Archive | April, 2013

The Gift of Faith

29 Apr

gift of faithAs I seem to be in dialogue so frequently with friends and relatives these days who have lost the faith (or never had it to begin with), I recently had the occasion to review my response to this question that I received via email a couple years ago: “Does everyone receive the gift of faith? Why or why not?”

During this “Year of Faith,” I think it’s especially important for to consider these most fundamental questions.

What follows is my response to the questioner. I welcome others’ comments and insights on this subject.

“If we mean by ‘faith’ an explicit belief in the person and teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ, then clearly not everyone has received the gift of faith. That’s why the Church’s perennial mission is evangelization–to offer the gift of faith to all men and women. All of us play a role in that effort.

“And while we cannot judge the state of individual souls, it would also seem that there are those who have been invited, but have rejected the invitation (cf. Lk. 14:15-24).

“While I cannot pretend to know ‘God’s thoughts’ on this, as my thoughts are not His thoughts and my ways are not His ways (Is. 55:8-9), I would like to offer a couple observations that shed light on this crucial issue.

“First, faith is very much a personal gift. We all are called to answer for ourselves Our Lord’s question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mt. 16:15). If someone were to offer us a $100 bill, no strings attached, we might wonder why others weren’t given a similar offer, but at the end of the day we still have to accept or reject the offer that was personally made to us.

“Second, God wills that all be saved and come to the knowledge of truth (1 Tim. 2:4). The ordinary way that this occurs is through the gift of faith received at Baptism. However, God does not place limits on Himself. He is all good and willed the existence of every man and woman who has ever lived. So, the Church holds out the possibility of salvation to all those who have not knowingly and willingly rejected Him. In that regard, perhaps the parable of the talents is useful. As Catholics we have been given 10 talents, so more is expected of us. However, those who were given only 5 or 2 or even just 1 talent will be judged worthy to enter our heavenly Father’s kingdom if he or she fruitfully uses whatever talents they were given.

“How God works with those who do not have explicit faith is a mystery that’s beyond us in this life, but surely we know that a person is better off with faith and with all the graces that derive from being a faithful disciple of Christ. Indeed, we were made for life with God as Christ’s brothers and sisters, so using our ‘10 talents’ well involves our inviting those around us to the wonderful life of grace that God has in store for us in this life and in the next.”

The “Book” on Gambling

24 Apr

doctors of the church bingoSo what’s the big deal about gambling? After all, the Church says it’s not a sin. Why get worked up about church bingo?

The two key virtues when examining gambling are temperance and justice. The Catechism defines temperance as “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (no. 1809). Temperance, also called “moderation” or “sobriety,” is frequently praised in Scripture, although not always by name. For example, St. Paul instructs Titus that we should “live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world” (Tit. 2:12).

Thus, when it comes to gambling, one must act moderately and not fall prey to the passion and excitement of the moment, which might lead him to wager an amount that is excessive for someone in his circumstances.

The virtue of justice applies to both the game itself and to the participants. The game must be fair and free from all fraud or deception. The participants should only risk “disposable” income. In other words, the money gambled should be viewed as a recreational expense that is not needed to meet one’s obligations to God, himself, his family, or his creditors.

Temperance and justice call for an examination of how one uses his time and resources. Even a wealthy, debt-free person needs to use moderation. Gambling ought not be an occasion to excessively separate a parent from his or her family, even if the amount gambled is modest. And everyone should recognize that money used on frivolous or excessive gambling can be put to better use, such as to help out those who are less fortunate. After all, as St. John Chrysostom said, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life” (Catechism, no. 2446).

You Shall Not Steal

The Catechism treats the subject of gambling in the section dealing with the Seventh Commandment (“You Shall Not Steal”):

“Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant” (no. 2413).

While the Church does not consider gambling to be necessarily sinful, she does, however, recognize the serious dangers in habitual or excessive gambling. For many people, especially those with a particular weakness in this area, games of chance are an occasion of sin. Perhaps that’s why St. Augustine once said, “The Devil invented gambling.”

Parish Bingo

Gathering for a night of low-stakes bingo in the parish hall to socialize, enjoy a little excitement, and provide support for the parish is morally legitimate, both from the standpoint of the participant and from the standpoint of the parish that hosts the event.

