Category Archives: Saints

The Terror of Demons

When St. Pius X officially sanctioned the Litany of St. Joseph in 1909, he acknowledged him to be both the Patron of the Dying and the Protector of Holy Church.  It was Pope Pius IX who first invoked him under the title of Patron of the Universal Church and he did so because dedicated his life to safeguarding the two most important members of the Church, Our Lord and Our Lady.  Tradition also names him Patron of the Dying because he died the most blessed of all deaths in the presence of the same two whom he had so vigilantly protected during his earthly sojourn.  But it is the title that bridges St. Joseph’s dual patronage, Terror of Demons, which constitutes his most active roles in the lives of individual Christians.  There is a danger of seeing the litany as merely a catalogue of things that St. Joseph can do; the carpenter who is the jack of all trades.  These last three titles have an interconnectedness that stocks our personal arsenal in times of great trial.  In truth, they arm us for the greatest of trial each of us will face, death.

All of the spiritual masters of old suggest that we reflect upon death regularly, not just to know about it, but to remember it.  They do so not just because it helps keep things in their proper perspective, but because it is the moment when our souls are in the greatest peril of being lost.  During our lives, the great majority of us see the devil as the Cheshire Cat but for all of us he will reveal himself fully  as the prowling lion intent on the ruin of our soul (1 Pt 5:8).  When his time is short, his wrath is greatest (Rev 12:12).

Why the Battle is So Fierce

Why this time of trial is so severe may not be entirely clear so that by adding some clarity we can steel ourselves for those inevitable moments.  Through His death and resurrection, Christ destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).  But He did not take away death, but instead freed us from “the fear of death” (Heb 2:15).  Death itself is the last enemy to be destroyed (c.f. 1Cor 15:26) and still remains the playground of the Devil.  Just as in the rest of life, the devil is given power because it provides matter for our growth in the theological virtues.  On the cusp of death our faith and hope are sorely tried and through their fervent exercise provide a growth in our desire for God, “having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, which is much better” (Phil 1:23).

By freeing us from the fear of death Our Lord not only gives us a share in His victory but empowers us to make the victory our own.  Thrust into spiritual combat with the devil, the faithful are enabled to defeat the “strong man.”  Our Lord’s victory on the Cross does not merely defeat the devil, but destroys him (c.f. Heb 2:14).  That is, He renders Satan’s power at the time of death ultimately ineffective.  To be defeated by the Word made flesh is one thing, but to be defeated by hairless bipeds is quite another.  Satan’s destruction comes about because he can no longer bind severely handicapped human creatures.  Through the mysterious action of grace each of us can truly say that the victory is mine.

Armed for the Final Battle

The Church was given the power to arm the faithful for this final battle through the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  The Council of Trent says that among the effects of the Sacrament is the power to “resist more easily the temptations of the devil who lies in wait for his heel” (Council of Trent, Session 14).  While the Sacrament bestows this power ex opere operato, the effect within the individual believer depends upon his subjective disposition to receive the grace.

By anticipating the fronts on which the attacks are likely to occur, we can be better prepared for the ensuing battle.  It is our faith and hope that are put to the test during this final battle and so we need to examine how these two virtues are tried—faith through doubt and credulity and hope through despair and presumption.  In his book, Spiritual Combat, the 16th Century author Dom Lorenzo Scupoli examines these four areas and gives some tips to make us battle ready.

In his attacks against faith he will attempt to stir up anxiety about what is to come by planting the seeds of doubt about the faith of the Church in our minds.  The battle is not however to have a ready defense so as to argue.  Our Lord’s temptation in the desert reveals the Devil to be a liar and a sophist and able to twist and distort even the most blatant of lies.  Instead we must have the interior habit of faith—a firm clinging to the truth of all that the Church teaches.  The more ingrained that habit is, the stronger will be our defense.  In any regard we are to offer no pearls to the demonic swine.  As Scupoli says, “if the subtle serpent demands of you what the Catholic Church believes, do not answer him, but seeing his device, and that he only wants to catch you in your words, make an inward act of more lively faith.  Or else, to make him burst with indignation, reply that the holy Catholic Church believes the truth; and if the evil one should ask in return, ‘What is truth?’ you reply, ‘That which she believes.’”

The devil will also tempt us towards credulity through false visions.  Knowing the likelihood of an attack on this front, we should turn away from any visions in humility by seeing ourselves as unworthy of visions.  Even if they turn out to be true, God ultimately is pleased with our humility and therefore will not hold it against us.  Instead acts of trust are to be made in the mercy of Jesus and the prayers of Our Lady and St. Joseph.

 

The second front by which the demonic sortie is likely to come is by attacking hope.  Our past sins will be thrown at us all with the goal of despairing for our salvation.  Humility and trust in the blood of Christ are the weapons of choice.  Remembrance of past sins is a grace when it is accompanied by sorrow for having offended God and humility.  But when these thoughts unsettle you, they come from the Wicked One.  True sorrow is a gift of the Sacrament of Confession and will bear great fruit in this time of trial.  Genuine humility, borne out in the crucible of the humiliations of life is a steady shield.  To the extent that we develop these virtues now, they will be ready at hand in the time of trial.

Scupoli says that presumption is the final battle arena.  In the face of despair there is always the temptation to begin to list all of our merits.  In the face of this, Scupoli says we should “base yourself ever more and more in your own eyes, even to your last breath; and of every good deed done by you, which may come before you, recognize God Alone for its Author. Have recourse to Him for help, but do not expect it on account of your own merits, however many and great be the battles in which you have been victorious. Ever preserve a spirit of holy fear, acknowledging sincerely that all your precautions would be in vain, if God did not gather you under the shadow of His wings, in Whose protection alone you will confide.”

The logic of the Litany of St. Joseph now comes into view.  If he is to be the Patron of a Happy Death, he necessarily must be a Terror of Demons.  It is his prayers specifically during our battle that make him the Terror of Demons, chasing them from us by the power of his mere presence.  By captaining the final battle of the members of the Church Militant, he is there to usher them into the Church Triumphant making the Church truly universal.  By fostering our own personal devotion to St. Joseph, we too may come to share in his inheritance.

