Friday, April 22, 2016

Supernatural or Superstition?

We hear much talk about evangelization theses days.   Catholics have been so reluctant to actively share our faith with others.  In this year of Mercy, even more emphasis has been placed on our responsibility to promote and defend the Church. 

Our non-Catholic Christian friends often hold misconceptions about Catholics and our practices.  One in particular is the assumption that Catholics worship Mary and the saints as much as we worship God.  Of course, we worship only God, and no other.  The thought is rooted in their equating prayer with worship rather than petition.  Even when properly explained, praying to saints is seen as a violation of Christ as the one mediator between God and man.  This misunderstanding comes when one does not distinguish the difference between a mediator and an intercessor.  There can be one mediator but many intercessors.  The roles are distinctly different.  Asking for a saint’s intercession is similar to asking a friend to pray for you.  A saint’s intercession is just more effective.

Unfortunately, some well-meaning Catholics perpetuate these Catholic stereotypes by blurring the line between supernatural and superstition.  Every Wednesday, local residents receive an advertising flier in our mailboxes.  The paper includes an obituary page that also contains published intercessory prayers.  That in itself is not a bad thing, but these particular prayers usually contain provisions that appear superstitious.  Common to them is the stipulation that the prayer is “never known to fail” provided that it is repeated a certain number of times and that it must be published.

I am suspicious of intercessory prayers that have precise formulas attached for efficacy.  Some common Catholic devotions, especially those arising from apparitions approved by the Church, have prescribed conditions needed to gain an indulgence, and that I can understand.  The Rosary, the Chaplet, First Fridays, First Saturdays and others devotions have histories that can be traced back through the centuries.  Some of them come from private revelations that Catholics are not bound to acknowledge. That does not mean they are not worthy of belief, but saying that a prayer must occur in a precise form, number or media to be efficacious would not seem to be of Divine decree.  Saying only four decades of a Rosary would surely not render the entire prayer ineffective.

Turning prayer into a mechanical routine deemed necessary to gain a particular outcome is problematic.  Saying that Saint Jude will intercede for you if you say certain words nine times a day for eight days and promise to publish it in the newspaper reeks of superstition.  That is not to say Saint Jude won’t intercede if you do those things, but emphasizing the mechanics would seem to diminish the spiritual sincerity of the request.

No outcome can be guaranteed by following a particular prayer pattern.  Even the Memorare, which I pray daily, says that it was never known to leave us unaided.   Yet, I realize that my petitions added to the prayer will not always play out the way I would like.  We sometimes hear that all prayers are answered, but we don’t always get the answer we want.  Perhaps so, but publicly proclaiming that a certain prayer is “never known to fail” can lead to false hope and even spiritual despair when the answer is no.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Our Debt of Gratitude

On Palm Sunday, I was asked to lead our entire CCD student body in Stations of the Cross.   Many of the younger kids, and some of the older ones too, have never experienced Our Lord’s via dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows.  One of the teachers told me she tried to explain the Stations of the Cross to her first communicants, but they did not seem to get it.  So, I thought some explanation might be necessary before we began.  I also wanted to approach the subject in a way to emphasize the importance of attending Mass on Sundays.  This is what I said to the class:

What is a debt?  It is when you owe something to someone.  If you borrow money from your parents to buy a video game, you need to pay them back.  This is a debt that you owe.  If you break your neighbor’s window, you have to pay for the window.  It is a debt you owe your neighbor. 

Imagine having a debt you cannot pay.  Suppose it’s the Fourth of July and you are shooting off fireworks in your back yard at night.  You notice your neighbor’s bedroom window is open and you think it would be funny to shoot a bottle rocket into his bedroom while he is trying to sleep.  You do it and the rocket lands in a wastebasket and starts a fire.  The neighbor’s house burns down and you get in big trouble.  You end up in court and the judge orders you to make restitution.  You owe your neighbor a new house, right?  It might cost $100,000 or more.  You haven’t got that kind of money.  It’s a debt you cannot pay.  The judge could send you to jail.

Now suppose I say to you, “You cannot pay for your neighbor’s house that you damaged, and a judge can take away your freedom if you don’t pay.  I don’t want that to happen to you, so I will pay your debt for you.  All I ask in return is that you give me one hour of your time each week.”   Would you accept my offer?  It’s a pretty good deal, right?  Jail or visit me one hour every week to show your appreciation for what I have done for you.  It’s an easy choice to make.

When our first parents, Adam and Eve, sinned in the Garden of Eden, their sin offended an infinitely good, perfect God, and we inherited that sin from them.  Our sins also damage our relationship with that perfect God.   To repair the damage, we need a infinitely perfect offering to God.  That is something we cannot produce on our own.  All the money in the world could not make up for our sins, and before we can be allowed to enter the kingdom of heaven, that debt must be paid.   It is a debt we owe that we cannot pay.

