure of the Church and we must always recognize that sharing these gifts is our apostolic goal.

Inequality and God’s Love

It may be an obsession with equality or the extension of the trophy mentality to eternity, but I am often struck by the vehemence of those who protest that God does not love each of us equally.  On the one hand, we can sympathize with our protester—that God might love some more than others reeks of a superiority complex based on the all-too human tendency to exclude ourselves from the roster of the “others.”  This danger must be confronted head on because this “mere” theological exercise is not an excuse to say that one person is better than another, but a key component of a healthy understanding of God’s love for each one of us individually.  It is, in fact, an indispensable facet of the Good News, enabling us to see how God’s love of all mankind extends to each person individually.

To open our minds to at least the possibility that God may love some more than others, we begin by assuming the egalitarian viewpoint.  That is we must be willing to concede that God loves me just as much He does the Blessed Mother.  Framed within such a stark contrast, we must at least be willing to entertain the possibility; if God were to love one person more than another, it would be here.  If nothing else, this disparity would lead us to admit to the uniqueness of God’s love for each one of us.  God certainly would love the Virgin Mary differently than He would love me even if it does not imply that there is a difference in degree.

Why God’s Unique Love is Not Enough

To say that God loves us uniquely is certainly true, but my contention is that we must also hold onto the more/less distinction as well.  Calling it unique does not quite capture how it is Good News so we must continue on down this road, stopping at one detour along the way.  To say that God loves one person more than another does not preclude Him from loving each of us with the same intensity.  God is love, that is, love is of His essence and so He loves all things with the same vehemence or intensity of will.  He wills the good for all of His creatures and for each man the supreme Good that is a share in His abundant life. This detour also gives us a moment to examine our perspective.  When we do this, we realize we may be looking at the question from a totally human perspective.  Human love is only an analogy for the love of God, only revealing part of it.  It would be repulsive for a parent to love one of their children more than another.  That is because when we love, it is a recognition of the good in the other.  The good, in a certain sense, is the cause of our love.  For God, it is the opposite—it is His love that causes the goodness (for a more thorough treatment of this question see ST I, q.20, art 3).  With this paradigm shift comes a change in our focus to which we must ask, what exactly is it that makes us lovable?

In examining creation, both visible and invisible, we find that God willed a hierarchy in the natural realm.  We find that by nature, angels are above men, men above beasts, beasts above plants, etc.   This hierarchy means that no man, not even the Virgin Mary is above an angel by nature.  There is also an internal hierarchy within the different natures.  Some angels are above other angels and some men above other men.  In short, nature’s hierarchy is based on how much the thing images God.

God is not content with the natural realm, in fact the natural realm was created so that those creatures who most perfectly image Him, may share in the supernatural realm.  This we call the order of grace.  And while grace does not destroy nature, it does disturb the natural hierarchy.  A hierarchy remains but it is based on not so much on what the creature is, or, more accurately, who he or she is, but in how much he or she is “like” God.  God is, from all eternity, not just love, but because He is a Communion of Persons, lovable.  This means that the more “like” God the creature is, the more lovable they are.  The more lovable they are, the more they are loved by God.

The Question Reframed

With proper framing we find that it is almost common sense that God would love more those who are more lovable and that our lovability is based upon the degree of our “God-likeness.”  For sophisticated theologians, this “God-likeness” has a name—sanctifying grace or, as St. Peter puts it, the gift (gratis) by which we become “partakers of the Divine nature” (2Peter 1:4).  We are loved to the degree that we have sanctifying grace in our souls.  This is why we should ever be striving to increase in sanctifying grace (primarily through Prayer, the Sacraments, and acts of love for God), it makes us more lovable and thus more loved.  The difference in love is not so much in the way that God loves us, but in our capacity to receive.  That capacity is determined by one thing only—the amount of grace we have in our souls.  Thus the Virgin Mary is more loved because she who is full of grace is more lovable.  This is why we believe she occupies the highest realms of heaven.  She who is most “like” God, is most near God.

To see why this is Good News look at someone like St. John Vianney.  By all accounts he was not a man of any particular natural endowments and was probably quite simple at best.  He would never achieve any great things in his life and his chances of making any lasting contributions to this world were pretty slim.  Except, that he was inundated with grace and focused solely on growing in holiness (and all that entails including service of neighbor, etc.).  Why it is Good News is because it doesn’t depend on my accomplishments at all.  It doesn’t matter what great things I do, it only matters that “the Almighty does great things for me” only because I say yes, “be it done to me according to your word.”   This is incredibly freeing, especially to someone like me who is plagued by pride.  By humbling accepting this, it can gives us a laser focus realizing the desire each of us has for greatness and the call to holiness are the same thing.

If you are still unconvinced that this really is Good News, then I offer one more example of a Saint who rode this doctrine all the way to Heaven and was declared a Universal Doctor of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux.  Happy to be the smallest of God’s flowers she knew He would fill her to the brim with grace and could offer herself as a victim to His love without any hesitation.  Her capacity to be loved may have been less than some of the other Saints, but she strove to have her cup filled to the brim.  The Little Flower shows us the other reason why this is also part of the Good News.  In the heavenly realm there is no competition.  Each person is perfectly happy in their place because they are filled and are part of a whole that shows the glory of God.  God is not simply trying to populate heaven, He is building a family, and like in all families, it glory consists in the whole and not the individual parts.  St. Therese, pray for us!

