Category Archives: Sacraments

On Absolution without Confession

At the heart of Christianity is freedom; for it was for “freedom’s sake that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).    So it is rather strange that the two things we fear most are the very same things He freed us from—death and sin.  We do not like to think or talk about either except when it comes to denying their reality.  It is this self-deceptive practice that compels me to offer the previously promised second example of our painful plucking and splitting of theological hairs.

The average Catholic probably can’t name all twelve Apostles, but they can tell you the conditions for mortal sin.  That is because they are sure to have heard a homily or three about it in one of the Masses that they didn’t miss.  They have learned that for a sin to be mortal it must be grave matter and it must have been done with full knowledge and consent.  In a previous age the emphasis was always on the “grave matter” part.  With a cultural turn to the subjective, the emphasis is now on the personal aspects—knowledge and consent—and almost always with the goal of absolution without confession.  If you can absolve from the pulpit then the lines in Confession will shrink while the lines for Communion will grow.

The Pastoral Approach?

What makes this rather sticky is that technically Father is right.  For someone to be guilty of mortal sin, they must have done something that is particularly grave.  They must have known it was grave matter and they must have done it with full freedom.  That is solid moral theology, but, as will be obvious shortly, is bad pastoral practice.

The Prophet Jeremiah tells the people that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).  His point is that the knowledge and intention of our actions are almost always hidden, even from ourselves.  Thanks to our fallen condition our capacity for self-deceit is quasi-omnipotent.  When faced with admitting our faults or justifying them, we will almost always choose the latter.  It is as if we are naturally trained in the art of moral hair splitting so that when Father or our favorite armchair theologian splits hairs on this issue it finds our sweet spot.

Once can see how this might lead to a rejection of the existence of mortal sin.  It may exist in theory, but is practically non-existent except for a few of the most hardened of sinners.  If we can’t know two of the three conditions with any surety, then there is no reason to worry about it.

This is a sure sign of the collective insanity caused by Original Sin.  The reasonable man, when faced with a large mass protruding from his abdomen would not go to the doctor because he does not feel bad.  He would go because he has an objective, measurable sign that he may have cancer.  So too with mortal sin.  When all objective signs point to mortal sin, the reasonable man would go to Confession.  Like the man with the tumor, he assumes the worst and goes to the Divine Physician’s clinic in the confessional.  It may be nothing serious, but when it comes to the health of our soul we should assume the worst.  The Good Doctor will sort out whether you actually have a spiritual cancer growing in your soul, but either way you have had an encounter with the living Christ in the Confessional.  Christ has already paid dearly for the premium and empowered His ministers to forgive sins, why not take advantage of it?

Why the Doctors of the Church Did Not Split Hairs

There are valid reasons why there was a movement away from emphasizing the “grave matter,” especially in the post-Jansenist Church.  But we ought to seriously consider why the moral Doctors of the Church always used “mortal sin” and “grave matter” interchangeably.  I am sure someone has counted how many times he did this, but St. Thomas when examining virtues and vices in the Summa almost always asks “Is X a mortal sin?”  He was well aware of the conditions of mortal sin but his goal, even in his Summary of Theology, was to be pastoral.  When in doubt Confession was the remedy.

For the world’s loss of a sense of sin to have crept into the Church is absolutely absurd.  The Church exists to forgive sins.  To explain away their existence is to make herself obsolete—“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’”(Jn 20:21-23).

Scrupulosity is an emotional hyper-sensitivity to sin.  It is a common aspect at the beginning of the Christian journey and tends to subside as the person progresses in the stages of holiness.  It is when it persists that it becomes a real problem.  It is these relatively few tortured souls that many have found their justification for de-emphasizing the “grave matter” aspect of mortal sin.   First of all, a person plagued by a case of the scruples already has a conscience that will not rest.  It is constantly being challenged by the emotional feeling of sin.  Taking away an objective measure and leaving it completely as a subjective measure leaves them in a worse state of confusion.  Their mind may tell them one thing, but the feeling can overwhelm them causing a great deal of inner turmoil that will not cease until they can set their conscience at ease in Confession.

Assuming that you are not seeing a regular confessor and combating a prolonged case of scrupulosity, I would like to make brief mention of something that is related to this.  Be very leary of a priest when he tells you in the Confessional that something is not a sin .  If you do not know your own heart, then (except in the rare cases of an enlightenment by God) neither does he.  His only judgment is whether you are contrite and have a firm purpose of amendment.  He is not a tribunal of one to judge whether something is sinful or not, that is God’s role.  If you confess something that is not sinful, then God will figure it out.  Better to find out later it was not a sin then to have it before you on Judgment Day.  While we cannot be sure of the judgment rendered on that awful day, we can be sure that there will be no hair splitting.

Catholic Culture and the Filet-o-Fish Sandwich

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plummeting Mass Attendance

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fullness of Time

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

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

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

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

Sacramental Momentum

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

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

 

Sacramental Inertia

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

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

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

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

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

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

Inequality and God’s Love

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

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

Why God’s Unique Love is Not Enough

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

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

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

The Question Reframed

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

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

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

The Power of Pentecost

Within the Jewish Liturgical Year, there were seven major feasts, three of which were considered “major feasts” and were commanded as times when the males were to “appear before the Lord God” in Jerusalem (c.f. Exodus 23:14-17).  These three major feasts were the feast of Unleavened Bread, the feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year, and the harvest festival.  The Harvest festival, or the Feast of Weeks was to occur on the fiftieth day after Passover (there was some disagreement among the Pharisees and Sadducees as to when the actual feast was to be celebrated).  In later antiquity, it would come to be as Pentecost (Greek for “fiftieth”) by the Greek-speaking Jews.  It was for the celebration of this feast that many Jews from throughout the world (Parthians, Medes, Mesopotamian, Egyptians, etc. as listed in Acts 2:9-10) had gathered when the Holy Spirit was finally manifest on that day.

This helps to explain why so many were gathered on that day in Jerusalem to witness the power from on high, but it does not necessarily explain why it had to be that feast day.  In other words, why was it that the Jewish Feast of Weeks found its fulfillment on Pentecost?

A word first about the concept of “fulfillment.”  When we hear this term used, there is a tendency to think “it had to happen that day in order to fulfill the meaning of Pentecost.”  In short, we can think that the purpose of Pentecost was to fulfill the Feast of Weeks.  Thinking in these terms there is a danger of thinking that the Feast of Weeks is obsolete and now only Pentecost matters.  Properly understood though we should attempt to see things the other way around.  The purpose of the Feast of Weeks was to make Pentecost understandable.  It may no longer be efficacious, but it is not devoid of meaning.  God was so demanding in the rubrics surrounding the Jewish liturgy because He wanted them to act as clear signs of the thing they were pointing to.  The Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost would have recognized what was happening and were instantly moved upon hearing Peter’s explanation.  But Pentecost was not just for them.  By deepening our own understanding of the Feast of Weeks, we can enter more fully into the celebration and join those first Christians in being “cut to the heart.”

This challenge of deepening our understanding of the Jewish celebrations is echoed in the Catechism:

A better knowledge of the Jewish people’s faith and religious life as professed and lived even now can help our better understanding of certain aspects of Christian liturgy…The relationship between Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy, but also their differences in content, are particularly evident in the great feasts of the liturgical year, such as Passover. Christians and Jews both celebrate the Passover. For Jews, it is the Passover of history, tending toward the future; for Christians, it is the Passover fulfilled in the death and Resurrection of Christ, though always in expectation of its definitive consummation. (CCC 1096, emphasis added)

In ancient Israel, the Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival in which loaves of bread were offered to the Lord as a gift of the first fruits (a minor Jewish festival celebrated just after the Feast of Unleavened Bread).  It was accompanied by sacred rest and sacrifices (see Num 28:26-31).  It was by the death of the grains of wheat, the first fruits of the wheat that the bread was to be baked.   This grain then takes on the value of a sign of the One Whom “God raised up” (Acts 2:32).  As the definitive sacrifice, He ascended to heaven where God received Him and showed His approval by pouring out His Spirit by a strongly felt sign (Acts 2:33).  Rising on the day after Passover, that is the feast of first fruits, Christ is “the first fruits of those who have died” (1Cor 15:20).

The Feast of Weeks

By this powerful sign, the Apostles now become the harvesters.  And on this day, the harvest is great, drawing 3000 souls to the Lord.  This number is far from arbitrary and it would immediately bring to mind the other aspect of the Feast of Weeks, namely that it was to be marked as a time to remember the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.

While God was giving the Law to Moses, the Israelites fashioned the Golden Calf.  In response, the Levites were commanded “’Each of you put your sword on your hip! Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate, and kill your brothers, your friends, your neighbors!’ The Levites did as Moses had commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people fell” (Ex 32:27-28).  Spiritually inebriated, the Apostles, that is the priestly successors to the Levites, will put to death the flesh of those 3000 souls, each of which will follow the law because it is written not in stone, but on their hearts (Jer 31:33).

