Saturday, December 25, 2004

Christmas Day 2004

I love Christmastime. I love the entire season. From Thanksgiving to the Epiphany is my favorite time of the whole year. I love the preparations, the decorating, the lights, the shopping, the snow, the cold, the warmth, the music, the atmosphere, the togetherness, the food, the sweets, the hustle and the bustle. I love the tradition, the gift-giving, parades, preparing music for Midnight Mass, choosing the tree, the family gatherings, the memories, the time off work to spend with my wife and children, the tastes, the smells -- I love it all.

While it may seem like the true reason for our Christmas celebration gets lost, this should be a time a great celebration of when Our Savior became flesh and lived among us. I could launch into a diatribe against the secularization or commercialization of Christmas, or worse yet, the assault on Christianity by our so-called civil libertarians who want to eliminate Christ from Christmas. I could, but not now. I only hope that the judges who agree with this position are willing to remain on the job Christmas day.

Instead, I would like to dwell on the wide range of emotions that flash through my mind on this particular Christmas Day. Being personally involved with many elements of preparation leaves precious little time to concentrate on the plight of others. Having served on the local Park Board for some 27 years, I have assumed annual duties of repairing and hanging street decorations downtown, decorating the town park, and of course, performing similar tasks at home. As a Vincentian, I assist with coordinating the Angel Tree in our church where parishioners can adopt a needy family at Christmastime. Shopping, school programs, and other seasonal activities occupy most every evening after work.

With so much happening, we have little time to think. Then, all of a sudden Christmas Day arrives and it's over. Our loved ones depart for their homes and a certain melancholy feeling settles in. I seem to often find tears in my eyes on Christmas evening and this year is no exception. I think about my oldest son who comes to visit so seldom. He spent Christmas Eve in our home and most likely will not spend another night here until next Christmas, if then. We were so close when he was growing up, but now he seems so distant at times. When he was younger, we worked on projects together. We fixed things together. While our relationship once carried a strong bond of family and faith, something happened that I don't fully understand. How I wish I could fix this, and how I hate to see him drive away.

After spending some time feeling sorry for myself, I think about others who are so much worse off than I am. I think about my cousin who is spending this Christmas alone in a hospital so distant from his home in a desperate fight against the cancer that has ravaged his body. I think about another cousin who may be on the streets of Indianapolis this Christmas night when the temperature is expected to dip below zero. I think about my brother who is blind and confined to a wheelchair. I think about friends who lost their only child, a teenage daughter, to a tragic auto accident this past year. I think about all the families who have loved ones at war, not knowing whether they will ever see them alive again. I think about the elderly couple down the street who may be spending their last Christmas together after 63 years of marriage. I think about all the lonely souls in the Health Facility which we visit. Some of them have no family left to care for them. I wonder about all those who are silently suffering some personal grief this Christmas night with no one to comfort them.

I have so much to be thankful for. I have a wonderful wife, and three great children. We are all healthy and warm. I had two loving parents who were always there for me until they died. I have a sister I am close to and a terrific extended family. I cherish these Christmases because there is no telling how many of them we will have to enjoy together. I have my faith and my Church. I was born into the Body of Christ who was Himself born this day to save us. No amount of preparation or celebration is too much. Thank you God for giving me this Christmas day.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Aging Gracefully

Having spent considerable time with an elderly couple during the past year, I sometimes found myself wondering why God allows some people to live way beyond the normal lifespan. I watched their senses deteriorate, their awareness fade, and their health fail. After several falls and other medical emergencies, it became evident that they were no longer able to care for themselves. Fortunately, they were able to afford hiring fulltime live-in care-givers, but even with assistance, their quality of life continued to diminish.

Broken hips, cuts and bruises, surgeries, symptoms of Alzheimer's and daily dealings with pain and suffering made me think about what all of us may be headed for should we live that long. What will happen to those who cannot afford needed care? What will the future hold for the elderly in this society that seems to be losing respect for life? Will euthanasia become an accepted alternative when medical science keeps us going beyond our productive years? Why would God permit people to suffer like this? I wondered if this was their purgatory on earth, paying reparation before death for a faster road to heaven.

Despite all of their problems and being barely ambulatory, this couple insists on attending Mass together every weekend. Other church-goers often wince at the sight of these two octogenarians straining to climb the 13 steps to the vestibule. Sometimes, it appears they just won't make it. They stop, grasping the railing with both hands, reminiscent of Christ struggling to carry His Cross to Calvary.

They pray aloud before each meal, and one can sense a spiritual presence in their home. As various health care providers come to visit, conversation often turns to faith in God. Several of the live-in caregivers who were not particularly religious and had problems of their own, began asking me to pray for them. One of them who was raised Catholic, but had not set foot in a Catholic Church for 35 years, began attending Mass again.

As I witnessed all of this, something suddenly occurred to me. God was still using this elderly couple as an instrument in His hands to bring others closer to Him. These two old people, who many of us had written off as having lived beyond their years, are still doing more important work than any of the rest of us around them. Perhaps they are not even aware of the power of God acting within them, but because their relationship with Him is so alive, others are moved by this spiritual presence in the home.

I also believe that none of these encounters occur by accident. When we allow ourselves to be used in this way, God will bring us together as necessary. Suddenly, we see purpose in the daily struggles of the elderly. Good can come from it, not only through redemptive suffering, but by bringing about conversion in others. There is no more important work on this earth than saving souls, and we are never too old or too weak to allow God to work through us. Life can always have meaning and purpose when we nurture our spiritual relationship with Our Lord.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Voting Catholic

Catholics all over the United States are being asked to view a video presentation this weekend on Faithful Citizenship, A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility. With much controversy in the Catholic Community about Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry's position on many moral issues, the Church has taken unprecedented steps to inform Catholic voters of their obligation to support Christian ethics at the polls.

John Kerry calls himself a Catholic, but he supports abortion rights and voted against the ban on partial birth abortion. He supports embryonic stem cell research, and opposes a federal law that would prohibit same-sex marriage. As an active accomplice to intrinsically evil acts, a number of bishops have banned Kerry from receiving Holy Communion. Incumbent President Bush, though not Catholic, stands much more closely aligned with Church teaching on all of these issues.

Traditionally Democratic Catholics find themselves in a dilemma. Any time President Bush tries to appoint a conservative, and presumably pro-life, federal judge, the Democrats block the nomination. Assuming one or two Supreme Court Justices could be appointed during the next four years, the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade may hinge on the upcoming election. It is probably no coincidence that Catholic Bishops have become uncharacteristically vocal about exercising moral responsibility at the voting booth.

Complicating the matter is the perception, mostly perpetrated by the Democrats and the liberal press, that President Bush grossly erred in leading the country into an Iraqi War where more than 1000 Americans have given their lives. Some Catholic priests and bishops have openly preached against the war, and by implication, against the current administration. Many consider their vote to be choosing between the lesser of two evils. Combine this fact with the effort by some to deny tax-exempt status for religious communities who have become too vocal in the political arena, and the result is a number of somewhat ambiguous mandates for political responsibility by Catholic voters.

The video presentation at our parish this evening took about eighteen minutes. It was followed by a discussion among the twenty or so participants, monitored by a parishioner well-known as a leader in the local Democratic party. He raised several questions about how we as Catholics can support all moral issues while not turning our backs on those who are less fortunate than we are. The implication seemed to be that while the abortion issue is important, that voting for the other candidate also carries its share of societal immorality.

Another parishioner, once a high ranking army officer, spoke on the abortion issue saying that the Church has always taught that it is wrong, and we must support this teaching if we are to be faithful Catholics. The moderator did not disagree, but kept coming back to the notion that choices are difficult when other considerations come into play. Our pastor made a remark about God's Law taking precedence over our Civil Law or something to that effect.

The video, like all other statements from the Church regarding the election, never mentions any candidate by name. Even those participating in the discussion were not mentioning names -- at least not until I spoke up! As the moderator seemed to be leading us into a consensus of a no-win situation, I pointed out that the abortion is the key issue here. The possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade is prompting all of this activism within the Church. During the next four years, one or two vacancies on the Supreme Court could occur. If George Bush is re-elected, the possibility exists that abortion rights could be limited or overturned. If John Kerry is elected, there is no chance it will happen.