Fools for Christ

The latest round of leaked emails from the Clinton campaign captures an email exchange between the Clinton campaign Director of Communications Jennifer Palmieri, John Halpin as senior fellow at the Center for American progress and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta:


Date: 2011-04-11 21:10

Subject: Re: Conservative Catholicism

Excellent point.  They can throw around “Thomistic” thought and “subsidiarity” and sound sophisticated because no one knows what the hell they’re talking about.

Jennifer Palmieri <> wrote:

I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion.  Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.

—– Original Message —–

From: John Halpin

To: John Podesta <>; Jennifer Palmieri

Sent: Mon Apr 11 18:55:59 2011

Subject: Conservative Catholicism

Ken Auletta’s latest piece on Murdoch in the New Yorker starts off with the aside that both Murdoch and Robert Thompson, managing editor of the WSJ, are raising their kids Catholic.  Friggin’ Murdoch baptized his kids in Jordan where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

Many of the most powerful elements of the conservative movement are all Catholic (many converts) from the SC and think tanks to the media and social groups.

It’s an amazing bastardization of the faith.  They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy.

In an age of over-sensitivity, the response has not been surprising; Catholics are “offended” at the “bigotry” of the Clinton campaign.  The latter is most certainly true, but the speed at which Catholics found themselves “offended” shows that something is missing within the American Catholic vision.

During his third missionary journey, St. Paul found that a similar issue was facing the Corinthian Church.  The Church was under constant pressure from the surrounding pagan environment and was experiencing division because of it.  But rather than advising them to “take offense,” he gives them a very important reminder, one that we would do well to heed as well: “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).

In other words, a Christian should not be surprised when the world views them as foolish.  Only a fool would believe that a man who died a fool’s death is God.  Only a fool would believe that rather than coming as a mighty conqueror, God would come as a baby.  Only a fool would believe that God could be this foolish.  And the world would be right except for one thing—the Fool overcame death validating all that He said and did.  This same Divine Fool is gathering those interested in joining His band of fools.  We need reminders such as these because we are made in the image of a Fool and thus must be comfortable being foolish too.  There is a grace of becoming “fools for Christ.”

What these emails also reveal is the difficulty “those who are perishing” have in imagining someone acting for anything but political motivation.  Everything is framed in terms of politics—“Christian democracy” and “the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion.”  They “are perishing” not in the sense that they are going to hell per se, but that they put all of their hope in the State.  They will go the way of their redeemer, just as the fools will go the way of their Foolish Redeemer.

This, by the way, is why the same group consistently associates terrorists with “radical” Islam.  It is entirely inconceivable in their view for someone to act out of religious motivation.  It is also why the Church will always come into conflict with the unbridled secular state.  The Church claims a law above all human law, the secular state admits no law above the Constitution (as a challenge find a single mention of natural law in a Supreme Court decision in the past 50 years).  We should also then not be surprised when they plot to infiltrate the Church to destroy her from within.


This problem is nothing new in the life of the Church.  As the Roman Empire was crumbling around him, St. Augustine wrote what has become the best explanation of the Christian world view, The City of God.  The Doctor of Grace distinguishes sharply between two cities—the City of Man and the City of God.  This is not meant to be a distinction between the Church and State, but between a society founded on the love of God and a society founded by a group of thieves based on self-love.  Given that one of the two large party candidates has to win, it should be obvious which City the United States has become.

Rather than lobbing charges of bigotry or being offended our response ought to be Augustinian.  Anyone who reads City of God is instantly struck on how uncompromising he is to dialogue with Rome.  At the risk of being seen as foolish, he is confident that in all ways the Christian way of being is superior.  He doesn’t look for ways in which Christianity can be fit into the Roman system but instead takes it to task for its inherent injustice.

This is not to suggest that Catholics renounce their citizenship and move to Vatican City if either Trump or Clinton win the election.  Instead a solution can be found by applying one of those Catholic words —subsidiarity.

Our country has been plagued by two tendencies in the last 50 years, individualism and a strong centralizing tendency in government.  They really are two sides of the same coin.  As we grow more and more atomistic, the only thing that can hold us together is a stronger State presence.  As the State tries to maintain social cohesion, it will seek to eliminate smaller institutions like the family, civic associations and Church because they do not conform to the social norm they are imposing from above.  As inherently divisive, these groups are accused of “discrimination” or “severely backward gender relations.”  The groups can either dissolve, conform or risk being redefined from above.

Just so we know “what the hell” it is, subsidiarity is the principle by which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CC1883).  Why it matters is because it is a protection against the State that Clinton ( and all evidence suggests Trump seems to have no problem with it either) wants to form.  Yuval Levin in his book Fractured Republic says that nothing short of an effort to re-form mediating institutions based on the principle of subsidiarity will save our country.  As the largest “mediating institution” in the Country, the Catholic Church obviously plays a prominent role.

What we need is, not a Church that whines about being attacked, but fights back.  We are not defending ourselves, but defending the Truth.  We are not just defending the Church, but fight knowing that those “who are perishing” have a right to hear the Good News.  This comes from below, not from above.  Why haven’t Jennifer Palmeiri and John Podesta heard the real truths of Catholicism?  It isn’t because some Bishop didn’t tell them, but because those Catholics whom they encounter on a regular basis didn’t tell them.

