Category Archives: Mercy

Praying with the Dead

In a previous post, the supreme importance of avoiding personally canonizing those who have died was highlighted.  The “holy souls” in Purgatory depend greatly upon our prayers in order that they may be loosed from the lingering effects of their sins after their death.  Many of us grasp this and, out of charity, regularly offer prayers for the dead.  But there is a flip side to this coin—nearly every saint who has been canonized in the last two centuries was recognized because people began asking for their intercession.  In other words, rather than primarily praying for them, people began praying to them.  It seems that we must then exercise judgment as to whether the person is in Purgatory or in Heaven, the very thing I said not to do.  Stuck in a spiritual no-man’s land, we tend towards neither praying for them or to them.  The problem becomes theological rather than governed by the logic of love.  The rich relationship of the Communion of Saints becomes a sterile doctrine and our personal faith falters with it.  All of this seems unavoidable unless we can find a way around this spiritual dilemma.

A single paragraph in the Catechism, quoting an indulged prayer from Pope Leo XIII, helps part the clouds of obscurity.  The Catechism says:

“In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.’ Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” (CCC 959, emphasis added).

In summary, it is our prayers for the dead that not only help them, but also make their intercession for us effective.  What this tells us is that the holy souls in Purgatory, as members of the Church, have the power to intercede for the members of the Church Militant.  But this power comes in some way through our prayers for them.  How this works is obviously a mystery, but that it works is immediately relevant to the discussion at hand.  It gives us an immediate plan of action that will enable us to do both—pray for them and pray for their intercession.

Covering Our Bases

For some of us, this still has a Russian roulette type feel to it—like we are simply trying to cover our bases.  This only serves to make it more mechanical and less personal, the very antithesis of what prayer should be.  But this stems from a certain anxiety that our prayers may actually be wasted.  After all, if the person is in heaven and you are praying for their release from Purgatory, then your prayers have been wasted.

All of our prayer draws its power from the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.  In other words, our prayer is caught up in the Eternal Now of Our Lord’s act of redemption where time and eternity met.  This means our prayer, although uttered in time, enters into the timelessness of God.  God knows “when” you will pray and He can apply the merits of those prayers as He sees fit.  More to the point, even if the soul of our departed loved one is in heaven, it is still your prayer here and now that got them there.  They may have even received the graces you interceded for just now while they were still on the earth.  Just as there are many natural causes that God uses to guide His providential plan, prayer too is a cause.  But because of its supernatural power, it operates outside of the natural constraints of time.

The Power of Prayer Over Time

Once we grasp this hidden power of prayer, we can see that our prayer, even if the soul has left Purgatory, is never wasted.  But it is still necessary because it is a power by which they have been or will be released.  It is also empowers them to intercede for the members of the Church Militant so that we should confidently ask for their intercession in our needs as well.  So our prayers for and to the dead are no different than they were while they were still living—praying both for them and asking them to pray for us.  Because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail” (James 5:16), we should go to them with confidence for our needs.  This also carries with it a rich experience of the true nature of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.  It is a supernatural reality that spans Heaven and Earth and in between (Purgatory).

As long as we are speaking of covering our bases, how do we explain the prayers for the dead who are actually in hell?  Aren’t these wasted?  By now the answer ought to be clear that God wastes none of our prayers.  Our prayers obviously cannot lift them out of hell, but they could be applied to the person prior to their death.  They may lead the person towards conversion prior to their death (there is a beautiful account of the conversion of a despairing soul on the door of death who receives a final grace in St. Faustina’s Dairy #1486).  Or, perhaps it “only” kept them from further sin and, in a sense, lightened their suffering in hell.  Not knowing anyone’s destiny, we should confidently pray based on the overwhelming power of God’s mercy.  By praying, we become instruments of that same mercy.

Owning Our Hypocrisy

If a man was to read the gospels with a fresh mind, that is, without any pre-conceived notion of Who Jesus is and what He was trying to accomplish, he would quickly conclude that one of the worst sins was hypocrisy.  And in a certain sense, he would be right.  There is no group of sinners that Our Lord singles out more often than the hypocrites.  Knowing His profound distaste for this particular sin, it is not surprising that we, His followers, should vigilantly avoid it and keep any traces of it from creeping into our lives.  In many ways this should be one of the easiest sins to avoid because it is also one of the easiest sins to identify in ourselves.  We should know when we are posing to be something we are not.  But this may be oversimplifying the case because it has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our spiritual lives and spreading like a weed.  Therefore, it is fruitful for us to examine this vice more closely.

If lying is to signify by words something different from what is in one’s mind, then dissimulation is a form of lying in which the outward deed does not correspond to the inner intention.  To the topic at hand, hypocrisy is a type of dissimulation when a “sinner simulates the person of a just man” (ST II-II q.111, a 2).  Like all offenses against the truth, when practiced enough, one forgets the truth and begins to believe the untruth.  One starts seeing himself as just.  This was why Our Lord was so harsh with the Pharisees—they had become blinded to their hypocrisy and only by shining His light that the Truth could they be set them free.

Hypocrisy’s Deadly Roots

Rightly recognizing its capacity to kill our spiritual lives, we do all we can to avoid it.  The problem however is that we do too much, mostly because we have failed to make an important distinction.  St. Thomas doesn’t say that you must do everything with perfect intention in order to avoid hypocrisy.  That, unfortunately is the way most of us think of hypocrisy.  No, instead he says that hypocrisy consists in the intention of presenting ourselves as just.  An example might help see the distinction more clearly.  Two men enter an adoration chapel and prostrates themselves before the monstrance.   The first man does so in order to be seen by others and be thought a holy man.  His is an act, not of piety, but of hypocrisy.  The second man does so, not because he wants to adore Our Lord, but because he has always been taught that is what you are supposed to do with only a vague awareness of why.  This is far from being a perfect intention, but it is not hypocrisy.

This description helps to clarify why Our Lord spent so much time pointing hypocrisy out.  It can, and usually does, become a sin of those who have advanced a certain amount in their spiritual life.  At first, we have little interest in appearing to be religious and we may even have reason to hide it.  But as our friends change, our vanity can be directed towards our “spiritual” friends and hypocrisy creeps in.  A hypocrite has to see some value in faking it and thus it is a more “advanced” sin.  This makes Our Lord’s command to “go into your room and shut the door” (Mt 6:6) invaluable for avoiding hypocrisy.  We should perform acts of piety as if we have only an audience of One.

Counterfeit Hypocrisy

There is a further dimension of this that merits some explanation as well.  It is a fear of hypocrisy that keeps us from performing certain acts of piety.  This fear causes us to confuse the false piety of hypocrisy with weak acts of genuine piety.  We hold out until we can get fully behind what we are doing.  For example, a person sends you a novena to St. Joseph, asking you to pray it.  Deep down you believe novenas work, but you feel like you mostly would be going through the motions doing it.  If only your faith was a little stronger than you would do it.  Therefore, to avoid “feeling” like a hypocrite you don’t do it.

It should be clear that to do the novena would not be hypocritical, but what is not clear is that you will never get to the point where your faith is “a little stronger” without doing acts that are weaker.  Faith and the accompanying virtue of piety are habits in our soul and only grow when they are exercised.  By starting with the weak, imperfect acts, they eventually grow to full bloom.  This is not merely going through the motions, but instead adding a little more fervor, a little stronger intention, each time we do them.  With each repeated act, God does His part by strengthening these virtues further because He will not be outdone in generosity.  Before long you not only develop a devotion to St. Joseph, but the Communion of Saints becomes not just a sterile dogma, but a living reality in your life.  This cannot happen however without those first weak baby steps.  “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!”


The Slippery Heresy

There is an innate pessimism in all of us that leads us to believe we are living in the worst of times.  So ingrained is this habit are we that we surround ourselves with prophets of gloom—paid professionals whose sole task is to point out how bad things are.   We can hardly imagine things getting worse and we simultaneously pine for the good ol’ days when things were so much better.  Paralyzed by nostalgia we feel the darkness of doom surrounding us; surrounding us, that is, until we ask “when exactly were the good ol’ days?”  History becomes the elixir of pessimism.  The more we examine it, the more convinced we become that we are living in neither the best of times nor the worst of times.  We find examples of when things were better certainly, but we also find times where things we far worse.

The Church, for her part, has no shortage of prognosticators of peril promising that the collapse of the Church is imminent.  But history, if we study it, tells us otherwise.  The Church survived far worse circumstances than our own and we are assured it will survive the worst.  Talk about optimism!  The worst is yet to come, but the best will follow shortly thereafter.

