Archive | May, 2012

Light of the Nations

31 May

The Church is the light to the nations. In fact, the central document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), on the mystery of the Church, bears the Latin title Lumen Gentium, or “Light of the Nations.”

Indeed the mission of the Church is to shine the light of Christ to the world, to extend Christ through space and time. Christ’s explicit instructions to His Church before ascending to the Father amounted to a sacred commissioning: His Apostles were sent into the whole world in order to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:18-20; Mk 16:15). For this reason, the popes in recent decades have emphasized that the Church’s perennial mission is evangelization.

Pope John Paul II’s 2003 encyclical letter on the Eucharist focuses on the intimate connection between the Eucharist and the Church, as the latter draws her life from the former. This speaks volumes as to the desired life-giving effects of receiving our Lord in Holy Communion. Regardless of our state in life, our participation in the Eucharist is necessarily connected to the great work of evangelization.

In explaining this truth, the Holy Father draws an important parallel between the individual believer and the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Visitation. He writes that when the Blessed Mother “bore in her womb the Word made flesh, she became in some way a ‘tabernacle’–the first ‘tabernacle’ in history–in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed Himself to be adored by Elizabeth, radiating His light as it were through the eyes and voice of Mary” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 55).

When we receive Christ in us, just as our Lady received Him in her womb, it’s not merely a private, “me and Jesus” matter. He does not desire to remain hidden within us. That would be like trying to put the light of Christ under a bushel basket (see Mt 5:15). So, when Christ comes to us in Communion, it’s not to diminish, impede, or conceal His light, but to multiply it! He uses each one of us as His lamps in the world. Lamps of themselves provide no light, but act as conduits of the light provided by an energy source. Similarly, we are not the “light of the world” except inasmuch as the Lord shines through us, as He did through she who was “full of grace.”

All generations call Mary blessed (see Lk 1:48) precisely because of the singular way she “magnified” the light of Christ through her cooperation with divine grace. The intensity of the light of Christ that we are able to bring to the world is dependent upon our own cooperation with divine grace. This again points to the need to be properly disposed to receive our Lord in Communion. The Church teaches that “anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion” (Catechism, no. 1385).

We further dispose ourselves by observing the required fast, by the way we dress, and the way we conduct ourselves at Mass (Catechism, no. 1387), and more generally through giving and receiving mercy.

In a spirit of praise, gratitude, and wonderment, we recognize that Holy Communion is the moment when our Lord comes to us most intimately and completely. After Communion, we should take ample time in prayer and thanksgiving, fostering an interior awareness of Christ in us. We must not allow the “busy-ness” of our daily lives to obscure the light of Christ. Rather, we must strive in humility to become increasingly transparent, so that the Mystery of Light can shine in us and through us.

A Vocation for My Child?

29 May

“For an increase of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, we pray to the Lord . . .”

I’m sure many of us have heard this intention at Mass and dutifully added our own “Lord, hear our prayer.” But from where will this requested “increase” come? It seems this petition isn’t simply about numbers. While we do need an increase of vocations in the universal Church, this petition involves us in the process. We must be willing to help foster vocations in our own communities, parishes, and families as part of our own “fruit-bearing” mission.

When it comes to promoting vocations in the family, we must strive to find the right balance that encourages religious vocations without either forbidding or coercing them.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a tremendous section on the role of parents in the doctrinal and spiritual formation of their children (nos. 2221-31). This formation provides the groundwork for each child to discover and freely choose his or her vocation in Christ.

Catechism no. 2230 summarizes it well: “When they become adults, children have the right and duty to choose their profession and state of life.” But it goes deeper than that.

Catechism nos. 2232-33 stresses that family ties are not absolute. God calls each person by name, including our own children. As parents, we must respect this fact and encourage children to follow wherever God leads them. As my wife likes to say, they’re really God’s children; He just lets us have them for a time. This truth has particular relevance to religious vocations:

“Parents should welcome and respect with joy and thanksgiving the Lord’s call to one of their children to follow Him in virginity for the sake of the kingdom in the consecrated life or in priestly ministry” (no. 2233).