What we need is, not so much a Church guided by strong Bishops who do not fear being foolish, but a Church filled with foolish laity.  What if Bishops started calling the laity out the way we have grown so accustomed to doing to them?  Subsidiarity applies within the Church as well as without.   The Church is a clerical domain, the world is ours.   It is time we took back our domain.  There is no clericalism within the City of God.

What we need most of all is, not a Church that is divided along liberal/conservative lines, but a Church that evangelizes from within and is Conservative in doctrine and liberal in love.  That is a Church that cannot be infiltrated.

May we all have the courage today to be fools!

On Christian Unity

Historically, the division of Christianity marks the beginning of the end of Christian Culture.  There are a number of historical causes for this, but the most prominent is the “religious wars” that resulted from the Protestant movement.  Rightly or wrongly so, it was the Christian faith as a whole that was blamed for the wars.  Many began to wonder whether doctrinal disputes could be worth so much bloodshed.  This religious division touched the lives of nearly everyone and many had a difficult time believing that the neighbor who happened to have a different set of beliefs, but who they knew so well, was going to hell.  In this climate, the doctrines of the individual churches didn’t seem to matter as much and people began to investigate other arenas as avenues to truth.  In this soil, the Enlightenment philosophy was able to take root especially since science seemed to provide many answers in a rapid fashion to questions about the universe, while issues in theology seemed to go unresolved.  People began to see science as the source for truth and no longer looked to religion. These advances in science also gave assurance of God’s power and wisdom, but led people to a “natural religion that could be established by reason alone.  This natural religion spoke only of the basic truths about the existence of God and human morality known to all mankind.  Eventually religion became merely a means for maintaining decent behavior and social order.  It would seem almost common sense then, that in order to stem the rising tide of secularism, a restoration of Christian unity is necessary.

John Paul II commented numerous times throughout his Pontificate that Christian unity has suffered “deep lacerations” in the course of history through which “large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3)  However, the historical situation has now changed in that “(T)he children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection” (UR, 3).  In other words, there is very little to be gained at this point in time to play a blame game.  A divided Christianity is our present reality and this reality is a great scandal to the world.   In a world marked by sin and division, unity stands out.  This is why Jesus prayed in His High Priestly Prayer that His followers would remain united because that unity would be a sign that He had come from the Father (Jn. 17:21-23).  In other words, the unity of all Christians has its own evangelical force, drawing people to the Truth Who is Jesus Christ. It is in this spirit that the Church has marked this week as the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In his Encylclical, Ut Unum Sint, Pope St. John Paul II surveyed the ecumenical landscape that was created by the openness of the Second Vatican Council and offered a primer on how this unity could be restored.  He emphasized the need for prayer not just because it is necessary for all things, but because it is both a sign and a fulfillment of the desired unity:

It must not be forgotten in fact that the Lord prayed to the Father that his disciples might be one, so that their unity might bear witness to his mission and the world would believe that the Father had sent him (cf. Jn 17:21). It can be said that the ecumenical movement in a certain sense was born out of the negative experience of each one of those who, in proclaiming the one Gospel, appealed to his own Church or Ecclesial Community. This was a contradiction which could not escape those who listened to the message of salvation and found in this fact an obstacle to acceptance of the Gospel. Regrettably, this grave obstacle has not been overcome. It is true that we are not yet in full communion. And yet, despite our divisions, we are on the way towards full unity, that unity which marked the Apostolic Church at its birth and which we sincerely seek. Our common prayer, inspired by faith, is proof of this.

Drawing on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Father also provided the faithful with a game plan of sorts.  Although the Council Fathers sought to enter dialogue with the whole world, they marked a clear delineation between the different groups.  Often it is the case that the terms “ecumenism” and “interreligious dialogue” are used interchangeably.  However the Council makes a clear distinction between these two terms because they have very different goals. Ecumenism is directed towards our fellow Christians with the goal of Christian unity so as to remove the “division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature” (UR, 1). Interreligious dialogue, on the other hand, involves dialogue with non-Christian religions with the same goal of unity but it cannot be separated from proclamation of the Gospel.

The one Church still is found in physical form today and subsists in the Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium, 8).  There has been some controversy around the use of the term subsists but the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offered some clarification in 2007 saying:

[T]he use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth” which are found outside her structure, but which “as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity.

It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.

The point is that while the Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Christ, sources of sanctification can be found within other Churches and ecclesial communities.  These sources of sanctification have their source from within the treasures of the Catholic Church with whom Christ left the whole dowry.

Christian Unity

In general, most Catholics struggle to hold both the truth that the true Church subsists in the Catholic Church and that other communities can be sources of sanctification in tension.  What usually happens is that one aspect is over-emphasized to the detriment of the other and one or two attitudes usually emerges.

Very often those who consider themselves “traditional” Catholics will emphasize the fact that Jesus started one Church.  For them, Protestant communities become a source of mockery.  They see the Church as having the fullness of truth and we should condescend in giving it to them. This “convert or else” type mentality is something that John Paul II addressed in Ut Unum Sint  when he says that  in the other communities, elements of the “Christian mystery have at times been more effectively emphasized.”  The Holy Father’s point is best understood when we examine what he is saying through his personalistic lens.