The Gates of Hell and the Church

The Church holds an insurance policy against the gates of hell will not prevail, underwritten by the Divine Son of God, but we also have plenty of historical examples giving the promise a certain amount of street cred.  Hardly a century has gone by in which the Church did not seem to be on the verge of destruction and yet rebounded.  Our time is likely to be no different—the Mystical Body may enter the tomb like its Head, but it will always be a sign of His resurrection as well.

No worries, right?  Well, not exactly.  When you love someone, you not only want them to live, but you want them to be healthy.  The Church most certainly will survive, but her health is another issue altogether.  The Church may have been in great peril in the first three centuries, but her health was never in question.  She may have been big and rotund 1000 years later, but her health was delicate.

It may seem odd to go to these lengths for the sake of making a proper distinction, until we carry out the implications of this.  The Church as she sits here in 2017 is not healthy.  If we love her then we ought to greatly desire her health.  This is not pessimism, but realism.  The disease may not be terminal, but many members, especially in the extremities may end up being amputated unless we can properly diagnose the problem and apply the remedy.

Diseases in the Mystical Body of Christ have a very specific name—we call them heresies.  Rather than being infected from without, these are like autoimmune diseases that attack the body from within.  To fight them, God injects saints as antibodies.  These saints witness in a particular way against the prevailing error in the Church and then attack those errors with truth and charity, that is, by their words and way of life.

What makes our time particularly unique, is that it would be very difficult to name the heresy plaguing the Church.  St. Athanasius could identify the pathology he was fighting—Arianism.  St. Dominic could name his—Albigensianism.  And St. Therese of Lisieux could name hers—Jansenism.  The list goes on and on.  God raised these men and women up and formed them to fight the diseases in the Church.  While there seem to be a lot of heretics, there is no great heresy.  Some will say modernism, but that, as dangerous as it is, is really a catch all and doesn’t quite capture it.  Some would say it has to do with the moral authority of the Church, but again that is not quite it either.  Try as you might, you would be hard pressed to name the one heresy.

The Mother of All Heresies

That is because the heresy we are facing is really the mother of all heresies—ambiguity.  Ambiguity is really a heresy of omission—it sows error not so much in being silent, but in not saying anything.  It is animated by the spirit of Pope Honorius, the 7th Century pope who was condemned for fanning the flames of heresy by remaining silent when he could have spoken clearly regarding the Monthelite heresy.

In this environment we should not be surprised to see the re-emergence of all the past heresies because all truth is now hidden under the veil of ambiguity.  It is a circumstance that Pope Pius VI anticipated in his 1794 papal bull Auctorem Fidei.

“[The Ancient Doctors] knew the capacity of innovators in the art of deception. In order not to shock the ears of Catholics, they sought to hide the subtleties of their tortuous maneuvers by the use of seemingly innocuous words such as would allow them to insinuate error into souls in the most gentle manner. Once the truth had been compromised, they could, by means of slight changes or additions in phraseology, distort the confession of the faith which is necessary for our salvation, and lead the faithful by subtle errors to their eternal damnation. This manner of dissimulating and lying is vicious, regardless of the circumstances under which it is used. For very good reasons it can never be tolerated in a synod of which the principal glory consists above all in teaching the truth with clarity and excluding all danger of error.”

There is a demonic cleverness to the heresy of ambiguity that makes it difficult to grasp or even accuse someone of.  It says everything and nothing all at once.  It tells a different truth depending on where you are standing.  It is not either/or or even both/and, but both/or.  And like most heresies historically speaking they spread from the top down.  Nearly 80% of the Bishops in the mid-4th century were Arians as well as most of the Roman army, but it was the rank and file Catholics and faithful Bishops like Athanasius that stemmed the tide.

The Church may be a field hospital, but it is the unambiguity of divinely revealed truth that allows her to apply the salve of mercy.  There can be no mercy without justice, no mercy without acknowledging a truth that has been transgressed.  Take away the truth and mercy soon follows.  The Church is left defenseless and ineffective in her saving mission.  Eventually even her own children will be cut off with nothing to tether them to the Body.

Looked at through the lens of history, the saints of our age will be witnesses against ambiguity, fighting against the honorary Honoriuses of our age.  They will be marked by a clarity in their teaching that is matched by an unambiguous way of life.  They will be unambiguously joyful because they will be unambiguously holy.  They will accept unambiguous suffering at the hands of those afflicted with ambiguity and offer it for their sake (Col 1:24).  They will hold fast to the truth, but always in a way that speaks of love and mercy.  They will be true saints.



Apostles of the End Times

As the liturgical year comes to a close, the Church’s readings focus almost exclusively on the end times and the return of Christ in power and might, revealing Himself as Christ the King.  With Advent on the heels of the Solemnity of Christ the King, many of us will flip a switch and turns our eyes to His first coming, when He mounted the throne of the Cross to reign from the Tabernacle.  But rather than hitting the reset button, we should see a principle of continuity between the two seasons, especially if we subscribe to the beliefs of the greatest prophet of the 20th Century, St. John Paul II.  A recurring theme during his pontificate, one that he emphasized in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, was that we are in a season of “a new Advent.”  This new Advent means “to accept with keen conviction the words of her [the Church’s] victorious Redeemer: ‘Remember I am coming soon’ (Rev 22:12).” (John Paul II, ad Limina Address to the Bishops of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, April 25, 1988).  Without succumbing to any distorted millennialism or fatalism, the saintly Pontiff nevertheless expressed a sober certitude that “We are living in the Advent of the last days of history, and trying to prepare for the coming of Christ…”(Angelus Address for World Youth Day, August 19, 1993).

While it remains always true that “you know not the day nor the hour,” the office of Supreme Pontiff carries with it a prophetic charism that invites us in a particular way to keep watch during our own time (c.f. Mt 25:13).  The Pope had a good reason for thinking that our own times were ripe for the return of Christ, one that he hints at in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater:

“For, if as Virgin and Mother she was singularly united with him in his first coming, so through her continued collaboration with him she will also be united with him in expectation of the second; ‘redeemed in an especially sublime manner by reason of the merits of her Son,’ she also has that specifically maternal role of mediatrix of mercy at his final coming, when all those who belong to Christ ‘shall be made alive,’ when ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26).”

The great Marian pope reasons that because Mary played such a key role in the first coming, she would likewise play an integral role in the second.  This is a principle that he borrowed from St. Louis de Montfort, a saint whom John Paul II admitted to having a particularly strong devotion.

Mary’s Role in the End Times

The words of the Polish saint echo St. Louis’ who, in his book True Devotion to Mary, says that

“The salvation of the world began through Mary and through her it must be accomplished. Mary scarcely appeared in the first coming of Jesus Christ so that men, as yet insufficiently instructed and enlightened concerning the person of her Son, might not wander from the truth by becoming too strongly attached to her…As she was the way by which Jesus first came to us, she will again be the way by which he will come to us the second time though not in the same manner” (True Devotion to Mary, 49, 50).

Mary’s greatness remained hidden at the first coming so as to cause no confusion as to the reason for her greatness—the Son of God come in the flesh.  Once the true nature of Christ was sufficiently known, the Holy Spirit wished that we come to know her more fully so that, made perfectly prepared for the first coming, she might prepare the world for the Second Coming.  Just as through her, He came, so through her, even if in a different manner, will He come again.  It is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Revelation 12 in which the Queen gives birth and the child is caught up to God and to His throne.  She returns to her place prepared by God and the devil takes out his wrath on her children.

Reading the signs of the times through a Montfortian lens, St. John Paul II likely interpreted the proliferation of Marian apparitions as a sign that the end is near.  Again, we do not know how near is near, but nevertheless Our Lady’s messages in each of the apparitions are marked by a spirit of urgency.  The “Fatima Pope,” deeply formed by these messages, invited the Church to a renewed vigilance in this “new Advent.”

Those consecrated to Jesus through Mary are, what St. Louis de Montfort, calls Apostles of the End Times (TD 58).  In describing these apostles, the 17th Century French Saint provides us with a blueprint for navigating this new Advent.  At the dawn of the Final Battle,

“Almighty God and his holy Mother are to raise up great saints who will surpass in holiness most other saints as much as the cedars of Lebanon tower above little shrubs…These great souls filled with grace and zeal will be chosen to oppose the enemies of God who are raging on all sides. They will be exceptionally devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Illumined by her light, strengthened by her food, guided by her spirit, supported by her arm, sheltered under her protection, they will fight with one hand and build with the other. With one hand they will give battle, overthrowing and crushing heretics and their heresies, schismatics and their schisms, idolaters and their idolatries, sinners and their wickedness. With the other hand they will build the temple of the true Solomon and the mystical city of God, namely, the Blessed Virgin, who is called by the Fathers of the Church the Temple of Solomon and the City of God . By word and example they will draw all men to a true devotion to her and though this will make many enemies, it will also bring about many victories and much glory to God alone.”