The giving of the Law was the initiation of the Old Covenant.  This indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the Faithful that will become the sign of the new Covenant, that is Baptism.  Those who are claimed for Christ, the 3000, do as Peter told them— “repent and be baptized” so that they “will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The giving of the Law as part of the Old Covenant also formed Israel as the People of God—that is the visible Kingdom of God on earth.  At Pentecost, the Church becomes the Kingdom of God that is open to all people.  This understanding helps bring clarity to the somewhat random question and ambiguous response Our Lord gives to the Apostles when, just prior to His Ascension, they ask “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” to which He replies that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:6,8).

The Spirit of Pentecost

All of this remains mere proof-texting unless we allow the effects of Pentecost to be felt in our day.  So many within the Church speak of waiting for a “New Pentecost” in which the power of the Holy Spirit will be made manifest once again.  But there will be no “New Pentecost” because Pentecost was not a single event, but one that was to last perpetually.  The Jews celebrated the different festivals not merely to remind them of the past, but to make the past somehow present to them so that they could participate in it.  The Feast of Weeks was a time for recalling and renewing the Old Covenant and Pentecost ought to be a time that we consciously renew our participation in the New Covenant.

The first way that this should be done is through a renewed focus on our baptismal commitment to offer spiritual sacrifices unceasingly to Christ.  Likewise, we should renew our commitment to the graces of Confirmation, that is when we received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and march to the Front in the battle to win souls.  Offering Mass for the grace to live those two Pentecostal Sacraments to their fullest would be a worthy intention.

Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church.  With this in mind, a second way to live Pentecost is to do what we all do at all birthday celebrations—show gratitude for the gift of the person and offer a gift to pay our debt of gratitude.  We can often take for granted the gift of the Church and how much easier it makes our lives.  Yes, we have to deal with the human elements, that is the weeds among the wheat, but the guidance that her teaching office gives us can save us from making a lot of mistakes.  She speaks to nearly every aspect of our lives and offers us a sure port amidst the storms of life.  Amidst a culture in which we are “tossed to and fro by every wave of false doctrine,” there is great comfort knowing we have a place to go for the Truth.  By renewing our efforts to form ourselves in her teachings, to be docile to the truth and proclaim it loudly, we can pay the debt of our gratitude.  We are the new harvesters in the long line of harvesters known as the Communion of Saints.  Pray then, this Pentecost, that the Master of the Harvest will send more out into the fields, priests, and laity alike.

A New Pentecost

When the Catechism of the Council of Trent was published in 1566, it contained a warning regarding the Sacrament of Confirmation:

If ever there was a time demanding the diligence of pastors in explaining the Sacrament of Confirmation, in these days certainly it requires special attention, when there are found in the holy Church of God many by whom this Sacrament is altogether omitted; while very few seek to obtain from it the fruit of divine grace which they should derive from its participation.

As much as this was true is 1566, it is probably even more so today.  Most Catholics operate under a false understanding of what the Sacrament is and does and therefore fail to make use of it.  Given the direction our culture is going and the need for strong Christian witness, it is time to examine this Sacrament once again so we can make use of the supernatural power that God provides us.

The Purpose of Confirmation

The most common misunderstanding about Confirmation is attached to its purpose.  Most see it correctly as somehow completing the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism and the Eucharist), but assume it just involves accepting responsibility for your faith.  It is given when someone is old enough to make a decision for themselves about whether they are going to accept the faith they were baptized into.  While it is often received after someone has reached the age of reason, this accepting of responsibility for your faith would not make it a Sacrament.  Sacraments are first and foremost the work of God.

All of the Sacraments confer sanctifying grace, but each one also bestows a unique grace called “sacramental grace.”  Three of them, Baptism, Holy Orders, and Confirmation, also bestow an indelible mark on the soul called a character.  In addition to serving as a mark of distinction, it also acts as a sign that denotes a certain duty.  Think of it as a badge on the soul that deputizes us to perform a certain office.  It also disposes us for the reception of actual graces.  Even more than that, it gives us a right to all the actual graces that are necessary to fulfill that particular office.

The sacramental grace that is bestowed on us in Confirmation is the “power of the Holy Spirit” by which we are enabled to believe firmly and profess boldly the Gospel.  Think of Peter on Pentecost and afterwards.  It marks us as soldiers for Christ and causes the necessary growth in us to serve on the front lines, wherever the Front that God sends us may be.  It also imposes on us the duty to witness to the Faith. Because God never gives a mission without the necessary grace to fulfill that mission it also gives us the right to those actual graces we need to fight for Christ and His Church.

There is a danger in leaving this on an intellectual level.  But we need to realize (i.e. make real in our own lives) what Confirmation does to us and how God puts Himself in a position in which He owes us something.  I have been marked as a Christian witness at the core of my being and this mark obligates me to profess the One Who has marked me.  It is no cosmetic change, but a change that will last forever.  Because I bear this mark, God owes me all the actual graces that I need.  I can count on them when I need them because He is just.  The challenge is to live with this realization and allow my courage to increase daily—the grace of Confirmation perfects each of our seemingly small acts of witness until we are boldly professing the Truth to all who need to hear it.  How different my encounters will be if I live with this in mind rather than relying on my own strength?  How much confidence will I gain?

As I walk down the street no other man may see the mark, but this mark can be seen by our real enemies.  It becomes a bull’s-eye of sorts in which they now take sharper aim at us.  This is why we must recall that the Greek word for witness is martus, from which we get the word martyr.  Ultimately Confirmation is the Sacrament of Martyrdom.

Pentecost

When the Levitical priests were preparing burnt offering sacrifice to God, they always laid their hands upon its head (c.f. Lev 1:3 and Exodus 29:10, 15).  This is why a Bishop, who has received the fullness of the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, is the ordinary minister of the Sacrament.  By laying his hands on the confirmand’s head, he is setting that person aside as a sacrifice to God.  This is why it is so important for us to enter the Sacrament with eyes wide open and having a proper understanding what it actually empowers us to be.  It fully conforms us to Christ by marking us a victims.  We are no longer just adopted sons and daughters through Christ, we now become more fully conformed to Him as victims.

When Confirmation Should Happen?

Before closing, a word about who should receive the Sacrament.  With all the Sacraments, there is an ever-present danger of treating them like magic.  We grasp objectively what they are—essential channels of sanctifying grace—but spend little time worrying about the subjective dimension.  In other words, we don’t necessarily ask whether the person is really ready (not just superficially able to tell you what the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit are) to receive that grace.  It is given to many teens in the hopes that something “sticks.”  Then we are surprised when we don’t see any real change in the Confirmandi and the Church as a whole.  Rather than quibbling over the proper age to give the Sacrament, what if we spent the time really preparing them?  Helping them develop a true prayer life, a true Sacramental life (including regular reception of the Sacrament of Confession) and forming them to battle the enemies of the Church.  A Catholic boot camp of sorts to train the next generation of Christian soldiers.

The need for credible witnesses to the Faith has grown dire in the past fifty years and one can imagine that it will increase even more in the immediate future.  In response to this, many in the Church have called for a New Pentecost.  In truth however a New Pentecost is not needed—the grace of the Sacrament of Confirmation extends the same power of Pentecost through time.  What is needed is a greater emphasis on the necessity of this Sacrament.  We should be giving it sooner to children rather than later, especially since children today seem to face a unique set of challenges that could lead to a loss of faith earlier in their lives than ever before.  This starts however by spreading an understanding of this virtually untapped source of supernatural power so that we can truly bring about the fruit of Pentecost today.

 

 

Catholics and the Seder Meal

In recent years, one of the more popular Lenten practices of Catholics has become to participate in Seder Meals.  Their popularity is driven mostly by a desire to express a solidarity with the Jewish people and to understand the Jewish roots of our Faith.  While it may seem harmless to participate in them, there are some serious reasons why Catholics might want to avoid them all together.

In an age where the morality of a given act is mainly subject to our intention, it is important to begin any discussion on whether Catholics should participate in Seder Meals with a fundamental principle.  St. Thomas puts the principle this way—“external worship should be in proportion to the internal worship” (ST I-II q.103, a.3).  What the Angelic Doctor means by this is that our external acts of worship must always reflect our internal beliefs.  If our act of worship does not reflect our internal beliefs then we are guilty of superstition, that is giving worship to God in, what St. Thomas calls, an “undue mode” or in giving worship to a false god.

Trapped in a dualistic mindset, many of us would think that our external acts are just that—external—and there is no harm done if you do not really mean them.  But intuitively we all seem to think otherwise, especially when we reflect on the witness of the Martyrs.  Many martyrs refused to offer a pinch of incense to the pagan gods because they knew this would be an act of worship, even if they may not have believed in what they were doing.  Likewise there are those who have been tempted to desecrate an image of Christ in order to avoid martyrdom.  All too often the tempters would simply say, “It’s just an image.  All that matters to you is what you believe.”  Those who desecrated the image were considered apostates regardless of what they may have believed.  Not having our exterior acts reflecting our interior beliefs is a form of lying.