Our Democrat moderator then asked me a question. "What if George Bush drops a nuclear weapon on Afghanistan and kills another thousand people?" I replied by saying first of all, George Bush is not going to do that. (Afghanistan was holding its first presidential election this very weekend, possibly unbeknownst to our moderator.) Secondly, we don't know whether our situation would be better or worse had John Kerry been president the past four years. An older woman sitting with her husband across from me snapped back that their grandson was serving in Iraq and he had no business being there.

I replied that it's easy to look back and say, 'we should not have done this' or 'we should have done that.' I asked how many lives are being saved because Saddam Hussein is no longer conducting mass killings of Iraqi citizens. The question now is, which of the two candidates more closely aligns themselves with Catholic teaching. The abortion stance is a good moral barometer for determining the basic character of the candidate, and likely indicates how that person will respond to the basic needs of those who are unable to defend themselves.

In view of Church teaching, no faithful Catholic can cast a vote for John Kerry. Doing so puts one in jeopardy of being an accessory to evil should Kerry's election result in the proliferation of abortion. (How's that for an oxymoron?) The non-choice for Catholics on election day is clear. Yet, George Bush did not follow Church teaching either in the invasion of Iraq. Can we make a distinction between him and his opponent in terms of moral responsibility?

One may certainly argue that had George Bush not invaded Iraq, more that a thousand American soldiers would still be alive today. So would hundreds of terrorists. An evil dictator would still be in power and his people would still be living in hopeless fear. Who knows how many others innocent people, now living, would have died at his hands? We just don't know. We do know that the President did nothing intrinsically evil, even by Church standards. The Church allows for Just Wars under certain circumstances. Whether the Iraq war can be justified is certainly debatable. The President did what he thought was the necessary thing to do in view of the information he had, and that decision was supported at the time by most others in Congress, including John Kerry. The real question involves which issues are subject to debate.

Catholic Answers, Karl Keating's lay apostolate, has published a Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics which lists five non-negotiable issues which no Catholic can support. Those five issues are Abortion, Euthanasia, Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Human Cloning, and Same-sex Marriage. The statement on their web site says, "It is a serious sin to deliberately endorse or promote any of these actions, and no candidate who really wants to advance the common good will support any action contrary to the non-negotiable principles involved in these issues." These are five issues where debate is not an option for Catholics.

Generally speaking, the Republican platform comes closest to the Catholic position on all of these issues, while the Democrats typically stand in opposition. Never has this polarization been more evident. Pro-life Democrats exist, but they are few and far between, especially on the State and Federal level. The Florida Supreme Court recently declared that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube can be removed to allow the brain-damaged woman to slowly starve to death. Many states are now allowing homosexual unions, and a federal bill to prevent same-sex marriage was recently defeated in the Senate. Even human cloning is certain to become a divisive issue when someone figures out how to do it.

While much of the current political rhetoric focuses on Iraq, the Christian conservatives are quietly girding their loins in preparation for an election day attack on Kerry and like-minded liberals. For once, practicing Catholics may be following suit. Past social concerns that may have attracted them to the Democratic party, have been overshadowed by outrage over a 'Catholic' voting against a ban on partial birth abortion. With the polls predicting a close race, an unusually large Christian turnout is likely in November.

If we as Catholics are serious about our citizenship responsibilities, we must cast our votes for candidates who do not violate the basic principles of our Faith. To do otherwise is a grave sin. Many life-long Catholic Democrats justify their votes with concocted moral loopholes. They may say that both Presidential Candidates have moral deficiencies thereby allowing some justifiable discretion for staying within party lines. They may argue that John Kerry does not like abortion, but respects its legality under the Constitution whereas George Bush is a warmonger who is responsible for many unnecessary deaths. The fact is, any mistakes the President may have made were not motivated by an ideology rooted in evil.

Others may say that the President does not have the power to overturn Roe v. Wade anyway, so whichever candidate is elected will make little difference. This is simply not true. Presidents appoint federal judges. During the past four years, every conservative judicial nominee named by President Bush has been opposed by the Democrats. Many of these judges may someday be in a position to decide cases relevant to the non-negotiable Catholic issues.

The outcome of the November election will directly affect the moral direction this country takes. We can not support those who are allied with the culture of death. To do so contributes to the acceptance of evil in our society. We can put pressure on the Democratic party to moderate their platform to more closely conform to mainstream Christian values by sending a message in November. It is our duty as Catholic Americans.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Nature of His Presence

In my earlier efforts to emphatically describe the Reality of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, I sometimes said that He is physically present. By this, I meant to contrast the Protestant belief of a mere spiritual or metaphorical presence. I used the word physical to convey that we can perceive Him with our senses, though the appearance is bread and wine.

The September, 2004 issue of This Rock Magazine contained a letter to the editor from Richard Gaillardetz, the author of a book titled By What Authority, in response to a Book Review which appeared in This Rock last March. The reviewer criticized the book on several points and accused Gaillardetz of believing that Christ is present in the Eucharist "symbolically but not physically." In Gaillardetz's letter, he says that both Augustine and Aquinas insisted that the Eucharistic Body of Christ was not Christ's physical body. Rather Christ is present in a real but spiritual manner. Then he quotes an Aquinas commentary on Augustine to back his argument.

James Kidd, the author of the critical Book Review, responded in the September issue by acknowledging that "it is true that the Church does not teach that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist". This exchange forced me to reevaluate my description of the Holy Eucharist. The problem lies not in my misunderstanding the nature of the Eucharist, but rather in my misunderstanding of the word physical. The first definition in my dictionary says "of nature and all matter." To me, physical meant having substance or form, perceptible to the senses. While we often use the word in that way, it carries a deeper philosophical meaning which renders it inappropriate when describing the nature of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.

The July/August, 2000 issue of Envoy Magazine contains discussion on this topic in some detail, pointing out that the Council of Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, all avoid using the word physical when describing the Real Presence. The editor includes the following statement:

Whether Christ's real presence in the Sacrament is "physical" depends on how we choose to define "physical," since the Magisterium hasn't defined this term for us as a way of speaking about the matter. Some orthodox Catholic writers have used the word in this regard, and if we use it in the popular sense of "material" or "corporeal," then the Church does in fact affirm such a "physical" presence. On the other hand, if we define the term in such a way that we would argue against a "physical" presence, then we must make clear that in doing so we don't mean to imply that the presence is merely "spiritual," "symbolic," or "psychological."

This is where the confusion arises. I originally used the word physical to emphasize that Christ is Bodily present, and what appears to be bread and wine is NOT bread and wine. What we see, feel, hear, smell, and taste is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the same Body and Blood sacrificed on Calvary, made Present on the altar today. Yet, the accidents, or appearance of bread and wine normally remains, and philosophically, we must distinguish between the appearance and the substance. By proper definition, we cannot say the presence is physical because it is not natural. Rather, it is supernatural. The substance changes, but the accidents do not. Therefore, I used the term physical incorrectly.

As the Envoy editor points out, a problem arises when we Catholics try to describe the nature of the Holy Eucharist to our Protestant brothers and sisters. If we say the Presence is not physical, most will take us to mean it is symbolic. On the other hand, when I used the word physical during a discussion with an Evangelical Protestant, he thought I was claiming the Body and Blood could be discerned by laboratory analysis. How do we avoid the word physical and convey the reality? I can now empathize with the Council of Trent. Confronted with this dilemma in 1551, they coined a new word,
Transubstantiation, to describe what happens during the consecration. Today, we are still challenged to find English words to adequately explain what it means.

If Christ is not physically present, what term can we use? Substantially present? Sounds too much like mostly present. Really present may not adequately convey the change in substance that actually takes place. We can say that He is Sacramentally present, but non-Catholics will probably interpret this as a symbolic existence.

The Envoy magazine article noted above, quotes the Council of Trent's explanation. It says the following: "In the first place, the holy Synod teaches, and openly and simply professes, that, in the august sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the species of those sensible things." Perhaps the Council's repetitative emphasis says it best. What appears to be bread and wine, is truly, really and substantially the Body and Blood of Christ.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Bringing Up Father

Our church building was erected in 1910. The architecture is modeled after the European Cathedrals of that era, being long and narrow with high ceilings and many steps. In those days, people were not so concerned with access for people with disabilities. Wheelchairs were large and unwieldy. Anyone confined to one would not even attempt to attend Mass. In recent years, the Americans with Disabilities Act has brought accessibility needs to the forefront.