Becoming Apostles of the End Times

In short, these apostles will be identified by three particular marks—a love of the Cross, Apostolic Zeal, and a great Marian devotion.

These great souls, because they “carry the gold of love in their heart and the incense of prayer in their spirit” will love the Cross; a love shown by “carrying the myrrh of mortification in their bodies.”  They will, as Our Lady requested at Fatima, practice penance with great regularity.  In preaching devotion to Mary they “will make many enemies” (TD 48) and serving as Our Lady’s heel by which she will crush the head of the serpent, they will be “down-trodden and crushed” (TD 54) by all the children of the devil and of the world.

Not only will the Apostles of the End Times suffer for a love of God, but also they will be driven by an unquenchable apostolic zeal to save souls.  “Flaming fires” (TD 56) these apostles will spread the “the fire of divine love” everywhere.  Our Lady will use them like sharp arrows in her powerful hands and they will not only reform the Church, but will be instrumental in extending the truth of the Gospel to “the idolators and Muslims” (TD 59).

St. Louis says that “these great souls . . . will be exceptionally devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Illumined by her light, nourished at her breast, guided by her spirit, supported by her arm, sheltered under her protection” (TD 48, 55).  They will be marked by a profound humility which enables them to act as her heel that crushes the head of serpent.  Their militant spirit will imitate the spirit of Our Lady of Mercy, always willing to suffer to win souls from the clutches of the evil one. “They will have the two-edged sword of the word of God in their mouths and the blood-stained standard of the Cross on their shoulders. They will carry the crucifix in their right hand and the rosary in their left, and the holy names of Jesus and Mary on their heart. The simplicity and self-sacrifice of Jesus will be reflected in their whole behavior” (TD, 59).

Are we living in the end times?  Most assuredly, yes.  But we may still be separated by many years from the return of Christ.  Nevertheless, the Church needs to set the wheels in motion so that the Apostles of the End Times are fully formed when the time comes.  It is hard to imagine a better way to live in the “new Advent”, then by spending this Advent by becoming an Apostle of the End Times.  This Wednesday, November 29th offers yet another opportunity to spend the next 33 days preparing for a consecration to Jesus through Mary on January 1st.

Lead Us Not into Temptation?

In his personal memoirs, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung described how he finally broke from Christianity because of Jesus’ apparently inconsistent portrait of God as simultaneously “love and goodness” and “tempter and destroyer.”  It is reasonable to think that Jung might not be alone in his conclusion, especially considering that each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God “lead us not into temptation.”  The implication is that He has the power to either tempt us or lead us away from it.  Whether we recognize it or not, there is a certain mistrust of God that cannot be totally put away until we deal with what seems like a messy contradiction.  Putting temptation within the proper framework will not only help us to address the intellectual difficulty surrounding the issue of temptation, but, more importantly, help us to see why they are a constituent element in our quest for holiness.

What God Desires

In constructing the frame, we must first start with a proper understanding of what God wants for each one of us.  God is not content with merely bestowing the divine life upon us.  He does not merely want to give us grace so we can go to heaven and be with Him.  No, if you can imagine it, He wants so much more.  He is not looking for test subjects for some cosmic social experiment, but sons and daughters who can stand on their own two feet and run towards Him.  He wants His glory to shine from every pore of our being but He also wants to bestow upon us the dignity of having worked for it.  Eternal life is a free gift, but He won’t cheapen it by asking for nothing in return.

Rather than getting bogged down in an explication of the mystery of man’s free will and God’s grace, we will accept as a given that they are cooperative powers.  When God plants the seed of eternal life (i.e. sanctifying grace) in our souls, He also implants the supernatural virtue of charity.  Now each of our natural virtues as well as the two theological virtues of faith and hope has charity as its center of gravity.  As the virtues increase, our capacity to harness the Supreme Goodness that is God’s life increase with it.  It is, to borrow a principle from St. Thomas, grace perfecting nature.

Grace and Nature

It seems that a digression is in order regarding this important Thomistic principle because it is relevant to a proper understanding of all that I just said.  Often it is paraphrased as “grace builds upon nature.”  This is more than just “saying the same thing.”  If you tell me “grace builds upon nature” I think, “I just need to try harder to be good” and God will give me grace.  It is as if I can achieve a certain amount of natural goodness and then God will give me grace.  In other words it is my hard work that comes first then grace.  Grace becomes essentially a superfluous add-on.  This is just a subtle form of the old heresy called (semi-)Pelagianism which denied original sin and taught that holiness was ours for the taking.

What I have proposed is not “becoming the best version of yourself”, that is a good natural life, but instead a path to an abundant supernatural life.  It is grace that comes first.  No amount of work on our part can change that.  Without the initial installment (ordinarily through Baptism) or a re-installment (through Sacramental Confession), we can never get there no matter how good we are.  Heaven is not the natural result of a good life, it is the supernatural consequence of a holy life.  All holy people are good people, but not all good people are holy.  It is grace at the beginning and then grace all the way through.  Grace perfects nature, not builds upon it.

What we are talking about then is our cooperation with grace through a growth in the virtues and how this is achieved.  The classic definition of a virtue as the firm and habitual dispositions toward the good needs to be examined.  We instinctively get the habitual part, understanding that it requires more than solitary acts that look like virtue to actually be virtuous.  We mistakenly think then to grow in virtue we just need to keep repeating the act.  For an increase in virtue however the first part, that is the firmness, is what needs to be emphasized.  It is only an act done with greater vehemence that wins the increase in virtue.

Temptation from its Proper Perspective

Only when we grasp God’s desire for our personal perfection and what that perfection consists in, we can look at temptation in a proper light.  Temptation is not so much a push to do something bad, but an opportunity to love and do what is good all the more.  It is an indispensable means for a growth in virtue.  Lacking any resistance, we are content with feeble acts of virtue because they “get the job done.”  Virtue is often compared to a muscle with a “use it or lose it” mentality.  But God is calling us to be spiritual bodybuilders, becoming huge in our holiness.  Muscle grows with an increase in resistance and so it is with virtue.  It might not be the only way to increase the intensity of our virtuous acts, but it is the most effective.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not just a mission statement from Jesus, Life Coach, but a command from the one Who always equips us to fulfill it.

Addressing Jung’s objection that I opened with will also help us to see how best to make use of temptations.  It is not God who tempts but instead He is the one Who allows temptations to occur for our own good.  If there is no opportunity for growth then He will not allow it.  This truth is so important to hold onto, especially in the midst of strong temptations.  What you shouldn’t hold onto is the hackneyed Christian maxim that “God does not give you more than you can handle.”  This is not only not true, but also counterproductive.  God absolutely gives us more than we can handle, but He never abandons us, spotting us in our spiritual workouts.  But like a good spotter, He only gives us enough help for us to keep the bar moving and does not pull it off of us.  Even in being overcome, we still have the opportunity to grow.  No saint was devoid of humility, a virtue that only grows with more intense acceptance of humiliations.

Before closing I should mention one thing that may not be clear from what I have said.  It seems that if God has allowed a temptation to occur for my good, then I must simply face it head on.  Fleeing from them means that I will have missed the opportunity for growth.  Fleeing in the face of temptation, especially those of the flesh, is one of the ways in which we grow in virtue.  The rapidity and vehemence in which we avoid what would be evil is exactly what causes our growth.

We can see why it is that God then never frees us from temptation wholly.  As Sirach says, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trial” (Sir 2:1).  “To be human,” Aquinas says, “is to be tempted, but to consent is to be devlish.”  We do not pray to be freed from temptation in the Lord’s Prayer, but instead that we may not be led into temptation, that is, to consent to it.    Unfortunately, Jung was wrong.  Temptations come from a loving Father, Who wants nothing more than our perfection.

“When I was Hungry and Thirsty You Gave Me to Eat and Drink”

In the past few months our family has been confronted with end of life medical care for two close members.  In both cases, we had to fight to continue providing nutrition and hydration.  After hitting so close to home twice, I began to wonder about other’s experiences and found that nearly everyone who has had to walk this journey with a loved one did not know what to do and eventually deferred to “the experts” in the medical profession.  Already emotionally overwhelmed and lacking confidence in their medical knowledge, they trusted that the medical professionals would guide them to do the right thing.  If our experience has taught us anything, it is two things.  First, the culture of death is so deeply imbedded that even those medical professionals who are genuinely compassionate and of good will can succumb to it and that we were glad that we did not wait until the situation came up to learn about the importance of nutrition and hydration at this most vulnerable stage of life.