The Seder Meal and What it Means to Participate

Returning to the topic at hand, namely Seder Meals, it is without a doubt a religious act.  Many of these are sponsored by different Jewish Synagogues or, when done “do it yourself” follow the existing Seder liturgy.  A Seder Meal is one of the primary means by which the Jewish people hand on their faith.  It also reflects an act in faith in the coming of the Messiah.

For a Christian, that is, one who has faith that the Messiah has come, to participate in a Seder Meal is a false declaration of faith.  It is, as St. Thomas said, an act of worship of God in an “undue mode.”  While our faith in the Christ with the Jewish people may be the same, that faith must be expressed in different ways.  The Jews reflect the faith of Abraham, that is the Messiah to come, through circumcision.  The Christian expresses his faith in the Messiah who has come when they share in His life and death in Baptism.

St. Thomas says that all of the legal ceremonies of the Old Law, including the Passover meal, have passed away because each found their fulfillment with the coming of Christ.  Each of the ceremonies of the Old Law expressed the expectation of the coming Messiah, those of the New Law reflect His having already come.  In the mind of Aquinas, to continue to participate in these ceremonies is a lie and constitutes, at least objectively speaking, a grave sin.  Regardless of what one believes, by participating in a Seder Meal, the Christian is professing through his actions that Christ is yet to come.

The ceremonies of the Old Law were mere “shadows” (Col 2:17) of the Sacraments to come.  The Seder is but a foreshadowing of the Mass.  Why would one participate in shadow when the real thing is available?  Catholics are already participating the True Seder Meal, the Mass.

What if I Just Want to Learn More About Our Roots?

What about those who only do so out of curiosity or as a learning exercise to help them better understand the Mass?  Certainly their intentions do not change the fact that it is objectively wrong to participate, but still it may change their culpability.  This approach is worth unpacking further for a different reason as well.

The problem with this approach is that it denies an important historical fact.  Those who have studied the Passover meal that Our Lord celebrated with the Apostles are quick to point out that it differs from the first Passover as described in the Book of Exodus and not just because Our Lord added the elements of fulfillment.  At the time of Our Lord only the Levitical priesthood existed and thus all sacrifices occurred within the Temple.  What did not change however was that the Passover was not just a meal but also a sacrifice.

Once the Temple was destroyed, Judaism underwent a profound change.  Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was much like Catholicism in that they had priests who lead the worship which was centered upon sacrifice.  After 70 AD it became much like Protestantism in that the emphasis was placed on worship without sacrifice.  Judaism today is not the same Judaism of Our Lord and the Apostles.

In short, the Seder Meal that Jesus participated in the first 32 years of His life is profoundly different from the Seder Meal as it is celebrated within Judaism today.  The key element, the sacrifice of the Lamb, is missing.  With the sacrificial character removed it now bears little resemblance to the Mass which retains its sacrificial meaning.  A Seder Meal, as it is celebrated today, has little value for the Christian for learning the roots of the faith.

Certainly studying (without participating) the Seder Meal as it was during the time of Our Lord has value for us as Christians.  Studying the type or the sign helps us to better understand the archetype or thing signified.  Rather than spending your time organizing or attending a Seder Meal, you would be better off studying Dr. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist or listen to Scott Hahn’s Fourth Cup.  Although there are more, I have found these two resources invaluable for deepening our understanding of the meaning of the Mass and its relation to the Jewish Passover Meal.

The Magic of the Sacraments

One of the common criticisms leveled at Catholics by other Christians is related to the Sacraments—how can grace actually depend upon matter?  They accuse the Catholics of superstition and magic.  While the Church can defend herself readily against such an accusation by referring to the Incarnation itself as the supreme example of grace depending on matter, her example of late suggests otherwise.  There are many, including those in the highest levels of the Church, who treat the Sacraments like magic.  The Church may have received these precious gifts freely, but that doesn’t make them cheap.  We may think that by opening the Sacraments to more and more people regardless of their situation we are saving more souls, but it is exactly the opposite.  In fact it is a liberality with the Sacraments that has led to a whole-new field of evangelization—“the baptized non-believer.”

Dietrich Bonhoffer, a Lutheran pastor who was instrumental in Hitler’s ultimate demise, coined the term “cheap grace.”  Cheap grace is “the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.”  This mindset of Gratis vilis only serves to decrease the cultural relevance of the Church.  If grace is something that we can bestow upon ourselves; something that requires little more than showing up, then why do we need the Church at all?  Eventually we realize that it really doesn’t matter how often or whether we show up   When I feel like I need a refill, I will go.

Witness these recent Sacramental trends.

Baptizing Children of Same Sex Couples

In 2015, Pope Francis told priests not to withhold Baptism from anyone, especially children of same-sex couples.  He said, “With baptism, you unite the new faithful to the people of God. It is never necessary to refuse baptism to someone who asks for it.”

The instruction came even though the Code of Canon Law stipulates that there are cases where Baptism should be delayed or withheld indefinitely.  In Canon 868 it states that for an infant to be baptized licitly two things must occur.  First, “the parents, or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place must consent.”  Second, there must be “a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason.”  To further clarify this second point as to what constitutes a founded hope, the CDF also issued the document Instruction on Infant Baptism.

Assurances must be given that the gift thus granted can grow by an authentic education in the faith and Christian life, in order to fulfill the true meaning of the sacrament.  As a rule, these assurances are to be given by the parents or close relatives, although various substitutions are possible within the Christian community. But if these assurances are not really serious there can be grounds for delaying the sacrament; and if they are certainly non-existent the sacrament should even be refused.

Is this merely outdated “law” or is there something more going on here, something to be protected?

Anointing of the Sick

According to Canon Law, the Anointing of the Sick is only to be bestowed upon those who are in reasonable danger of death and have reached the age of reason.  Its effects are to strengthen the person to face death and the forgiveness of sins.  Priests now treat it as a routine Catholic Pre-op procedure, regardless of how serious their illness is or their personal disposition.

Is this being more “inclusive” or is there a reason why this law is in place?

Confirmation

If you ask any DRE they will say that the majority of the “students” in the Confirmation Prep classes do not attend Mass regularly.  Once they “graduate” they are also just as likely to remain in the ranks of the unchurched.  They perform the Sacrament in the hopes that the grace will somehow “stick” if only for a few of them.

Eucharist for the “Re-married”, Confession and Matrimony

In one fell swoop these three Sacraments are included on our list.  Thanks to the ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia and a recent endorsement of the Argentine Bishops interpretation that paves the way for “some” living in irregular marriages to receive the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist.  Confession now forgives sins that you “can’t” express a firm purpose of amendment for and the Eucharist gives grace to a soul in an objectively sinful situation.  And the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony is expanded to second-marriages (and even third and fourth).

houdini

In each of these cases there is a fundamental belief that the Sacraments magically bestow grace regardless of the person himself or herself.  But the Church has always understood the grace attached to the Sacraments in two dimensions.  First there is the grace attained through the sacraments ex opere operato.  This refers to the fact that the Sacraments are instrumental causes of grace.  This means that it is “from the work performed” (literal meaning of ex opere operato) alone grace is given by a Sacrament regardless of the faith of the recipient or the minister.

It is the second dimension however that is consistently ignored today and that is the grace available, ex opere operantis. This is the actual “amount” of grace received relative to the disposition of the receiver. It is this distinction that helps explain why the Eucharist contains enough grace to sanctify the world and yet the amount of grace varies from individual to individual.

It is the ex opere operantis character of sacramental grace which keeps the Sacraments from becoming magical instruments.  The Sacrament may objectively bestow grace, but only in the amount that the recipient has the capacity for.  Those who are not disposed at all, receive no sanctifying grace even though it is still present in the Sacrament.  As St. Thomas says, “whatever is received, is received according to the mode of the receiver and not according to the mode of the giver.”  The Sacraments are beautifully adapted to human nature—both universally and individually.  They do not overpower man—that would make them magic.  Instead they are truly super-natural, building upon a man’s natural condition.

Those who think they are being “pastoral” by relaxing the “laws” around the Sacrament are doing more than just treated the Sacraments like magic.  As Pope Benedict said on a number of occasions; to be pastoral does not mean to change the truth but to help the other adjust his life to the truth.  The truth is that the Sacraments may be necessary for salvation (either absolutely or relatively), but they are not sufficient.  This gift requires the proper environment to grow in and when that environment is not provided the person may be worse off than they would have otherwise been.  While Baptism leaves an indelible mark on the soul, that mark becomes a bulls-eye for the evil one when it is not protected and nourished.  Likewise with Confirmation—we put on the soldier’s uniform we should expect to get attacked by the enemy.  Our Lord seems to warn us of this when He speaks of a man, who after being cleansed of an evil spirit finds himself inhabited by seven more because his house was empty and actually ends up worse off (Mt 12:44-46).  Somebody may have told the Corinthians it was fine to go to Communion, but St. Paul says there are dangerous consequences for the person in a state of grave sin.  One may have permission to go to Communion, but that doesn’t mean they should.  Likewise, a person may wrongly assume they are in a state of grace after going to Confession.  Is this person better off than the person who knows they are in sin?