John Paul II had a unique way of examining the truths of the faith using personalism.  He thought that any truth had two dimensions—the objective (which he called notional) and subjective (which he called real).  There is the objective fact and the subjective experience of that fact.  Faith, for Karol Wojtyla the Philosopher, involved moving the notional knowledge of the truth from the head to a real knowledge that is concrete personal, experiential, and taken to the heart.  So then while Catholics have the fullness of truth (notional and ontological) there are those who may live it better (real and existential) and so we can learn from them how those truths can be better lived out.  This is why Catholics in religious dialogue are not merely condescending but truly in a position of learning.  Many Protestant communities live out certain aspects of the Gospel better than Catholics do and we can learn how to make those truths more present in the Church.  Once these are more present, the Church will look more appealing to those who are separated and they will see how their experience of the truth fits into the fullness of truth overall.

The second attitude is one more in line with “tolerance.”   But if we truly believe that the Jesus has entrusted the Church with a great treasure to be shared, why wouldn’t we share it?  If we examine ourselves we may find that we don’t really believe that.  But if we do, then it is a supreme act of charity to share the fullness of the faith with someone.  Certainly we should take the reminder from the Council Fathers to heart that “the way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed should never become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded” (UR, 11).  In an age of religious relativism this serves a stark reminder that while the truth itself may be divisive, we as Catholics must avoid being divisive in the manner in which we present that truth.  But still we should actively engage others in order to share of the fullness that we have received.

This ultimately is why the onus for Christian unity falls upon us as Catholics.  Many non-Catholics have no idea on what they are missing.  Sure, they could get to Heaven even if they aren’t Catholic, but do we love them enough to show them just how full Christ’s Revelation really is?  Do we love them enough to bring them to the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist of which Our Lord warned that it was impossible to have life without?  There will come a day when we as Catholics will have to answer for the ignorance of our friends and neighbors.

Although the Catholic Church was somewhat late in entering the ecumenical arena compared with other Christians, they are the only ones who are still committed to the ecumenical movement’s original goal of the unity in Christ’s one Church in doctrine and practice.  This is precisely because the Council Fathers grounded their approach in solid principles.  In this week of Prayer for Christian Unity let us all examine our commitment to this most necessary cause.


Keeping Christ in Christmas

When he was hired by the Illustrated London News, G.K. Chesterton was told he could write about anything other than politics and religion.   He responded that there was nothing else and then proceeded to spend the next 20 years writing about nothing other than politics and religion.  He wrote about the truly important things.  Judging by the frequency in which he wrote about Christmas (an average of 5 or 6 articles per year), he thought it to be among the most important.    Never one to beat around the bush, he opens an essay simply titled Christmas with a statement that is just as relevant today as when he wrote it nearly 90 years ago—“There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes as I am doing in this article.  It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is.”

With all of the talk about “Keeping Christ in Christmas,” Chesterton’s words seem particularly apropos.  One of the reasons Christians are losing Christmas to the rising tide of materialism is because they have ceased to keep Advent with Christmas.  How many Christmas parties have you been invited to and attended during Advent?  How often have you exchanged Christmas gifts prior to Christmas?  While it may seem like the Liturgical Calendar is meant to be something separate from the “real” calendar, there is a great wisdom behind it.  Advent has a specific purpose behind it and only when it is lived fully and held distinct from Christmas can we truly celebrate Christmas.

The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus and means “presence” or “arrival.”  According to Pope Benedict XVI, it was a term from classical antiquity that was used to “express the arrival of a deity who emerged from hiddenness and gave proof of his presence through mighty works.”  In adopting this term, the Christians hoped to express two related truths.  The first is that the Divine Son of God has not withdrawn His presence from us but is in hiding and this hiding will end with His manifestation in glory again.  We use Advent then as a time of reflection upon the ways in which we find the hidden Christ and preparation for His definitive return.

Christmas on the other hand is a great feast that marks the reason for our faith that Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, and our hope that He will come again.  The intensity with which we celebrate this “great day” is always in proportion to how much we have exercised our faith and our hope during those days of preparation.  Only with proper reflection beforehand can we truly find reasons to celebrate the great feast.  Otherwise we will get caught up in the materialist’s interpretation of Christmas.  In other words, Advent is our protection and surest way to keep Christ in Christmas.  If you want to get into the Spirit of the Season, then first get into the Spirit of the Season of Advent.

There is a second aspect of Chesterton’s quote that also bears mentioning.  The Apostle of Common Sense reminds us of something that is so obvious that we easily forget it—“ It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is.”

We have forgotten (or perhaps we have never known) how to proper celebrate holidays.  In a short and very approachable book entitled In Tune with the World, Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper, develops a philosophy of festivity.  He begins by quoting, of all people, Nietzsche who said “the trick is not to arrange a festival but to find people who can enjoy it.”  His point is that it is not mere arrangements alone that make a festivity, but instead a recognition that what is being celebrated is a good thing.  But it cannot be just some generic good thing, but the celebrant must have shared in a distinctly real experience of that good.  To emphasize this point, Pieper says that “[S]trictly speaking, the past cannot be celebrated festively unless the celebrant community still draws glory and exaltation from that past, not merely as reflected history, but by virtue of a historical reality still operative in the present.”

Christ in Christmas

With this in mind, we see the reason why the Church insists we keep Mass in Christmas(s)—only in the Mass is the historical reality of the Incarnation made actually operative in the present.  All of the mysteries of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension are made present to us.  Through the Mass, the Incarnation is protected from becoming just a historical event.

But it is more than just keeping the Mass in Christmas that enables us to enjoy the festival of Christmas.  In taking on flesh, the Son has responded to our deepest desire to live with God.  He has shared our human life so that we might eternally share his divine life.  This is the reason for our joy in this festive season.

