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.     

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Cry for Help

Denzil was a troubled man.  Looking much older than his sixty years, obsessive worry made each day an obstacle.  He lived alone in a small apartment, no friends, no phone, no hope.  Severe anxiety made him tremble as someone overcome with fear.  A doctor prescribed medication to reduce his anxiety, but side effects made him feel worse.  He felt confused, panicky, and helpless.

In desperate moments, he would take to the streets, perhaps asking a local merchant or a familiar face for help.  To some, he was a nuisance, constantly seeking advice but refusing to take it.  He was occasionally seen collecting aluminum cans from trash bins or dumpsters, until that activity got him arrested behind a local drug store.  Fearful of missing court dates miles away with no form of transportation compounded his angst.

Our Saint Vincent DePaul members tried to help him numerous times.  We visited his apartment when he would let us in.  He would always be fretting over what to him was some insurmountable problem.  He missed an insurance payment, he lost some papers he needed, his medication wasn’t working, his doctor wouldn’t listen to him, nobody understands, all the time shivering incessantly as he spoke.  He would read us the side effects of his medication over and over again, insisting he experienced all of them.  We asked him for the names of any family members we could contact, but he would not tell us.

This past summer, his condition worsened.  Not knowing where to turn, we called Adult Protective Services to get help.  They sent two caseworkers out who met with us at his apartment.  They agreed he needed to get to a hospital, but he refused to go.  Police and paramedics were called, but they said they could not force him unless he was a danger to himself or others.  APS said they would get him an appointment with his doctor in a few days, but there was nothing more they could do.  We tried to calm his fears, brought him some food, and left him.

In the days that followed, members of our Saint Vincent DePaul group spent time with him, looking for ways to get the help he needed.  We made another appointment with his doctor and practically forced him into a car to get him there.  The doctor told us there was nothing more he could do for him.  At our insistence, the doctor called numerous institutions looking for place that would take him for a mental evaluation before finding one that would accept his basic insurance.  He was committed for ten days and released. 

Two weeks ago, four of our members spent two days trying to help him to no avail.  He told us he couldn’t make it through another night.  Yet, he refused our attempts to take him to the hospital.  We went back to check on him in the evening but he would not let us enter the apartment.  He said he had no more answers for us and closed the door.

Last Friday in the cold darkness of another sleepless night, Denzil stepped out of his apartment, shut the door, and cut himself.  An upstairs tenant on his way to work at 4 AM found him lifeless on the landing where we had spoken with him so many times. 

Stunned but not necessarily surprised, we were left to ponder what more we could have done.  What should we have done that we did not do?  In this land where health care is supposedly now available to everyone, why could we not get this man the care he so desperately needed?  Within hours, authorities were able to notify a relative.  His obituary listed a son, a daughter, a brother and three sisters, none of which we knew.

I was able to share this story with our Bishop at a meeting sponsored by Catholic Charities the following day.   My hope is that we might somehow better serve those with mental illnesses who may be living a life of torment, especially those who may pose a danger to themselves or others.  At the end of the meeting, the Bishop led us in a prayer for Denzil and all those who may find themselves in similar distress.  I would like to think the suffering Denzil endured on this earth is sufficiently redemptive for any sins for which he may be culpable.  May his soul rest in peace, and may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

On the Witness Stand

I promise to share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!

The Watchtower society is active in our little town.  Jehovah’s Witnesses periodically come around to share their faith by reading a few Scripture verses and offering their literature.  I admire the effort.  Door-to-door evangelization is not easy when most people do not want to be bothered by religious zealots. 

A few weeks ago, I arrived home to find a strange car parked near my driveway.  Soon the front doorbell rang and a well-dressed man holding a bible asked if I had a few minutes for him to share some Scripture with me.  I smiled and said, “Certainly!”  One of the verses he read was 1 Corinthians 1:10 where Paul expresses concern over divisions that have arisen in the Church.

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.  (1 Cor 1:10, RSVCE)  

His New World Translation altered the text somewhat, but the message was the same.    I thought it funny that he would choose that particular verse since we Catholics sometime use it to lament the many Protestant denominations that have separated themselves from the true Church, and I told him so.   Realizing I was Catholic, he mentioned the word Purgatory, saying it was nowhere to be found in the Bible.  I said it was implied and a conversation ensued.

After about thirty minutes of spirited, but friendly discussion, during which my open front door allowed numerous flies to enter the house, I asked if he would like to continue our talk sometime.  He said, “If you have the truth, I would like to hear it,” and we agreed to meet at my house the following Wednesday at 10:30 AM.  We exchanged contact information, and he went on his way. 

I am not so naïve to think he was really interested in learning about Catholicism.  Undoubtedly he still viewed me as a potential convert.  After all, a great percentage of Jehovah’s Witnesses are purportedly former Catholics.  Being firm in my Faith, I had no qualms about meeting with him again.