Just so we don’t think this is just Pope Francis’ problem or some liberal Priest who gives Communion to whoever shows up at the Church, we should examine ourselves and see what our own mentality is.  How often do we approach the Sacraments as if they are going to magically heal us without the hard work of repentance?  Continually confessing the same sins in the Sacrament of Confession?  Perhaps we are waiting for God to magically heal us and not actively cooperating with Him.  Receiving the Eucharist regularly and yet not gaining a further share in Christ’s virtues?  Perhaps we are not preparing ourselves well.  Timid in witnessing to the Faith?  Perhaps we are doing something to stand in the way of the grace of Confirmation.

In summary, I turn to the Catechism which reminds us:

The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord and to become “a people well disposed.” The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the assembly, especially of its ministers. The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will. These dispositions are the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward (CCC 1098).

Not magic, indeed.  Paraphrasing Augustine, “God will not save us, even by the Sacraments, without us.”  Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.

The Sacramental Habit

Call it whatever you’d like—looking for an opportunity to evangelize or eavesdropping (I’d prefer the former)—but the young couple at the table behind me and a Pastor of a home church were talking about why the couple was leaving the Catholic Church.  He was in full salesman’s mode, doing his best to “recruit” them.  They both felt that “there is no sense of community whatsoever and the sermons are really dull.  We just feel like we’re not being fed.”  “Sorry for interrupting,” I said, “but I couldn’t help overhearing how unhappy you are at your Parish.  Have you considered trying another Parish before leaving the Catholic Church altogether?  Maybe it’s the Parish and not the Catholic Church that isn’t a good fit.”  I learned about the couple—both grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school and actually knew the faith of the Church surprisingly well.  Sensing some momentum building from the nostalgia, I went for the kill (in the most charitable sense of the word), “Would you both be OK with walking away from the Sacraments and from the Eucharist?  That is the really cool thing about being Catholic—no matter how unfriendly the people are and no matter how bad the homily, we are absolutely guaranteed to have a real encounter with Jesus each week.  Nowhere else can give us that.”   And then I got…nothing.  “Well, the Sacraments are not really that important to us.  We just really want to worship in a place where we feel comfortable.”  I immediately realized I had grossly underestimated thinking that the Sacraments were a big deal to anyone who was Catholic.  My friends in the restaurant are not alone—a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found that despite a growth in the Catholic population world-wide, there has been an overall decrease in the Sacramental action of the Church.  And just like the couple in the restaurant, the problem may not be catechesis.  Instead what may be lacking is the necessary context of the entire Sacramental system.

The Christian conception of a Sacrament rests upon a certain pattern of viewing reality that is almost universally rejected in an age that has come to be dominated by rationalism and technology.  We speak in a language that reduces each thing as “nothing but X.”  Love is “nothing but a series of chemical reactions in the brain.” Human beings are “nothing but machines for propagating DNA.”  The universe is “nothing but a collection of atoms in motion” (all of these are direct quotes from nothing but Richard Dawkins’ vocal cords).  These atoms in motion may lead to an expanding universe, but it is a universe that is significantly smaller than when it started.

The lie of nothing but-ness is the belief that things can be known exhaustively once we have understood their chemical and physical properties.  Hamlet was right when he told Horatio, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are contained in your philosophy.”  Reality is more than meets the eye and we will only appreciate it when we see things not just as things but also as images pointing beyond themselves.  This is the sacramental worldview that is foundational to inviting the power of the Christian Sacraments into our lives

Our Lady on the Moon

To see how much this reductionism infects your thoughts, ask yourself the following question: why does the moon orbit the earth?  Most of us would say it is because of gravity.  Some might say so that there is some light at night.  But that only answers by what mechanism the moon orbits the earth or what makes it useful.  Both only lead to further questions—why gravity and not a giant pole?  Why the moon for light and not flashing lights across the sky?  The sacramentalist looks for the meaning of the moon as it is.  And what does he find?  That the moon tells us of the Blessed Mother, reflecting the light of Son on the darkened world.  She remains in our orbit because of the natural attraction of two bodies, namely love.

One might object that it is simply a matter of imagination that I see the moon that way.  Of course scripturally speaking this is not a stretch at all.  Revelation 12 presents Our Lady as having the “moon under her feet” showing off this connection.  But even on a human level we see both that things have meanings beyond themselves and we are not free to make them up.  Isn’t this exactly why Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers Quarterback who refused to stand during the national anthem is coming under so much scrutiny?  He is trying to attach a new meaning to the flag rather than the meaning that everyone else accepts as true.  The flag stands for the greatness of the American Spirit—one of courage, self-sacrifice and patriotism.  It not only symbolizes those values but also brings them about by its very presence.  Men literally have died defending the flag, not because the material is valuable, but because of what the flag is.  The flag is a sacrament.

CS Lewis compares these two ways of seeing, calling them looking at and looking along, in his essay Meditation in a Toolshed:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. … Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

Everything is charged with meaning if only we are willing to look along and not just at.  This offers a way out of the profound boredom that so afflicts so many of us.  Rather than looking for distractions we find that the very things we are avoiding contain the meaning of life.  When we realize that meals are not “nothing but” the biological act of feeding, but instead a profoundly human and social activity by which life and the sources of life are shared among the diners then we will not be so apt to miss meals with our family.  When we see sex is not “nothing but” an urge but instead a fruitful and total giving and receiving of a man and woman then we will do nothing to violate its sacred character.  When instead of seeing our work as “nothing but” how we make money, but a call to complete God’s work of creation then our work will fulfill us, no matter how menial the task.

Oddly enough, it might be by listening to the favored secular mantra, namely “Respect for the Environment,” that we can restore the sacramental habit.  The word respect literally means to look again. Let us all develop this habit of looking again, this time along, our environments and see if our Sacramental lives don’t change for the better.

Keeping Your Hands to Yourself

The irony is not lost on me that very often the Sign of Peace invokes a chaotic scene during the Mass.  A virtual love-fest breaks out as each member of the congregation must shake hands or hug anyone else within their immediate vicinity.  Adding to the chaos, the priest often leaves Jesus alone on the altar to shake hands with those in the congregation.  Because of its disruptive nature, there are those traditionalists who would want to do away with it altogether.  But the problem is not so much with the Sign of Peace itself.  Instead, it is with the gross misunderstanding of what is actually going on.

By way of reminder, the purpose of the Mass is to re-present the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross so that we can each actively participate in it.  And because it is a Sacrament or sign of that Sacrifice, we need to wrap it in liturgical form that makes it clear as to what is happening before us.  Each part of the liturgy then must be carefully constructed so that these signs within the Sign act as beacons, pointing to the Reality.

In this regard the Sign of Peace is no different.  It is no mere practical greeting but instead a ritual exchange.  As members of His Body, we are turning to those around us in order not to wish them well, but as a sign of the peace and unity that Christ promised to the Church.  It is therefore meant to convey the truth that when the Body is united under the Head there is communion among the individual members.  There is order within the Body and peace, the tranquility of order, follows.  There may be strife between the members (“look not on our sins”), but the handshake of peace shows that reconciliation has happened.

The people sitting around us are not so much our nuclear family or friends, but representatives of the Body of Christ.  The Sign of Peace conveys the love that the members have for each other as members of Christ’s Body—a love that has its root in the Sacrifice that we have all offered to the Father and that we are preparing to receive.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons (although certainly not the only) we should not hold hands during the Our Father.  It detracts away from the meaning of the Sign of Peace.

Despite becoming a tradition in many churches, the habit of holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer is a rather recent innovation.  Although it is uncertain as to how it started (some say it is borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous or the charismatic renewal) and whether it is licit (in my own Diocese of Raleigh it is “strongly discouraged”), it detracts from the Liturgy itself.  Although we begin the Prayer with the words “Our Father” it is not primarily the unity of being “sons in the Son” that places the prayer here in the Mass.  Instead it is the eschatological nature of the Lord’s Prayer that bears emphasis.  Dr. Brant Pitre has an excellent and accessible article on how the disciples would have viewed the prayer itself as a prayer for the definitive coming of the New Kingdom.  You can read all the details here, but the point is that the Our Father is primarily a prayer we say as “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Chaotic Sign of Peace

Once we have held hands praying the family prayer, the Sign of Peace seems superfluous and loses its nature as a sign.  We now are only able to see it as something practical.  Once we treat it as a practical greeting it loses its effectiveness as a sign and therefore so too does everything else leading up to the reception of the Sign.  It is the Eucharist in which the unity that is expressed in the Sign of Peace becomes a reality on the basis of the biblical principle that:  “Those who eat the sacrifices are partners in the altar” (1Cor 10: 18).  If however we have roamed around the Church for 3 minutes greeting everyone we can get near, we forget this.  The Sign of Peace becomes the basis of the Communion rather than something pointing to its real source.