Although joy is an end in itself (it is absurd to ask why anyone wants to be joyful) this longing for joy is really a desire to have a reason and pretext for it.  In other words, the reason for joy comes first, the joy comes second.  Joy is an expression of love and it is the possessing or receiving what one loves (whether actually in the present or remembered in the past or hoped for in the future) that causes it.  The reason for joy we can call the festive occasion and in order to celebrate men must also accept and acknowledge it as a reason for joy.  They must experience it as a receiving of something they love.

Pieper’s explanation also helps us to see that Christmas is always in danger of becoming an absurdity.  He says that “if the Incarnation of God is no longer understood as an event that directly concerns the present lives of men, it becomes impossible, even absurd, to celebrate Christmas festively.”  In other words, it is nonsense to speak of keeping “Christ in Christmas” when we do not allow Christ to be Lord of every other day of the year.  If the Incarnation is not something that touches someone’s life, then of course they will not see Christmas properly.  Christmas just becomes one of the many celebrations of the “Holiday Season” without any real discernible difference from Kwanzaa or Festivus.

This makes it obvious why Christmas is becoming completely secularized—we  have not preached the Gospel and presented Christ as a gift to be loved and enjoyed.  To put our foot down and insist that people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” misses the point entirely.  When we wish someone a “Merry” Christmas what we are really wishing is that the person receive all of the gifts that accompany festivity—namely renewal, transformation and rebirth.  Why should we expect someone who has not experienced the real Christmas gift to want someone else to experience it?

Christmas is not being lost because of the “culture.”  It is being lost because we have ceased to preach Christ.  “Cult” is at the heart of culture.  Culture both shapes and is shaped by what we believe.  We can restore culture by restoring our uniquely Christian ways of revealing Christ is all that we do, and not just our words.  One easy way to do this in the remaining days of Advent is by “preaching” the inner meaning of our Advent customs.  Each of the Christmas customs is charged with meaning.  The Christmas tree is meant to preach Christ—“then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes” (Ps 96:12).  Our Christmas baking preaches Christ—“in that day, the mountains will drip sweetness, and the rivers will flow with milk and honey” (Joel 3:18).  Lights that adorn the outside of our house preach Christ—like the wise virgins, we keep our lamps trimmed (Mt. 25:1-13).   Christmas itself is not just a single day, but twelve—one for each of the tribes of Israel until Christ’s full manifestation to all the nations on Epiphany.  Celebrate all twelve instead, especially in thanksgiving for His coming to the Gentiles.  May all of our actions in the coming days, preach to the world, the true light that has come into the world.




Ite Missa Est

One of the challenges that the Church found herself facing as the Second Vatican Council convened was that the very idea of missions found itself in a crisis.  Much of the sense of urgency with which the Church viewed missionary activity had been lost.  Many began to question whether missionary activity was even still necessary, especially in light of the truths that could be found in many of the world’s other religions.  After all, God can and wants to save all men, even those outside the Church.  It is from within this theological climate that the Council Fathers addressed the question of why the Church must continue her missionary activity by issuing the Decree on the Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes(AG).  Unfortunately the almost half a millennium that has passed since the close of the Council has seen the crisis associated with the missionary character of the Church heightened rather than alleviated.  In hopes of stemming this crisis, we should reflect upon the missionary teachings of the Council.

The call for a missionary Church evokes in the minds of most people the need to go off to some Third World country and baptize its inhabitants.  While this is certainly part of the missionary character of the Church, with the advent of the New Evangelization we no longer need to go off to a foreign land.  There are many in our personal spheres of influence who have not yet encountered Christ truly.  Despite all the information we have at our fingertips, we are perhaps the most religiously ignorant society in the history of Christendom.   This ignorance can only be shattered if we all recognize we have a missionary vocation.

In coming to understand why the Church should be missionary, it is first necessary to understand what exactly one means when using the term “mission”.  The Council Fathers defined missions as “the term given to those specific undertakings by which the heralds of the Gospel having been sent out by the Church into the whole world to carry out the task of preaching the Gospel and planting the Church among peoples who do not yet believe in Christ.” (AG 6)  In this definition we see two important concepts joined; that of individual conversion and the extending of the Church’s territory.  In defining it in this way, the Council Fathers sought to emphasize the goal of missions is to save souls and not just extend the Church’s borders.  With a proper understanding of this twofold meaning of mission, we can better begin to address the question as to why the Church must still be missionary.

The Church is described by the Council Fathers as “divinely sent to the nations of the world to be unto them ‘a universal sacrament of salvation’” and thus “missionary by her very nature” (AG 1, 2).  On a practical level what this means is that if the Church is missionary by her very nature then for the Church to cease mission would mean that it is no longer the Church.

However there is a much deeper meaning to this statement that is addressed by the Decree.  The Church is missionary by her very nature because the Church’s mission has a Trinitarian foundation.  In God, the communion of divine Persons manifests itself in the interplay of the processions of the Son from the Father and the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son.  The sending or missions of the Son and the Spirit in time presuppose and reveal these eternal processions and continue throughout time in the presence of the Church in mission. In this way the Church is a sacrament, but it nevertheless seeks through its missions as its goal communion.  It is this communion then that is both the origin and the goal of the Church’s mission.