A few people left our parish because our previous pastor refused to even consider modifying the church entrance for accessibility. Perhaps he had more insight than for which we gave him credit. Most parishioners with a penchant to opine, chastised him soundly for his unwillingness to help the disabled get to Mass. They rejoiced when his replacement was announced. Finally, we will get our ramp! Well, it did not turn out to be that simple. Two years later, the struggle continues.

Retrofitting such a structure to make it accessible can be difficult if not impossible. The biggest obstacle has been coming up with a design which serves the purpose at a reasonable cost. While a ramp may seem like a simple solution, it is not. To meet ADA requirements, it must be about sixty feet long. Once a wheelchair is transported to the landing at the door, one more four-inch step awaits. The landing is narrow and the closest doors are too small to accommodate a wheelchair. The brick walls and arches over the doors make them impossible to enlarge.

Our parish council has come up with three possible designs to make the church accessible. All three have downsides. Two involve ramps and one involves a lift. All three require drastic modifications to the front of the church. None provide access to the church hall downstairs. Better solutions exist, but they are expensive.

Compounding the problem is a pastor who has little aesthetic savvy. A proponent of post-Vatican II modernism, he would not hesitate to desecrate the old to conform to the new, squeezing square pegs into the round holes if necessary. His emphasis on horizontal worship surfaces in the accessibility debate also. A meeting of the parish council was held earlier this month where a vote to select one of the three proposals was to be taken. Father provided those in attendance with a written statement which contained the following passage:

"Evidently the many stairs that led up to the Church proper reflected the poor theological mindset of that day, that is, God is 'up there' in the Heavens or riding mysteriously on some cloud and everything and everyone else was below. Recall the picture that depicted the hierarchical arrangement of Heaven & Earth in the older Bibles? As people finally ascended the stairs and entered the Church building they were drawn to that concept with the adorned ceiling that displayed such artistry and celebrated the Tridentine style of worship as to where the focus was magically and mysteriously 'up there'. The Communion Rail and Choir Loft both served to enhance such a concept."

I wonder where we ever picked up that "poor theological mindset." Perusing the New Testament alone, I found 42 references to God being 'up there' in the heavens. Include other passages in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, Eucharistic Prayer I (Roman Canon), and the fact that we celebrate Christ's ASCENSION, it is not difficult to understand why we look up to seek God. Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. Jesus Himself used this imagery frequently. Too bad none of the modernists were around then to correct Him.

Many Biblical accounts describe Jesus "looking up to heaven" when He performed miracles. (Mk 6:41, Mk 7:34, Matt 9:16, Matt 14:19) We read of angels descending from heaven (Matt 28:2), the Holy Spirit descending from heaven. (Lk 3:22) (John 1:32-33) "So then the Lord Jesus . . . . was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God." (Mk 16:19) ". . . . and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." (Matt 24:30) "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." (John 3:3) "For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." (John 6:33) And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself." (John 12:32)

There are many more. "For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead of Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." (1Thess 4:16-17) "What does 'he ascended' mean except that he also descended into the [regions] of the earth? The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things." (Eph 4:9-10) [All Bible quotations are from the New American Bible.]

Are skyward images of God figurative? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, Scripture teaches us to think in these terms. This 'mindset' was taught by Jesus, and alarms should go off when someone tells us His mindset was theologically 'poor'. Even if this image is personification, a sort of Divinity for Dummies concept of God, we cannot go wrong adopting it as Jesus did. Only by imitating His Human Nature will we someday partake in His Divine Nature.

Sunday, July 25, 2004


An announcement from our pastor appeared in the Sunday bulletin on July 25, 2004,  under the heading of Projects Underway.  It said the following:

As some of you already know, as a part of the accessibility plan, a washroom is presently being installed where the Confessional Booth was located.  For those who are questioning, since more people are celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation face to face, the "booth" or "behind the screen" way of celebrating this beautiful Sacrament has been dwindling.  People will still be given the option of face to face or behind the screen via a portable Confessional.  Realistically speaking, the Sacrament can be celebrated anywhere and at anytime.  You might say that's because the Church, ever since Vatican II, has reflected in her life and ministry the beauty of Jesus' reconciling Spirit of healing and grace via Sacred Scripture.  At least a bathroom on the main level of the Church will serve a practical purpose.  That's the essence of Jesus' life with us!

In April, I wrote about the problem of getting Catholics to go to confession.  (Confession Digression, 4-25-04)  One of the suggestions I made to priests was, "Be in the confessional with the door closed prior to the starting time, and do not leave until the end of the schedule.  Those who wish to receive the Sacrament anonymously need to be assured that the priest will not wander out of the confessional, thereby invading their privacy."  Despite the fact that many of those who go regularly are comfortable with face to face confession, many more are not.  And even those who are comfortable on a routine basis, may not be comfortable after committing a serious sin.  For this and other reasons, Churches are required to guarantee anonymity for those who desire it.  Canon Law 964 says the following:

Can. 964 #1 The proper place for hearing sacramental confessions is a church or oratory.  #2  As far as the confessional is concerned, norms are to be issued by the Episcopal Conference, with the proviso however that confessionals, which the faithful who so wish may freely use, are located in an open place, and fitted with a fixed grille between the penitent and the confessor.  #3 Except for a just reason, confessions are not to be heard elsewhere than in a confessional. 

Does our "portable confessional" meet the criteria prescribed in Canon Law 964?  It consists of a kneeler with a small screen (about 18 inches square) which can be raised above the arm rest.  It is hardly fixed.  The "screen" itself is transparent.  The priest sits on a folding chair facing sideways.  While he may elect not to look the penitent in the eye, anonymity is by no means guaranteed.  Remaining out of the priest's field of peripheral vision may require awkward restrictive movement.  Even if he deliberately diverts his eyes, the penitent has to look directly at the priest through the see-through screen.  No one wishing to be anonymous would be comfortable in this situation.

Father's bulletin assessment that, "Realistically speaking, the Sacrament can be celebrated anywhere and at anytime" may be technically true, but is not the prescribed method according to Canon Law 964, which says confessions must be normally be heard in a confessional in a church or oratory.  The last line of 964 would infer that the confessional is to be an enclosure.  Going into this confessional is not a possibility.  Furthermore, Canon Law 986 says that regular times must be scheduled for confessions.   (We are still in compliance with law 986.)
There is a certain irony to all of this that cannot escape me.  Here we have a Catholic Church removing a facility used for cleansing of the soul and replacing it with one used for cleansing of the body.  And the priest says, "At least a bathroom on the main level of the Church will serve a practical purpose."  How sad.  I bet the bathroom will be installed according to code, and it won't have a see-through screen.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Redemptionis Sacramentum Epilogue
(Some afterthoughts to my evening with Father)

In the days following our talk, I wanted to question Father again on his understanding of the Eucharist. I was especially bothered by him seeming to correct me when I mentioned the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a fundamental truth for all Catholics. His concept of the mystical body of Christ being the same and even superior to the physical presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist was troublesome. I have heard this idea expressed in other forums by various Vatican II hijackers. (Note: See my 9/26/04 Blog entry where I qualify my use of the word physical . Substantial presence would be more appropriate here as physical actually refers to the accidents which remain bread and wine whereas the substance becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. The argument here is Christ's presence in substance verses a spiritual presence.)

An internet search for documents on the Body of Christ quickly turned up a Catholic Q&A page on the EWTN website in which a questioner named Kevin mentions a pamphlet being used in his parish for training extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The pamphlet in question was published by St. Anthony Messenger, "not necessarily a friend of orthodoxy" as Kevin correctly points out. Kevin expressed concern that the "We are Church / We are Eucharist modernist heresy" was being taught to the Eucharistic Ministers.

Kevin's statement said that the pamphlet was written by a theologian from the diocese of Rochester and that Karl Rahner and Nathan Mitchell were quoted. Another internet search using this information revealed a Catholic Update tract called Eucharist: Understanding Christ's Body by William H. Shannon. Where have I heard that name before? This is the same William H. Shannon who raised my dander a year ago today (Pentecost Sunday) when our pastor inserted one of his tracts titled How the Spirit Guides the Church into our Sunday bulletin. (See The Dissent of the Holy Spirit, June 29, 2003.)