In many families I’ve encountered, the problem is that religious vocations are not adequately valued. The natural but at times inordinate desire for grandchildren, lukewarm faith, poor formation, and secular values are but a few of the factors that come into play.

As the father of a young woman who entered religious life out of high school two years ago, I am more sympathetic than I used to be to the concerns of parents who don’t want this for their children. Admittedly, it is difficult to give the child back to God a little before we’re ready to let go. (Are we ever ready?)

We all want the best for our children. We want them to be happy. Well, the consecrated life is objectively the highest calling in the Church. What more could we ask for? On top of that, if our child truly is called to this beautiful life, he or she will subjectively experience a level of happiness rarely found in this life. I’ve seen this already taking place in my own dear Sr. Evangeline.

At the other extreme, surely we don’t want to push our children, directly or implicitly, against their will. It’s their choice, their vocation.

Now, I did want assurance that my daughter was choosing a solid community that suited her personality and gifts. In that regard, almost all of the sound religious communities in our country are affiliated with the Institute on Religious Life (IRL), which has a helpful directory.

Other than that, the single best encouragement is to bring our children up in a family, however imperfect it may be, that strives to put first things first, that makes the Eucharist the center and goal of daily living. If we do that, we just might see an increase.

Like Noah’s Righteous Sons

24 May

The relation of Christ and the Church is often expressed in marital terms. Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is His Bride. By extension, the bishop (who acts in the person of Christ) and his flock have a spousal, familial relationship. The bishop’s ring symbolizes his “marriage” to the local Church. Moreover, the bishop typically wears a pectoral cross, not a crucifix. There is no corpus on his cross because the bishop himself is to be the corpus, laying down his life for his bride in imitation of our Savior (cf. John 15:13; Eph. 5:25).

Spousal, covenantal relationships do not involve a quid pro quo. My responsibility to be faithful to my marriage covenant is not dependant on my wife’s fidelity. I don’t assess my wife’s performance each day in order to decide whether she deserves my love. Rather, my commitment–and hers–must be total and unconditional.

This principle also applies to our relationship with bishops. And it should be noted that bishops’ obligations are weightier than our own. Yet the bishop may never say, “These people are a pain in the neck and oppose me at every turn; I will not love and serve them.” He will be judged ultimately on his fidelity to Christ played out through the exercise of his episcopal ministry, and not on the fidelity of his flock.

Similarly, we have a duty of docile reverence toward our bishops as our spiritual fathers. This duty flows from the Fourth Commandment.

Of course, we must not accept error, but with patience, fortitude, and charity we must always preserve unity in our pursuit of Christ’s truth.

Taking necessary corrective action with respect to one of our Church leaders is not a cause for rejoicing or something to be publicly proclaimed so that we can take “credit” for being some sort of orthodox gunslinger. Rather, like Noah’s righteous sons who covered their father’s nakedness notwithstanding his drunkenness (cf. Gen. 9:23), we should take appropriate action while remaining very conscious of the harm caused by publicly airing our grievances against our spiritual fathers.

If my own father were to do something untoward, it would be wrong for me to ignore it or to cover it up for him so that he can get away with it again. But it would also be wrong, and indeed a violation of the Fourth Commandment, to treat him as anything less than my father and to lead the charge in publicly disgracing him.

The foregoing is an excerpt from my article entitled “How to Talk to (and about) a Bishop,” which appeared in a past issue of This Rock magazine.

St. Bernardine of Siena

21 May

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Bernardine of Siena. As a child in Southern California, I never heard about St. Bernardine, though the nearby city of San Bernardino (my brother called it “San Ber-doo”) was named after him. I only later learned that this 15th-century Franciscan priest was quite a dynamic evangelist and preacher.