However, since gambling can easily become a vicious habit, a parish or other church organization would be well advised to consider the following precautions when it comes to sponsoring bingo:

(a) Promote virtue. There are many ways this can be done. For example, limit the amount that one can wager. Don’t serve alcoholic beverages. Create a friendly, Christian atmosphere. In short, do whatever can be done to promote the positive aspects of bingo (e.g., recreation, fellowship, etc.) while preventing, to the extent possible, its negative side effects.

(b) Avoid scandal. Many people are scandalized by the fact that many Catholic churches use bingo as a means of generating revenue. This sense of scandal not only affects many Catholics but also other Christians who tend to see gambling as evil. This problem could be considerably lessened if bingo is clearly presented to parishioners and to the public as being used to raise revenue for effective Christian ministries. The scandal is greater when bingo is perceived as a “Catholic institution” in itself, and where the parish does not seem to do much to spread the Gospel.

(c) Evangelize.
All Catholics need to hear convincing, biblically sound teaching on stewardship, tithing, and generosity. Bingo may supplement this imperative, but not replace it. As for the non-Catholics or lapsed Catholics who are drawn to parish bingo looking for some “action,” reasonable efforts should be made not only to welcome the individual’s bingo money, but also the individual himself or herself.

(d) Avoid enslavement. Parishes, and not just gambling addicts, can become enslaved by bingo, such that the parish may consider itself forced to keep bingo in order to keep its school or religious education program in operation. I encourage pastors and parishes to prayerfully consider the possibility of liberation from the slavery of bingo. This freedom could be a scary thing. It would present a new set of challenges and call for creative ideas to compensate for the loss of bingo revenue while providing new opportunities for Christian fellowship. In this regard, some lay Catholics have successfully gone to their pastor and have offered to increase their weekly offering if the parish would eliminate its dependence on bingo. Such a gesture shows the pastor that despite our personal opposition to church bingo, we are fully committed to our support for the parish.

(e) Welcome other means of support. Even though parish bingo is not necessarily a sinful activity, some people are turned off by bingo and will not participate. Others simply may not have the time or interest. Still others may feel it is an occasion of sin for them and feel obliged to stay away. The parish should listen to the needs and concerns of these individuals and provide them alternative means of supporting the parish.

Conversely, all Catholics are bound to assist with the needs of the Church (Code of Canon Law, canon 222), and should not use their distaste for parish bingo as a pretext for not supporting the Church in other ways. Indeed, generosity is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) and a wellspring of renewal for the Church.

Giving with All Our Mite

Generosity is the virtue directly opposed to selfishness, which is the refusal to give of ourselves. The choice to be generous–to give of ourselves to God and neighbor–is nothing less than charity lived out in concrete circumstances. Christ Himself, in word and deed, taught that such self-giving is at the heart of the abundant, Trinitarian life He has come to give us.

In this life, generosity involves sacrifice and even death. This is the test of faith–to give in the midst of suffering. Our society doesn’t understand “sacrifice,” and consequently we are prone to selfishness in all phases of our lives, including our relationship with the Church. We’re a far cry from the Church of previous generations that was willing to build parishes, schools, and facilities with its own blood, sweat, and tears. If generosity literally means “full of giving life,” then it’s not a stretch to see that selfishness plays a significant role in what has been called a “culture of death.”

Let’s look at ways that we can grow in generosity.

First, are we generous with God Himself? Is prayer a regular, vital part of our daily lives, or is it merely a weekly obligation or something we do only in times of need?

This sometimes apparent “waste” of time does not “change” God, but it does change us and is a source of profound blessing.

Second, are we generous in our support of the apostolate, putting our time, talents, and checkbook at the service of the Gospel? Do we tithe? Do we give our “first fruits” or our spare change? Do we give only out of our excess, or do we give whatever we can, like the widow in the Gospel (cf. Lk. 21:1-4)?

Third, are we generous to others? Are we generous with our family, especially with our spouse and children? Are we generous as married couples, opening our home to another child or perhaps a family member or even a stranger in need? Are we sensitive to the needs we see all around us, looking for the “hidden Jesus” in the poor or forgotten in our midst?