There is one further practical problem that bears mentioning.  The chaotic nature of the Sign of Peace has gone on long enough that most people act out of ignorance.  Bearing in mind the sensitivity of those around us and not wanting to appear in any way unwelcoming, how can we turn this around?

It begins with a catechetical solution.  We should instruct our children as to its true meaning.  Priests and Deacons can also mention it during their homily.  A quick mention with a brief explanation for several weeks can change the culture within the Parish.  They can also help by staying on the altar and not roaming about, even to offer peace to the altar servers.

For those in the pews, the process of changing the chaos into true Peace means only turning to those directly beside us.  Obviously if someone else offers their hand we should take it.  Some may think you unfriendly, but that can easily be remedied by making it a point after Mass to speak to those around you (and no, not about why you didn’t shake their hand).  Catholic churches are notoriously unfriendly and cliquish places and this habit of making sure we talk to those around us after Mass can kill two birds with one stone.  Having a conversation with them will certainly dispel any whisperings in their mind that you are somehow unfriendly and they might even begin to wonder why (and even ask) you do what you do during the Sign of Peace.

As a kid, and anyone who has young boys has probably said this too, I was told to “keep your hands to yourself” by my Mom.  It seems Holy Mother Church needs to tell her children the same thing during Mass, especially during the Our Father and the Sign of Peace.

The Sacrifice of the Mass

One of the great advantages that the early Christians had over those “who have not seen and yet believed” is that they questioned many of the things that we merely accept as givens.  This might explain why they were able to endure great persecution; it allowed them to more fully assimilate the Christian message.  If we are to share their deep faith, then we can benefit greatly from questioning our assumptions.  One such assumption that seems foundational is the habit of speaking Our Lord’s action on the Cross as a sacrifice.  Yet, a disinterested observer (either Jew or Gentile) would have seen it merely as an execution carried out in the cruelest manner possible.  How then did the early Christians (and how do we) know it was a sacrifice?

In a culture that is removed from the idea of animal sacrifice, it is first necessary to say a few words about sacrifices in general.  It must be viewed as more than worship owed to God by offering something precious to Him through its death or destruction.  If we use the example given to us in the Old Testament we find that the sacrifices are not some arbitrary slaughtering of the herd, but a pre-arranged transaction between God and man.  Only certain types of sacrifices are pleasing to God and it is not just because of the “heart” of the person offering the sacrifice.  God seems to control nearly all the rubrics of man’s sacrifices.  This is not because He is the Divine control-freak, but because all the ancient sacrificial rites were meant to point and prepare for the definitive sacrifice.  Each sacrifice prescribed in the Old Testament is meant to serve as a type of this definitive sacrifice.  Therefore each of these types of sacrifices served to add clarity to and more fully reveal the definitive sacrifice when it occurs.

What this means specifically is that unless Christ’s death on the Cross was done in a ritualistic manner, then no one would say it was a sacrifice at all.  It is not enough for it to have obvious parallels to the Passover sacrifice such as none of His bones being broken, the time of His death being the same time the Passover lamb was slaughtered, and the blood and water after His death flowing out of His side as it did from the side of the Temple after the Passover sacrifice.   Any number of circumstances can always be explained away, especially when so much is at stake.  What makes it recognizable as the Sacrifice is the Institution of the Eucharist the night before.  It is God who institutes each of the covenantal sacrifices and gives them their meaning.  He is the One who appoints the priest, the victim and the manner of sacrifice.

Sacrifice of the Mass

Therefore it is the Eucharist that gives the sacrifice on the Cross its meaning and the sacrifice on the Cross gives the Eucharist its power.  The two are intrinsically linked and if we reject one, then we are apt to reject the other.  Herein lies the reason why Protestantism is necessarily false in all its forms—it rejects the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Catholics bear some responsibility for this rejection because we do not adequately understand this connection nor explain it accurately.

To understand the link, we must begin by making a very important distinction.  Within visible creation, God has created two orders—the natural and the Sacramental.  While they operate in parallel, they do not follow the same set of laws.  The natural realm consists of those things that our ordinary powers may operate upon.  The Sacramental realm operates on the level of signification.  But they are not like “natural” signs pointing to a thing but are instead perfect signs in that they contain and bring about the thing that they signify.

This principle is helpful because it allows us to add clarity to the notion of the “unbloody” Sacrifice of the Mass.  The essence of a sacrifice consists in the separation of the blood from the body the victim by the priest.  Experience tells us what this looks like in the natural realm.  But in the Sacramental realm it “looks” different and can only be seen through the eyes of faith.  Namely, the element of destruction that is found in natural sacrifices is absent.  Still the essence of the total separation of body and blood of the victim remains the same.

Operating in the Sacramental realm, the Body of Christ is really present through the words of consecration.  So too the Blood of Christ is made present.  And yet because they appear under two separated elements, one can rightly call it a sacrifice.  Recall that in the Sacramental realm the signs contain the thing they signify so that the Body of Christ is truly present separate from the Blood.  The sacrifice that occurs then also contains the historical event in which the natural Body and Blood were separated, namely the death on the Cross.  His sacrificial death is the separation of His Body and Blood and no less than this happens on the Altar during Mass.  But it happens in the Sacramental Realm so that it would be incorrect to say that Christ’s natural Body and Blood were separated again and that He is somehow sacrificed anew.  This Sacramental Sacrifice re-presents Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, but does not cause it to occur again.

There is a danger in all that I have said to think that the belief in the Real Presence is something of an add-on, but it too follows from grasping the difference in the natural and Sacramental realms and calling to mind the Hypostatic Union.  As human creatures, we have complete human natures and at the moment of creation we become persons.  This is not the case with the Incarnation.  The Eternal Son of God who was already a Person, took a complete human nature to Himself.  In that way He is a Divine Person with two natures, human and divine.  Related to the matter at hand, when Christ died on the Cross, His soul separated from His body.  Yet, both of these parts of His human nature remained united to Him.  When His soul descended to the Hades, it was the Person Who performed the action.  While His Body lay in the tomb, it was still united to Him and He is said to have rested in the tomb.  What this means for our investigation is that when Christ’s Body is made sacramentally present, the Person is made present along with it.  They cannot be separated.  So too with the Blood.  This means that the Person of the Son is really present in the Eucharist under both kinds.  But He does not appear as in his natural state with a body, but instead in His Sacramental state under the appearance of bread and wine.  Still, and this bears repeating, His Presence is just as real as when He was with God in the Beginning, walked the face of the earth, rose from the dead, etc.

Seeing the Eucharist as simultaneously Sacrament and sacrifice has a direct bearing on the current debate regarding Remarried and the Eucharist.  By looking at it only as a Sacrament, there appears to be little benefit to those in irregular marriages.  However when we emphasize its sacrificial character we realize it is a benefit not only to the one receiving but to all present (more specifically in the Church).  This is why protecting its sacred character helps not just those receiving but all those in the Church.

In conclusion, it seems that there is a greater need to preach the link between Calvary and the Mass not just for apologetical purposes, but also because it has a great effect on personal devotion.  The Eucharist is the “source and summit of our faith” because the Cross too is the source and summit.

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.

 

The Effects of Matrimony

In her excellent book, Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell quotes some alarming statistics regarding the Church in the United States.  One in particular bears mention and that is the number of marriages celebrated in the Church has decreased by 60 percent since 1972.  What makes this alarming is not only that the number of  Sacramental Marriages has decreased, but instead it signals a divorce between marriage and its sanctifying effect in many people’s minds.  This essay offers some reflections in this regard.

All the sacraments confer sanctifying grace but each one also has special graces attached to it called sacramental graces.  Matrimony (for ease of use, I will use the term “Matrimony” to refer to the Marriage that is sacramentally constituted) is no different in this regard.

Nowhere else is the dictum that “grace perfects nature” more visible than in Matrimony.  Marriage is part of man’s constitution “in the beginning.”  Man and woman by nature are drawn to it.  Yet in our fallen state, the relationship between the spouses is marked by strife and division.  The conjugal instinct, that is the desire to give of oneself fully to another person remains, but it becomes tainted with selfishness and division (Gn 3:16).  By wedding Himself to mankind in the Incarnation, God has come to heal this division and make it a living sign of His relationship with the Church, His Bride (Eph 5:22-33).  This visible sign, constituted as a Sacrament, becomes an infallible means of sanctification.

It is important to make two key distinctions at this point.  While the Sacrament of Marriage requires only that the man and woman be baptized and exchange consent (and that there are no impediments like already being married, age, etc.) in order to be valid, this does not mean that its sanctifying effects are felt by all.  Matrimony is referred to as a “Sacrament of the Living” meaning that its effects remain bound when the spouses are not in a state of grace (or fall into sin during the marriage).