He is perhaps best known for fostering devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. His “MO” was to travel from city to city throughout all of Italy carrying a banner with the large letters “IHS” (more on that in a minute) encircled by twelve golden rays surmounted by a cross.

I’ve always been curious about the “IHS,” which is found (thanks in large part to St. Bernardine) in many Catholic churches and on many religious items. There has been a certain amount of confusion on this. Some say it signifies “In hoc Signo vinces” (“In this Sign you will conquer,” referring to Constantine’s famous vision, with the nails on the emblem forming the “v”), while others say it’s the first letters of Iesus Hominum Salvator (“Jesus, Savior of Mankind”).

The most plausible and widely accepted interpretation that I’ve encountered is that it’s simply an abbreviated form of the name of Jesus, as it appears in Greek, The earliest recorded use of this monogram appears to be the eighth century.

Aside from all the history behind it, the important thing is that “IHS” has come to be recognized as a familiar symbol of the Holy Name of Jesus, a symbol that has been popularized over the past 500 years by Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits. May we recognize, especially in our use of language, the holiness of the name before which “every knee shall bend” (Phil. 2:10).

Let’s close with the prayer of the Church:

You gave Saint Bernardine a special love
for the holy name of Jesus.
By the help of his prayers,
may we always be alive with the spirit of Your love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.

Straight Talk

17 May

I am truly blessed with many fond childhood memories. I had a loving father and mother and many other family members who cared deeply about me.

Even so, my dominant reality, at least during my school years, was that I was a fat kid. I was relentlessly teased, pushed around, and called names, and I felt powerless to do anything about it. By the time I hit adolescence, I was filled with rage, rebellion, and negative feelings about myself. In my late teens I finally started to get a handle on my weight, but ever since I’ve considered myself in “recovery,” always in need of vigilance lest I return to the nightmarish girth of my youth.

I realize that homosexuality and obesity are two very different conditions, but there are some important points of similarity. For one thing, I know from experience how bullies on the playground (some of whom don’t change their stripes as adults) prey on kids who are different, so I can sympathize with those who have been mercilessly persecuted because of their not-so-hidden sexual identity struggles.

Leaving aside the bullies, there are several typical responses to the fat kid. Some disdainfully point out the obvious (“you’re fat”) and what should happen (“you need to lose 50 lbs.”), but through word and attitude communicate indifference (or worse) to the poor guy’s situation. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who want to offer an easy way, who want to make the child feel good about being fat.

While my built-up defenses might have suggested otherwise, and I didn’t always respond favorably to constructive weight-loss suggestions, deep down I wanted to change. I appreciated efforts–even seemingly unsuccessful ones–to reach out to me. The people who cared most about me offered diets, changes in lifestyle, and fitness regimens to help me escape an unwanted condition. They offered a plan which typically involved hard work and discipline. Even more, they offered hope.

Homosexual persons need a similar message. Continue reading

Blessed Are the Meek

15 May

At first glance, meekness may be the most unattractive Christian virtue. Today, many people think of “meekness as weakness,” the antithesis of the “holy” self-assertion that enables us to get our own way. We picture a meek person as a wimp or doormat, not as a virile, Christian man.

Yet, those of us who are serious about following the Lord and growing in Christian virtue know that the Bible presents a different image of meekness. Our faith extols meekness not only as a desirable virtue, but also as a beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit. Moses, who boldly delivered an entire nation from bondage, is described in Scripture as the meekest of men (Num. 12:3).

Surely Jesus Himself embodied all the virtues, but when it comes to meekness, there can be no doubt. He says, “Learn from me; for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. 11:29). Not only is Our Lord meek, but He also expects us to imitate His meekness. This message is for everybody, but in a special way it goes out to today’s men, for whom meekness sadly is a rare commodity.

Anger Management

We can often come to a richer understanding of words by examining their roots. Virtue (in Latin, virtus) is derived from the Latin word vir, which means man. Virtue, therefore, has historically been understood as implying a manly strength.