Before Jesus was born, people would try to pay for their sins by giving one of the best animals to God as a sin offering.  In the Jewish Passover supper that we will be remembering this Holy Thursday, an unblemished Lamb was offered, but even that animal was not sufficient to pay for our sins against a perfect God. 

So, think about this.  Each one of us owes a debt to God that we alone cannot possibly pay, and we cannot get to heaven unless the debt is paid because nothing unclean can enter heaven.  Sin against a perfect God requires a perfect sacrifice for atonement.  But Jesus comes, and He says, I will pay your debt for you, so that someday, you can get to heaven.   Why can Jesus pay the debt?  Because He is the perfect sacrifice.  He is God in human form.  He is the true Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice. 

Jesus allowed Himself to be sacrificed, tortured, beaten, nailed to a cross and killed, to pay your debt for you, so that you can someday get to heaven.  And, all you are asked to do in return is follow Jesus and give Him at least one hour of your time a week giving thanks.  You come to Mass on Sunday where HIs sacrifice is re-presented for you in an unbloody form, and He makes Himself available to you at that Mass in Holy Communion.  What a deal for all of us!  All we have to do is accept His sacrifice and participate in that same sacrifice when we go to Mass on Sunday.  We would be foolish to pass up a deal like that!

When I was about your age (a long, long time ago), there was a comedian on TV named Jack Benny.  And the running joke about Jack was that he was a miser, a cheapskate.  He wanted to keep every penny he ever earned.  He drove an old antique car called a Maxwell because he was too cheap to buy a new one.  So, one day on his TV show, Jack was walking down the street, and a robber jumped out of the alley, poked a gun in Jack’s ribs, and said, “Your money or your life.”  There was a long pause.  The robber said it again, “YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE!”  Jack said, “I’m thinking it over.”  The joke was that Jack had to think about what was more important to him, his life or the ten dollars in his wallet.

Jesus says, “I will give you eternal life by paying your debt for you.  All you have to do is giving me an hour of your time each week.  Would we really have to think about that decision?  Would you say, “Well, okay Jesus, but sometimes on Saturday nights, I like to stay up and play games on my Playstation until 3 o’clock in the morning, and I might be too tired to go to Mass on those Sundays.”  Or, “okay Jesus, I will show my appreciation for your wonderful gift of eternal life by coming to Mass on Sunday unless I have a football game or if it’s too cold outside.”

No.  We should say, “Yes, Jesus.  Thank you!  I will give you an hour each week, two hours, ten hours, my whole life is yours.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you for paying my debt.”  That is why the Church requires us to go to Mass on Sundays.  Is it because the Pope likes to make rules and be mean to us?  No.  It is because he wants to stress the importance for us to keep up our part of the bargain by remaining in God’s grace.

The problem is, we don’t always think about what Jesus had to go through to pay that debt.  We don’t realize the infinite value of the gift we have been given.  Which is more valuable to me, eternal life or my Playstation?  That is why the Stations of the Cross are displayed on the walls of every Catholic Church, to remind us of His suffering a death for us, so we remember the importance for us to do our part by leading a good Christian life and giving thanks at Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation.  Now let us go into the church and think about what Our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us as we walk His road of suffering.

Friday, February 19, 2016

JW Stalemate

Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, and the end of my dialog with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  What started with a typical JW doorway visit last August became a series of ninety-minute sessions that went on for twenty-three Wednesday mornings.  I came into this adventure thinking that any God-seeking person could not resist the truth of the Catholic Church once they heard it.  In the end, I am still Catholic and they are still Witnesses. 

I know what you are probably thinking.  Man, this guy must be a really lousy Catholic apologist.  Believe me, the experience was humbling.  I came in armed with plenty of Catholic ammunition, material from Jason Evert and Trent Horn, tracts from Catholic Answers, and more.  I knew what the Witnesses were going to say before they said it.  Yet, they were so convinced of their own interpretation of Scripture that no amount of Catholic logic seemed to sway them. 

Before you ask if I explained Apostolic Succession, teaching authority, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, the Eucharist, the canon of Scripture, and the problems with their New World Translation?  The answer is yes.  We covered it all.  Many times!  They were not accepting any of it.  They were here to instruct us, not vice versa, even though they claimed otherwise.  How did it go on so long?  The discussions were interesting and lively.  I think both sides enjoyed the conversation.

Our meetings were always friendly over donuts and coffee.  Oh, there were occasional spikes in blood pressure, but voices were never raised.  Despite prayers to the Holy Spirit for guidance, I never found the right words to open their eyes.  I came to realize my shortcomings as an apologist for our faith.  There were many times I wished a Trent Horn or Jason Evert would suddenly appear at my door to speak with them. 