The second distinction has to do with the nature of the Sacrament itself.  The sanctifying grace is not simply given on the day of the wedding.  Instead this Sacrament is continually exercised by the spouses and is a means of ongoing sanctification.  Each instance of self-giving love causes the spouses to grow in conformity to Christ.  This does not mean “great” acts of service and love only, but the very simple domestic acts all married couples must deal with.  In other words, every moment of married life causes holiness in both the husband and the wife.  Rather than division and competition, the spouses strive “to outdo one another in love and honor” (Romans 12:10).

Stain Glass Marriage

When seen as a source of sanctifying grace, the demands of marriage ought to be viewed in a positive light.  The harder the trials, the greater the merit.  The harder the trials, the more each spouse becomes a source of sanctification for the other.  Rather than running from or avoiding trials, the spouses can embrace them with the surety that they are being “made holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).

Like Baptism and Holy Orders, Matrimony constitutes a person in a state of life.  When God calls to a state of life, He also equips.  What makes the sacramentality so important is that it gives the recipient a continuing right to the sacramental graces needed for the faithful performance of the duties of married life.  In other words, it is not just that God gives sacramental graces, but that He has set up the sacramental system such that He is obliged to give them.  From our perspective this means that we can absolutely expect to receive these graces.

What are the sacramental graces attached to Matrimony?  In short, they are the graces that in some way or another act against the pitfalls of marriage in a fallen world.  Before examining these sacramental graces it is necessary to stress that marriage in a fallen world between one man and one woman for life is a practical impossibility.  For two people to be united such that they are one flesh (loving the other as they do their own bodies) and yet with no reduction in their personality is humanly impossible.  But with God, all things are possible.  This is what makes the numbers quoted in the introduction so alarming.  We cannot save marriage as an institution on our own.  Only the Church can save the institution of marriage by showing forth the splendor of Sacramental Marriage.  Without accesses to the Sacramental Graces and the awareness that they are available, more and more marriages will fail.

In paragraph 1607 of the Catechism, the rupture of the original communion of man and woman was manifested in three ways:

  • Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations;
  • Their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust.
  • The beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work.

With these three effects of the Fall, we can consider three specific Sacramental graces.  Msgr. Cormac Burke in his new book The Theology of Marriage goes into these in detail, but a summary here follows.

First, there is the grace to overlook the other spouse’s defects.  All too often, marriage suffers because of the quirks and character faults of the two spouses.  Being yoked to someone who has some particular faults that you are bound to find annoying (at the least) can be extremely taxing.  Insert into this the presence of the Accuser who hates marriage and seizes on the smallest faults in our spouses in order to stir up the embers of hatred, and marriage is in danger.  To counter this tendency, God gives us the graces needed to dwell on the positive characteristics of our spouses and to forgive as He forgives.

Second, the spouses are given the Sacramental Grace to purify sexual love.  In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI speaks of, despite objections from the more secularly minded  to the contrary, Christ’s role in purifying sexual love (eros).  He says that “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns” (DCE, 4).  He goes on to say how Christianity purifies eros so that it becomes one with agape (that is “gift love”).  This happens most especially through Matrimony.  Yet the conjugal instinct, because it is so powerful, must also be tempered even in marriage and used in the right ways at the right time.  Christ, through Matrimony, gives to the spouses the power of conjugal chastity.

Finally, Matrimony also bestows the grace to live out “the vocation of man and woman.” This is related to more than just “gender roles” but to see the truth of sexual complementarity.  As Msgr. Burke points out, “complementarity implies that each sex can be a humanizing inspiration and guide to personal growth and maturity for the other.”  Something is seriously wrong in a marriage when the spouses are incapable of evoking a sexual response in each other.  This response is not just physical but means that a wife should admire her husband’s particularly masculine qualities which she very likely lacks in equal measure just as a husband should admire his wife’s particularly feminine qualities which he likely lacks in equal measure.  Men tend to have virtues related to being “thing” oriented and therefore have a greater aptitude for technical aspects of life.  Women tend to lack these qualities by nature and can learn from men how to acquire them.  Women on the other hand often have virtues that are more relational in nature.  Men tend to lack these qualities and therefore needs to emulate his wife in order to be more completely a person.  This is what we mean when we speak of complementarity—it is not just a matter of a physical coupling but by discovering and acquiring truly human values that are characteristic of the other sex.  This is why man (and woman) needs a “helper fit for him” (Gn 2:18).  Of course this only happens when men are truly masculine and women truly feminine.  As Msgr. Burke says, “When a man truly runs as a man, he provokes his wife’s admiration; and she, when she runs as a woman, provokes his.  Further, the more a woman the wife is, the more she motivates the husband to be a man; and vice versa.  Sexual excellence stimulates emulation.”

While it is in vogue to blame the problems in marriage on the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the Church saw these problems coming long before the Revolutionaries struck.  When Pope Pius XI wrote Casti Connubii in 1930, Marriage was already in decline because of the self-absorbing gravity of contraception.  He wrote that “When we consider the great excellence of chaste wedlock, Venerable Brethren, it appears all the more regrettable that particularly in our day we should witness this divine institution often scorned and on every side degraded” (CC 44).  The Pontiff’s prescient words are more appropriate today.  The Church needs to once again proclaiming “the great excellence” of Sacramental Marriage and offer this most precious gift to those who have turned away from the Church.

The Keep Fit Sacrament

What do you call the Sacrament by which we confess our sins to a priest and through the power given by Christ to the Church, he offers us absolution?  Very often, you can learn a lot about someone by the answer they give.  Someone who wants to emphasize the positive aspects of the Sacrament will call it “The Sacrament of Reconciliation.”  Those who go regularly tend to call it “The Sacrament of Confession.”  And then those who have more legalistic tendencies call it “The Sacrament of Penance.”  Yet the Church refers to the Sacrament using all three terms and she does so in order to highlight something very important about the effects of sin and the power of the Sacrament.

While sin is first and foremost a transgression against the law of God, its effects always lay in three dimensions.  First it alienates us from God and thus we need the Sacrament of Penance to correct this.  Second it separates us from our neighbor and therefore there is a need for Reconciliation to reunite with the community.  Finally, by sin we ultimately harm ourselves and therefore the need for Confession to accuse ourselves before our conscience.

Interestingly enough, it seems that in today’s climate the emphasis is on calling it Reconciliation even though we often fail to see how our sin hurts the Church.  We’ve all heard that there is no such thing as a private sin, but we do not really understand how this is so.  It might be easy to see how a mortal sin cuts you off from the Church, but what about just a tiny venial sin (if such a thing exists)?   Why is reconciliation necessary?

Looking at what we actually forfeit when we commit a venial sin makes it clearer.  Each time we fall, we deprive ourselves of sanctifying grace.  But this is not just about our own personal holiness.  As members of the Church, we have an obligation towards the other members of the Church to be as holy as possible.  Each grace that we forfeit is a grace that God intended for everyone to benefit from.  By not being as holy as we should be, we deprive others of the grace that we were to be channels of.  In fact not only do we have an obligation, but the other members of the Church have a right to demand we be as holy as we should be.  This is why petty jealousy has no room in the Church—the holier each other member is, the holier I will be.

This is what makes the image of the Church as the Body of Christ so instructive.  When an organ is not as healthy as it should be, then it hurts the whole body.  It even hurts the functioning of some of the other parts as well.  An organ that is healthy adds to the health of the other members.

To remain healthy, organs need continual nourishment.  This comes to the members of the Mystical Body through the Eucharist.  But nourishment is not enough to maintain optimal health.  Our organs also are prone to decay and need tonics in order to remain healthy.  So too the members of the Mystical Body need to regularly receive the tonic of frequent confession in order to remain healthy.  How can we receive this tonic fruitfully?

With this background in mind, Pope Pius XII in his encyclical on the Church, Mystici Corporis Christi, recommended to the faithful the practice of frequent confession.  Speaking specifically against those who said there is no benefit to the frequent Sacramental confession of venial sins he said “[T]o hasten daily progress along the road to virtue we wish the pious practice of frequent confession to be earnestly advocated. Not without inspiration of the Holy Spirit was this practice introduced into the Church…By it genuine self-knowledge is increased — Christian humility grows — bad habits are corrected — spiritual neglect and tepidity are countered — the conscience is purified — the will is strengthened — a salutary self-control is attained — and grace is increased in virtue of the sacrament itself” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 88).

To be clear, if you are conscious of having committed mortal sin (or even if you are questioning whether it is or not) then you should go to Confession immediately.  But what the Pope is advocating is frequent confession as a means to fight venial sins and climb the heights of sanctity quickly.