This is not meant to be a condemnation of those caregivers who devote their lives to walking with families through this.  This is meant to raise awareness that the current “best practice” in dealing with those who are actively dying is morally repugnant.  By arming yourself now with a proper understanding, you can protect yourself later when your thinking may be clouded because of the stress of the situation.

Medical Treatment and Ordinary Care

First, there is an important distinction to be made between medical treatment and ordinary care.  In general treatment would include those interventions that may cure a disease or aid one in returning to health. Medical treatment would include things like antibiotics, dialysis, surgery, chemotherapy, and the like.  One may look at these treatments and decide that their burdens outweigh their benefits and decide to forgo them in order to live the remaining days of his life with a certain quality of life.

Medical treatment is different than ordinary care however.  Ordinary care is simply routine attention given to the patient.  This would include bathing, providing clean clothes and sheet, keeping them warm, and providing food and water.  Each of these is essential to life and to withhold any of these, especially to those who cannot provide them for themselves, and assuming you have the means to do so, is considered cruel.  No amount of misguided compassion would say that we should leave a sick person outside in December exposed to the elements.  Likewise, no amount of misguided compassion would say that we should allow someone to starve and become dehydrated.

It was this important distinction between medical treatment and care that Pope St. John Paul II brought attention to when in a papal allocution in 2004 he said,

“I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering” (Address of John Paul II To the Participants in the International Congress on “Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas”).

Notice as well that John Paul II did not say nutrition and hydration must be given in all circumstances.  He said that they are only to be given for as long as they are “seen to have attained its proper finality.”  What he means is that they should be given in all circumstances until it can be definitively shown that they no longer can be processed or assimilated by the body.  It must be “seen.”  There cannot be mere medical conjecture or blanket statements like “we see that as the patient is dying their nutritional and hydrational needs are greatly diminished.”  Even if their needs are greatly diminished, this is an argument for giving less, not cutting them out altogether.  All too often this argument is put forth as a reason for omitting them altogether.  The only time they should be completely removed is when it is shown that the body no longer can make use of them.

Other Arguments against Nutrition and Hydration

The “diminished need” argument is not the only one that is commonly put forth.  There are two others.  The first is what I like to call the “argument from technology.”  This argument essentially says something like “75 years ago we didn’t have the ability to use feeding tubes or IV’s and we can now keep people alive longer because of these technologies.”

What makes the flaw in this argument hard to see initially is that it is true.  We did not have the ability to use feeding tubes and IV’s for nutrition and hydration in the past.  The problem with this argument is that we have a lot of things because of technological advances that we did not have in the past.  The refrigerator that allows us to feed sick people (even those who can still feed themselves) in a relatively recent invention.  Indoor plumbing, another technological advance, keeps the sick who can still hold their own cups (another technological advance) hydrated.  But we also did not have the pain killers we have now.  Should we remove those as well?  Certainly, we are prolonging their lives by controlling their pain.  In the past they would have gone into shock and died.

One can easily see how absurd this line of reasoning can actually become.  Where do we draw the line?  If we have the ability and the technology to provide care for someone and it is care that they have the capacity to receive, then we ought to provide it.  The fact that nutrition and hydration extends one’s life is true for all of us.  Remove those things from even the healthiest person and they will die.  More accurately, removing those things from the person would be to kill them.  Allowing someone to die is different than causing someone to die, even if you do so by an act of omission such as withholding care from them when you have the means to do so.

The second argument is that by providing nutrition and hydration, even when the patient is still able to tolerate it, we are “postponing the inevitable.”  Again the difficulty in seeing where this thinking goes wrong is that it is true.  We are postponing the inevitable.  Although again, by me eating lunch today, I also have postponed the inevitable.

What those who use this line of reasoning surely mean is that when death is imminent we should do nothing to stop it.  But doing nothing to stop it, is not the same thing as aiding it.  Why not, as my son with Autism suggested when we told him his grandmother was going to die, push them off the roof then?  The fact that death is imminent does not mean we should kill the person, even if it is by omission.

The fact is that human life, even when the person is suffering, even when the person is close to death is a good that ought to be protected.  Life is a gift, one that none of us earned.  Therefore we are never free to give the gift back or decide that we do not want it any longer.  We must wait on the decision of the One Who bestowed the gift.  Until such time, we should see the person before us and care for them.  Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick—all corporal works of mercy that should never cease as long as a person is present before us.  Don’t allow anyone to take those acts of charity away from you.  Provided the person can still assimilate the food and water, you should never remove a feeding tube or a hydration IV.


The Miracle of the Sun

As the Church marks the 100th Anniversary of the six appearances by Our Lady to three young children in Fatima, Portugal with the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, one question associated with the apparitions has remained largely unanswered.  What exactly happened on 13 October 1917 when 70,000 witnesses saw the sun dance?  While accounts may vary in some ways, there is universal agreement among the witnesses about several key facts surrounding the event.  First, it had been raining hard for several hours and the sky cleared right as the children began praying.  One of the children, Lucia, instructed the crowd that they should look at the sun at which point the sun, covered by what looked like a thin silver disc, appeared to change color, spin like a fire wheel and plummet towards the earth 3 times.  Although it was bright, it seemed to have a filter (the thin silver disc) that made it possible to look directly upon it.  This was met by both reverential awe and fear especially because many of the pilgrims spoke of a heat emanating from the sun as it approached; a heat so intense that all of their clothes were dried.  All total, the miracle lasted about 10 minutes.  Despite the near unanimous agreement about this extraordinary event and its overwhelming evidential power, the miracle itself has been largely ignored by those outside the Church and misunderstood by those inside the Church.

Perhaps some of the reason why it has been ignored is because of the label of miracle.  Informed by a materialist philosophy, miracles are a priori impossible.  Any talk of them is usually met with ridicule and the charge of incredulity and superstition.  Such a public event as what the people in Fatima witnessed that October day is an open contradiction of this and therefore many pretend it did not happen.

The Church and the Miraculous

This may be compounded by the fact that the Church is extremely cautious in labeling something as a miracle.  Every conceivable natural explanation must be eliminated before declaring an event to be miraculous.  In the case of the so called Miracle of the Sun, the Church, even though she has deemed the message of Fatima as worthy of belief, has never declared that a miracle occurred that day.

This leads to confusion among those in the Church, especially because many take this as an indication that the Church is drinking scientism’s Cool-Aid.  Instead, it shows her access to Divine Wisdom.  She knows that if a natural explanation were to be found for what she had previously called a miracle, then it would shatter the confidence of many believers and destroy her own credibility.  Those steeped in a solely scientific worldview are always on the lookout for a the capital offense of placing “God in the gaps.”

What was witnessed that day may have a natural explanation.  To be sure, the Sun did not move that day.  For the sun to approach the earth (ignoring the problems of size, gravity, etc.) it would have been a global event and not something localized to Fatima.  In other words it would have been witnessed throughout the world.  God can do anything, but even He cannot make something that is a contradiction occur.  Contradictions are not things but nonsense.  A wholly material thing cannot be in two places at once.  The sun could not both be in the sky over Spain and approaching the earth in Portugal.  It will not do to say that God somehow played tricks on the minds of the pilgrims to make it seem as if they were seeing the sun.

Rather than placing God in the gaps, scientism’s adherents like to put Mesmer (the inventor of hypnosis) in the gaps.  Many have said that those present that day all were victims of mass suggestion.  Some people were not in the Cova that day and there were witnesses as many as 9 miles away that saw the event.

Certainly, whatever happened that day was unique.  But the meteorological conditions themselves were unique as well.  The atmospheric conditions may have been such that there is a wholly natural explanation for what happened.  Fr. Stanley Jaki in his book God and the Sun at Fatima offers one such possibility.

The point however is that even if we came up with a natural explanation tomorrow, it would not change the supernatural character of the event.  The “Miracle of the Sun” is not a miracle just because of what the people saw that day, but because three barely literate sheepherding children predicted the exact date and time that it would occur.  The children had told the people that Our Lady would provide proof of her appearance at Fatima on that day.  That is why most of the people were there—the children had called the shot.  They were given knowledge that goes beyond what could be known naturally—the definition of supernatural.  In that sense it was a wholly supernatural event, whether we find a natural explanation for the event itself.

We should not be surprised because Our Lord performed miracles like this in the Gospel.  He tells Peter that the fish he will catch will have a coin in it that can pay their tax.  As any fisherman knows, fish can often have some strange things in their mouths.  Even if you think that the fish at some point swallowed the coin, Jesus knew something that only God could know.  Likewise, with the prior identification of the man who would provide the lodging of the Upper Room to the Apostles.  No natural human knowledge could know that.  The miracle can be in the ability to know something that human reason could not have otherwise known.