This generosity will go a long way toward reinvigorating our own lives of faith and will help build up the Church in our midst. Our Blessed Lord will not be outdone in generosity:

“Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you and overflowing blessing” (Mal. 3:10).

Let’s put Him to the test.

Dare to Discipline

22 Apr

Christian disciplineI used to listen to a talk radio host who would say, “In the department store of life, sports is, after all, the toy department.” Surely that’s a useful message for us “weekend warriors.”

But let’s take that comment a step further. In the department store of life, is our faith merely a department–and a “boring” one at that, such as housewares or women’s clothing? If so, then what about the rest of the store? Are there parts of our life that our faith doesn’t affect?

I think it’s very easy to compartmentalize our day. If we’re not careful, however, this could lead to our assessing our spiritual development based mostly on religious observance. In other words, we might look to whether we “got in” our Rosary, chaplet, holy hour, or whatever other devotion(s) we set out to do each day, as if these admittedly good things were ends in themselves.

Or we might pride ourselves on our “orthodoxy,” but then check our faith at the door in certain areas of our lives, such as in our business dealings or even our highway driving. Yet deep down we know that religious observance and doctrinal orthodoxy, to be authentic, must inform the totality of our lives.

Our Lord instructed His Apostles to go “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). This call goes in a special way to bishops as the legitimate successors of the Apostles. Yet the call goes out to all of us. And when it comes to the family, parents are, in the words of Pope Pius XI, “vicars of Christ” within the home, the “domestic Church.” The various duties of parents described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2221-31) all point to the vocation of Catholic parents to make disciples of their children. “Disciple” comes from the Latin word discipulus, which means “learner.” But just as being a disciple is more than mere “learning,” making disciples is more than mere “teaching.”

As the Church has emphasized in recent decades, teachers must first and foremost be witnesses. In other words, they must already be disciples themselves. But what are the hallmarks of a disciple, a true follower of Christ? One concise response was given by Our Lord Himself when He said: “Anyone who wishes to be My disciple must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23).

What kind of disciples are we raising if we spoil our children, deny them nothing, and soften the daily requirements of Christian living when they seem inconvenient or burdensome? As far as that goes, what kind of disciples are we?

The word “discipline” comes from the same root as disciple. Discipline is not limited to correcting inappropriate behavior. It’s more about instilling virtue, self-control, and a sense of order in our children’s lives as well as our own. As Scripture says, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).

Discipline is hard work even in the intellectual realm, as sound catechesis requires some memorization. At times it’s easier to give in and let the child do what he or she wants, but such short-sighted solutions in the long run lead to ruin. But we don’t merely discipline–we “disciple” our children as we draw them around Jesus in the Family of God (Catechism, no. 542).

Our children are watching us like hawks. Sure, they watch me when I’m praying with them or explaining Church teaching to them. But they’re also watching to see how I respond to conflict or disappointment, how I treat strangers, how I use “free time,” and where I turn for refreshment and meaning in life. What do they see?

Our children are God’s, not ours. Yet He entrusts these treasures to us for a time. Therefore, making disciples of our children must always be the top priority. We really need to “bring it” when it comes to their religious education, beginning in the home. What excuse could we possible have for doing less?

St. Bob on the Eucharist

18 Apr

St. BobWe are now in the midst of “First Communion season.” In fact, this evening I am going to pick up a gift for my son Raymond, who will be making his First Communion this Saturday at Prince of Peace.

With the gift of the Eucharist on my mind these days, I thought I would share a remarkable teaching on the Eucharist by St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). “St. Bob” was a Jesuit priest who eventually became the Bishop of Capua. He was a brilliant theologian and defender of the faith, and he served in various Roman congregations in the immediate aftermath of the Protestant revolt and the Council of Trent. He has been named a doctor of the Church and is invoked as the patron saint of catechists and catechumens.

So, in honor of all the little ones who will be receiving Our Lord for the first time this weekend, let us take to heart these insights from St. Bob:

Take and eat: This is My Body. Weigh carefully, dear brethren, the force of those words. . . .