Some of the biggest stumbling blocks involved their distorted view of church history and the just war theory.  The fact that Catholics are willing to take a life in war is proof to them that we are not following Christ’s command to love thy neighbor.  The Witnesses insisted on picking out certain scripture verses and applying their own interpretation while explaining away any other verses that might run counter to their beliefs. 

In the end, we reached an impasse.  While I was willing to go on indefinitely, the Witnesses claimed they had to return to their door-to-door ministry.  Did I fail?  Yes, I failed.  At best, perhaps a seed was planted that will take root someday.  Now it is up to the Holy Spirit.  Did I learn anything?  Not only did I learn how another faith justifies their misguided beliefs, I learned much about my Catholic faith during preparation for their weekly visits.  I also made some new friends, and will likely see them again in the future.

I learned something else too.  While we Catholics have great confidence in our Church that Christ Himself established, there are non-Catholics who are also confident in their faith, skewed as it may be.  In fact, many of them live the Christian life to a greater extent than some Catholics do.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses are out there, going door-to-door, sharing their faith despite rude rejection many times.  That takes guts.  I admire that.  We should be so courageous.  They are doing what they perceive to be the will of Jehovah.  Their ultimate destiny may not be exactly as they foresee it, but I believe a merciful God will reward them.  If they are surprised someday to find themselves seeing the beatific vision in heaven, I pray they put in a good word for me. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Still Witnessing!

My weekly discussions with the two Jehovah Witnesses have been going on for about four months now.  We took a break between Christmas and the New Year, which gave me time to reflect on our progress.  My Catholic friends sometimes ask me how the sessions are going, and I am never sure how to answer.  Has there been progress?  I think so, but I am not sure.

Obviously the Jehovah’s have been trained for these encounters, and although I have some experience in apologetics, I find myself inadequately prepared for discussion with someone so removed from what we would consider typical Protestantism.  I had never previously needed to defend the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity or God’s kingdom.  Common ground that we would normally inhabit with most non-Catholic Christians is sparse here. 

The Witnesses keep coming back to the importance of the name of God, which they pronounce Jehovah.  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “hallowed be thy Name” and they take it very literally.  Because Catholics do not commonly say the name Jehovah, they believe we are not doing what Jesus commanded.   They take biblical references to God’s name so literally that their New World Translation inserts Jehovah into the New Testament whenever the original author’s use of Lord refers to the Father.

Furthermore, they are quick to bring up the 2008 Vatican directive that Yahweh, the more common rendering of God’s name, should not be used during the Catholic liturgy.  In the Hebrew tradition, which the early Christians adopted, the faithful avoided pronouncing the Name of God. The Vatican directive explains "as an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable.”  In the eyes of the Witnesses, this is evidence the Catholic Church is rejecting what Jesus commanded us to do. 

They also say that Catholics in times of war have killed other Christians with Church approval under the Just War theory, thereby disobeying what Jesus said in Matthew 5.

Matthew 5: 38-45   38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 

The Witnesses cite John 13:35.  “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”   The fact that Catholics willfully join the military and participate in worldly conflict is a huge stumbling block for them.  They view Christ’s complete submission to his persecutors as a precept for total pacifism, not even willing to resist Nazi genocide in World War II.  Because the Church does not forbid Catholics from participating in a just war, the Church is not following the teaching of Jesus, evidence of apostasy in JW reasoning.  Since the Witnesses are conscientious objectors, they believe they are the true disciples, and we are not. 

While I do my best to defend the Catholic position, I can never be certain how much they are accepting.  Quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not very effective since they believe it runs counter to scripture.  Obviously, they are resistant to letting me know whether I am getting through to them.  Nevertheless, they do keep coming back even though I am quite sure by now they know any attempts to convert me will be futile. 

We just met for the twentieth time yesterday when the topic turned to the Divinity of Jesus.  For perhaps the first time, I feel like we began to make some Catholic progress.  I was able to use their own New World Translation to show many common attributes shared by the Son and the Father.  Other verses were even more explicit where Jesus expresses His Divine nature.  The Witnesses tried to offer alternative interpretations, but their arguments seemed weak, even to them I think. 

At the end of the session, one of the Witnesses who had been a recent addition to the group announced that he would not be back next week.  I do not necessarily take that as a bad sign.  Perhaps for the first time, a Catholic put a crack in his shell.  I noticed he picked up the handouts I had provided and took them with him.  In the meantime, we will keep meeting as long as they are willing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Religious Freedom

Our parish priest includes inserts in our weekly bulletins, usually something he finds on the Internet.  Last week, it was a slightly updated version of a poem titled, T’was the month before Christmas that appeared several years ago on Facebook.  The author, at least to me, is unknown.  An adaptation of the well-known Christmas poem, the piece takes a poke at the politically correct crowd that would have us eliminate any reference to Christmas from our stores, schools, and government.