Re-reading what I had written about Shannon last June, I realized that our pastor had included this same tract on the Eucharist in one of our Sunday bulletins more than a year ago. Both of these tracts by Shannon quote Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit theologian who lived from 1904 to 1984. As I learned when researching the previous article, Rahner did not believe in transubstantiation. Rather, he devised his own theory of what happens at the consecration, which can be called transfinalization or transignification. Father Regis Scanlon addressed this topic in great detail in an article called Is Christ 'Really' Among Us Today? which appeared in the October 1995 issue of The Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

Father Scanlon concludes that Rahner denied at least two infallible teachings (dogmas) of the Church, one being the Council of Trent's dogmatic teaching of transubstantiation, and the other being the First Vatican Council's dogmatic teaching, which states that the "understanding of its sacred dogmas must be perpetually retained." The fact that William H. Shannon's work relies heavily on Rahner should serve as a warning to anyone expecting orthodox Catholicism.

Father Scanlon made this statement concerning Rahner's beliefs on the Eucharist:
"This so-called new theology of the Real Presence was published in English in 1966 and it has been taught in seminaries and universities of the United States for the past quarter of a century. Because seminarians and students often learn and believe what they are taught, no one should be surprised if 70% of our faithful today do not know or believe in the Church's (Trent's) teaching on the Real Presence."

Connecting the dots, the picture becomes clear. Our pastor was educated during this period of "new theology." He is influenced by people like Shannon as demonstrated by his distribution of Shannon's tracts, and Shannon is influenced by Rahner as demonstrated by his frequent citations. The Shannon article on the Eucharist serves to blur the difference between the mystical Body of Christ (His spiritual presence in the members of His Church) and the Eucharistic Body of Christ (His physical presence under the appearance of Bread and Wine). Our pastor's remarks to me echoed this confusion. In fact, several of the comments he made seemed to come right from the article. For example, Shannon mentions that the custom developed of reserving the "Holy Bread" in a special place in the church to take to the sick, and eventually it happened that people would go to the place of reservation for private prayer.

Shannon quotes another theologian, Nathan Mitchell, saying the following: "The ultimate intent of celebrating Eucharist is not to produce the sacred species for purposes of reservation and adoration, but to create the united body of Christ which is the Church." He goes on to say, "The body of Christ is not only on the table, but at the table and around the table." This is the same sentiment our priest expressed when he criticized me for being focused on the Blessed Sacrament rather than mystical Body.

The message from these modernists is this: This devotional obsession with the Real Presence is something that developed over time, and it detracts from our communion with the Humanity of Christ. We should be looking for Christ in one another rather than in the tabernacle, and to perpetuate this idea, we should downplay our reverence by standing when receiving the Eucharist (in the hand, of course), without genuflecting or showing any other undue obeisance. And if you do, you should be ostracized for being out of touch with post-Vatican II reforms. It's the old horizontal versus vertical worship struggle.

Shannon and his contemporaries pose that one need not be overly reverent to the Holy Eucharist, because the early Church was not. If we dismiss adoration of the Eucharistic Presence as a medieval invention, should we not also dismiss all post-Apostolic era doctrinal developments? We should do neither. Our understanding of revealed truth grows through theological research and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (CCC 94) I deeply resent the implication that reverent devotion to the Holy Eucharist is somehow defective because it developed over time and may not have been practiced to such an extent by earlier Christians. It is like saying you should not respect your parents now because you did not respect them when you were younger.

Devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus in the tabernacle is fitting and just. Jesus Christ is here, physically present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Even the angels prostrate themselves in the presence of God. (Rev 7:11) So, why this concerted effort to stress the horizontal worship at the expense of the vertical? Perhaps some are more comfortable thinking of Jesus as a buddy than our God. By observing Christ in the sinner rather than the tabernacle, He looks far less threatening to those who regularly defy the teachings of His Church. Perhaps it is a rebellion directed at the "holy rollers" who give dirty looks to those who prefer to socialize before Mass. After all, we are twenty-first century Americans. Reverence is a thing of the past.

It is no wonder that as few as 30% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence (according to a 1993 Gallup Poll). That means 70% of all Catholics hold a heretical view of the Eucharist. Tension develops between the few who truly understand Christ's physical Presence and act accordingly, versus the majority who treat the Eucharist as little more than a spiritual vitamin pill. The May 2, 2004 edition of our local Diocesan newspaper (the same edition which announced Redemptionis Sacramentum) contained an article by Father Ronald Rolheise where he talks about these sources of tension in the Church today. The article caught my eye, not because it was topical, but because the very first sentence cited Karl Rahner. Perhaps we owe much of our present day discord to his influence!

For me personally, the irony lies in my pastor's first words to me when I presented him with the copy of Redemtionis Sacramentum. He told me that I need to check my sources. He did not trust me to discern the legitimacy of my source (The Vatican), yet he counters my orthodox beliefs with those of heretics. One might argue that even some of the Church Fathers held heretical views, but that was before those views were dogmatically defined. There is no excuse today. Check your sources, Father. Check your sources.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Redemptionis Sacramentum

Many of us who are concerned about a growing disregard for the rubrics of the Mass among many bishops and priests, have been looking forward to the release of new document from the Vatican intended to rein in the abusers. On Friday, April 23, 2004, The Congregation for Divine worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament released Redemptionis Sacramentum on certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.

The document is of particular interest to me because it addresses the overuse of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. When our new pastor was assigned here about two years ago, one of the first changes he made was the manner in which the choir receives the Holy Eucharist. Our church is an old building with the choir loft in the rear. Previously, the choir and organist would come downstairs to be first in line, or one of the Extraordinary Ministers would bring Communion upstairs to the choir after everyone else had received. Being a member of the choir, Father asked me to come to the altar when the other EM's come forward, and he would give me a ciborium to take to the loft for distribution. I was never properly deputed as an EM, but Father said anyone who is confirmed could be appointed as a Eucharist Minister.

I was never comfortable with this arrangement, knowing I was not properly trained or appointed by the bishop, but I complied with our pastor's wish as a matter of obedience. To justify my participation in my own conscience, I felt that I held the Holy Eucharist in greater reverence than some of the other EEM's who distributed Holy Communion in blue jeans and tee shirts.
Father wanted me to count how many hosts would be needed and notify him before the start of the Mass. He would place the correct number in the ciborium and I could then leave the ciborium on the table in the choir loft until the end of Mass.

It sounds simple enough, but seldom worked out that way. Late arrivals or a person not receiving would often skew the count. And to make matters worse, Father frequently put the wrong number in the ciborium, forcing me to fracture some Hosts or give multiple Hosts to the last person in line.

On the Friday Redemptionis Sacramentum was released, I printed the entire document, about 58 pages, from the Vatican website. I placed it in a 3-ring binder complete with a cover page. I also printed a short news release from a Catholic internet site which described the main points of the text. Two sections of the document (#155 and #158) were pertinent to my situation. They are as follows with my emphasis added:

[155.] In addition to the ordinary ministers there is the formally instituted acolyte, who by virtue of his institution is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion even outside the celebration of Mass. If, moreover, reasons of real necessity prompt it, another lay member of Christ's faithful may also be delegated by the diocesan Bishop, in accordance with the norm of law, for one occasion or for a specified time, and an appropriate formula of blessing may be used for the occasion. This act of appointment, however, does not necessarily take a liturgical form, nor, if it does take a liturgical form, should it resemble sacred Ordination in any way. Finally, in special cases of an unforeseen nature, permission can be given for a single occasion by the Priest who presides at the celebration of the Eucharist.

[158.] Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.

These two statements were my way out of an uncomfortable situation. I was never appointed by the diocesan Bishop, and the Priest can only grant permission for a single occasion for a special case of unforeseen nature. Furthermore, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion should only be used when the Mass would be unduly prolonged. Counting myself, our church routinely uses four extraordinary ministers in addition to the priest to distribute Holy Communion at the weekend Masses. If the Blood of Christ were not distributed, not using any extraordinary ministers on Sunday might make the Mass last 45 minutes instead of the usual 35 to 40.

Our parish rectory does not have internet access. I take care of the website from my home and deliver any email messages to Father, so he is accustomed to me handing him papers after Mass. I decided to take the news release with me to Mass on Saturday morning. Few people attend that Mass and I would have an opportunity to show the article to Father and ask to be relieved of my extraordinary minister duty.