Suppose a prince promised one of you a hundred gold pieces, and in fulfillment of his word sent a beautiful sketch of the coins, I wonder what you would think of his liberality? And suppose that when you complained, the donor said, “Sir, your astonishment is out of place, as the painted coins you received may very properly be considered true crowns by the figure of speech called metonymy,” would not everybody feel that he was making fun of you and your picture?

Now Our Lord promised to give us His flesh for our food. The bread which I shall give you, He said, is My flesh for the life of the world. If you argue that the bread may be looked on as a figure of His flesh, you are arguing like the prince and making a mockery of God’s promises. A wonderful gift indeed that would be, in which Eternal Wisdom, Truth, Justice, and Goodness deceived us, its helpless pensioners, and turned our dearest hopes to derision.

That I may show you how just and righteous is the position we hold, let us suppose that the last day has come and that our doctrine of the Eucharist has turned out to be false and absurd. Our Lord now asks us reproachfully: “Why did you believe thus of My Sacrament? Why did you adore the host?” may we not safely answer him: “O Lord, if we were wrong in this, it was You who deceived us. We heard Your word, THIS IS MY BODY, and was it a crime for us to believe You? We were confirmed in our mistake by a multitude of signs and wonders which could have had You only for their author. Your Church with one voice cried out to us that we were right, and in believing as we did we but followed in the footsteps of all Your saints and holy ones . . .

Acts of the Deacons

17 Apr

St. Philip the DeaconDuring the Easter season we hear at Mass readings about the early Christians taken from the “Acts of the Apostles.” After the Holy Spirit, the Apostles certainly are the main protagonists of this inspired book, as they were the ones chosen by Christ as the leaders of His Church.

This week, however, we’re hearing plenty about the “acts” of deacons, particularly Sts. Stephen and Philip.

In today’s reading from Acts 8:1-8, we hear about Stephen’s burial, which led to a severe persecution and scattering of the Church. Yet, we also hear that “those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). This statement reminded me of the axiom that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We see this principle in action, as Stephen’s death has the effect of spreading the seeds of Gospel to an even wider audience.

We then hear about the evangelization efforts of Philip, who in fact is later called “Philip the Evangelist” (Acts 21:8). His words and mighty deeds captivated audiences. But what really struck me was the last verse of the reading, where we discover that Philip’s ministry brought about “great joy” in Samaria (Acts 8:8). This is a powerful reminder to us that the Gospel truly is “good news,” and that if we allow it to penetrate our hearts we will, like Philip, become ambassadors of joy.

Cardinal O’Malley on Boston Bombing

16 Apr

Cardinal O'MalleyIn the wake of the deadly bombing that struck the Boston Marathon yesterday, which killed 3 people and left over 100 injured, the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, issued the following message of prayer and concern:

The Archdiocese of Boston joins all people of good will in expressing deep sorrow following the senseless acts of violence perpetrated at the Boston Marathon today. Our prayers and concern are with so many who experienced the trauma of these acts, most especially the loved ones of those who lives were lost and those who were injured, and the injured themselves.

The citizens of the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are blessed by the bravery and heroism of many, particularly the men and women of the police and fire departments and emergency services who responded within moments of these tragic events. Governor Patrick, Mayor Menino and Police Commissioner Davis are providing the leadership that will see us through this most difficult time and ensure that proper procedures are followed to protect the public safety.

In the midst of the darkness of this tragedy we turn to the light of Jesus Christ, the light that was evident in the lives of people who immediately turned to help those in need today. We stand in solidarity with our ecumenical and interfaith colleagues in the commitment to witness the greater power of good in our society and to work together for healing.

Food for Thought

11 Apr

april showersI don’t know about you, but I have found the daily Mass readings for the second week of the Easter season to be overflowing with food for meditative prayer and daily Christian living. I thought I would share this “top ten” list of verses that have been especially meaningful to me this week, realizing of course that I’m only scratching the surface of these rich passages.

And by the way, we all know that April showers bring May flowers. But what do May flowers bring? The answer is found at the end of this list of verses.

(1) “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe’” (Jn. 20:27, Sunday).

This episode in which Our Lord confronts “doubting” Thomas is perhaps the most compelling post-Resurrection appearance of Christ, which provides solid encouragement for those of us who have not seen, yet have believed.