One of our parishioners was so moved as to have the poem printed on a full-page ad in a local weekly publication.  According to the owner of the paper who also happens to be a friend and fellow parishioner, this caused an unprecedented outpouring of responses, mostly positive, but also a couple of negatives.  One caller in particular threatened to get a lawyer and sue the paper, on what grounds I cannot imagine.  After it was explained to him that the ad was not an editorial, but a paid advertisement, and that he was free to pay the nearly $400 cost of his own full-page rebuttal, the caller backed off. 

For anyone interested in the content of the ad, I would recommend following the link in the first paragraph above to read it for yourself.  I have chosen not to reprint it here.  Suffice to say, it is critical of the politically motivated administrators, politicians and businesses who replace the word Christmas with Holiday.

While I am in full agreement that we have become way too worried about offending some non-Christian’s feelings, I am also uncomfortable with such public postings that cast a pall over companies and individuals that may or may not be warranted.  The Facebook poem is dated 2009.  While some companies did at one time discourage employees from wishing customers a Merry Christmas, a backlash caused many of them to rethink the directive.  Christians ought not act on an unhealthy desire to constantly portray themselves as victims of a Godless society, even when doing so may be justified.  Personally, I have no concern over a clerk saying “Happy Holidays” as the complimentary close of a transaction.  After all, the holiday season consists of multiple celebrations making a more encompassing wish sensible.  It doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is anti-Christian.

In a case where the government did try to suppress religious freedom, an area public high school recently drew the attention of PC police by including a live nativity scene in their annual Christmas concert.  The school district was sued on behalf of a student and his father by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation.  A federal court judge granted an injunction forbidding the school from organizing, rehearsing, or presenting a live Nativity as part of their program.  The school district complied with the order, sort of.  The Nativity portion of the program went on with mannequins in place of the students while the choir sang O Holy Night.  I’m sure whoever did not wish to participate had that option.  Kudos to the school district for allowing the program to go on.

The first amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  When did freedom OF religion become freedom FROM religion?  Perhaps the answer is found in a recent experiment performed on the Yale campus where a filmmaker asked students to sign a petition revoking the first amendment.  Within an hour, fifty students signed the petition that would in effect take away their right to petition.  Yale is where many of our judges and politicians are educated.  How many of them with this mentality are already in power?  Makes me wonder.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Using GW on a JW

Last August, another parishioner and I began a weekly dialogue with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  (See my September blog)  Now twelve ninety-minute sessions later, we are still going strong.  Are we making any progress?  Well, they are still JWs and we are still Catholic! 

You might think even a mediocre Catholic apologist should be able to win this argument handily, and that is true, but the best team doesn’t always win the match.  In football terms, we are spending much of our time playing defense, while the other team is controlling the ball.   Scoring points without the ball is difficult.  Should we be more aggressive?  Probably, but discussion with Jehovah’s Witnesses is different from that of mainstream Protestants.  Their view is so foreign to us that we often find ourselves bewildered for a reply.  I often wonder what point they are trying to make, and why they find it relevant to their belief.  Even though they are willing to use a Catholic bible in our discussions, they can draw very questionable conclusions from various passages.  We haven’t even touched on the problems with their New World Translation yet.

Most non-Catholic Christian faiths, including the Witnesses, justify their existence by believing an apostasy occurred where the Church went off the rails, and they got it back on track.  This week, I asked them if they believe they have the same faith as the apostles.  They said they did.  I brought up the old story of George Washington’s axe, or my Grandfather’s axe, as it is sometimes told.  Do you still have George Washington’s axe if both the handle and the head have been replaced at different times throughout its history?  Similarly, do you still have the faith of the apostles if say Martin Luther removed the head, and the JW Bible translators put a new handle on the Scriptures?  I think not.

The question of George Washington’s axe is a somewhat simplified version of Theseus’s Paradox, proposed by Plutarch, a Greek writer in the late first century.  He asked whether a ship that eventually had every single plank replaced as they deteriorated over time was still the same ship.  If so, what if someone gathered all of the old planks and reassembled them as they were originally?  Now you have two ships.  Are they both the same ship?

In applying this thought to the Church, the answer is quite simple.  Once essential elements are removed or changed, you no longer have the same Church.  Once the papal head is eliminated, the canon of Scripture altered, and Traditional teaching ignored, the original identity is lost.  If someone tries to re-form the original without the original parts, the result is two churches, or even twenty-eight thousand churches over the centuries.  The only way to claim true possession of George Washington’s axe is to find the original handle and the original head.  The same principle applies for finding the true Church.