Mission to Indians--Marquette

This might explain why the Church must be missionary, but it does not necessarily instill any sense of urgency or absolute necessity on the part of the Church.  However, if we examine a further facet to the missionary nature of the Church, we find that it instills both the sense of urgency and absolute necessity.  It is the link with Christ Himself.  We hear this in the unequivocal words of the Decree in the declaration that there is “‘one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim. 2:45), ‘neither is there salvation in any other’(Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him…”(AG 7).

The missionary mandate is based upon the clear convictions that Christ is both the fullness of salvation and that outside of Him there is no salvation.  In a world that is drinking from a relativistic fountain, this is often thought to be very intolerant.  Nevertheless, even if this foundational truth is exclusivist in that only through Christ is eternal life offered, the Decree is also inclusive in that it does not exclude from salvation those who do not know Christ through no fault of their own.

The overemphasis on the inclusive character of the Decree has led to a culture of universalism in which all men are already saved.  A traditional motivation for preaching the Gospel has always been that there are men whose salvation is in jeopardy.  Once this motivation is taking away the urgency of missionary activity dies.  The true “spirit” of the Council seems to agree with St. Thomas’ assessment that the majority of non-Christians are lost when she proclaims in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium that:

“…often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.  Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature’, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention” (LG 16).

Therefore at the heart of the mission of the Church is proclamation of the Truth.  This Truth is not just an idea, but a Person.  Proclamation entails both an invitation to commit to Christ and to enter into His Church through Baptism.  The Council would respond to the quote that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi of “preach the Gospel and use words when necessary” by saying that “words and invitation are always necessary.”  This proclamation is more than simply the witness of a life of charity.  The priority is always on proclamation, albeit done in respectful dialogue.

The Council taught in Nostra Aetate that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy” in non-Christian religions.  These truths can often be a starting point of dialogue with non-Christians.  Dialogue then is an inseparable part because it offers a new way of relating to and understanding the situation of those to whom the proclamation is made.  Within this dialogue there is a notion of equality.  But this equality

“…refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ in relation to the founders of the other religions. Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Dominus Iesus, 22)

Finally, the Council would reject the notion that ignorance is bliss.  Missionary activity is still necessary for the Church because the Gospel is really Good News.  Those who hear it and conform their lives to it are better off both in this world and the next.  Christ is the answer to man’s deepest longings and aspirations. As the Council reminds us “(F)or by manifesting Christ the Church reveals to men the real truth about their condition and their whole calling, since Christ is the source and model of that redeemed humanity, imbued with brotherly love, sincerity and a peaceful spirit, to which they all aspire.”

Christians know that a life without Christ is a life that is incomplete and so it is a supreme act of charity and a sacred duty to go out and meet the desires of all men with the liberating truth of the Gospel in its fullness.  In this way we can see that in the Church’s history missionary drive has always been a sign of the vitality of the faith of the members of the Church.

For their part, the recipients of the message have a duty to seek the truth and once it is found they must conform their lives to it.  Nevertheless this must be done freely and the Church rejects anything that resembles proselytism.

In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II remarked that the number of those who do not belong to the Church had nearly doubled since the close of the Second Vatican Council.  It seems that today, as possibly never before in the history of the Church, there is both the need and opportunity to bringing souls to Christ by both witness and word.  This can only be done if the truth of Christ is emphatically preached and believed on the part of those who preach.  In this way the missionary path of the Church lays wide open.

Rules of Engagement

In discussing the Kerygma as the first component of Evangelization, it was mentioned that we should all have a somewhat “canned” presentation of it in our evangelization tool belt.  This was in order to help us simply and succinctly present the Good News as it truly is.  While this is certainly the first step, it is not the only.  We must also be prepared to engage the difficulties in the hearts of others that arise as a result of this encounter with the Gospel.  Today, I would like to mention some other tools that are essential in doing this.

First, I would like to address two things that often arise around any discussion like this.  The first is that “it is the Holy Spirit who converts, not us.”  The second is like it and centers around a quotation mistakenly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi—“preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.”  While both of these principles have some truth to them, they ultimately lead to what I call “evangelical mimes” who attempt to passively evangelize others and not active preachers of the Gospel.  This happens because we tend to treat these rules in an absolute sense rather than in the spirit they are intended.

It is the Holy Spirit that converts men, but He does not act directly and in a vacuum.  Instead He acts in and through us.  If it is the Holy Spirit alone then why does He use a Church?  Could He do it without us?  Yes.  Will He?  No.  Our job is to make ourselves as sharp of instruments as humanly possible.  Grace perfects and elevates nature and so the Holy Spirit will use these already sharpened human instruments to save souls.  It is both incredibly humbling and incredibly scary that He entrusts us with souls whose salvation may hinge upon our actions.  It also means that our salvation might depend upon theirs.  As I tell my wife and kids regularly, if you all don’t get to heaven, then I am probably not going to either.  If we reflect on this long enough, we will never approach someone haphazardly again or simply dismiss them as “lost.”

The second principle, “preach the Gospel and use words when necessary,” also has some merit but we fail to live it properly when we treat it as absolute.  The truth is that words are always necessary.  Besides, and maybe this is more of a self-indictment than anything else, for most of us our witness of life is lacking the Gospel clarity that St. Francis had.  That principle may have worked for St. Francis, but for the rest of us we will need to use words as well.