(2) “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me” (Heb. 10:5, Monday).

This passage, which explicitly applies Psalm 40 to Our Lord, fittingly speaks of the Lord’s Incarnation, which we celebrated on Monday with the transferred feast of the Annunciation. But even more, we see that His becoming flesh, His taking a body, is connected to sacrifice. Our bodies too are instruments of sacrifice: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1; see also Col. 1:24).

(3) “Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word’” (Lk. 1:38, Monday).

The Annunciation is ordinarily celebrated on March 25th, exactly nine months before Christmas, but was moved this year out of deference to Easter, which is an eight-day feast in the Church. So we had a temporary break from St. John’s Gospel as we heard anew Our Lady’s remarkable “fiat,” as she consents to becoming a living tabernacle of the eternal Son of God. We too become living tabernacles whenever we worthily receive Our Lord in Holy Communion.

(4) “The community of believers was of one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32, Tuesday).

The Catechism (no. 2790) links this verse to the Lord’s Prayer: When we pray “our Father,” we acknowledge our communion with all our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

(5) Jesus said to Nicodemus: “‘You must be born from above’” (Jn. 3:7, Tuesday).

This famous episode points to the regenerative waters of Baptism, which truly enable us to become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) and heirs of heaven as God’s beloved children.

(6) “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. . . . whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God” (Jn. 3:16, 21, Wednesday).

Okay, this is a bit of a “two-fer.” Despite its familiarity, John 3:16 should never lose its freshness in our hearts. And God’s love calls forth not only a notional assent, but even more it demands a committed love, such that we not only profess the truth, but live it–even when nobody is watching.

(7) “But Peter and the Apostles said in reply, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29, Thursday).

Even though this passage gets misused at times, the premise here is a crucial one. Often we can live the ambiguity, in a sense obeying both God and man. But when push comes to shove, when our faith calls us to a higher standard, do we have the integrity of St. Thomas More to obey God, not men?

(8) “He does not ration his gift of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:34, Thursday).

God is more generous, more powerful, and even more present than we often give Him credit for, at least in practice. The Christian life, when all is said and done, is life in the Spirit. If our faith isn’t all-encompassing, it’s because we’re rationing God, and not that God is rationing His Spirit.

(9) “If this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39, Friday).

These remarkably wise words of Gamaliel have proven to be prophetic, haven’t they? In addition, wisdom has a timeless quality, and so Gamaliel’s words provide sound guidance whenever we encounter purported private revelations, new spiritual movements, or other religious enterprises of questionable origin.

(10) “Jesus said, ‘Let the people recline’” (Jn. 6:10, Friday).

Okay, this one is a little tongue-in-cheek. My daughter Brenda likes to cite this verse whenever I ask her to get off the sofa and do something. But even this lighthearted anecdote shows how Scripture verses can be manipulated and taken out of context when removed from their natural habitat (i.e., the liturgy) and interpreted apart from the authority of the Church.

And by the way, the answer to my question at the beginning of this post is . . . pilgrims!

To Whom Shall We Go?

9 Apr

Eucharist2Next week my youngest child, Raymond, will make his First Communion. For the first time, my entire family will be able to receive the Eucharist at Mass!

A couple weeks before my daughter Virginia made her First Communion, I took her to lunch and talked with her about the Eucharist. To test her, I said, “Now Virginia, the Eucharist symbolizes Christ, right?” Virginia looked at me partly in horror and partly in surprise at my apparent ignorance. “Oh no, Daddy,” she said. “The Eucharist really is the body and blood of Jesus.”

I affirmed her response and told her that sometimes I go out to speak to groups of people about the Eucharist. So I asked for her “advice” as to what I should tell people. Reveling in her new role as theological consultant, Virginia replied, “Daddy, I would start by telling them about Jesus: Jesus is God. He can do anything. Of course He can make Himself present under the appearance of bread and wine.”

I am so grateful to God for Virginia’s child-like faith that has now continued into her college years. I pray that she continues to deepen her relationship with Our Eucharistic Lord as she matures into adulthood.