Spreading Hope

 

During a September series between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in Dodger Stadium, Giants’ rightfielder Hunter Pence wore a necklace that contained the cremains of a devoted Dodgers’ fan, after the Dodgers refused the request to have the man’s daughter spread his ashes on the field.  The plea was one of many that the Dodgers and the rest of the MLB teams receive and routinely refuse yearly.  There is an ongoing campaign to develop a compromise of sorts in that the teams could allow on certain days a small amount of a person’s ashes to be spread on the field.  Setting aside the pragmatic reasoning, this decision ultimately represents an act of charity toward the dead and their loved ones.

The Book of Tobit reveals God’s pleasure in Tobit’s dogged persistence in burying the dead (Tobit 14:14) and it has long been considered a corporal work of mercy in the Christian tradition.  Understanding why God looks favorably upon this act however can help us to see the reason the Church insists that cremated remains not be scattered.

Spreading Faith

Christians have long seen death not as annihilation nor as the releasing of the soul from its incarceration in the body, but as having a fundamental positive meaning.  By being united to Christ’s death and resurrection in Baptism, the believer sees his own death in Christ as the pathway to a share in His glorious resurrection.  Like the resurrection of the Lord, the Christian’s is a bodily resurrection.  Our temporal bodies become as a seed of the body that will rise in glory (c.f. 1Cor 15:42-44).

This motivation helps to reveal the meaning of Christian burial.  If we really believe that our resurrected bodies are found in seed form in our earthly bodies, then our actions ought to reveal this.  Seeds must be buried and die so that new life may spring forth.   Christian burial is a sign of this; a sacrament that point to this reality.

Historically, pagans practiced funeral rites that included cremation, reflecting the widespread belief that there was no resurrection of the body.  Even when the pagans did practice burial (based on the belief that only when their bodies were buried could the soul rest), the Christians still buried their separately from the pagans because of the great difference in their understanding of the future resurrection.  It was this connection between paganism (and later certain secret societies and cults) and cremation that led the Church to remove it as an option for the faithful.

Considering some of the practical difficulties of burial in modern times (mostly exorbitant costs and decreasing space) the Church relaxed some of her restrictions on cremation when the new code of Canon Law was released in 1983.  Burial because of its nature as a sign remains the preferred method, but unless it is chosen for reasons contrary to Christian beliefs (i.e. a lack of belief in the resurrection of the body) then it is permitted when necessary (Canon 1176.3).  Cremation can testify to the omnipotence of God in raising up the deceased body to new life and therefore “in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (Piam et constantem, 5 July 1963).

The cremated remains of the person should always “be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery, or, in certain cases, in a church or an area which has been set aside for this purpose…” (Instruction Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of Ashes in the Case of Cremation, CDF, 2016).  This means that the ashes should never be scattered or preserved as mementos or pieces of jewelry.   To do any of these things would be testimony of pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.

Based on what has been said so far, one might be willing to concede that the prohibition on scattering ashes should be binding on Christians, but what about non-Christians?  In other words, what if the man whose remains Hunter Pence wore didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body?  How is insisting on his burial an act of charity to both he and his family?

Of particular mention as well is that whether or not someone believes in the resurrection of the body has no bearing on whether it is true.  It may be an article of faith but it is an article of true faith, and so we as Christians have an obligation to do all that we can to bear witness to this truth.  Burial or interment also constitutes an act of charity to the dead as well.  For the dead it creates a “monument” that serves as a reminder to the living to pray for the deceased.  It assures that they will not be forgotten.  One whose ashes have been scattered will soon be forgotten, perhaps not by their immediate loved ones, but to subsequent generations they will be as one blotted out.  By not spreading ashes, we are spreading hope.

Spreading Charity

This highlights the intrinsic connection between the corporal work of mercy, burying the dead, and the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the dead.  This is perhaps the “easiest” of all works of mercy but also the most often neglected.  To pray for the dead is a great act of charity especially considering that only Catholics do it.  Very likely that man whose remains were worn by the Giants’ outfielder and many others like him have no one to pray for him.  We may have no way of knowing how the person has been judged, but we always trust that God’s mercy is more powerful than any man’s sins.  And so we pray and by praying, ironically enough, repair the harm done by our own sins, reducing our own time in Purgatory.  Charity covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

Many of the souls in Purgatory spend more time there than they should for want of having someone to pray for them.  Therefore the Church Militant devotes a whole month of special focus to relieving their suffering and offers a plenary indulgence for the Holy Souls during the week of Nov 2-Nov 8 each year.  By way of reminder, one can obtain a plenary indulgence (one per day), when in a state of grace and with a complete detachment from sin, receive Holy Communion, pray for the intentions of the Pope and go to Confession within 20 days before or after the act (one Confession can cover all 7 days, but the other acts must be done daily).  One can gain this particular indulgence by, in addition to the above conditions, devoutly visiting a cemetery and praying for the departed, even if the prayer is only mental.

A partial indulgence for the Souls in Purgatory can be obtained when the Requiem aeternam is prayed. This can be prayed all year, but should be especially prayed during the month of November:

Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

 

 

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!

Idolizing the Saints

One of the earliest accusations leveled against the Church by the Protestant Revolutionaries was that, by their veneration of the Saints, Catholics were guilty of idolatry.  While there is no real threat of this for anyone with a proper understanding of the role of the Saints within the Church, there is a danger for all of us of idolizing them in such a way that they are no longer real.  As we celebrate the Feast of All Saints today, it is a good time to examine this tendency in greater depth.

Hagiography is by nature sensational.  The biographies of the saints, like the biographies of all great men and women throughout history, tend to focus only on those defining moments of their lives.  There is nothing wrong with this per se, provided that we always keep in the back of our mind their ordinariness.  God may have done something extraordinary with them, but it was only because they sought him in the ordinary.  Like their Master, they had “no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him” (Is 53:2).  Studying the lives of the saints is part of a healthy spiritual life, but we must always protect ourselves from the spiritual pitfalls that, if we are not careful, can ensnare us.

By idolizing them and forgetting their ordinariness, a golden maxim of the spiritual life can slip our mind.  In a fallen world, becoming a saint is messy.  It is never as clean as the Lives of the Saints makes it appear.  The Lives of the Saints regale us with their extraordinary penances, vigils, and wonders, but spares us the boredom of their daily lives. Saints had to deal with difficult people, even in their own family, and they didn’t always convert them.  The children of saints were not always angels, sorely trying their patience.  Saints had bad days.  This seems obvious but still is easy to forget.  Forget this and we will either live a life of virtual holiness or give in to discouragement.

all-saints

When we read the lives of the saints we are awed by their extraordinary lives of holiness as we should be.  We cannot help but to desire to imitate them.  But we should never try to imitate them in any of their habits until we have mastered one.  The Saints never ran ahead of Grace.  They always ran with it.  All the initiative that they took was in response to God’s grace.  They are proof not of human greatness but first and foremost of God’s greatness and how grace makes us into something we could never be otherwise.  If we are running ahead of grace we will see what they did, imitate it and live a life of virtual holiness.  Virtual holiness means living someone else’s vocation and not your own.  It may look good from the outside, but it is not real holiness.