This obviously requires a paradigm shift.  Many of us (perhaps because of a bad experience or our own hang-ups) look upon Confession as a wholly bad thing, rather than a holy good thing.  We should see the Sacrament of Confession as a positive thing rather than as something to be dreaded.  All Sacraments are encounters with the Risen Christ and therefore we should not fear to encounter Him there.  There is necessarily some shame because sin is always shameful, but that shame is healthy.  It can also be offered to the Sacred Heart for the shame and humiliation of being scourged and crowned with thorns.  We also should experience some nervousness.  Who wouldn’t be nervous coming into the presence of the One Who is Goodness to accuse ourselves of failing in our own pursuit of goodness?  But both these quickly are washed away in the Blood that is poured over us during the words of absolution.

confessional

It is also worthwhile to highlight some of the benefits that Pius XII mentions.  So often we fall into the trap of thinking that the Sacrament is merely about accusing ourselves before God.  But that is truly a small part of it where frequent confession is concerned.  In fact for the Sacrament to be valid we need only confess a single venial sin for which we are sorry.  Instead the focus ought to be to stir up contrition.  Contrition is the sorrow of soul for sin committed and a firm purpose not to commit it again and grow in the virtue of penance.  By the sacrament our wills are strengthened and our purposes of amendment firmer.  This all comes from the grace of the Sacrament.

This is also why we should not grow discouraged when we continually have the same sins to confess.  Each time we confess it, it makes our contrition more perfect.  This is what makes Confession such a beautiful gift.  It is impossible for us not to commit sin in this life (Council of Trent) but it is possible for us to have perfect sorrow for those sins we do commit.  If it is true that “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than the righteous man who is in no need of repentance” then we know that the God of Mercy takes great pleasure in bestowing the gift of contrition upon us.

It was mentioned that you need only confess a single venial sin (again assuming no mortal sin) in order for the Sacrament to be valid (meaning all our venial sins are absolved, confessed or not).  This leads to another important thing to consider in drawing the optimal fruit from the Sacrament as to what we should confess.  We should not come to the Sacrament with a laundry list of sins, but instead those faults that we are actively trying to conquer.  This is warfare 101.  Our enemies, the world, the devil and the flesh, will never be conquered if we fire scatter shot over their lines.  Instead, like every good soldier in battle, we should take a divide and conquer approach.  Once we have conquered the dominant vice and replaced it with its opposing virtue, we can then move on to the next one.  Included in the things we should confess as well are things that we are particularly sorry for and those things that we had previously conquered and have moved back into our lives.  Even the sins of our past life that have already been confessed but still hold some appeal to us can be material for confession.  Again, if one of the fruits is to stir up contrition then we can more fully express our sorrow for those sins.

This brings up one final point and that is the necessity for a methodical approach to our daily examination.  We should focus on one thing in particular and see how we did for the day.  Then we can look at the rest of our day.  Writing what we discover down in a small notebook will enable us to see our patterns more clearly and also give us the material to make a good confession next time we go.  Unless you have not been in a while or are making a general confession, we should avoid using Examination of Conscience material found in prayer books.  All too often this leads us to examine someone else’s conscience and not our own.  As Pius XII mentioned with the fruit of increased self-knowledge that comes from regular confession we will also be able to examine ourselves better.

In closing, let us all take advantage of this Keep Fit Sacrament and invoke the aid of St. Gemma Galgani for a good confession this weekend:

My crucified God, behold me at Your feet. Do not reject me, a poor sinner, as I appear before You. I have offended You much in the past, my Jesus, but in the future I resolve to sin no more. My God, I put all my sins before You.  I have considered them and realize they do not deserve Your pardon. But I beg of you to cast one glance upon Your sufferings and see how great is the worth of that Precious Blood that flows from your veins. My God, at this hour close Your eyes to my want of merit and open them to Your infinite merits. Since You, dear Jesus, have been pleased to die for my sins, grant me forgiveness for them all, that I may no longer feel their heavy burden, which presses me to the earth. My Jesus, help me, for I desire to become good, no matter what it may cost. Take away, destroy, root out completely all that You find in me that may be contrary to Your holy Will. At the same time I beg You, O Jesus, to enlighten me, that I may be able to walk in Your holy light.

Finding the Thread

In its Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council presented an integrated vision of the two fonts of Revelation, namely Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.  For many Catholics however, the font of Sacred Scripture has been reduced to a steady drip.  In a cultural milieu in which we have grown accustomed to deferring to the “expert,” Christians have left the reading and interpretation of Scripture to so called “Scripture Scholars.”  But Scripture is not just the ramblings of an absent God sending (now outdated) messages to His people.  Instead it is meant to play an active role in the life of every believer.  God’s plan of salvation is by no means complete and through His Providential care the Scriptures remain “living and active” (Heb 4:12).  In order for us to turn the trickle into a torrent, we must commit to engaging the Scriptures with regularity.  To this end, I find no more important interpretive key to unlocking the Scriptures than the idea of Covenant.

We need look no further than how we divide the Bible to see the importance of covenant to the plan of salvation.  The word “Testament” is an imperfect rendering of the word “covenant” (Hebrew berit, Greek diatheke).  Despite the difference in terms, it should not obscure the fact that the concept of covenant is central to biblical thought.

Although you will not find the term “covenant” defined within Sacred Scripture itself, recent research into ancient covenants in the biblical world has led to scholars defining covenants as “a widespread legal means by which duties and privileges of kinship may be extended to another individual or group” (Protestant scholar Frank Moore Cross’ definition).  Although similar to a contract in its nature, a covenant is distinct.  As Scott Hahn is fond of saying, “a contract involves an exchange of goods, whereas a covenant involves an exchange of persons.”  In essence, covenants form families.  This is why marriage, until recently, was viewed as the primordial covenant by most people.  In exchanging vows in a covenantal marriage ceremony the spouses are exchanging themselves and thus form a family that cannot be dissolved.  A contractual view of marriage merely agrees to share everything while they are married and split it equitably upon dissolution—unless there is a pre-nup.  It is also why God uses the imagery of marriage for His relationship with mankind (c.f Is 62.5, John 3:22) and the Church herself is so solicitous to protect a true understanding of marriage.

How a covenant was made is also important.  The central act of the covenant making was the swearing of an oath by the parties.  The oath invoked God (or the gods) to inflict some curse on its swearer if he does not uphold his obligations.  It also called upon God for his help in keeping it.  It was usually followed up with a common meal to seal the new relationship.  The meal is meant to signify a sharing of life together because food is a source of life.  As an aside, we see why families eating meals together is so important.  They are truly sacramental (small ‘s’) in that they bring about what they signify—the sharing of food as a source of life leads to the strengthening of that shared life.

A good example of a covenant is found in Genesis 26:27-31.  Here Isaac is approached by a supposed enemy Abimelech and the two make a covenant not to do harm to each other (vv28-29).  They share a meal (v.30) and swear the sacred oaths (v.31) before taking leave of each other.  But this covenant is meant only to be a type of the divine Covenant that God makes with mankind.

Divine covenants act as threads that weave all of the Books of the Bible together.  All total, God makes seven covenants with mankind, each mediated by a different person.  Not coincidentally, the number seven in Hebrew literally means to swear an oath (c.f. Genesis 21).  Each of these covenants contain a liturgical form around their swearing and extend God’s family to more of mankind.  Each contains blessings and curses and each contains a sign that acts as a renewal.

Although the word “covenant” is never used explicitly in the Creation account (Hos 6:7 says “Like Adam, Israel transgressed the covenant”), God makes a covenant with all mankind through Adam.  Once the stipulations of that Covenant are broken (refrain from the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil—Gn 2:16-17), God re-establishes a covenant with Noah (c.f. 6:18).  This covenant He then renews that covenant with Noah (Gn 6:18) and his family.  From there he extends the covenant to Abraham and his descendants (there are two covenants here) and then to Israel through Moses and David.  Each of these covenants should be viewed as cumulative, each building on the previous one and inviting more people into the familial bond.  Finally, there is the final or “New” Covenant that is Christ, including all mankind through the Church.

Notice that I didn’t say that the New Covenant is mediated through Christ but instead that the New Covenant is Christ.  It certainly is mediated through Him, but not in the same way as the others.  He brings all the blessings of the covenants to the new People of God which is the Church (we are a new creation because of the new Adam Gal 6:15) and takes all the curses of the previous covenants upon Himself (e.g. Israel deserved death for breaking the covenant in Ex 24:8 when they worshipped the golden calf in Ex 32:14 but the price was paid by Christ Himself for Israel in Heb 915).  It is in His name that all mankind is saved.  He, Who is the true Son of God, turns us into adopted sons.