I am fairly certain Father thinks of me as a conservative Catholic (and therefore, an adversary) from comments I have made about his proposals to rearrange the configuration of our church. I prefer to think of myself as a seeker of orthodoxy. While we are on good terms, a certain edginess exists in our relationship as if a confrontation is someday inevitable.

As I handed the news release to Father, I told him it was about a document just released by the Vatican. He said something about it probably being about an abortion issue. I said no. It is an instruction on the Holy Eucharist and talks about the use of extraordinary ministers. He glanced at the paper and saw the words liturgical abuse, and immediately went on the defensive. "Check your sources, Rich - Check your sources," he warned me without reading any further. He asked me if I got this from the Internet. I told him I did. And he repeated several times that I should "check my sources." I said, "Father, it's from the Vatican," but, he refused to believe it was a legitimate source.

Taking a defensive posture without even reading the article, and casting dispersions on my ability to discern a legitimate source did not sit well with me. I went to my truck where I happened to have Redemptionis Sacramentum in the three ring binder, complete with some items highlighted. I had not intended to give him the whole document, but I did take it with me just in case the opportunity arose. I followed him into the sacristy and gave it to him. He resisted, but I asked him to check the source, and if it was legitimate, I would like an opportunity to speak with him about it. He said okay.

The next day, the Parish Life Committee was serving breakfast after all the Sunday Masses. I was eating with my uncle when Father approached our table. He said, "I've never blessed your house, have I?" I said no, and he said he would like to come over to do it, either Monday or Tuesday. We agreed on Tuesday at 5 PM. After consulting with my wife, I spoke with Father after Mass on Monday and invited him to stay for dinner after the blessing.

I assumed the offer to bless our home was mostly an excuse for getting together for a talk which I welcomed. The next 48 hours were spent thinking about what I should say to Father about my concerns. As it turned out, I should have also given some thought to what blessing out house would entail.

As a parent of two teenagers still living at home, I have been often frustrated trying to get them to keep their rooms clean. My son's room has the look of an office or studio. It is filled with computers, musical instruments, and miscellaneous clutter. My daughter's room - well, I can hardly describe it. The carpet is barely visible. Entering her room requires special equipment. Need I say more?

Even my wife, a full time educator and avid reader, has little time for housekeeping while school is in session. By the time the school year draws to a close, an accumulation of books and papers fills all available storage space. The house generally gets reorganized during the summer and then the cycle begins again. May is probably the worst month to entertain visitors with plenty of activities crammed into the end of the school year for my wife and children. Some areas of the house were a bit cluttered when Father came to visit on Tuesday evening.

It is customary for the priest to sprinkle holy water in each room of the house when he does a blessing. I was so concerned about topics of discussion that I nearly forgot about the blessing. Despite our efforts to steer him away from some of our disaster areas, he persisted until we allowed access to the entire house. I hope some of my messier family members were embarrassed. I know I was.

After the blessing, we enjoyed a simple dinner with pleasant conversation. My wife had to attend a meeting shortly after we had finished eating, so I was left to fend for myself. I began by explaining my concern about serving as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion in view of what Redemptoris Sacramentum says about their overuse. Having never been properly deputed by the bishop, I told Father that I would prefer not to act in that capacity anymore.

Surprisingly, he seemed agreeable. Father said it would be alright if all of us in the choir loft came downstairs to be first in line. Afterwards, we could return to the loft and begin the Communion hymn. This is precisely the way we received Communion prior to this priest's arrival. We changed the procedure at his request to comply with a directive from the bishop to begin the Communion hymn as soon as the priest receives. While going downstairs will delay the beginning of the hymn, that 'abuse' pales in comparison to any unintended profanation of the Holy Eucharist.

Despite a cordial start to our discussion, it was soon evident that our spiritual temperaments were not in harmony. Communication between us was very difficult, as though we were each broadcasting on different frequencies. I found myself questioning whether Father really said what I thought he said. I made mental notes and wrote them down later, paraphrasing his comments as best as I could.

In making my case for eliminating unnecessary ministers of Holy Communion, I pointed out that article 93 of Redemptionis Sacramentum says, "The Communion plate for the Communion of the faithful should be retained, so as to avoid the danger of the sacred host or some fragment of it falling." Neither the priest nor the extraordinary minister uses a paten during distribution in our parish. Father responded by saying that "communion plate" does not refer to a paten. Rather, this article means we are to distribute Holy Communion from large plates instead of using ciboria. In hindsight, I should have asked Father for documentation to support his interpretation. Perhaps he could be correct about this.

Article 106 says, ". . . the pouring of the Blood of Christ after the consecration from one vessel to another is completely to be avoided, lest anything should happen that would be to the detriment of so great a mystery. Never to be used for containing the Blood of the Lord are flagons, bowls, or other vessels that are not fully in accord with the established norms." Though I did not question him about this practice, Father continues to use a flagon for the consecration. Flagons are impossible to purify properly as the purificator cannot be used to wipe the inside.

Also regarding Sacred vessels, article 117 says (with my emphasis added), "Sacred vessels for containing the Body and Blood of the Lord must be made in strict conformity with the norms of tradition and of the liturgical books. The Bishops' Conferences have the faculty to decide whether it is appropriate, once their decisions have been given the recognition by the Apostolic See, for sacred vessels to be made of other solid materials as well. It is strictly required, however, that such materials be truly noble in the common estimation within a given region, so that honour will be given to the Lord by their use, and all risk of diminishing the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species in the eyes of the faithful will be avoided. Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily. This norm is to be applied even as regards metals and other materials that easily rust or deteriorate.

We use wine glasses in our parish for the distributing the Precious Blood. I questioned Father about this practice in view of what the document says. He replied that it means we should not use "cheap" glass. Father held up a heavy tumbler in which we had served him soda as an example of "cheap" glass. Again, Father had his own interpretation. Since the possibility of breakage seems to be a concern of article 117, the tumbler might be more appropriate than wine glasses despite its lack of artistic merit.

A pattern seemed to be emerging - a pattern not unique to our priest, but one uncomfortably common among many Catholic clergy. Catholic apologists see a similar pattern in dialogue with Protestants. Because of their rejection of Magesterial Authority and Apostolic Tradition, Protestants are relegated to self-interpretation of Scripture. In order to counter Catholic teaching, they must often twist biblical interpretation to conform to their own ideology. In some cases, very obvious Biblical teaching is just plain ignored if the interpreter finds it too difficult to accept. Similarly, some Catholics arbitrarily pick which doctrines they wish to observe according to their own consciences. Is this not the same thing our pastor and others like him are doing? By twisting the interpretation of certain articles and ignoring others, they are free to do as they please. They are not obeying authority as good Catholics should. The adherence to Christ-delegated authority is what separates us from all the rest.

I attempted to make this point using abortion as an example. Presidential candidate John Kerry, reportedly a Catholic, is currently in the news defending abortion rights. I asked Father if he could see a parallel between a Catholic ignoring Church teaching on abortion and a priest ignoring Church instructions on the Liturgy. He said that I was comparing mountains and mole hills. He also indicated that many of these directives are issued because of a shortage of priests leading to problems in some localities. He said we are far more orthodox than many European countries, especially France. In other words, we can ignore some of these instructions because they are not really directed at us. In my view, dissention or disagreement infers a perception of error, and if the clergy thinks the Vatican directive is in error or unimportant, the same clergy cannot expect their flock to follow all Vatican directives or teachings.

The discussion got interesting when I expressed my concern for the loss of reverence for Holy Eucharist in the Tabernacle. Father passionately emphasized the REAL presence of Christ is within US- not the Tabernacle. "WE are the Body of Christ," he said clutching his heart. I said, "He is not present in US the same way as in the Tabernacle." Father disagreed. He said the original tabernacle was just a breadbox, and anyone who ministered to the sick could take Eucharistic bread to the infirmed. He mentioned how one of our parishioners attended Mass at a parish where the Sanctuary Lamp hung from the center of the ceiling. Father seemed to indicate that this positioning more properly signified Christ's presence in the entire congregation, and this is why having a circular configuration surrounding the altar is most appropriate.