Likewise, discouragement is also always lurking, especially when we realize that our lives don’t look like the idealized versions of the saints.  It finds its mark when we compare ourselves to those who are living the life of simulated holiness, pretending their lives are something other than they really are.  Many Catholics I know avoid social media precisely because they are discouraged by the apparent perfection of other Catholics who share only idealized versions of their lives.  I have often wondered whether 100 years from now when we read the writings of the saints of today whether there will be any Facebook posts or Twitter feeds among them.

How do we know the saints lived messy lives?  Because the means by which we are made into saints, i.e. the Cross, is messy.  It is heavy and we will sweat while carrying it.  It has splinters and is rough against our backs, causing us to bleed.  We will fall carrying it and very rarely look graceful doing so.  It is ugly and public, even if in an intimate way.  Jesus didn’t advertise His cross to everyone, but neither did He hide it from those “who looked upon Him Whom they had pierced” (Zech 12:10).  The Cross was for Christ something tangible and real, not something that He simply “spiritualized.”  The Cross for the Saints and those of us wannabe saints is also something tangible and messy.

This is why we should look to the Saints.  They are the ones who picked their crosses back up and kept going.  They ran the race and now sit as a Cloud of Witnesses spurring us on to carry our own.  And they kept going for one reason and one reason only—they trusted the One Who handpicked it for them.

The Son of God had no reason to endure what He endured except that He loved each one of us.  Everything He touched and did was made holy.  He picked up His cross so that our own crosses would be sanctified and sanctifying.  His Cross touches every other cross.  He kept going because He was sanctifying my cross and yours, knowing with joy that we would gain glory because of the path He set out.

rubens-simon-cyrene

Our crosses are participations in His Cross.  Like Simon of Cyrene we are invited to carry His Cross with Him.  It was only when Simon accepted the messiness of the Cross—the humiliation of carrying a criminal’s cross publicly, the worry that he might somehow be lumped in with the criminal or mistaken to be a criminal by someone he knew—that he found its sweetness.  Through his encounter with the Cross he wanted to be yoked to that criminal and even shared it with his sons Alexander and Rufus.

There is one further obstacle that bears mentioning and that is the distinction between what God wills and what He permits.  This is a very important distinction on the theological level, but if the Cross is any proof, it is a distinction that should remain on that level.  What He permits and what He wills are both part of His Providential plan.  He has foreseen all the evils and decided how He would use them.  God is so good that everything that comes in contact with Him, even evil, is put to good use.  Therefore on the practical level we should not be so quick to make this distinction but instead to see all has having passed through His hands.

Once we concede that holiness and messiness can coexist we can only conclude that it is actually the mess that makes us holy.  Whether the mess is one we have made ourselves or one that was imposed on us, it is what God has chosen for us here and now.  Because He wills at all times for our sanctification (1 Thes. 4:3), we should not try to avoid it, hide it, or pretend it doesn’t exist.  Instead “not my will but Thy will be done.”

This doesn’t mean that we passively resolve to take our licks, but amidst all our efforts to clean up the messes we have a continual Yes to God for our current predicament.  This clears the path for a true and lasting peace.  If I have done all I can to resolve the mess and it is still there then I can rest in the knowledge that God has given it to me.  If despite my best efforts, my son with Autism has a meltdown at the most embarrassing time then I can accept it with peace, knowing that God will not let that moment go to waste.  St. Paul was right, we can give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:18).

Christ did not come to take away our messes, but to sanctify them.  Life is messy and God is good.  This is the lesson we learn from the Saints.  Saints embraced their messes, drawing all that God had for them in it.  We would be blessed to do likewise.

Happy Feast of All Saints!

St. Francis and the New Age

Despite the fact that the Church marks the life of Francesco Bernadone by a “mere” Liturgical Memorial, he remains one of the most beloved saints.  Better known as St. Francis of Assisi, he has grown in popularity because he seems to be a saint belonging not to his own times, but ours.  As Chesterton says in his great biography “that St. Francis anticipated all that is most liberal and sympathetic in the modern mood; the love of nature; the love of animals; the sense of social compassion; the sense of the spiritual dangers of prosperity and even of property.”  Francis was a great lover of nature but he was also “spiritual.”  Because he was an ecclesiastical rebel, he was not particularly religious, or at least his modernized version wasn’t.  He became the patron saint of the New Age and like many believers in the New Age he was, “spiritual but not religious.”

To keep the beloved saint from being hijacked by the New Agers, it is important to point out that St. Francis loved those things because he loved the Person who made them.  He loved the poor because Jesus was poor and God is close to those who are poor.  In other words, St. Francis loved those things because he found God in all those things.

At this point, the New Ager might respond “Exactly.  St. Francis found that God is in everything.  That is why we don’t need religion.  We can find Him anywhere.”  And in this, we find the fundamental error in the New Age view of reality.  The New Age view is based upon a profound misunderstanding of what it means to say that God is in everything.  We need an understanding of this not only to refute New Age philosophy but to also develop a deeper understanding of Who God is for ourselves.  St. Thomas thought this idea so important for understanding Who God is, he tackles it at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae (Book I question 8).

To understand this, it is first important to define precisely what we mean by the term essence.  The essence of a created thing is what that thing is; what makes it to be that particular type of thing and not something else.  What the New Age believer says about God is that He is part of the essence of all things.  But because God is simple (i.e. cannot be divided into parts), then everything contains God they argue.  This is where the Church differs from the New Age believer.  Relying on the teachings of Aquinas, the Church says that God is in created things “but not as part of their essence.” Everything is not God.  When we say that God is in everything what we mean truly is that He is present to all things.

We must also make clear what we mean when we say that a spiritual substance is “in” something.  For example, what do we mean when we say that the soul is in the body?  It does not mean that it is found inside the body, but that it acts upon the body.  Death is when the body degrades to the point that the soul no longer can act upon it.  So too with God, we say that God is in something in the sense that He is acting upon it.  When we say that God is in everything what we mean truly is that He is present to all things.

francis_eucharist

He is present in two ways— as efficient cause in that He is Creator of all and as an object of operation in that He acts on them, holding them in creation.