Sadly, though, many adults don’t have Virginia’s faith. It is said that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, so I have a healthy distrust of polls that attempt to quantify Eucharistic belief. Even so, despite the welcome resurgence of Eucharistic adoration and devotions and other positive signs of life in the Church, far too many Catholics have an inadequate understanding of the Eucharist.

And how can we love what we don’t know?

When we consider the various problems and scandals in the Church, we most typically point to secondary, external causes and effects. Yet, underlying these things is the perennial mystery of evil and sin. So why does sin seem to be having such a field day right now? I think the heart of the matter is a crisis of faith. And while faith in Christ identifies us as Christians, our belief in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist and the authority entrusted to the successors of Peter and the other apostles is what identifies us more specifically as Catholics.

When Our Lord gave His great Eucharistic discourse in John 6, many of those who were already numbered among His disciples could not accept this teaching and returned to their former, pre-Christian lives (cf. Jn. 6:60, 66). No other recorded teaching of Christ had such an effect.

There are many today who do not believe in God, let alone His Incarnate Son. Then there are Christians whose rejection of the Eucharist sadly perpetuates divisions dating back to the 16th century. And there are those who consider themselves Catholic but who hold out for a different Christ and a different Church.

After many disciples left because of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn. 6:67). And Peter’s response, the response of the Church, was, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe . . .” (Jn. 6:68).

Our Lord’s question–which goes out to each of us–demands an act of faith, an adherence to revealed truth. Indifference about the Eucharist, ambivalence about the Church, is clearly not an acceptable response. Yet the actions of many baptized Catholics manifest such indifference and ambivalence. That’s why today–and always–the Church needs heroic witnesses, indeed martyrs, to the truth about Jesus Christ, to the truth about the Church, to the truth about the Eucharist.

Calling All Catholics!

4 Apr

Cardinal NewmanThe great 19th-century English convert, Blessed John Henry Newman, was a great proponent of the laity’s role in the Church. Once, when asked by his bishop what the clergy should think of the laity, Newman famously quipped, “Well, we’d look rather silly without them.”

A century later, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), influenced in part by the writings of Cardinal Newman, announced that one of its goals was “to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 1). Therefore, the Council charted a plan for renewal on the premise that every baptized Christian has a crucial role to play in the life of the Church. In other words, holiness isn’t the exclusive domain of “professionals” (i.e., priests and religious), but rather the goal of every human life. This principle became known as the “universal call to holiness” and was discussed at length in chapter V of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium).

Given the centrality of this theme, the vocation of lay people to holiness and to participation in the Church through the renewal of the family and society informs every conciliar document. However, in the 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), the Council addressed the subject directly.

When my children were young, I would go into their room at night and sprinkle them with holy water. Depending on how trying of a day it was, I would give them an extra sprinkle or two or three. (Sometimes I would be tempted to bathe them in holy water!) As I went through this ritual, I would ask them, “Whose child are you?” to which they would reply, “God’s.” The point was to link their being Christians to their being children of God through the waters of Baptism. And, as Vatican II stresses, it’s our shared Baptism–deepened through the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist–that provides the basis for the entirety of the Christian life.

For that reason, as we continue our series on the Vatican II documents, I thought I would call us to reflect upon this passage from the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity:

“The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. They are consecrated for the royal priesthood and the holy people (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10) not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world. The sacraments, however, especially the most holy Eucharist, communicate and nourish that charity which is the soul of the entire apostolate” (no. 3).

This is a broad topic, but here are a few thoughts to consider:

(1) Call to holiness means a call to apostolate. We notice that the document is not called the “Decree on the Holiness of the Laity.” Our pursuit of holiness cannot be seen in isolation from our participation in the Church, which exists to bring all men and women into full communion with Christ. Lay Catholics build up the Church through word and example in the midst of the world.

(2) It’s apostolate, not ministry. True, we often use “apostolate” and “ministry” interchangeably, and in fact “ministry” is the more commonly used term, especially in Protestant circles. Yet Vatican II intentionally refrains from using the term “ministry” in connection with the laity, as that term is ordinarily reserved for the sanctifying and teaching functions of the ordained. “Apostolate” is what we are all called to do by virtue of our Baptism. Here we see the Church balancing the “universal” call to build up the Church with the specific call of ordained ministers, whose participation in the one priesthood of Christ differs from that of the laity in essence and not merely in degree (Lumen Gentium, no. 10).