The following Wednesday, he brought another woman with him.  This time, I tried to make them comfortable by inviting them into my living room.  The gentleman (I’ll call him Rik) did most of the talking, asking me to read certain Scripture passages.  His selection had me a bit puzzled, as I could not figure out what point he was trying to make.  I was able to share a few Catholic viewpoints, but it was becoming obvious to me that I needed to develop a better understanding of Jehovah's Witness beliefs.

We agreed to meet a third time, allowing me a chance to do some research.  I found Trent Horn’s guest appearance on Catholic Answers Live (August 3,2015) where he discussed the faith of the Witnesses.  I listened to the podcast several times, and also ordered his booklet, Twenty Answers, that was advertised on the program.  Another invaluable resource is Jason Evert’s book, Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses, which I purchased and read cover to cover.  

So many of the JW beliefs are foreign to mainline Christianity.  While apologetic discussions with our Protestant brothers and sisters can be trying, we at least share a certain commonality in our Trinitarian understanding of Christ’s divinity.  Not so with the Jehovahs.  They believe Jesus Christ is actually Michael the Archangel,.  They believe only 144,000 can be in heaven, the rest of us will live in a paradise here on earth.  They also try to use Scripture as evidence for their beliefs.  Now, one would think it should be easy for a good Catholic to refute these claims, and it is, but doing so is complicated when arguing against a skewed interpretation taken from an already skewed New World Translation.

As in most apologetic discussions, the question boils down to authority.  Unlike some of our Protestant brothers and sisters, the Jehovahs at least agree on the necessity of an authority.  Theirs is the Watchtower Society, founded around 1872 by Charles Taze Russel, while ours is the Magisterial authority of the Pope in union with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, founded around 33 AD by Jesus Christ.  Here is where much discussion time must be spent.

To date, we have met five times, with session six scheduled for next week.  The past three weeks have been with Rik and another JW gentleman on one side of the dining room table, and Donna, a knowledgeable Catholic partner I recruited to assist me, on my side.  We typically have coffee and donuts while talking about our differing beliefs.  Coincidentally, Donna knew Rik’s family some fifty years ago when they lived next door to each another.  This has helped make the conversation more personable.  We are all becoming friends and the talks are always respectful, enjoyable, and stimulating.  We all claim to want the truth, wherever it takes us.

Now for my confession.   The first day, when I came home to see their car by my driveway, my initial reaction was to avoid them.  I drove past my house and turned down the next street.  After doing so, I felt guilty of missing an opportunity to evangelize.  I hurried around the block and pulled into my driveway so they would see me coming home.  It was only a few minutes later when the doorbell rang.  That initial contact has blossomed into an ongoing relationship. Where will this all lead?  Stay tuned!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Christus Nobiscum; State!

From time to time, our pastor asks me to change the message on the sign in front of our church.  We have the type where individual black letters are backlit on a frosted plexiglass panel.  The letters are quite large and we have only two lines, so messages must be short.  Father usually expresses a spiritual thought that does not fit our limited space, so I have become adept at truncating the message, which sometimes makes for an awkward compression, but I do the best I can.

When we have an event happening at the parish, the message will be informational rather than spiritual.  Such was the case a few weeks ago when our Saint Vincent DePaul group sponsored a fundraiser.  The sign simply said, “PORK CHOP DINNER, SUNDAY 11A – 1P.”  Our pastor was gone on retreat the following week, so I was given the task of changing the sign before the next Sunday to avoid any confusion.  With his input unavailable, the new message would be of my own choosing.  This would take some serious thought!

Considering the turmoil going on in the world with Christian persecution, abortion, and the general decay of moral standards, I wanted to say something foreboding, yet hopeful.   The inspiration came from a booklet I often ponder during weekly adoration.  The Holy Eucharist Our All was written by Father Lukas Etlin. O.S.B.  (Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois,  61105).   Father Etlin’s booklet opens with the following two paragraphs:

During the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian, A.D. 527, the city of Antioch was repeatedly shaken by violent earthquakes.  People found no other means of safety than that of inscribing on the doors the words which were revealed to a faithful servant of God:  Christus nobiscum; state! – “Christ is with us; stand firm.  All the houses whose doors bore this inscription are said to have been preserved from the ruin which threatened them, while the others were shattered and crushed.

It is similar with those souls who love and serve God.  In the midst of a Godless world there is but one means of preservation from eternal ruin, ones means of perseverance in the great tribulation of life – faithful adherence to the Most Blessed Sacrament, to the God-man concealed beneath the form of bread and wine.  The words, “Jesus Christ is with me; stand firm,” should be engraven in the heart of every Christian. Protected by this shield, the servants of God will remain firm in the Faith, even though all about them totter and fall.