“Not because you saw signs…”

Whether there is a natural explanation or not, does not mean it was not God Who did it.  He can act directly or He can use secondary causes.  Either way, it is God Who has manifested Himself.  The star over Bethlehem may have a natural explanation, but it is an explanation that falls under the power of Divine Providence.  It is the same God Who set the heavens in motion such that in the “fullness of time” they would declare the birth of the Messiah that also arranged things such that the “Miracle of the Sun” would occur.  It does not detract from His power to attribute it to a natural cause but instead shows Him to be more powerful in that He is able to use secondary causes (even those who are free) to bring about His plan of making Himself known.

This may be why the events of 13 October have not been well understood inside the Church.  In the haste to explain the miracle and defend it, we have forgotten that miracles are not just events, but signs.  In other words, we should not be so quick to look for explanations but for the meaning.  Our Lord invited those who had witnessed the multiplication of the loaves to see the meaning of what He had done and not so much the event itself— “Amen, amen, I say to you, your seek Me, not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of loaves” (Jn 6:26).

The Miracle of the Sun was not just a sign that the apparitions were true, but fit into the overall message of Fatima itself.  Our Lady appeared to the children with a sense of urgency, inviting them (and us) to do penance.  It is a time of mercy, although that time is running is short.  Divine Justice will manifest itself.  The Miracle of the Sun portrayed the sun as rushing towards the earth three times, but there was something kept it from hitting the earth.  It was the thin silver disc, the same thing that allowed the pilgrims to look at it without hurting their eyes, that kept the sun from being fully exposed.  One of the visionaries, Lucia, saw Our Lady with her hands on the sun as if she was holding it back.

The message seems obvious, it is Our Lady of Mercy, that has obtained for us the reprieve from God’s Justice.  But even He grows tired of allowing her to do so because of the blasphemies against her Immaculate Heart.  If the time of Mercy is to last, then her Immaculate Heart must reign.  So then on this feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, let us rededicate ourselves to doing all that we can to make this a reality by following her commands.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

The Sign of Jonah

Throughout His public ministry Our Lord was constantly giving signs of Who He really is.  Despite this, many around Him looked upon His signs for their entertainment value alone.  At one particular point a crowd had gathered around Him hoping to catch a performance.  Intuiting this, He told them “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Lk 11:29).  He promises that they too will be given a sign, but a very distinct sign—the Sign of Jonah.

In hindsight it is rather obvious, especially in His reference to three days and three nights, a reference to His Resurrection.  Our Lord certainly was predicting His Resurrection, but how this prediction was initially interpreted hinges on what actually happened to Jonah.  Many assume that he spent three days and three nights in the whale alive.  Taken that way, Our Lord would not necessarily be predicting His Resurrection.  One could easily assume that He was in fact denying His Resurrection because He would be denying His actual death.  Instead He only appeared to be dead like Jonah “appeared” to be dead in belly of the whale.

To properly understand the sign then we must examine the text.  It is reasonable to assume that if someone is thrown into the sea and swallowed by a whale that they would die.  So we would expect that the text would be explicit had he remained alive.  But Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:1-10 RSV translation) suggests He was dead.  His cry comes “out of the belly of Sheol” after his “soul” fainted within him (i.e. he died).  In response to Jonah’s prayer God gives a one-word response—“arise” (3:1).  God is calling Jonah from death to life.

So then just “as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nin’eveh” by his death and resurrection after 3 days leading to the repentance of the Nin’evites, “so will the Son of Man” through His death and Resurrection of Jesus lead to the repentance of the Gentiles.  In other words, it is meant to show the universality of the offer of salvation.

This sign is not only for that generation but for all generations.  Yet still there is a second Sign of Jonah that is particular appropriate for our generation.  Especially because we too appear to be living amidst an evil generation.  The second Sign of Jonah is the Sign of Mercy.


The last three Popes have all placed great emphasis on now being the time of mercy.  This is at the heart of the Jubilee Year of Mercy we are currently celebrating.  Why this emphasis?  Because we are living in the midst of an extremely wicked generation.  But rather than being prophets of gloom, we can live with great confidence because “where sin abounds, grace abounds the more” (Romans 5:20).  While the temptation to become a prophet of woe is ever-present, we run the risk of falling into the same trap that ensnared Jonah.  And like Jonah, God is using this time to enroll us in His School of Mercy.

When Jonah is touched by God’s mercy and saved from the pit he rejoices.  When Nin’eveh receives His mercy he grows angry (Jonah 4:1).  Why would he be angry?  He is angry because God didn’t punish the Nin’evites.  In fact he even blames God saying that is the reason why he didn’t want to go in the first place.  He knew God was going to be merciful to them and his preaching would have been in vain.  He wanted to be a prophet of woe despite the fact that he had been the beneficiary of a greater act of mercy than all of Nin’eveh combined.  Nin’eveh was saved from destruction while Jonah was lifted up from the grip of death.

But there is a second dimension of mercy in which Jonah needs to be schooled and I would dare say that this is the one we too need to be schooled in; what we might call God’s “initial mercy.”  God takes away the shade that Jonah had found but because he does not realize that it was God’s mercy that gave it to him in the first place, he once again becomes distraught.  This is because he only connects mercy with sin.  God’s mercy is much richer than that.  It is God’s mercy that reaches down and not only forgives our sins but also preserves us from falling into sin.  In fact this is probably the greatest gift of His mercy—that which preserves us from falling.  That is why we speak of Our Lady as Our Lady of Mercy.  She had no sin to forgive, but instead “she has received mercy in an extraordinary way” (Dives in Misericordia, 99) through God’s preservation from the stain of sin.

If we were to pinpoint the exact snare that Jonah was trapped in we could say that although he received God’s mercy, he did not actually experience it.  This can be a dangerous pitfall for us as well.  We can only experience God’s mercy when we become aware of the ways in which He loves us from moment to moment.  Mercy is the way in which God loves His creatures, giving to them everything that they are and have.  Mercy is “love’s second name.”  When we begin to recognize this, we develop a radical trust in Him so that even in the midst of our sufferings we are confident and unafraid because we see them as real signs of His mercy.

This is why the Divine Mercy Image is such a key aspect  of this “time of mercy.”  Our Lord is shown with his left foot in front of the right, suggesting He is walking (or to borrow the image of the Prodigal Son running) towards us with His mercy flowing toward us not only in the cleansing power of the water but also from the life-sustaining blood.  And with that assurance, we can proclaim nothing else but “Jesus I trust in You!”

Jonah seems to become consumed with self-righteousness and condemnation of those outside the chosen people when he grows angry at the pardon of the Nin’evites.  We too will do the same sort of thing until we go from reception to experience.  Once I have tasted the mercy of the Lord (1 Pt 2:3) and glory in God’s mercy I will want to see it everywhere.  I will rejoice in the mercies others receive and will act with great urgency to make His mercy known.  I will hesitate to condemn and instead be quick to profess mercy.  I will practice the Works of Mercy as a visible sign of God’s mercy operating on all those in physical and moral misery.

When St. Faustina was given an image of the eventual celebration of the Great Feast of Mercy she was overcome with joy and peace.  When Our Lord asked her “What is it you desire, My daughter?” she responded “I desire worship and glory be given to Your mercy.”  Certainly this vision was a sign of the fulfillment of her vision.  But her joy was more complete than that.  It was in the experience that mercy brings good from evil and is more powerful than even the worst evil we can imagine.  Let the joy that is found in heaven over the one sinner who repents, spill over to the Church and her members.

Justice and Mercy

Shortly before his death, Pope St. John Paul II prepared a homily for the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday.  As Providence would have it, he died on the vigil of the great feast of mercy and never actually gave the homily.  For this reason we can look at this homily almost like it was the  Saintly Pope’s last will and testament.  What was his last testament?  “How much the world needs to understand and accept divine mercy!”  Notice how the Pope didn’t merely say that the world needed to accept divine mercy, but also to understand it.  In essence, Saint John Paul II thought we both needed to engage both head (understand) and the heart (accept).  All of us want to have God’s mercy realized in our life, but according to the Divine Mercy Pope we first need to understand the truth of God’s mercy before it can be realized in our lives.

One of the reasons we do not understand it is because it gets caught up with God’s justice.  In what has become somewhat commonplace, the less traditionally minded have attempted to do away with God’s justice altogether and focus solely on His mercy.  On the other hand the more traditionalist leaning among us often can only see justice and mercy as two different sides of God.  As long as you stay on His good side and avoid His bad side, you will receive mercy rather than justice.