That Christ was instituting this New Covenant at the Last Supper is obvious to anyone who reads the Institution narratives (c.f. Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25).  But I do not think the implications of it are as obvious unless we understand some of the above covenantal theology.  In my opinion a greater understanding of the covenantal nature of salvation history points to an important truth about the Catholic Church as the one true Church formed by Christ.

daVinci-Last Supper

If Christ was making a new covenant between God and mankind then one must be led to the question of how one enters into this Covenant.  To enter into the Old Covenant, a man must have been circumcised (women were Jewish by birth).  St. Paul tells the Colossians that Baptism is the “Circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11-12).  This points to the necessity of baptism to enter into a covenant with God and explains why Catholics universally advocate infant baptism.  By being baptized, one enters into the New Covenant by putting on Christ.  We literally enter the family of God by being sacramentally conformed to His Son.

But there is an even more important tie to the Eucharist.  Recall what Christ said over the chalice—“this chalice is the new covenant in my blood.”  It isn’t His death on the Cross, but the chalice that is the new covenant in His blood.  Now certainly His death and resurrection are necessary to make His blood efficacious for giving new life, but it is the chalice itself that is the new covenant.

We now begin to see why the Church sees the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life.  The Church ratifies the Covenant with God each time the Eucharist is consecrated and establishes her power to invite others into this covenant family through baptism.  It also is more than a mere sign.  In human covenants a non-material consanguinity is established between the partners.  While this creates a communion between the parties, they still do not have the same blood flowing through their veins.  But in the Eucharist a true communion greater than any human covenant is created.  God and man now truly have the same blood flowing through their veins.  We partake of the blood of Jesus and have the blood of true sons within us.  As Pope Benedict said in his Holy Thursday homily in 2009, “Can we now form at least an idea of what happened at the hour of the Last Supper, and what has been renewed ever since, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist? God, the living God, establishes a communion of peace with us, or to put it more strongly, he creates “consanguinity” between himself and us. Through the incarnation of Jesus, through the outpouring of his blood, we have been drawn into an utterly real consanguinity with Jesus and thus with God himself.”

Herein lies the profound truth and necessity of the Catholic Church.  Where else does one find all the means necessary to enter into and renew the New Covenant?  Notice how the Mass fulfills all the aspects—liturgical, familial and legal—of the covenant-making ceremony outlined in Exodus 24.  It is the liturgy in which the sacrifice is offered while invoking the Lord.  The familial bond is shown through the shared meal between God and His people.  The oath is expressed in each of our Amens and the pouring out of the blood.

May the Blood of Jesus, poured out for me, flow through my veins!

 

Who’s the Boss?

If I was to pick one absolutely unique American principle, it would be a disdain for authority.  It seems almost to be at the heart of the American founding.  While this has led to some of the things that made our country great, when taken to an extreme can lead to its downfall.  It seems this anti-authoritarian attitude permeates nearly every aspect of society.  There is perhaps no other area where it has done more damage than in the family.  In ceremoniously rejecting anything traditional as outdated, we may unwittingly be causing the downfall of society as a whole.  If we are to stop this downward spiral we must restore a proper understanding of authority in marriage.

In order to see this as anything more than a sentimental longing for a patrimony long obsolete, we must be convinced that authority within marriage is necessary.  To see its necessity we should recognize the family (of which marriage is the foundation) as the primordial society.  It is the society that all further societies presuppose.  All societies have as their aim the good of their members (or common good).   In order to achieve any particular good, all the members must be acting towards it (or at least not against it).  This only happens in two ways.  Either “everyone is on the same page” as to what is good or there must be an authority figure whose judgment is final.    There is no other way if anything is ever to get done because the judgment about a particular good has two aspects—whether the thing itself is good and what good things to use to bring it about.  In other words it is not enough to merely agree on whether the end is good, you must also agree on the means you will use to get there.  Short of agreement on every aspect of a particular action, any society needs authority (even if it is somehow exercised democratically).

The family is no different.  There must be an authority structure for the sake of the common good.  Parents must have authority over children and the husband must have authority over the wife.  An example will help to clarify.  Suppose both a husband and a wife agree on the good of education for their child.  Suppose further that after much discussion they are locked in disagreement as to which school to send the child to.  Both have good and valid reasons for their choices that the other does not agree with.  How can they proceed?  If this was an isolated incident then certainly they could come up with a compromise or even draw straws.  But the fact of the matter is that in marriage there are a lot of ties to be broken.  No matter how good and holy two people are, they cannot always agree as to how to accomplish something good.  That is the nature of good things—there usually is more than one way to achieve them, one of which may be better than another.  They have to have a principle by which they can “break the tie.  One person having the authority breaks the tie always.

Why does it have to be the husband that “wears the pants”?  To see why the husband has authority we have to be willing to submit to the authority of Sacred Scripture.  This means we have to stop running away from the difficult section of Ephesians 5 and confront it head on.  Specifically, “[W]ives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.   For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church…” (Eph 5:22-23).  No matter how we attempt to twist these by substituting different translations for the word “subordinate” we are still stuck with the command that the husband is head of the wife.  This means that just as Christ has authority over the Church so too the husband over the wife.  This is the divinely ordered nature of the family—the husband is head of the wife.

It is also important that we understand what is not being put forth here.  This is not meant to say that men have a natural authority over women in general.  There is nothing in the Church’s teaching that says that.  This model of authority is only for the sake of the family and does not apply to other societies.  They have their own authority structures that allow women authority over men and vice versa.  Although this has been used as justification in the past for men to lord over women in general, that was never the intent.  And even if it was ab-used doesn’t mean we throw out its proper use in marriage.

marriage certificate

But it has also been abused within marriage as well.  This is why marriage is a Sacrament, even for those who do not believe it is a Sacrament  (as an aside two people who are baptized and exchange valid consent become ministers of the Sacrament of Matrimony) because fallen man has a tendency to “lord it over his wife” (Gn 3:16).  Christ came to undo all the effects of the Fall and through the Sacrament of Marriage He infuses the grace needed to live out this otherwise impossible situation.  In other words the husband is given a grace of office as husband to exercise his authority in the same way that Christ does.  In the same way one of the graces of the office of wife is obedience to her husband.  This is no mere blind obedience due to her “urge for her husband” (Gn 3:16) but because she knows he is truly exercising his authority under the inspiration of grace.

The abuse of authority I think only gets worse in a culture of divorce.  Most obviously there are many people who are not validly married, even if they live as though they are.  They miss these necessary graces to live out Matrimony according to Christ’s model.  But the ease of divorce also causes us to not discern the call to marriage well.  If it is easy to get out of a mistake, then we are more likely to make the mistake.  But when it is difficult, we discern better.  Specifically women will better ask themselves whether the man they are about to marry is the type of man she would want to obey because she knows he is always going to have her best interest at heart.  Likewise men will ask the question that I was advised to ask by the priest who did our Pre-Cana, “is this the women that you can spend the rest of your life making a gift of yourself to?”

The most important thing to consider is what this authority actually looks like.  When St. Paul speaks of the husband and wife subordinating themselves to each other, he means they should view each other as equals.  This means first and foremost that the husband’s authority is not paternal.  He does not treat her as one of his children or discipline her the way a father does a child.  His authority should be exercise mainly through service (again remember Christ is the model).  He should lead by being the first to serve even to the point of exhaustion.

It should not be arbitrary and should be exercised with great reverence for the wife.  It also needs to be used prudentially and with great caution.  It should never be played like a trump card that in essence says “we can talk about this all you want, but ultimately it is my decision and I have already made it.”  It should truly only be exercised when it is the last means to “breaking a tie.”   To micro-manage your wife’s behavior under the pretense of authority is an abuse of it.  The wife for her part should expect this from her husband and she must respect the times when he does exercise it necessarily.  She needs to be faithful to her own vows to obey her husband.  Although this is less common today, the wife also needs to act like a full partner and not look to her husband to make every decision for her.

Perhaps after all this, one might say, “I see the point, but what we do works for us.”  I contend that one of the reasons why family life has suffered so greatly in recent decades is because we have ceased to live out the divinely planned ordering for the family that includes the authority of the husband and father.  It may appear to “work for us” but appearances can be deceiving especially because authority has a spiritual component to it as well.  The husband must also be the spiritual head of the household.  When he does this through charity, prayer and suffering for his wife and family, he merits great graces for them.  Also, by accepting the God-given order of the family, he opens the flow of grace for the whole family.  Likewise the wife when she is willing to obey merits great graces for the family because she accepts God’s plan.  The children too in obeying both of their parents equally do the same.

When this natural ordering of the family is upset, this makes room for the demonic to enter.  This is because demons are very legalistic and where they find a vacuum in God-given authority they have room to operate.  Husbands and wives, either individually or both, who fail to submit themselves to Christ’s plan open the family up to the demonic.  The wife has a right to spiritual protection from her husband and when either fails in authority/obedience (rightly) that protection is lost.  The husband is not just the physical protector of the family but also meant to be the spiritual protector as well—in fact more so.  The number of exorcisms that are being performed on wives and children is on the rise and so, at least empirically, the rejection of this model is doing great spiritual harm.  The only solution is the “traditional” one—“As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.”  Ultimately, there is no other way.