Thinking I must be misunderstanding Father's expression of the Eucharist, I tried to restate that Christ is present physically. (Note: See my 9/26/04 Blog entry where I qualify my use of the word physically here. The word physical applies to the accidents rather than the substance. The accidents or physical appearance of bread and wine remains. It is the substance that becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. The argument here is whether Christ's Bodily Presence in the Eucharistic substance is the same as a spiritual presence in all of us as members of Christ's Body, that being the Church.) Father replied by saying it is a spiritual presence. I said present "Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity." Father shot back with "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." In retrospect, I am confused about whether he meant I was wrong, or whether my answer was insufficient. In either case, I am now wondering whether his views are heretical.

As our evening neared an end, Father stated that the problem with the church today is the 500 years preceding Vatican II. He told me I was stuck in the Tridentine - that I misunderstand the Body of Christ. I told him that we will just have to disagree, then. As he left, he said, "At least, you aren't like some of the others."

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Confession Digression

The April 4, 2004 edition of the Northwest Indiana Catholic newspaper contains a Catholic News Service article by Jerry Filteau titled Who is going to confession? The story is about a symposium at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC, held to discuss the reason so many Catholics no longer participate in frequent confession.

According to the article, Boston College historian James O'Toole stated, "Between 1965 and 1975, the number of American Catholics going to confession fell through the floor." O'Toole and other symposium participants listed numerous reasons for the "near-demise of auricular confession" during those years. Quoting from the article, it lists four:
1. Its speed: The typical confession was "two minutes or less" and many felt it was perfunctory.
2. Fear: "Everybody seemed to have a story of a priest yelling at them," and as soon as they felt they could give confession up, they did.
3. A "growing sense of triviality": Catechetical instruction on the rite continued to call for enumeration of individual sins by kind and gravity, while Catholics were starting to think of sin in categories such as social sin, sinful attitudes behind one's individual actions, and fundamental option instead of the classical "mortal" or "venial" categories.
4. Contraception: When Pope Paul VI reaffirmed in 1968 the church teaching that use of contraception in the conjugal act was always intrinsically wrong, "most Catholics stopped confessing it."

Taking O'Toole's points one by one, I see it a little differently:
1. Speed: Even in the old days when we went to confession frequently, I don't recall ever hearing anyone say, "Gee, I wish I could spend more time in that confessional." Nobody enjoys telling their sins to a priest. We did it because it was necessary and a pre-requisite for receiving the Eucharist.
2. Fear: In the old days of frequent confession, perhaps everybody had a story of a priest "yelling" at them. We still went to confession. After all, we deserved a scolding once in a while. Nowadays, priests never "yell" in the confessional, and yet, nobody comes.
3. A "growing sense of triviality": O'Toole is getting closer here. There has been a de-emphasis of the mortality of mortal sin. The pre-Vatican II booklets we used to examine our consciences prior to confession were very specific with mortal sins written in all capital letters. More on this later.
4. Contraception: This is a valid point among Catholics of reproductive age. The sin of contraception is probably one of the toughest teachings for Catholic couples to accept. The assumed practice of birth control by Catholics caused many to turn inward to their own consciences when discerning right from wrong. To validate their behavior, they assumed an attitude that the church, run by a celibate all-male clergy, just didn't understand the workings of married life. Most felt the Church was disconnected from modern reality. Catholics became faced with three choices: They could confess something they did not feel was wrong and were not willing to give up. They could dismiss contraception as a sin and omit it from the confession. Or, they could acknowledge the perceived disconnect of the Catholic clergy and simply avoid confession altogether.

While O'Toole makes some valid points, the reasons Catholics avoid confession go much deeper. It is no coincidence that the number of confessions plummeted after Vatican II. Perception of sin changed drastically in the aftermath of the Council. For example, prior to Vatican II, Church precepts dictated that eating meat on Friday was a Mortal Sin. Dying in a state of Mortal Sin meant going to hell. After Vatican II, the Church allowed another penance to be substituted for abstinence from meat on Fridays. When was the last time you heard a priest say that you still need to refrain from meat if you don't substitute something else? Is it still a Mortal Sin? Who knows?

Thomas Aquinas warned of changing rules without good reason. In fact, he goes beyond that, saying that rules should never be changed unless it would cause more harm NOT to change them. He reasoned that changing any rule diminished the binding power of the rule. The command to do penance on Fridays carried little weight after the rule was changed. Catholics wondered how many were banished to hell for something that was perfectly acceptable now?

Since meatless Fridays were so closely associated with Catholicism, the diminished power of the rule carried over to other perceptions of sin, changing the mindset of the typical Catholic. If we will no longer go to hell for eating meat on Fridays, we probably won't go to hell for missing Mass on Sundays or failing to confess mortal sins once a year, especially if these sins are no longer mortal. The line between right and wrong took on a more subjective feel. Catholics began to rely on personal discernment to form their consciences.

Vatican II also changed the mechanics of confession. Confession became the Sacrament of Penance or Sacrament of Reconciliation. We were no longer to say, "Bless me Father for I have sinned." This was replaced by a short dialogue of prayer with responses which made some Catholics uncomfortable. It is hard enough to remember one's sins without having to recall lines such as "His mercy endures forever." Later, many Catholics reverted to the old form, but those who began confessing less frequently became confused about which form to use. Some confessionals displayed a prayer card with the wording, but many did not. In the confusion (and as another result of the diminished power of a changed rule), form became unimportant. Yet, those who were uncertain what to do and too embarrassed to ask, simply stayed away.

The aftermath of Vatican II also affected our reverence for the Eucharist. We went from communion cloth to no cloth, rail to no rail, kneeling to standing, paten to no paten, receiving on the tongue to receiving in the hand. We went from priestly distribution to lay Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers. We went from ornate tabernacles to humble boxes. And as Thomas would have expected, the binding power of the rules diminished to the point where receiving the Eucharist is a state of grace was no longer an issue. It is not so much that Vatican II changes were bad, but the fact that they were changes reduced their binding power to the point of casual abuse.

Prior to Vatican II, nearly all confessions were completely anonymous, done behind an opaque screen in privacy. Now, Catholics have the option of going face to face. Many Catholics are uncomfortable with face to face confession, but feel a certain stigma attached to hiding behind a screen when others are openly confessing. A recent emphasis on Communal Reconciliation Services with multiple priests hearing individual confessions makes anonymity even more difficult since most churches have only one confessional and the other priests generally hear face to face. Those preferring to go behind the screen may feel alienated or intimidated by the communal service. Again, it becomes easier to avoid an uncomfortable situation. And since the communal penance service is held only twice a year in many parishes, those who do like it may gain the perception that twice a year is frequent enough.

Another nuance was a change in the way sins were confessed. Confessing, especially face to face, took on a more conversational manner. While this might be good, it requires more thought and composition which can be disconcerting. This can be a problem during communal services where brevity is a concern. When discussing intimate details of one's life, some people need time to open up.

The shortage of priests may also affect the number of people going to confession. Whether we admit it or not, we sometimes rate priests on how easy or difficult it is to confess to them. Some give a little lecture and tough penance and others simply tell you to say three Hail Marys, pray the Act of Contrition and go in peace regardless of the gravity of the sin. With many parishes having only one priest, our choice of confessors is often limited. The increased role of the laity has forged closer working relationships with the typical parish priest and many find it difficult to tell their darkest sins to someone they are close to.

All of this confessional avoidance becomes commonplace because of something I call Peer Permission. We know about the power of peer pressure, the tendency to do something because others are doing it. Peer Permission is essentially allowing ourselves to be derelict in duties because others are doing the same. Not going to confession becomes acceptable because our peers are not going either.

Priests contribute to this acceptance by not speaking out. Their homilies rarely mention the devil or mortal sin. Instead, we hear about how forgiving and merciful God is. This is true, but part of the message is missing. God provided a means for attaining his forgiveness and mercy sacramentally. The absence of this emphasis by the clergy infers a validation that minimizes the appearance of necessity.

Reversing the exodus from Sacramental confession will not be easy. The burden may fall on the shoulders of the same parish priest whose attitude may have contributed to the problem. He himself may require some coerced reflection on the importance of the sacrament. Once the decision is made to bring people back to confession, a three step approach may work best. First, create the desire for Sacramental confession by demonstrating the need for souls to be clean. This may require extensive re-education. Second, ease the fear and apprehension of those who have not been to confession for a long time. And third, provide frequent opportunities.