In truth these two are not in opposition to each other.  In a typically Catholic fashion—embracing both/and rather than either/or—we can say that God is both just and merciful at the same time.  Each of us, regardless of our eternal destination, receive both mercy and justice.

If we can make a distinction regarding God’s attributes then we can begin to gain insight into the relationship between justice and mercy.  St. Thomas distinguishes between those attributes which relate to God’s being (i.e. what He is) and those related to His operation (what He does).  Those properties belonging to His being are things like unity, immensity, goodness, etc.  With respect to His operations we have things like wisdom and love with its two virtues justice and mercy.  Since God is by nature good (or to be more theological accurate Goodness itself), He loves only one thing—goodness.  It is this love of the good that links justice and mercy in such a manner that they cannot be opposed to each other.

Justice is to render to each his due.  Because we recognize that God can be the debtor to no one, we tend to only equate justice with punishment.  But this is only a partial aspect of justice.  From all eternity God is just so “before” creation He was just and there was no one to punish.  This is because God is first and foremost just to Himself.  God in being just to Himself decreed that there should be fulfilled in creatures both what His will and wisdom require and what most makes His goodness known.  In other words, God is just towards His creatures by giving them all they need (c.f. Mt 6:25-34) primarily because He is acting justly towards Himself. While punishment is part of justice, it does not exhaust it.  Truth be told, it is only a fraction.

While Justice renders to each His due, God’s mercy is the foundation of the divine love of mankind.  To distinguish between justice and mercy, St. Thomas point out that when “a man’s love is caused by the goodness of the one he loves, then that man who loves does so out of justice but when loves causes the goodness in the beloved then it is a love springing from mercy. The love with which God loves us produces goodness in us; hence mercy is presented here as the root of the divine love.”  It is mercy that is the cause of all that is good in us.  So mercy is not only about forgiving our sins but a recognition that “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).

It is not just in opposing justice and mercy that we err.  There is also a tendency to put justice somehow above mercy, when it is exactly the opposite.  First, mercy precedes justice.  Out of a superabundance of goodness, God made man and woman the crown of visible creation because of their innate capacity for friendship with Him. If He has to reward us for anything it was first because He was merciful in creating us.

Second, St. Thomas suggests that if we look at justice and its three acts we can see how mercy is what he calls “love’s second name.”  First, God’s justice consists in giving what is necessary for each creature to reach the end it was made for.  We have all that we need to reach our natural end of virtue.  But in His mercy He provides us with more—namely all that we need to reach the supernatural end He desires to give us.

Little Flower

Justice also rewards each according to his merits.  But our reward far exceeds what we our owed.  Being natural creatures we can never, no matter how good we act, reach the share in His divinity that God is offering us.  He must bestow this capacity upon us.  Even if Mary remained sinless throughout her life, if she did not have sanctifying grace that was given to her, she could never have been made Queen of Heaven.  Heaven is not a reward for the good people.  It is the true home of the holy people that God has made.  Only God is holy and only He can bestow Holiness on us.

Justice also has to do with inflicting punishment.  But mercy trumps justice.  This is where the head and the heart must meet.  Mercy is the “sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own.”  This sorrow is not merely affective but effective.  Its effect is to endeavor to dispel the misery of the other.  And this is why Our Lord is truly Mercy Incarnate.  He took our misery at if it was His own in order to dispel it.

We may think sometimes that God could have merely “cooked the books” in sending His Son.  But there could be no mercy without justice.  Justice is not merely superfluous because of mercy.  Why?  Because they both have the same “source,” namely, God’s love for the Good.  If the created order is “very good” and sin has violated the order, then God’s love (i.e. mercy) demands its restoration (justice).  Despite our human efforts (especially recently) to the contrary, the misery must be acknowledged as such and its source must be repaired in order for the action to be merciful.  Mercy requires that there be some actual misery to be overcome.

The movement to the heart from here has been recently navigated by St. Therese and her Little Way and she can serve as our guide.

“I know well that it is not my great desires that please God in my little soul, what He likes to see is the way I love my littleness and my poverty; it is my blind hope in His mercy, this is my only treasure…. The weaker one is, without desires or virtues the more ready one is for the operations of this consuming and transforming love…. God rejoices more in what He can do in a soul humbly resigned to its poverty than in the creation of millions of suns and the vast stretch of the heavens.”

The Gospel is only truly Good News for the captives, namely the “little ones.”  Justice demands we acknowledge our misery so that mercy can be activated.  By trusting in His promise and never giving in to discouragement, we too can become great saints.  St. Therese, Pray for Us!

Why is Penance Needed?

During the Year of Mercy, the Church has placed great emphasis on not only our great need for forgiveness, but God’s desire to always welcome us into His loving arms.  This necessarily leads to a discussion of repentance and penance.  While most people understand the need for repentance, penance remains somewhat mysterious.  Given that, a reflection upon penance and its necessity can lead to an increase in grace during this Jubilee Year.

In order to understand the logic of penance, we must first understand the nature of sin.  When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, it was an act of disobedience.  But that is not all.  They also found pleasure in eating the forbidden fruit (c.f. Gn 3:6—finding “that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom”).  So that when we speak of sin we must always remember that there is a double element; the act of disobedience and the pleasure of the forbidden fruit.  In justice both must be restored through repentance and penance.  If we look to the natural order, we see why this makes sense.  If we do not follow a map and go the wrong way, then we must first turn-around (i.e. repent).   But turning around is not enough if we are to get back to the right path; we must also we must retrace those steps (penance).

This distinction is made especially clear when we look at King David’s act of adultery with Bathsheba and the consequent murder of her husband Uriah.  When David expresses his repentance, Nathan tells him that “For his part, the LORD has removed your sin…” (2 Samuel 12:14).  But this is only the forgiveness of the act of disobedience.  God imposes a penance as well “since you have utterly spurned the LORD by this deed, the child born to you will surely die” (2 Sam 12:15).

From God’s perspective the distinction leads to the two “punishments” for sin—eternal and temporal.  By keeping them connected it will help us to avoid the temptation to see these two “punishments” as vengeance inflicted upon us by God but instead as a natural consequence of sin (CCC 1472).  Christ’s act of atonement cleared the way for the forgiveness of the eternal punishment for sin, but not the temporal.  Instead He invites us to participate in our own redemption through penance.  Failing to realize this leads to great spiritual confusion because it fails to answer a fundamental question—if Christ came to remove all punishment for sin, then why do those who are justified suffer?

In other words, when I sin, it comes from me insisting on having my own way.  In suffering I receive something I don’t want and thus there is a cosmic balance of sorts that is restored.  But because the original act was one I freely chose, I must also freely accept the suffering as satisfaction for my sins.  This not only restores justice without but order is also restored within me.

Accepting temporal affliction imposed on us in loving patience is one of the ways that we make satisfaction for our sins according to the Council of Trent.  The Council Fathers call these “the greatest proof of love” (Council of Trent, 14th Session, Doctrina de sacramento paenitentiae).  Why are these the greatest proof of our love?  Because God’s will comes to us moment by moment and we can be sure that we are submitting to His will by submitting to the moment.  This habit of accepting difficulties with love and patience is what develops in us the virtue of penance.  This is exactly David’s response after the child he conceived with Bathsheba died–patient acceptance.  And the servants are all puzzled by his response (2 Sam 12:19-23).  Penance begins and ends with the attitude of mind that God sends all things our way for our good and that we must respond with generosity.

In this way we see they are also great proofs of God’s love for us.  Each affliction “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory,” (2 Cor 4:17) meaning that they have been hand-chosen by a loving Father for our sanctification.  To live with this conviction is where we find peace and joy in the midst of suffering; knowing that God has chosen the most gentle way for us to be sanctified through penance.  Even the suffering that God allows for us is an act of Divine Mercy.

This passive penance also does not always “feel” like we are doing penance and so it further conforms us to what all appearances was Christ’s great failure in the Crucifixion.  This is why we can examine the “success” of our penitential lives by looking for the fruits of humility and charity.  Penance then properly understood is a not an act of giving (or giving up) per se, but of receiving.  It would be fair to say that penance is the means by which we lay hold of the graces missed the first time round.

Scourging at the Pillar

This is also why we must be careful in selecting our means of active penance.   These are activities that are voluntarily undertaken as penance like fasting, giving up something otherwise good, mortification, putting a rock in your shoe, etc.  These too are necessary, but they come with a strong temptation as well especially if we do not have a positive view of penance.