An analogy will help.  When a man builds a chair, we often say that he put his heart into it.  In that way the builder is in the chair.  This analogously is what we mean by God being in creation in the first sense as the creator.  Now suppose that the chair breaks and he glues it together.  Suppose further that in order for the glue to set properly he has to apply weight by sitting in the chair.   This is the second sense in which we mean that God is in all things holding them together.

In both cases though, the man is not part of the chair itself.  This is very important.  He is not part of the chair’s chairness or essence.  He is in the chair as its creator and as the one holding it together.

In short, the Church teaches that God is transcendent in His nature and immanent in His Presence.  He is wholly other because He is God, He is wholly present as Being itself (“I AM WHO AM”).  In fact, it is only because He is transcendent in His nature that He can be present to all things at all times.  The difference between God and the world is not a spatial one, but modal.  God doesn’t occupy another space but His way of being is qualitatively different than creation.

Furthermore, God is not equally in all things.  To reject this doctrine is ultimately a rejection of the Incarnation and Christianity itself.  Christianity is founded upon the belief that God was most fully present in the created humanity of Jesus Christ.

Because man is an intellectual creature, God is more in him than the rest of visible creation.  Man is the only being in visible creation who has the capacity to know and love God.  In that way God is “in” man as an object known is in the knower and the desired object is in the lover.  This presence is not as perfect as the presence of God in man when he is in a state of grace; for grace is the very life of the Trinity and “adheres” to the human soul.  Sanctifying grace means that God acts directly upon the human soul, making all of its actions God-like.

Above it was mentioned in passing that God is most fully present, in the Incarnation.  He is really and truly present in the Person of Jesus Christ.  His human nature was the one thing in visible creation that contains the very essence of God.  The Eucharist, as the extension in time and space of Christ’s personal sacrifice on the Cross, also makes Him fully personally present.  While in the Incarnation His divinity remained hidden within the human nature of Christ, in the Eucharist not only His divinity remains hidden, but His humanity hides under the appearances of bread and wine.  Although hidden under these signs, He is no less present than He was when He walked the Earth.  This is what we mean when we say that the Eucharist contains the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.

Herein lies the problem with the effort to associate the New Age with St. Francis of Assisi—the Eucharist.  He may be remembered most for his love of animals and evangelical poverty, but his writings show his greatest love among all of Creation was for the Eucharist.  He believed in the Real Presence, not just intellectually, but with a heart that burned to adore Our Lord in the Eucharist.  In his Letter to All the Friars he implored his spiritual sons to “show all reverence and all honor possible to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom the things that are in heaven and the things that are on earth are pacified and reconciled to Almighty God.  I also beseech in the Lord all my brothers who are and shall be and desire to be priests of the Most High that, when they wish to celebrate Mass, being pure, they offer the true Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ purely, with reverence, with a holy and clean intention, not for any earthly thing or fear or for the love of any man, as it were pleasing men.”

The Little Way and Purgatory

When the Church canonizes a Saint it is not only their witness of life that is being acknowledged, but the Church is also canonizing their teachings as well.  In other words, the Saints are recognized as credible witnesses in both deed and word.  This makes perfect sense when we admit that sanity breeds sanctity and sanctity breeds sanity.  The Saints show us how the unchanging Gospel is to be understood and lived in ever-changing times.  In this regard, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow (Oct.1 ) is no different.  When he canonized her in 1925, Pope Pius XI said that “the Spirit of truth opened and made known to her what he usually hides from the wise and prudent and reveals to little ones; thus she enjoyed such knowledge of the things above… that she shows everyone else the sure way of salvation.”

When he declared her a Universal Doctor of the Church, Pope St. John Paul II said that her emphasis on the Gospel message of the Little Way gives her an “exceptional universality.”  Her Little Way is based on an equally radical trust in God’s goodness and her own nothingness.  She saw within herself a great desire for holiness that she insists God would not have placed there unless He planned to give it to her.  Her response was not so much to try harder, but to trust more that He would achieve His purposes in her.

The Little Way is really just the Gospel in a thinly veiled disguise.  The message is the same—trust.  It is a lack of trust in God that leads to the Fall.  “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.  All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness” (CCC 397).

Every sin reveals a lack of trust in God.  God, Who made us as creatures to be loved, knows best what makes us lovely.  We don’t entirely trust that what He tells us is actually what is best for us and so we try to do it our own way.  If we trusted Him, then we would do what He says.  Once that trust is restored however we are willing to do everything He says precisely because we know He has our best interest at heart.  No matter how vexing or how hard it appears, we will do it because our Father has told us it is what is best.

This perspective of sin’s relationship to the Divine Fatherhood was a favorite of John Paul II’s.   “Original sin attempts to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 228).  The Father’s solution is not simply to say “trust Me,” but shows us how trustworthy He is.  It is Our Lord’s radical trust in His Father that establishes the truth of God’s Fatherhood once and for all.

Little Flower

Based on her own radical trust, Thérèse offered herself as an oblation to God’s merciful love, composing a beautiful Act of Oblation as a Victim of Divine Love

In order that my life may be one Act of perfect Love, I offer myself as a Victim of Holocaust to Thy Merciful Love, imploring Thee to consume me unceasingly, and to allow the floods of infinite tenderness gathered up in Thee to overflow into my soul, that so I may become a very martyr of Thy Love, O my God! May this martyrdom, after having prepared me to appear in Thy Presence, free me from this life at the last, and may my soul take its flight–without delay–into the eternal embrace of Thy Merciful Love!

This prayer is often a stumbling block to those who would put the Little Way into practice.  How can she offer herself as a victim of holocaust to Divine Love?  Why must this offering involve becoming a victim (i.e.suffering)?  As Theresa of Avila once said, “Lord if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

To answer this we have to, like Thérèse, recognize our nothingness or littleness.  This is not so much about humility but an acknowledgment that we are fundamentally broken.  We entrust ourselves to the Divine Physician to heal us.  Like any good doctor we trust, we know that God will often first have to wound us in order to heal us (Job 5:18).  He will choose the least invasive procedure, but He will never be so cruel as to stop the surgery in the middle.