Getting people back into the confessional must start from the pulpit. Sunday homilies are the best way to educate a captive audience. And, one homily is not enough. It may take a series of homilies. We need to go back to the very basics, explaining the necessity of confession and addressing what has transpired since Vatican II. We need to re-catechize adults as if they were making their first confession. How should we confess? What should we say when we enter the confessional? Do we need to be specific in name and number? Assure the penitent that the Act of Contrition will be posted in the confessional for those too nervous to say it by rote.

When I was in the second grade preparing for my first confession, our priest used a simple visual aid which fascinated me at the time. It was a white tube similar to the cardboard core from a roll of paper towels, though slightly larger. The word Confession was printed on the outside. Father used handkerchiefs to represent souls. Some were snow white, representing souls free from sin. Some had some black ink spots, representing souls with venial sins. Others were completely black, representing souls in a state of mortal sin. Much like a magic trick, he would insert the sinful souls into one end of the tube, and they would come out the other end white. To illustrate making a bad confession, the handkerchiefs came out of the tube with spots remaining. It was a very effective tool to use on a seven-year-old.

I have often lamented that Catholics sometime suffer from a spiritual retardation, never progressing much beyond that elementary level. We have been so poorly catechized over the past forty years that an entire generation knows little about their faith including the importance of the confession. Sadly, we find ourselves in a condition where parents are unable to pass the faith to their children. We have much work to do. We can begin by restoring our reverence for the Holy Eucharist. Emphasizing the importance of being in a state of grace before receiving Communion is essential at this time where Catholics routinely take the Body of Christ as if it were a vitamin pill.

On Divine Mercy Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, Catholics had an opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence. Many Catholics today do not know what a plenary indulgence is, let alone how to get one. A plenary indulgence is the complete remission of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. (CCC 1471) What a wonderful gift! How many priests even mentioned this to their congregations? Unfortunately, there is so much confusion about indulgences that it has become Catholic taboo to talk about them. Our Lord has offered us a wonderful gift and we simply ignore it.

Gaining the plenary indulgence is fairly simple. According to the Divine Mercy Sunday website, "The plenary indulgence is granted (under the usual conditions of a sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and a prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff) to the faithful who, on Divine Mercy Sunday, in a spirit that is completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin, recite the Our Father and the Creed, and also adding a devout prayer (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you!)."

A priest who stresses the importance of this gift and offers special opportunities for confession to gain the indulgence, would certainly stand a chance of getting a few more Catholics into the confessional. Those who made a good confession for Easter could probably have obtained the Divine Mercy indulgence with little additional effort. While it is apparently not necessary that the confession take place the same day, it nonetheless needs to take place within a reasonable timeframe. If the priest no longer mentions these indulgence opportunities, even those aware of them will assume they are no longer important.

At some point in the re-education process, it will be necessary to be blunt with the congregation. They must learned a renewed reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and be made aware of the sin of receiving the Holy Eucharist in a state of sin. They must know how to form their consciences in accordance with Church teaching. Perhaps we need a renewed fear of the realities of hell. Blessed Sister Faustina, whose vision of the Sacred Heart led to the institution of Divine Mercy Sunday, also had a Vision of Hell. Her diary mentions seven tortures of indescribable suffering, and she warns that most souls there were ones who did not believe hell existed. A re-examination of eternal damnation would certainly foster an appreciation for the availability of Sacramental forgiveness.

Married couples must be told that they should not be receiving Communion if they practice artificial birth control. At the same time, every parish should be offering instruction on Natural Family Planning to ALL married couples and those in marriage preparation classes. It is a great disservice to the mission of salvation to simply condemn artificial birth control without teaching the alternatives. Contact the Couple to Couple League for assistance.

Beyond the educational process, the priest can do several simple things to make their parishioners more comfortable making their confessions. Schedule confessions at regular times. Be in the confessional with the door closed prior to the starting time, and do not leave until the end of the schedule. Those who wish to receive the Sacrament anonymously need to be assured that the priest will not wander out of the confessional, thereby invading their privacy. Once per month, swap parishes with a neighboring priest. Give your parishioners a regular opportunity to confess to a stranger. Some people feel more comfortable telling their sins to someone with whom they do not have a close relationship.

Set aside ten or fifteen minutes to hear confessions on Sunday before the Masses. This has several advantages. In parishes were confessions are so few that people do not go for fear of being the only ones in attendance, Sunday confessions before Mass will guarantee more people in the church. This not only helps those who seek anonymity in a crowd, it also converts Peer Permissiveness back into Peer Pressure or conformance. When people attending Mass see others entering the confessional, they may feel the necessity to confess also.

Overcoming forty years of neglect will require much effort on the part of bishops, priests and the laity. With a little re-education, compassion, and coaxing, the lines may start to get longer again. While we can do much to break down the barriers, it will ultimately be up to the individual to choose the best route for his or her salvation.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Some Thoughts after viewing The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ, has caused quite a stir here in early 2004. The movie depicts in graphic detail, the twelve hours leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus.

The violence would have been overwhelming had we not been prepared for it by pre-release publicity. Even so, it was difficult to watch. I know Mel Gibson wanted to impress on us the magnitude of the suffering Jesus endured for us, but I thought the scourging prior to the crucifixion was somewhat extreme. I almost felt like the crucifixion itself paled in comparison to the time and intensity of the physical pain He went through prior to that moment. I don't mean that as a criticism of the movie. It is simply recognition of a strange feeling of relief that came over me when the crucifixion came, knowing that His suffering would soon end.

And then comes the realization that we continue to inflict this pain upon Him with our sins. It is this thought that gives me pause. Most Christians agree that Christ died for our sins, and this would include not only the original sin of our first parents, but all of the sins of humanity, past, present and future. How this occurs is a matter for theologians, but to the average person like me, the whole idea can be confounding. The process of salvation would seem to be an important thing to understand, because this is where many Christian denominations veer off in different directions.

Some believe that because Jesus died for ALL our sins, salvation is assured once we accept Jesus as our "personal Lord and Savior." The Bible does mention salvation as a past event, and therefore, some think they are already saved. Of those who think their salvation is already assured, some believe it cannot be lost. We often refer to them as the OSAS (once saved, always saved) crowd. They believe that Christ has atoned for all sins, past present, and future. So, nothing they do from now on can keep them from heaven.

Let us think about this. Did Christ's death on the Cross include payment in advance for our future sins? Is the crucifixion a past payment for future transgressions? Some would probably answer 'yes'. Does it follow then, that any sin we commit in the future, no matter how grievous, cannot take away our salvation? The OSAS people might say that once we accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, we will no longer yield to the temptation of serious sin, and those that do were never really saved in the first place.

Okay, but let us think about this some more. Much of the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's movie about the Passion revolved around charges that it was anti-Semitic in that it blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. Christians of all denominations and Mel Gibson, himself a devout Catholic, countered that we all crucified Jesus by our sins.

Mel did not appear in this movie except in the scene of the crucifixion where it is his arm swinging the hammer, pounding the nails through the hands of Jesus into the Cross. This was his way of assuming personal responsibility for Christ's death. Most Christians would probably agree that every time we sin, we are swinging that hammer.

So, how does this happen exactly? If we continue to hurt Jesus with our sins, was atonement for our sins a payment in advance, or is it a payment that is ongoing and ever present? Christ said it is finished, but how can this be when we continue to sin? How is the debt paid when we continue to cause damage?

As human beings on this earth, we think in physical dimensions learned by observing our surroundings. God, being spirit, is not limited as we are by the same four dimensions, one being time. People smarter than I am, say there is no such thing as time in the spirit world. In other words, time is strictly a property of the physical world. This helps to explain why God could take billions of years to form the universe, as some believe. A billion years to us might be nothing to Him.