Penance is discouraging for most of us because we approach it from the angle of it being a disagreeable hardship rather than a turning wholly to God.  There is something inherent in self-imposed and exterior penances in that we tend to look at the disagreeable portion and then try for something that is not too bad.  This in turn only makes us feel that there are parts that are not willing to undergo suffering for God, when, what we might really be experiencing is just the natural recoil at suffering.

We will also always have a tendency to choose those penances which are in some way agreeable to us and thus end up doing nothing but feeding our self-love.  Again the key is to look for the fruits of charity and humility.  Even with these temptations, it would be a mistake to avoid all forms of active penance especially since the devil will often trick us into avoiding them out of fear or by appealing to a misconceived humility.

In his book, Spirit of Penance, Path to God, Dom Hubert Van Zeller offers an extended commentary on Jesus’ commandment regarding our appearance when we are fasting.  He says that  “we must show washed and shining faces when we fast, indicating to the world that penance is not such a terrible burden as it is made out to be, and that if only people went in for it more, they would find they need lose nothing of their happiness.”  Likewise our passive penances when borne with peace and joy show them for what they truly are.  During this Year of Mercy let us go forth and preach the Mercy of God through Penance.

On Being Judgmental

“Do not judge, lest ye be called judgmental.”  In a world that has lost a sense of sin, there remains one unforgivable sin—being judgmental.  Many who are biblically illiterate can readily quote Jesus’ admonition “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Mt 7:1). According to the mainstream media, even Pope Francis is on board, citing his famous five word answer to a reporter’s question about gay priests—“Who am I to judge?”  Of course the Pope was deflecting a question that the reporter already knew the Church’s response to especially since he has repeatedly reaffirmed the perennial understanding of the Church that we are to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”  Still the fear of being perceived as judgmental is real and causes many people to merely keep to themselves.  Is it possible to judge without being judgmental?

An important clarification is necessary at the outset.  When we examine the moral quality of any action, it must always be done from two perspectives.  First there is the object itself.  This is the objective act itself and it is what the action “looks like” from the outside. Then there is the subjective intention of the act or the end the person has in mind when choosing a particular action.

The object itself can and should always be judged according to reason, using the criteria of whether it can be ordered to the good or not.   The subjective intention on the other hand cannot always be judged.  And when it can’t, the judgment must left to God.  In other words we may objectively label an act as good or evil, but we cannot judge the subjective guilt of the person who performed the act.  But to be clear, while a good intention may lessen the moral gravity of an evil act, nevertheless a good motive cannot make the act itself good.  A bad motive however can make lessen the good of an otherwise good action.

An example might help us to see how this applies.  Suppose a young girl becomes pregnant and her parents “force” her to abort the child.  She decides that rather than being abandoned by her parents (with a baby) she will abide by their wishes.  The object, an abortion, is always a gravely evil action regardless of the circumstances.  There is never a good reason to justify getting an abortion.  However if we are to look at the subjective guilt it becomes obvious that judgment is difficult, if not impossible.  Certainly she was being coerced, but maybe she really wanted to abort the child anyway.  Or perhaps she didn’t want to but lacked the moral courage to stand up to her parents.  We can see that in both these scenarios there is some level of subjective culpability, but in truth there is no way to know by simply looking at the action.  She is guilty of something that is wrong, but she may not be fully guilty of the abortion.  And in truth, only God can really know the full extent of her guilt.  But again, even if somehow she were to have no culpability, the abortion would still be an objectively wrong act.

If we turn to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae (ST II-II, q.60) we can glean some practical principles to live by with respect to judging others.  He begins by defining judgment as nothing more than a determination of what is just .  In other words it is related to the virtue of justice.  One of the requisite conditions for a judgment to be truly just is that it must be pronounced according to the right ruling of prudence and not proceed rashly from a judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter.  Herein lies the problem with making a judgment regarding the subjective intention—it is hidden from us (unless we are somehow told) and therefore we are guilty of making a rash judgment.  St. Thomas says that it is precisely rash judgment that Jesus condemns in the oft-quoted text “Judge not…”


It is not just that the other’s intention remains hidden that causes us to judge rashly.  In explaining why Jesus says one should remove the plank in one’s own eye before pointing out the one in your neighbor’s, St. Thomas says that only those who have a virtuous habit can justly judge whether a given act is good or bad.  Only one who knows truly what chastity “looks and feels like” can detect it in someone else.  And because they know the struggle in obtaining chastity, they can offer both understanding and encouragement to those who struggle with it.  So too with all the other virtues meaning that only a truly virtuous person can render a just judgment on the virtue of others.

The point St. Thomas is trying to make is that we will always judge according to our own way of looking at things.  We fall prey to what Pope St. John Paul II called the “Hermeneutic of Suspicion.”  One who lies, will tend to distrust everyone else and always think they are lying.  One who is disloyal, will look upon every disappointment by someone else as a deliberate betrayal.  As Ecclesiastes says “Even when walking in the street the fool, lacking understanding, calls everyone a fool” (Eccl 10:3).  We also are more readily apt to judge someone rashly whom we don’t particularly care for.  We are simply looking for validation as to why we shouldn’t like them.  The point though is that whenever we judge someone rashly (even if in the end we turn out right), we do harm to them.

Of course as a spiritual practice we can learn a lot about our predominant fault by simply watching what we accuse others of.  With this in mind, St. Thomas also has another practical suggestion for us regarding the habit of thinking well of others.  Because we do harm to a person by judging him rashly, “we ought to deem him good by interpreting for the best whatever is doubtful in him.”  While this may mean that we are deceived more often, it is still better to err in the direction of thinking well of a wicked man than to err by having an evil opinion of a good man.  In other words the cost of a false negative is greater than a false positive—both of us are harmed when I judge a good man wicked, but only I am harmed when judging a wicked man good.  In one case I am the perpetrator of evil, in the other I am more like Our Lord and the victim.

It goes without saying that everything Our Lord was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and St. Thomas’ explanation pertains to making rash judgment.  But despite the world’s obsession with judgmentalism, there is a hidden truth there.  If we are willing to examine ourselves carefully we really are prone to be judgmental.  This is not a call to abandon judgment, but to participate in the Church’s mission that the Holy Father so clearly articulates in The Name of God is Mercy:

“The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth: ‘This is a sin.’ But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God.”

God’s Healing Sacramental Hand

Without a doubt, Holy Week is, liturgically speaking, the richest week in the Liturgical Calendar.  There is a hidden gem that many people are not aware of and that is the Chrism Mass.  These Masses feature the gathering of an entire diocese—bishop, priests, deacons and lay faithful alike—and are the occasion on which the bishop blesses each of the oils that are used in sacramental anointing.  Among these is the oil of the infirm that is administered in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  It would seem then that it would be appropriate to offer some reflections on this great Sacrament, especially since very few Catholics seem to understand it.

One of the reasons why this Sacrament is so little understood is because we do not understand the purpose of it.  If we examine a familiar episode from Our Lord’s public ministry in Matthew’s Gospel it becomes clearer.

And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.’  At that, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’  Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, ‘Why do you harbor evil thoughts?  Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic, ‘Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.’  He rose and went home.  When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to men (Mt 9:2-8).

Because, as the Son of Man, He has authority to forgive sins, Jesus also heals the man.  Most who read his account do not go any further than that.  However Matthew says something very important at the end.  Notice that not only does Jesus have the authority to do this, but the people glorify God because He has given the power to forgive sins and to heal “to men.”  In other words, what the crowds are struck with awe about is the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

Pope Francis blessing Oil

One might say that Jesus did not actually anoint the man.  But it is clear that once the Sacrament is implemented by the Apostles anointing becomes the matter of the Sacrament.  In his letter, St. James asks:

“Is anyone among you sick?  He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).

Within these verses we find all the elements of a true Sacrament present.  There is the outward sign which consists of anointing with oil (matter) and the prayer of the priest over the sick person (form).  There is the inner operation of grace which is expressed through the forgiveness of sins, the saving of the soul from eternal destruction and the raising up from despondency and despair.  Finally we see that it has been instituted by Christ, namely it is to be administered “in the Name of the Lord.”

Herein lays the confusion for most Catholics.  Most treat it as simply a sacramentalized version of a charismatic healing.  But this Sacrament is ordered firstly to the forgiveness of sins and healing of the soul.  As the Catechism says, “The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effect…the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance” (CCC 1532).

Some mistakenly think this is like a get out of hell free card and thus do not take the Sacrament seriously.  But in order to truly forgive the sins of the recipient and the punishment attached to sin, the person must not only be baptized but have at least an imperfect sorrow for sin (based on a fear of punishment).  Certainly if there is any chance of this a priest will administer the Sacrament, but the personal disposition (at least at their last moment of consciousness) matters as to the effect of the Sacrament.