The first pope in his first encyclical also stressed the need for preaching in words when he exhorted the faithful to, “[A]lways be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame” (1 Pt 3:15).  He thought that once they witnessed through their faith and hope-filled suffering, they ought to be ready to explain why they acted like they did.  “Being ready” meant that they had given it some prior thought and planning as to how they would explain it all.  He also recognized that winning the battle for souls occurs on two fronts, the head (“a reason for your hope”) and the heart (“with gentleness and reverence”).  With this in mind we can develop some simple rules of engagement that will help us serve as more effective agents of evangelization.


In engaging the head we can begin by looking three acts of the mind—understanding, judgment and reasoning.  The first act, understanding, is perhaps the least recognized when we engage others.  It consists in making sure that we understand the terms we are using and that anything that might be ambiguous we define clearly.  All too often we jump to judgment and reasoning too quickly and so end up arguing past each other.  This happens because the two parties will be using the same terms in very different ways and end up missing each other completely.  In order to avoid this, every time I engage an atheist I begin by asking them what their definition of God is.  I want to know the God they are rejecting.  Not surprisingly, I find that it is not anything resembling the Christian conception of God and I begin by telling them I do not believe in that God either.

The other important aspect of this step is to check the assumptions that are being made.  Very often we will make no progress until we challenge incorrect assumptions.  For example, we are often confronted with non-Catholic Christians who will say “Where is X in the Bible?” and we will respond by trying to argue from the Bible.  It is important to be able to point to the basis of our beliefs in Sacred Scripture, but we ultimately want to lead them to the totality of God’s Revelation so that they will know Him more fully.  In order to do this, rather than pointing out where X is in the Bible, we should challenge the assumption that everything we believe must appear explicitly in the Bible.  Where do we find this principle in the Bible?  Instead we can lead them to the Catholic principle that Revelation has two fonts—Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and that, while not everything we believe is found explicitly in Scripture, nothing in Scripture can contradict our beliefs either.

The second manner in which we engage the head is to take the approach that God does with man—“God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.” (Pope Benedict, Verbum Domini, 42).  This progressive revelation or “plan of divine pedagogy” as St. Thomas calls it, consists in God giving His spiritually immature children knowledge of Himself that is perfectly adapted to their needs and their ability to receive it.  For example, He allows Israel to persist in henotheism or monolatry.  This belief system acknowledges the existence of multiple gods with one that is supreme and worthy of worship until He fully reveals Himself in Christ.  To give them the Trinity from the get-go would only have served to confuse them since they were surrounded by polytheists on all sides.

We call this principle gradualism.  For example, all too often we go to the hard teachings first and end up losing them.  To try and get someone to understand the Church’s teachings on contraception when the whole world is doing it is difficult enough.  But if they have not yet understood the self-giving love of Christ on the Cross or even a proper understanding of marriage then it will seem completely crazy.  It doesn’t mean we ignore the hard teachings or encourage them to live against them, but that we might simply avoid discussing them directly until the foundations are properly laid.  We may have to consistently back them up to the real sticking point before trying to progress.  As most of us can attest, once some of these preliminaries fall into place, the hard teachings come rather easily.

To engage the heart, I have likewise found two principles that are particularly helpful.  With respect to the gentleness that St. Peter commends, we must always remember what the purpose is.  The purpose is not to win an argument but a heart.  This means charity trumps all and our goal must be to show them the beauty of the truth.  Once I forget this and I make it about being right or winning an argument, I have always failed.  When I make it about the other person coming into a fuller understanding of reality for their own good, then I can be a docile instrument.  We must seek to build trust, especially since people only believe something as true if they trust the source.  We have to show that we have their best interest at heart.  Pope St. John Paul II captured this necessity of trust in receiving the truth well in Fides et Ratio, “[I]n believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person’s capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.” (Fides et Ratio, 32).

Treating the other with reverence involves a respect for human psychology.  One of the largest obstacles to the truth in our lives is that we are naturally jealous of our own ideas.  When we find ourselves challenged we begin to go into defensive mode and shut ourselves off from the truth.  The best way to disarm this defense mechanism is through the Socratic Method.

Personally, I have found that the Socratic dialogues serve as excellent resources for evangelization techniques (Euthyphro might be the best).  Socrates never actually tells them anything directly, instead he asks questions and gently leads them to the truth.  Sure they are leading questions, but his interlocutor always is left with the impression that he came to the realization on his own.  This method of asking questions also fulfills the second important psychological aspect—to sense that you have been understood.  Very often once someone thinks they have been understood their defenses come down.  Understanding of the other person, even when they are wrong, is a fruit of reverence and absolutely vital to getting them to trust and understand Christ.

Solving the Pope Francis Riddle

For many people, both Catholic and not, Pope Francis remains an enigma.  This is partially fueled by the fact that he often speaks vaguely on Church teachings.  What he has not been vague about however is his call for the Church to re-establish itself as an evangelizing force.  Evidence his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, where he calls upon the faithful to rediscover “the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal” (EG, 164).  If the kerygma serves a fundamental role in both evangelization and Church renewal then it is important that we examine what this important term means.

What does it mean to evangelize?  Most people would respond with “to preach the Good News.”  That is certainly true, but what exactly is this Good News?  You are most likely to get one of two responses; either something really simple like “God loves you” or “Jesus died for our sins” or a launching into apologetics and catechesis.  Both responses are true and important, but neither fully capture what it means to evangelize.  “God loves me” or “Jesus died for my sins” are both good, but don’t capture the “news” part of the Gospel.  Apologetics and Catechesis involve teaching but this assumes a fuller understanding of the News.  This is where the idea of the kerygma comes in.