Even though the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary took place 2000 years ago in a physical sense, is it not possible it could be ongoing and ever present in a spiritual sense? Could that explain how Christ continues to save us from our sins, past present and future? And, isn't this continuation of the Sacrifice on Calvary exactly what we witness every day in the Mass? The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10: 16)

In the Mass, the physical world we know on earth meets and intermingles with the supernatural world of the Risen Christ where time is no longer of the essence. Hence, the laws of physics do not always apply. Bread and wine can cease to be bread and wine though the accidents remain. Flesh and Blood becomes true food and true drink. What may seem like a past event continues in the present. It is not another sacrifice, but the same sacrifice made present. In the Mass, we enter our own little twilight zone, not an place to be feared, but rather a source of nourishment and life. It is a spiritual reality entering a physical reality, a sight to be gazed upon with awe and majesty.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Who's got the key?
(A followup to Bishop Burke's Wake Up Call [Jan 23])

How do some Catholics justify supporting a pro-abortion candidate? What is the thought process that allows people to call themselves Catholic, yet live in defiance of Catholic teaching on such issues as contraception? The difference between a cafeteria Catholic who chooses which teachings he will follow and the Protestant who self-interprets Scripture to suit his own beliefs is that the Protestant is not a hypocrite.

Whether the topic is Marian dogmas, infant Baptism, Real Presence, purgatory or whatever, nearly every apologetic discussion between Catholics and Protestants eventually turns to a question of Church authority. Does the Magesterium of the Catholic Church have the authority to speak for God? Protestants say no. But Catholics who ignore Catholic doctrine are also saying no. Expressing disagreement with Church teaching implies the belief that the Church is wrong about some things.

While we would expect Protestants to deny the authority of the Catholic Church, Catholics who defy Church authority are also protesting. They are pretending to be something they really aren't. They make a Profession of Faith on Sundays expressing belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Their actions, however, express doubt in the authority of that Church to speak truth. They may call themselves Catholic, but they are in reality behaving as Protestants.

It is important to understand where the Church gets its authority to speak for God. And it is equally important to understand the implication of denying the inerrancy of Church-defined dogma. If one accepts the Bible as the inspired Word of God, then he can know that Jesus Christ was God, and that he established a Church. (Matthew 16: 16-19) Jesus tells us the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against his Church, and He gives Peter the 'keys to the kingdom of heaven.' He tells Peter, "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (NAB)

One sufficiently catechized in his faith, will understand the significance of giving the keys, a symbol of authority, to Peter. A parallel passage in Isaiah 22: 15-25 tells the story of Shebna who held the office of 'Master of the Palace'. The 'Master of the Palace' was a prime minister who ran the day-to-day operation of the kingdom. Shebna disgraced his master's house and his authority was transferred to Eliakim. Verse 22 says, "I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, and when he shuts, no one shall open." (NAB)

Jesus is clearly transferring authority to Peter making him prime minister, not of an earthly kingdom as Eliakim, but rather of the heavenly Kingdom. Even marginal Catholics must accept the fact that Pope John Paul II is the 264th successor to the chair of Peter and thereby possesses the authority of the keys. To bolster that authority, Jesus promised He would send the Holy Spirit to guide His Church to all truth (John 16: 12-13). The Bible also refers to the Church as the pillar and foundation of truth. (1 Tim 3:15) How presumptuous of anyone to look at two thousand years of God-granted authority and say, "I disagree."

And yet, that is precisely what many Catholics do today when they say, "The pope doesn't understand; there is nothing wrong with birth control" or, "I don't like abortion, but I support a woman's right to choose" or, "we should allow women to be priests", or "I don't need to confess these things to a priest; that's between me and God." Even if one finds a way to skew his conscience into thinking the Church is wrong, the Lord's statement about binding and loosing should dispel any feeling of safety. If further confirmation is needed, Jesus told his apostles and their successors, "Whoever listens to you, listens to me. Whoever rejects you, rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me." (Luke 10: 16)

Like Protestants, cafeteria Catholics should also think about the implications of considering some Church doctrine to be in error. To reject the authority of the Church is to reject the authority of Scripture. It was bishops of the Catholic Church who determined which of the early Christian writings were inspired by God. Many claimed to be inspired, but only those accepted by the Church became the New Testament. Jesus promised to deliver truth through His Church. If the Church is capable of error in matters of faith, then erroneous writings could have also been included in Scripture. If we question the validity of the New Testament, all of Christianity begins to unravel.

We don't need to do that. Rest assured, the Bible is the inspired Word of God, but realize we are dependent on an infallible Church to know it. Like Protestantism, cafeteria Catholicism is not a viable option. It is untenable. Either we believe all Catholic doctrine or there is no reason to believe any. The Catholic Church has been given the authority to set the rules in matters of faith and moral responsibility. How sad that some Catholics become so incredulous when a priest or bishop rebukes them for acting in opposition to Church teaching. There is no room for compromise here.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Bishop Burke's Wake Up Call
(Roe v. Wade + 31 years)

The Diocese of La Crosse Wisconsin recently created a stir with the release of a notification from Bishop Raymond L. Burke stating that the Holy Eucharist should be withheld from lawmakers who support abortion or euthanasia. I wholeheartedly applaud the stance Bishop Burke (now Archbishop Burke of St. Louis) took. No Catholic in the state of mortal sin should be receiving Holy Communion.

Unfortunately, many besides politicians receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin. Are politicians being singled out for punishment? No. First of all, the action taken by Bishop Burke is not a punishment. Not only is he protecting the Body of Christ from being profaned, he is also protecting the politician from compounding his sin. (1 Cor 11:27) The Eucharist should be withheld from any person in the state of mortal sin. The difference is that politicians publicly declare their sin while the sins of another may be known only to that individual. Neither should partake in the Body of Christ.

Reaction to the Bishop's decree was swift and predictable. An article by Gayda Hollnagel in the January 16, 2004 edition of the La Crosse Tribune quotes several Wisconsin lawmakers expressing their disdain. La Crosse Mayor John Medinger, described in the article as "an active Catholic", said he was shocked. Medinger was quoted as saying, "If they're going to tell Catholic politicians if they vote in a certain way, are they also going to say that Catholics have to vote for certain politicians or they can't receive the sacraments."

You are not quite getting it, John. The bishop is not telling Catholics who to vote for. He is, however, warning Catholics who NOT to vote for. It is about time Catholics realize the responsibility they have to cultivate Christian ideals over deadly evils in our society. When an action contributes to the potential propagation of evil, it becomes a serious sin. Receiving the Holy Eucharist in a state of serious sin is itself a serious sin.

"What is the role of an individual to work within the realm of his own conscience?" Medinger asks in the article. He needs to understand the responsibility of forming one's conscience in accordance with Catholic teaching if indeed he wants to call himself a Catholic. Too often, people use conscience to validate their own personal definition of right and wrong. Worse yet, some politicians know they are propagating evil, but do so because that is what the majority of their constituents want.

Many of the Democratic presidential candidates have relinquished pro-life views held earlier in their political careers in order to gain the support of abortion advocacy groups such as NARAL, Emily's List, and NOW. I cannot believe that growth in personal wisdom could lead anyone to decide killing unborn babies is okay after all. Rather, these politicians seem to be saying, "I will have a better chance of winning the election if I sell my soul to the devil." What does that say about their character?

State Sen. Julie Lassa had an interesting quote in the Tribune article. She said, "I hold Bishop Burke in high regard; however, I believe any effort to pressure legislators by threatening to deny them the sacraments is contrary to the principles of democracy." Does Senator Lassa believe the Church is bound by the principles of democracy? Bishop Burke's authority is sanctioned not in majority rule, but in Christ Himself.

Today, Americans have a distorted view of what the separation of church and state means. Our founding fathers desired to practice their religion free from government interference. The idea was to keep the government out of religion - not to keep religion out of the government. A government set apart from God is a government that will succumb to evil. Discerning right from wrong must be rooted in the righteousness of God, not the self-righteousness of man.

The Tribune article describes Medinger's concern that non-Catholic voters will be unwilling to elect Catholic candidates for fear they will listen to the church rather than their constituents. Concerns about abortion and euthanasia extend beyond Catholic boundaries to all Christians and those of other faiths. The Democratic Party, historically the choice of Catholics, now finds itself alienated from God-fearing people because of their pro-abortion platform.

People of faith cannot vote for pro-abortion candidates in good conscience. Yet, polls show that many Catholics do. Some believe there are other issues to consider besides abortion. Sadly, others may agree with the pro-choice stance. While the Church speaks out frequently on these issues, it becomes painfully obvious that some Catholics are not listening. Merely speaking out is not enough. Bishop Burke sent out a wake-up call. Hats off to him and may all other Bishops follow suit.