The Sacrament is sometimes abused because it is looked at only as a Sacrament of bodily healing.  It assumes that the recipient is capable of sin and therefore has obtained the use of reason.  Young children are often mistakenly given the Sacrament.  If there is a doubt as to whether the child has obtained the use of reason then certainly it should be given, but in general they should not be given the Sacrament (Canon 1004).  There is often a superstition attached to the Sacrament in that people will treat it as a good luck charm before surgery.  But the Sacrament should only be given to someone who is in danger of death (Canon 1004).  Furthermore, Canon Law states that the “Sacrament is to be conferred upon sick persons who requested it at least implicitly when they were in control of their faculties” (Canon 1006) and not to those “who obstinately persist in manifest serious sin” (Canon 1007).

The second effect of the Sacrament is the “the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age and the preparation for passing over to eternal life” (CCC 1532).  This effect is both for the good of the person and for the good of the whole Church.  The person is given the right to actual graces to bear their sufferings.  But it also offers them protection against the onslaught of the demons during the moments leading up to death.  The temptation to despair is never so great as during those last few moments and we are extremely dependent upon grace to persevere.  The Council of Trent, in defending the use of the Sacrament of Anointing against the Protestant reformers who would do away with it said that the Sacrament enables us to “resist more easily the temptations of the devil who lies in wait for his heel” (Council of Trent, Canon 14).

While the Church, through the treasury of merits of Jesus, grants these graces in the Sacrament, there is a reciprocity of sorts in that the person who bears their sufferings well also acts upon other members of the Church in a co-redemptive manner.  The Catechism describes this ecclesial grace: “the sick who receive this sacrament, ‘by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,’ ‘contribute to the good of the People of God.’  By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father” (CCC 1522).

Because the Sacraments are truly performed by Christ, they produce their effects infallibly.  This is why the the third effect of the Sacrament, namely “the restoration of (bodily)health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul” (CCC 1532) can be confusing.  It seems as if this effect is conditional.  But in truth it is not.  The Sacrament will always act as a direct means to the restoration of bodily health, although this particular effect may not be felt until the resurrection of the body.  It is only when the restoration to bodily health in this life can be a means to reaching that point will it also be granted now.  It is only because we are standing on our heads now that we do not readily see that God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).  It is by grace we are saved and for those who receive the bodily healing at the resurrection, they will know that it was the grace of the Sacrament that helped to save them.

When Jesus forgives the sins and heals the paralytic, the crowd was struck with awe.  Perhaps with a greater understanding, we too might be seized with wonder at the awe-some (in the truest sense of the word) power of this Sacrament of mercy.


Mercy as the Last Word

In his book-length interview with Italian Journalist Andrea Tornielli entitled The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis offers what, is in essence, an extended commentary on his Bull of Indiction for the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.  Like his three Papal predecessors he is convinced that we are living in an important time of mercy.  Because of this, one gets a sense of urgency in his words as he tries to move us from mercy as an abstract idea to a concrete reality—a reality that in many ways is the Church’s only reason of existence.  “Wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident” (Misericordiae Vultus, 12).  He speaks of his experience as a confessor where he looks for the slightest opening in which God’s mercy might enter.  The Holy Father ardently believes that “when you feel His [Jesus] merciful embrace, when you let yourself be embraced, when you are moved—that’s  when life can change.”   He even draws parallels between the Church’s approach and that of the fictional priest, Fr. Gaston, in Bruce Marshall’s novel To Every Man a Penny.  A young, dying soldier comes to the priest for confession.  The problem is that although he confesses to numerous amorous affairs, he is unrepentant and admittedly would do it all over again.  Distressed that he will be unable to offer him absolution, Fr. Gaston asks the soldier if he is sorry that he is not sorry.  The priest absolves him based on that sorrow.  The Holy Father comments that it is simply proof “His mercy is infinitely greater than our sins.”

This Year of Mercy is not just about indulgences and confession, but as the Pontiff says, the  main purpose for calling this Jubilee is for the Church “to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives” (MV, 3).  His point is that while the Sacraments of the Church are efficacious signs of God’s mercy, the entire Church needs to contemplate this same divine attribute so that we all become sacraments of His mercy.  “[W]herever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy” (MV, 12).

It is in this spirit of reflection and witness that the Holy Father expresses his “burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy” (MV, 15).

The Holy Father is inviting all the Faithful to participate in this great Jubilee of Mercy by actively practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.  These particular acts of love, because they touch those in most need, act as chisels on the hard hearted so that God’s mercy may enter.  The Works of Mercy have fallen into disuse in recent decades and so Francis reminds us all during his interview that the works of mercy are “still valid, still current.  Perhaps some aspects could be better ‘translated’ but they remain the basis for self-examination.”  If what Our Lord told St. Faustina is true, namely that, “I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it” (Diary 742) then this is a grace filled time for us to re-introduce these practices to our spiritual lives.

Year of Mercy

It is helpful for us to reflect on two reasons why these practices may have slipped the minds of many in the Church.  The first is that we often fail to see God’s mercy as something personal and real for us.  Most of us don’t have great conversion stories or a real awareness of grave sin in our lives.  Sure we see places where we have drifted from God and He has led us back, but it is often so subtle that we do not even know it at the time.  That in and of itself is mercy.  To see into my own heart and no I am capable of just about anything at times and yet to never have fallen—that is mercy.  In fact to receive the mercy of preservation is one of the most beautiful gifts that God gives us.  He spares us so much pain.  This is why a favorite spiritual practice of St. Augustine when he did his Examen and could not find any sin that day was to thank God in His mercy for all the things that he kept the Saint from falling into.

The point is that we can never spread God’s mercy until we see how He has touched us personally with it.  The word mercy literally means “a heart moved by misery.”  If you do not know what misery “feels” like, it is very difficult to be moved by it in another.  This is why mercy and empathy go hand in hand.  Empathy, according to John Paul II, is “experiencing another person within ourselves as the other person experiences himself.”  It is a path to love and mercy because by seeing the other from the inside, we see them as a subject and not just an object.

A second reason why the Works of Mercy have fallen into disuse is because we set our goals to high.  We assume we must go somewhere to practice them.  We may not have time amidst our family life to volunteer at the Soup Kitchen.  But that misses the point.  How many of the Works of Mercy does a parent perform daily with their children?  Add the supernatural intention of showing them the love of God and all of family life becomes sanctifying.  Children grow up with an innate sense of the Merciful love of the Father.

Jesus addressed a similar obstacle to St. Faustina when he said,

“write this for the many souls who are often worried because they do not have the material means with which to carry out an act of mercy. Yet spiritual mercy, which requires neither permissions nor storehouses, is much more meritorious and is within the grasp of every soul. If a soul does not exercise mercy somehow or other, it will not obtain My mercy on the day of judgment. Oh, if only souls knew how to gather eternal treasure for themselves, they would not be judged, for they would forestall My judgment with their mercy.”

Pope Francis further attempted to simplify things by grouping the first four spiritual works of mercy (counsel the doubtful, teach the ignorant, forgive offenses, be patient with difficult people) are all part of the “apostolate of the ear.”  As proof that these are most needed at this time, look at all the money spent of therapists just because they listen to their patients!

There is one Spiritual Work of Mercy that ought to be of particular focus during this Year of Mercy and that is admonishing the sinner.  If there is one unforgivable sin today even among the most secular it is “being judgmental.”  While obviously this is an abuse of Jesus’ words to “judge not,” there is a truth to it.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy of a culture that is dominated by relativism is that it keeps so many from seeking God’s mercy (no absolute moral law, no sin, no need for mercy).  So it is extremely important that we all realize that to admonish the sinner without pointing them towards the mercy of God is no act of mercy.  It is simply a condemnation.  This is not because sin is inconsequential or because there is no such thing as mortal sin, but because sin can never have the last word.  God’s mercy is more powerful.  The Holy Father is quick to say that “The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth: ‘This is a sin.’ But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God.”

How different our approach to admonishing sinners is if we do so only with mercy in mind.  For those who have been truly touched by God’s mercy, they want nothing more than for that sinner to experience it too.  A good way to examine ourselves on how we are doing with this is to see our response when we encounter someone who is doing something gravely sinful.  Is my first response, almost visceral in that I despair that the person could be lost?  Or am I concerned only with the fact that they are breaking some rule?  Neither of the two downplays sin, but only the former allows mercy to have the final word.  In truth it might be that for those people who cannot point to specific instances of God’s mercy in their own lives, the greater Work of Mercy is not to admonish the sinner at all.  Blessed are the merciful, for mercy has been theirs!