Meekness, sometimes used interchangeably with “gentleness” in biblical translations, comes from the Greek word prautes, meaning “not easily provoked.” This in turn comes from praus, which refers to a highly spirited trained horse. Such a horse has become so gentle and mild that a child may pet it or ride on its back. But the more important thing is that the horse no longer thrashes about wildly, but rather has been trained to take direction. The strength of the noble steed has been harnessed for good, not forfeited. Similarly, a harnessed river can generate power, and a harnessed or “meeked” fire can heat a campsite. Meekness, even in its etymology, has always implied harnessed strength, not weakness.

Applied to the human virtue, meekness implies an openness to God that allows Him to act through us, particularly at those times when our fallen nature might lead us to thrash about wildly. Meekness indeed involves a certain gentleness toward our neighbor, but it primarily applies to our relationship with God, as we daringly acquiesce to His harnessing of our gifts and talents for our own good and the good of His Church. Continue reading


Test of Fire: Election 2012

11 May

This is a good video to share with your Catholic friends about some of the most important issues this election cycle.

Are You My Mother?

11 May

One of my young son’s favorite books is the P.D. Eastman classic Are You My Mother? In this story, baby bird becomes separated from his mother and frantically goes in search of her. Along the way, he asks many creatures and even inanimate objects if they’re his mother, but none of them are. Finally, when hope is just about lost, baby bird is reunited with his mother, who was out catching worms for their breakfast.

Sometimes this children’s book gets me to reflect on all the “mothers” in my life. I think primarily of my own mother, as well as my deceased godmother and grandmothers. I also think of my wife Maureen, who in our house is affectionately known as “Mommy.” And in recent years, my oldest daughter has joined the ranks of motherhood. I also call to mind the heroic birth mothers of my adopted children, and the faithful godmothers whose prayers and goodness help our children to grow in the love of Christ.

As I consider the matter further, I have to include the Grandmammy of them all: Eve, whom Scripture describes as “the mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20). And despite contemporary confusion regarding the family and gender roles, it’s true that all women are maternal at the heart of their being. I have been the recipient of the maternal love and nurture of women since my earliest school days, including in a special way the tender care shown me through the years by religious sisters.

The above list is formidable, and I’m profoundly grateful for all the “mothers” in my life. But there’s another mother who stands above them all, the masterpiece of God’s creation: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Just as Christ is the New Adam, the source of new life for all those who were dead in sin, so from apostolic times Mary has been called the New Eve, the mother of all those who are alive in Christ. She truly is our spiritual mother, our mother in the order of grace (see Catechism, no. 968).

Here we must strenuously avoid the temptation to equate “spiritual” with “abstract” or “less than real.” Mary’s motherhood is more real than flesh-and-blood motherhood, not less. And by its nature it’s relational, calling us to a filial love of our Blessed Mother.

This truth was not lost on the first generation of Protestant reformers, who maintained some devotion to Mary. For example, Martin Luther once wrote that “the veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.” Only over time did this devotion subside as the Reformers further distanced themselves–and the Bible–from the living tradition of the Church, especially the sacred liturgy.

Thus Marian apologetics is very important today as we strive to demonstrate with clarity and reverence the biblical and traditional bases for our Marian beliefs. But ultimately, mothers are to be loved and honored, not merely proven and recognized.

I remember many years ago hearing a story about Gerry Faust, a devout Catholic man who coached the Notre Dame football team in the early 80s. He was visiting the home of a top recruit. Everything seemed to be going well, but then when the recruit’s mother entered the room, he treated her disrespectfully. That was all Coach Faust needed to see. He refused to offer the young man a scholarship. Despite the recruit’s obvious athletic ability, he had a significant character flaw. Coach Faust was wise enough to know that how we treat our mother speaks volumes as to what kind of person we are.