Could God heal us without first wounding us?  While I think we will all be surprised when we find out all the hidden ways God has healed us, the answer no, not completely.  This is because He wants to re-establish that relationship of trust.  To give us everything without us knowing the cost builds, not trust, but mistrust and jealousy.  This is especially true considering how He distributes His gifts unevenly among His children.  The only way to show Himself as Father is to truly father us—raising us as sons and daughters in Christ, disciplining us, and never allowing us to become spoiled.

There is nothing passive in the Little Way.  St. Thérèse offers herself as a living sacrifice, but she knows that like most living sacrifices they tend to crawl off the altar.  Trust takes effort because we are pre-disposed to the lack of trust that comes with our condition as fallen creatures.  Trust is difficult because there is always a voice telling us why we shouldn’t trust.  But small acts of trust bring about larger ones until we are capable of absolute trust.

In Thérèse’s mind there are practical implications of the Little Way; one of which seems shocking at first.  She thought those who practiced it could avoid Purgatory altogether.

Thérèse was deeply distressed by the resignation that most people had (and still have) that they will need Purgatory after death.  In a letter to Sr. Maria Philomena she said

You do not have enough trust. You have too much fear before the good God. I can assure you that He is grieved over this. You should not fear Purgatory because of the suffering there, but should instead ask that you not deserve to go there in order to please God, Who so reluctantly imposes this punishment. As soon as you try to please Him in everything and have an unshakable trust He purifies you every moment in His love and He lets no sin remain. And then you can be sure that you will not have to go to Purgatory.

Notice that she is not saying that Purgatory is unnecessary, but that it can be avoided.  She even says that God is grieved over souls going to Purgatory because they are kept from Him.  The Little Way preaches that God will give us all the means we need to be purified in this life.  To the extent that we trust He is at work, then it will be effective in us.  To the extent that we resist, we will need other means (up to an including Purgatory).  The soul that completely trusts in God knows He is at work and so they abandon themselves to His Providential care.  In other words, she says the infallible way to avoid Purgatory is to graciously receive it here on earth.

St. Thérèse was well aware of the profundity of her understanding of God’s love and her role in preaching the Little Way as a means of sanctification.  She begged God to give her a legion of “little souls” that were follow her.  “I beg You to cast Your Divine Glance upon a great number of little souls. I beg You to choose a legion of little Victims worthy of Your LOVE!”  Through her powerful intercession, may we make of ourselves an oblation to Divine Love.

A Perfect Marriage?

In a letter to the Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffara, the Fatima visionary Sr. Lucia prophesied that “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.  With marriage and the family under attack from so many fronts, her words are truly prophetic.  But it is her commentary on the prophecy that is worthy of consideration.  She added, “Don’t be afraid because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue…however, Our Lady has already crushed its head.”   What she was implying is that it is Mary, specifically in her marriage with Joseph, that crushed the Devil’s head.  To put it more succinctly, it was Christ Who redeemed marriage and the marriage of His parents shared the first-fruits.

In order to see their marriage as the prototype of a redeemed marriage, it is necessary to clear up some misconceptions regarding the Holy Family, most of which have arisen more recently.  The most common misconception is that Mary was an unwed mother, her child somehow being conceived outside of wedlock.

Mary and Joseph were already married at the time of the Incarnation.  Our Lady was not an unwed mother.  For proof of this, we need only look at the words of the angel to Joseph when he tells him not to fear to take his wife into his home (Mt 1:20).  A divorce does not break off an engagement.  Joseph’s consideration of divorce is because they are already married.

If Joseph and Mary share what would be the prototype of marriage, then why would Joseph consider divorcing her in the first place?  When Joseph considers divorcing Mary, the angel appears to him and tells him that the child has been divinely conceived and that he should not fear to take her as his wife.  Some have taken Joseph’s decision to divorce her as a sign that he thought her to have been guilty of adultery, but that he did not want to expose her to the shame publicly.  However, this does not really fit with Joseph being a “righteous man.”  A righteous man would have followed every precept of the law of Moses including the requirement that if a wife was found in the act of infidelity by her husband then he was forced to divorce her and make her crimes known.  Anyone who hid the crime was also guilty (see Lev 5:1).  Therefore, if Joseph did not denounce her then it is because he did not suspect her.

Instead the more compelling explanation is the one that is offered by Aquinas.  He contends that Mary told Joseph what had happened and out of a sense of religious awe he thought himself unworthy to serve as the earthly father of the Son of God and husband of Mary.  Aquinas says “Holy Joseph pondered in his humility not to continue to dwell with so much sanctity.”  This explains the angel’s response to Joseph that he should not “fear to take Mary his wife into his home.”  It is the angel who affirms Joseph’s vocation as head of the Holy Family.

Establishing that they were married at the time of the Annunciation is also important for another reason.  Properly understood we should say that Jesus was given not just to Mary but within the marriage of Joseph and Mary.  God always respects the nature He has created and children are to be given as a fruit of marriage.  Therefore St. Joseph and Our Lady had a true and valid marriage.  There was never any suggestion that Our Lord was illegitimate, despite what some contemporary theologians may say.  The Incarnation was to be brought about through the Holy Family and not just through Mary.  It has been the constant tradition of the Church that prior to their marriage that both Joseph and Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity, but in their humility chose to keep it hidden.

This leads one to ask how if the marriage was never consummated that they could have a valid marriage.  Pope St. John Paul II addressed this question in a General Audience in 1996 (21 July) when he said:

“Precisely in view of their contribution to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, Joseph and Mary received the grace of living both the charism of virginity and the gift of marriage. Mary and Joseph’s communion of virginal love, although a special case linked with the concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation, was nevertheless a true marriage.”

For a marriage to be valid, consummation is not necessary.  All that is necessary in matrimony is mutual consent and fidelity—both of which is found in their marriage.

st-joseph-and-mary-marriage

This non-consummation presents a further obstacle in that it makes it seem like the marriage was a mere façade.  After all some might say, if they were lacking a sex-life, then it was missing something that is a fundamental part of all healthy marriages.  It is this pattern of thought that reveals exactly why our perception of marriage has gone awry.

Sexual love is not the same thing as genital contact.  Sexual love may include that, but it does not exhaust it.  As proof of how narrow our thinking about this has become, Professor David O’Connor points out in his book Plato’s Bedroom that a modern reader would be scandalized to read a 19th century novel in which a man and woman are “making love” in a room full of other people.  The term “making love” would have referred to the couple creating intimacy through conversation and planting the seeds of enduring love.  Modernity however have taken this much broader meaning and reduced it to nothing but a physical act.