The word kerygma comes from the Greek word keryssein which means “to proclaim.” It is used in a number of places in the New Testament but most often in the letters of St. Paul when he says things like. “I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive (words of) wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2:4-5). Simply knowing what it means is not enough—we must examine its content.

I said above that “God loves me” or “Jesus died for my sins” was insufficient for capturing the “News” part of the Gospel.  This merits an explanation, especially in a culture that is inundated with 24-hour news channels.  Real news is an announcement that something significant has happened that will leave reality as we know it forever changed.  Think about the news events surrounding 9/11.  Once everyone heard the news, they knew life afterward would be forever changed.  It may take time for that new world to be fully realized, but the fact that the event has happened has already set the wheels in motion on a trajectory that hitherto was completely different.  As evidenced by the historical impact of the life of Jesus Christ, the Gospel too qualifies as a life-altering news event (the fact that I am writing this in 2015 AD or  2015 CE doesn’t change the fact the world views the birth of Christ as somehow setting us out on a new reality).

We need to remember this aspect of it because a news event is discussed in a different way than a question of religion.  Either it happened or it didn’t; and if it did, then it has a very specific meaning attached to it.  It is this meaning and its background that makes us the content of the kerygma.

There are at least eight places in the Book of Acts where we find a kerygmatic expression (see Acts 2:14-36, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 5:29-32,10:34-43, 13:16-41,14:15-17, 17:22-31).  Reading these, we assume either it is an exaggeration or something has been left out because of the amount of fruit that they bear.  But this is precisely the point.  The message itself contains power.  The name of Jesus Christ contains a power all its own and so when we preach it things happen.

Jesus as the vine

We all have experienced this power even if we are not preaching the Gospel per se.  Mention any other leader of religion in history during a casual conversation and people will continue to comfortably converse.  Bring Jesus into the conversation and suddenly a certain amount of discomfort emerges and the whole exchange is in jeopardy.  Christ gave a command to preach the Gospel and therefore we should expect that with it comes a hidden power.  He never commands something and then leaves us alone to follow it.

What is common to each of these speeches serves as an outline to the content of the kerygma.  Here are the seven essential elements:

  1. God, Who is perfectly happy from all eternity, created man with freedom for no benefit of His own but only as someone to share His love with.
  2. Love requires sacrifice and testing
  3. Mankind failed the test and became enslaved to sin and death
  4. God did not abandon man but promised a Liberator
  5. This Liberator was God Himself in the man Jesus Christ (historical event). He appeared and ransomed mankind from sin and death by overcoming them with power in His Resurrection (what makes the event newsworthy).
  6. Because this Jesus cannot die, it is possible to meet Him today. I have met Him and here is why I have never been the same (i.e. witness of your own personal encounter with Jesus).
  7. Invitation to be a part of this new reality by rejecting all imitations of freedom (repentance) and accepting Christ’s invitation to live in true freedom by following Him (to follow Him means to abide with Him through Faith and personal encounter in the Sacraments He has given His Church).

Certainly we may not preach all of this at once. It may come in time and repeated meetings with someone. But the person must have heard all seven points to have fully received the Good News. As an aside, number 6 is vitally important because all kerygmatic preaching is based upon being a credible witness. This means you must have “eye-witness” knowledge of the person you are preaching like the Apostles did in each of their speeches. If you are not living in the new reality of the Good News, then how can you invite another to be a part of this new world?

In a verse we are all familiar with, St. Peter commands the Church “[A]lways be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1Pt 3:15). What this means is not so much that you need to be so well-formed that you can defend the Church against every argument. Instead what it means is that when called upon to give an explanation we should be prepared to say “My hope is from Christ and let me tell you about it.” Whenever I am complimented for being patient in public when my son with Autism has a hard time, my response is always the same: “see the difference Jesus makes?” I may launch into a larger discussion and give them the whole Gospel or I might simply leave it at that. The point is that I must be prepared to give them the entire kerygma which means I have thought it out and rehearsed it. This doesn’t have to be filled with deep theological explanation (in fact the simpler the better), but it should capture most of the seven points depending on where the person is in relation to knowing Jesus. What it should be filled with however is love for Jesus and for the person you are meeting. Think of it as the introduction of two mutual friends that you have been wanting to meet each other.

Now we begin to see that there is a method to Pope Francis’ apparent madness. He does not merely wish to catechize the world but instead to first introduce them to the person of Christ. This includes many within the Church—especially since he mentions the kerygma as the “center of Church renewal.” As I have said so many times in the past, once you have met the person of Christ and become His disciple, catechesis naturally follows. The desire to listen to the Teacher who has “the words of everlasting life” naturally flows from this most important encounter.  The role of the Church is to introduce the world to the person of Christ, invite them to follow Him and nourish their relationship through the Sacraments and ongoing catechesis. She then sends these newly formed disciples out into the world to continue the process. The Christian life involves two commands—“come follow me” and “go make disciples of all nations.” The “going” must always follow the “coming” or else the Church simply becomes another NGO filled with activists. All of the Church’s action must proclaim Christ, both in word and deed, which does not happen unless each member is personally connected to the true vine.

Now on your own, put flesh around the kerygmatic outline I gave above. What would you say specifically? Do you think I left anything out? Share below…