When it comes to the Blessed Virgin Mary, we communicate what we really believe through our loving mother-son, mother-daughter relationships with her. It’s one thing to talk a good game and trot out Scripture verses and conciliar decrees. It’s quite another to live the Fourth Commandment’s injunction to honor our spiritual mother.

This Mother’s Day–and every day–let’s lovingly remember Mary our mother, whom all generations call “blessed” (Lk. 1:48).

Virtue on the Mount

10 May

In contemplating Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), one section that has really struck me is the part known as the “Six Antitheses”–the series of six statements by Our Lord that begin “You have heard it said . . .” followed by “I say to you . . .” These curious statements are found in Matthew 5:21-48.

There are many ways of looking at this passage. What really strikes me is that Jesus, in coming to fulfill the law and not abolish it (Mt. 5:17), is having us move from mere adherence to negative moral rules and precepts (“thou shall not . . .”) to the cultivation of the opposite virtues. Jesus’ words do not contradict what the people have been taught all their lives, but rather gives the motive and–through the gift of the Holy Spirit–the power to strive for a holiness and righteousness that exceeds the mere observance of the law (cf. Mt. 5:20).

So, let me summarize the “Six Antitheses” from the viewpoint of virtue development:

(1) You have heard it said that you shall not kill. Our Lord tells us to foster the virtue of meekness.

(2) You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery. Our Lord tells us to foster sexual purity and the virtue of chastity.

(3) You have heard it said that you shouldn’t divorce and remarry. Our Lord tells us to foster marital fidelity.

(4) You have heard it said that you shouldn’t take a false oath. Our Lord tells us to foster the virtue of honesty.

(5) You have heard it said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Our Lord tells us to foster the virtues of forgiveness and generosity.

(6) You have heard it said: “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Our Lord tells us to foster the virtues of charity and solidarity with all, especially with those who are most difficult for us to love.

In other words, we are called to be perfect, as Our Heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt. 5:48). We’re not there yet, and we’ll never get there on our own, but with God all things are possible. He not only shows us the way to happiness in the Sermon on the Mount, but also gives us His very life in the sacraments so we can get there.

The Church and Capital Punishment

8 May

When it comes to the controversial topic of capital punishment, Catholics are often divided along political lines: Political conservatives tend to favor capital punishment, while political liberals tend to oppose it.

But are the Church’s teachings on the death penalty so bland and/or confusing that our political affiliation should, by default, form our perspectives on the issue?

It seems that much of the disagreement on this subject stems from the fact that we have not allowed ourselves to be formed by the Church’s teachings in their fullness and that, at times, we have received a distorted presentation of such teachings. While immersing ourselves in the Church’s teachings will not eliminate all disagreement, it will at least allow us to understand the parameters of authentic plurality and perhaps come to a deeper appreciation of God’s plan for all humanity.

Now, the Church has never taught that capital punishment is intrinsically evil. Moreover, the Church has always recognized that the state has the authority, in certain circumstances, to impose the death penalty on one who has committed a “capital offense.” This point immediately distinguishes capital punishment from acts such as abortion and euthanasia, which are intrinsically evil and thus ought never to be chosen (Bl. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae [“EV”], nos. 62, 65 [1995]), and certainly can never be legitimized by the state (EV 73).

So abortion and capital punishment are not morally equivalent, even though it should be self-evident that fundamental principles concerning the right to life should inform our thought on both topics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, despite its well-publicized opposition to the use of capital punishment, does not categorically condemn the practice. Rather, it affirms that in appropriate cases “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” (Catechism, no. 2267).

This “traditional teaching” is found in the Roman Catechism produced following the Council of Trent (1545-63) and in the writings of many noteworthy saints, such as St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Paul himself taught that civil government bears the sword as the agent of God’s vengeance and therefore is “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4).

Recognizing that the Church has always admitted that the death penalty can be a justifiable exercise of the state’s authority, we now examine why the Church opposes capital punishment today. Continue reading