To be clear, this is not meant to imply that the marital embrace is just like conversation and all the other ways in which married couples “make love.”  It is most assuredly a part, but it is a foundational part.  That is why, even if it is not strictly necessary, consummation is an important part of marriage.  But, and this is a big but, it is important not in itself but because of its inner meaning.

The marital embrace is a sacrament—a sign of the couple’s total gift of self to each other.  Because we are fallen, we are unable to make a total gift of ourselves to each other in marriage.  All of our efforts at “making love” will always be tainted, even if in diminishing amounts, with self-love.  The marital embrace is an expression of the desire to make this gift by making a complete and total gift of ourselves physically to our spouses.  This is why contraception is so damaging to marriage—it obscures this sign.

Mary and Joseph on the other hand were capable of making this total gift of self.  In other words, they didn’t need the sign because they were already capable of the thing signified.  Certainly they could have expressed their total gift to each other through a marital embrace, but they didn’t need to like the rest of us do.  As if to offer proof of this, they share the fruit of a consummated marriage, a child.  This child comes about without the act itself.  In other words, their unity of hearts which is shown by the sign of consummation in all other marriages is actually given in the sign of Our Lord.  Summarizing, Mary and Joseph share the fruit of consummated marriage without the act itself.

While the sacrament of marriage had yet to be instituted, the marriage of Our Lady and St. Joseph remains a perfect sign or type of the union of Christ with the Church because it is the Church as a virginal bride wedded to the Virginal Christ.  This is why some Church Fathers have referred to Joseph as the “Virginal Father of Christ.”  This is an especially apt title given that God could not deny Joseph the paternal right to the fruit of his wife’s womb.  Joseph was no mere figurehead, but a husband and father in the truest sense, even if not biologically so.

Looking around society today it seems Sr. Lucia is right—Satan has set his sights on marriage and the family.  This is what makes the Feast of the Holy Family such an important celebration within the Church and serves as an opportunity for us to consecrate our family life to the Holy Family.

Mary and St. Joseph, pray for us!

Holding onto Jesus

Throughout the centuries, much ink has been spent by biblical scholars commenting on Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in John Chapter 20.  In particular, many have sought an explanation for verse 17 where Jesus says to Mary that she should “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” A number of possible interpretations present themselves and are worth examining.

An immediate question that arises is why Our Lord does not allow Mary Magdalene to touch Him, but when He encounters Thomas in the Upper Room, He allows him to touch Him?  One possible explanation relates to the way that a burnt offering was made to the Lord.  In the Old Testament, the priest must offer the whole lamb and burn it on the altar.  The offering was not acceptable to the Lord until it had risen to the Him as a pleasing odor.  Until the burnt offering was fully consumed and had ascended to God, it was only a priest who could touch it.  Likewise, it is Jesus who is the lamb that serves as a burnt offering to the Father and until He ascends to the Father, it is only a priest who can handle Him.  This of course relates to the fact that Jesus instituted a new priesthood in the Apostles.

It seems though that this particular difficulty is one that has been raised solely by biblical commentators.  This was probably not the intent of the author however.  The verbs that John uses in the two encounters are different, even if they are translated in English in the same way.  He uses haptō, which is translated as “cling” or “hold” in verse 17 and uses pherein and ballein in verse 27 for “examine” and “probe”.  Once we see that it was probably not the intent of the author to contrast the two encounters, two other possibilities present themselves.

First, it has been suggested that since the Greek imperative is used, we should translate it as: “Stop touching me!”  Essentially Jesus is telling Mary to stop clinging onto Him because He will go back to the Father in a short time and wants to meet with the disciples as often as is possible before that happens.  She should go and fulfill her vocation as Apostle to the Apostles by running and telling them the good news in haste.  Based upon Mary’s actions, this seems to be the way she understood what Jesus was saying.

Jesus appearance to ST. Mary Magdalene

Perhaps the more compelling explanation is the one that is suggested by Pope Benedict in the second installment of Jesus of Nazareth(p. 285).  Once Mary recognizes Our Lord she thinks that this is the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus gave during the Final Discourse when He said, “I shall see you again, and your hearts will rejoice with a joy that no one can take from you” (John 16:22).  The reader (and probably Magdalene herself) is surprised by Jesus’ response not to cling to Him.  Our Lord is telling her that the earlier way of relating to the earthly Jesus, who was her “Rabboni” (“dear Rabbi”), is no longer possible.  She is the first to experience what St. Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.  Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  In essence, Jesus in telling her not to cling to Him is telling her that His permanent presence is no longer by way of appearance.  Now it is by way of the gift of the Holy Spirit that will come only after He ascends to the Father.

What makes this explanation particularly plausible is the fact that even though she saw the angels and the burial clothes, did not understand what Jesus meant when He spoke about His resurrection.  Certainly she is not alone, as Peter also looked in the tomb and did not come to belief.  It is interesting however that there was something about the condition of the tomb that led the Beloved Disciple to believe.  What Peter and Mary both overlook, but what John saw had something to do with the burial clothes themselves.

First, it should have been obvious that the presence of the burial clothes should have been an indication that the body had not been stolen from the tomb.  If Christ’s body had been stolen either by grave robbers or the disciples (as they had been accused of doing), they would not have removed the wrappings.  The myrrh and aloes would have essentially acted like glue so that the clothes could not be quickly removed.  The tomb was guarded and they would have needed to work fast and would have taken both the body and the clothes together.

The reason John gives the details about the burial clothes the way He does is because it clearly supported the truth of the Resurrection.  The Greek participle that is translated as “lying there” seems to suggest that the clothes were flattened in such a manner that the body had passed through them without being unrolled.  It is this fact, namely that the clothes were intact and not unrolled, that led John to fully believe in the Resurrection.

Like everything that John wrote, He is wont to point out the deeper meaning of all of Jesus’ actions.  By leaving the clothes behind, Jesus is pointing to the uniqueness of the Resurrection.  In the story of Lazarus, we see him emerge from the tomb with the clothes because he will need them again when he dies.  Jesus on the other hand leaves them behind because He will not use them again.   As St. Paul says, “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again.”

This ultimately is the lesson that St. Mary Magdalene still teaches us—the newness of life that was at the heart of the mission of the Son.  Although His relationship with the Father (“I ascend to My Father…”) is qualitatively different from our relationship with the Father (“…and your Father), nevertheless He is offering us a share in His natural Sonship.  This newness of life is as adopted sons and daughters of God.  Unlike our human experience of adoption where the adopted child is only a legal offspring of the father and does not share his blood, Jesus gives us His Body and Blood so that we might have the very Blood of God running through our veins.  St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!

In Defense of Relics

In November, the Church invites us all to meditate on the Communion of Saints.  It is a time in which we become aware of the link of charity between the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant and the Pilgrim Church on Earth and the Holy Souls in Purgatory.  But, the term “communion of saints” does not only refer to the communion among holy persons but also the communion in holy things that the members of the Church also share (see CCC 948).  One of these holy things that has fallen into dis-use since the Second Vatican Council is relics.  But if what the 1983 Code of Canon Law says about relics, namely that they are among the things necessary to “foster the sanctification of the people of God” (Canon 1186), then it seems fitting to offer an explanation and defense of the use of these sacred objects.

There are a number of reasons why relics have received little attention, not the least of which is a certain amount of Protestantism that has crept into the minds of the faithful.  This is especially true when it comes to the veneration of the saints.  In order to see the spiritual “value” of relics, we must first offer an explanation of the veneration we give to saints.  The two are obviously linked, but history also bears out the importance of the link.

The first attack against the veneration of the saints came by way of an attack against icons and relics during the 8th Century.  There arose within the Byzantine Empire an attempt to exclude icons from religious worship because they were deemed idolatrous.  The pressure of the iconoclasts was only made more acute with the spread of Islam which forbids the use of religious images.  In response to this pressure, the Church called the Second Council of Nicaea (787) and declared that “precious and lifelike figures of the Cross, the holy Gospels, sacred relics and monuments” were all included among valid objects of Christian worship.  To further counter the accusation of idolatry, the Council Fathers declared that “the honor paid to the image passes on to the one who is represented, so that the person who venerates an image venerates the living reality whom the image depicts.”

Once the Church supported the use of relics as a means to pay honor to the one who is represented, the next attack came seven centuries later when the Council of Trent had to defend, not the use of relics and statues, but the veneration of saints and angels themselves against the Protestant revolt.  What this shows is that the veneration of relics and statues is a defending wall against the attacks against the veneration of the saints.  Where relics and statues play a key role in Christian worship, the saints also too are seen as powerful intercessors.  This only serves to strengthen the relationship among all the members of the Church—those both in heaven and on earth.

It was around the time of the Second Council of Nicaea that St. John Damascene made the classic distinction between latria as the worship that we give to God alone and dulia, the veneration that we give to those to whom honor is due.  The biblical principle that animates this distinction is articulated by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans when he says we are to “pay respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7).  How do we know that the saints are included in those whom we should honor?  Because Our Lord says so in the Book of Revelation when He tells John that “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord’ (Rev 14:13).

We can also offer a logical proof from Scripture as to why the saints are to be venerated.  Throughout Scripture, veneration is offered to the angels (see Joshua 5:14, Daniel 8:17, Tobit 12:16) because of their supernatural dignity which is rooted in the immediate union with God (see Mt 18:10).  Since the saints also have immediate union with God (1Cor 13:12, 1 Jn 3:2) it follows that they are worthy of veneration.

To see why relics play such an important role, we must turn to the other font of divine Revelation, Sacred Tradition.  In so doing we are able to see some of the practical ways in which the biblical necessity of honoring the saints was played out.

We begin by turning to the martyrdom of St. Polycarp (155 AD).  St. Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Apostle (according to St. Irenaeus, Tertullian and St. Jerome).  In the account of his martyrdom, we find him setting aside his clothes and that the faithful were always “eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good.”  Later we read that the Roman officials refused the faithful St. Polycarp’s remains and later destroyed it.

From this we can conclude the Christians already by the 2nd Century were in the practice of collecting relics of the saints.  A “theology” of relics had already been worked out and they understood their place in a healthy Christian worship.  As the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom says “[F]or Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow disciples!”

What may not be so clear is the reasoning behind the destruction of Polycarp’s body by the Roman officials.  It wasn’t just that they were trying to make the Christians’ lives difficult, but the Romans acknowledged that the remains of the martyrs were a source of spiritual power.  They did not destroy the remains of any other people that they executed, it was only the Christians.

images

There are additional accounts from antiquity that show that relics were a hallmark of Christian belief (such as the Passion of Ss. Perpetua and Felicity) that make clear that because Christians believed that the bodies of the saints had come to share in Christ’s humanity, they therefore shared in His power to heal.  They turned to the relics for miraculous intercession and received it.

They knew that because those same bodies were no longer animated by the soul of a saint,  it did not mean that they ceased to be holy.  In fact they knew that it is those same bodies that would be raised on the last day.  If they sought to touch the body of Polycarp when he was alive, there was even more reason to do so after his death.  It becomes apparent that the belief in relics also rests upon the foundational belief of the resurrection of the body.  In a time when this doctrine too is little believed (especially that we receive back our same, although glorified, earthly bodies ), relics act as reminders of this glorious truth.

Veneration of relics both strengthens and expresses our hope in the Resurrection by venerating the earthly remains of one who we believe will assured rise to everlasting life.  We know that there is a great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrew 12:1) that  surrounds us, relics make it possible to worship God in one family in a way that is tangible for us.

The veneration of the saints and their relics is one of the great treasures that Our Lord left to the Church.  Not only do they help us to grow closer to the invisible members of the Family of God, they call to mind the great love and mercy of God who can raise up dust to be His adopted children.  By venerating relics, we can more fully express and appreciate this gift.

The Immaculata and St. Maximilian

St. John Paul II once called St. Maximilian Kolbe “the patron saint of our difficult century.”  He is best known as the “Saint of Auschwitz” who offered his life in exchange for the life of another prisoner.  What many do not know about him is that, like many of the saints of the 20th Century, he was also a great Marian saint.  He tells of Our Lady appearing to him at an early age, two crowns in her hands, “one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr.  I said that I would accept them both.” True to her word, Blessed Pope Paul VI beatified him a confessor and St. John Paul II canonized him a martyr.  From that day on, he was animated by a great desire to know Jesus through His Mother and to do “All for the Immaculata!”

In coming to know her, there was one thing he puzzled over his entire life.  This was Mary’s identification of herself as “The Immaculate Conception” when she appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes.  Specifically he asked why she did not simply say “I am immaculately conceived” but chose instead to call herself “The Immaculate Conception.”  He knew well the biblical importance of a name and so thought that she was saying more than just the fact that she was conceived without sin.  He thought she was revealing “something that belongs to her very nature” (Letter, Feb 28, 1933).  But he did not fully grasp what this meant until shortly before he was arrested a second time.  In fact, just a few hours before the Gestapo came to round him and four other friars up on February 17, 1941, Fr. Kolbe wrote what would be his last and definitive teaching on the Immaculata.

What Fr. Kolbe focused on was Mary’s unique relationship with the Trinity.  She is the beloved daughter of God the Father, Mother of God the Son and Spouse of the Holy Spirit Who overshadowed her in the Incarnation.  What Kolbe focused on specifically was her relationship with the Holy Spirit. Because the Immaculata is united to the Holy Spirit as His spouse, she is united to God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be said of any other creature (note that she is still a creature though).  He posited that if in human affairs the wife takes the name of her husband to show she belongs to him and is one with him then how fitting should it be that Mary take the name of her Spouse, Who is the Divine Immaculate Conception.

This is an extremely bold claim and one would be tempted to call it a heresy if not for the fact that it was the last spiritual testament of a man whom the Church calls Saint Maximilian.  For the Church not only canonizes a saint for his or her life, but also as a reliable teacher.  To be clear then, what St. Maximilian is teaching has to do as much with the Person of the Holy Spirit as it does Our Lady.

To begin to grasp this, it is first necessary to see if there is something like an Immaculate Conception in God and whether it is appropriate to call the Holy Spirit by this name.  When we speak of divine Conception we must first admit that we can only do so by way of analogy and that to understand this analogy you have to move beyond the idea of physical generation and think of conception in the manner that an artist conceives a painting.  In a spiritual sense “to conceive” has two primary meanings.  First as an intellectual act by which we form an idea.  By way of analogy, this describes the conception of the Son (as Logos) by the Father.  Secondly in the area of the will in which we say “I have conceived a deep affection for him” to describe the experience of a sentiment or passion.  Again, by way of analogy we can speak of the Holy Spirit as being “conceived” through the love of the Father and the Son (St Thomas has a fuller treatment of this in the Summa—ST I qq.44-45 for those who might want to try and tackle it ).

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If we work with this same analogical understanding of God and call to mind that it is the mother’s love that links the father and the son, then analogously we can say there is a certain motherhood appropriated to the Holy Spirit.  This is not by way of generation but by way of love and it links the Father and the Son.  This helps us to understand something of the maternal love that we find in God in the Scriptures.  Understanding this as well, helps us to avoid the trap that many revisionist theologians fall into in which they call the Holy Spirit a “she” or speak of God as Father and Mother.  That is not at all what St. Maximilian is saying.  He is simply saying that in God there is something like the love of a mother.  It also helps us to understand what John Paul II meant when he spoke of Mary sharing in the “the motherhood in the Holy Spirit” in his Encyclical Redemptoris Mater(RM, 43). All of this leads St. Maximilian to conclude that Mary is so completely overshadowed by the Spirit that when she says “I am the Immaculate Conception” she means “I am the manifestation of the Holy Spirit.”

There is a danger at this point to think what St. Kolbe is proposing is that the Holy Spirit took flesh in Mary—another Incarnation of a Divine Person.  However he went to great lengths to reject that and coined the term “quasi-incarnation” to describe what is going on.  Certainly we all agree that if a spirit of evil is capable of “possessing” a human creature to the point of identifying the latter with itself even in a sort of personal way (this is the anti-Christ) then surely the Spirit of God can take possession of his privileged creature Mary.  It is absolutely a marvelous mystery that a human person can be so taken up into the control of God so that her will is completely united to the divine will, but one must readily admit the possibility. The evil spirit enslaves the poor creature he takes over whereas the Holy Spirit stirs up and strengthens liberty deep in the soul of the one he deigns to possess.  Mary describes herself as the “slave of the Lord” but she is the freest human person that ever lived.

Mystery or not, we can begin to understand something of this “quasi-incarnation” if we look at the Christological heresy that led to the Church giving Mary the title, Theotokos, or “God-bearer”.  The Nestorian Heresy said that there were two persons in Christ.  These two persons were united in will and action.  They were also united by inhabitation.  Nestorius said the Word dwelt in Jesus as in a temple.  This is the same way that Lumen Gentium describes Our Lady’s relationship with the Holy Spirit calling her, “Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit” (LG, 53).  While we are all temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20) by virtue of our baptisms, the Immaculata was so by her very nature.

The point is that the Holy Spirit and Mary are two distinct persons, but that Mary is so fully possessed by the Holy Spirit that He acts in and through her perfectly.  This is where the title of Mary as Mediatrix comes from—her wholly unique relationship with the Holy Spirit Whose mission is one of sanctification.

Even if we are willing to concede everything said so far, why does it matter?  Aren’t these just theological ramblings that could easily lead us down into a heretical rabbit hole?  Not at all.  In truth Christians suffer greatly from not knowing the Holy Spirit.  He remains a great mystery to many of us and that greatly limits His ability to work in and through us.  After all, He is still a Person and to claim to love a Person while not really knowing Him is disingenuous at best.  What if we do not know Him because we are looking in the wrong place?  What if Catholics, in turning away from Marian devotion after the Second Vatican Council, also turned away from the Holy Spirit?  What if Protestants, in rejecting the unique role Mary plays in salvation, have also lost sight of the Holy Spirit, Whom they claim to need no mediator for?

Blessed Paul VI also recognized this danger when he wrote in his 1974 Apostolic Exhortation, Marialis Cultus:

It is sometimes said that many spiritual writings today do not sufficiently reflect the whole doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit. It is the task of specialists . . . to meditate more deeply on the working of the Holy Spirit in the history of salvation, and to ensure that Christian spiritual writings give due prominence to His life-giving action. Such a study will bring out in particular the hidden relationship between the Spirit of God and the Virgin of Nazareth, and show the influence they exert on the Church. From a more profound meditation on the truths of the Faith will flow a more vital piety. (MC, 27).

 

The point is that we do not know the Person of the Holy Spirit because we fail to see Him in the one whom He overshadows.  As we develop our relationship with Our Lady, not only does she lead us to her Son, but she does so through the Holy Spirit that dwells uniquely within her.  When we offer her the unique honor due to the Mother of God, we are worshipping the Holy Spirit.  Or as Fr. Kolbe said “[W]hen we honor the Immaculata we are, very specifically, adoring the Holy Spirit.”

St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!