(3) It’s not about doing “Church” things. In recent decades the Church has seen an explosion of lay liturgical “ministries” as well as the growth of lay positions in the institutional Church (like mine!). These are good things in themselves, so long as we understand that when the Church calls for an active, engaged laity, she is speaking primarily of the role of the laity outside of the church building and church offices. The idea is not to have lay people look more like priests or religious–and certainly not more “lay bureaucrats”–but to encourage laity to “be what they are”: agents of the Gospel in the midst of the world. As Pope Pius XII noted back in 1946, laity must be “on the front lines of the Church’s life.”

(4) Renewing the temporal order. Priests minister to us, so that we in turn can bring Christ to the world. When the Church calls the laity to “renew the temporal order,” she is not being abstract, but very specific. We are called to evangelize our families, workplaces, social networks, and public places. Occasionally this may be a little more dramatic, but more often it takes place in the ordinariness of daily living, which when united with Christ becomes extraordinary and redemptive.

(5) It’s all about being united with Christ. Consider this analogy: Imagine there’s a mishap on an airplane and the craft begins losing cabin pressure. In the face of such a calamity, most of us would want to be courageous and help as many of our fellow passengers as possible. Yet, if we don’t use our own air mask first, in a matter of seconds we’ll be of no use to anybody. We would be among the first casualties. Similarly, our first responsibility as Christians is to open our own hearts to Christ each day, allowing Him to change us and work through us. Only then does “apostolate” happen!

How do you understand your baptismal vocation to holiness and to mission?

The Book of God

1 Apr

Sisters win!In our series on the documents of Vatican II during this “Year of Faith,” we have spent some time examining Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. This pivotal conciliar document has called Catholics to draw more effectively upon the life-changing power of Sacred Scripture.

The success of my daughter Sr. Evangeline and her team of sisters on The American Bible Challenge has given our culture a wonderful witness of how Catholics—and all people!—should come to know and venerate Scripture as God’s love letters to us.

And yet, Dei Verbum is not simply about the Bible. The title of this document itself is instructive. The Council Fathers did not call it Dei Librum (“Book of God”) but Dei Verbum (“Word of God”). The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us why this distinction is important:

“The Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, open our minds to understand the Scriptures” (no. 108, footnotes omitted).

For All the Saints

One of the principal themes of the Second Vatican Council was the universal call to holiness. The renewal of the Church hinges on the ongoing sanctification of all her members. This is the work of God, but all the faithful must be personally engaged in the process.

Dei Verbum takes us to the point of entry into this new life in Christ Jesus. It comes down to the “obedience of faith” that we give to God as He reveals Himself to us (DV, no. 5). As our Lord Himself says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28).

It is the great mission of the Holy Spirit, the “soul of the Church,” to reveal Christ to us and bring us into communion with Him and all His holy ones. As St. Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 12:3). The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and to the entire Church surely includes the singular blessing of Sacred Scripture, but encompasses the totality of what Christ bequeathed to His Church, including the sacred liturgy. In this regard the Holy Spirit “is the Church’s living memory” (Catechism, no. 1099), making present and effective in our lives the saving work of Christ. Dei Verbum therefore affirms that Sacred Tradition and Scripture are bound closely together and flow from the same divine wellspring, which is none other than the Holy Spirit (no. 9).

Bible Christians

While Catholics do not limit God’s self-revelation to the Bible alone (“sola scriptura”), we must affirm with St. Jerome that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

The fact of the matter is that Catholics have not been well “versed” in Sacred Scripture. Surely, Catholics know much more of the Bible than we think we do–to the extent we’ve stayed awake at Mass and catechism class. Still, we experience something of an “inferiority complex” when it comes to the Bible. When challenged on the more controversial aspects of our faith with the dreaded “Where in the Bible . . . ?” questions, we are needlessly bewildered and intimidated.

Tragically, there are millions of Catholics raised since the mid-20th century in this country who have left the Church. Many, for one reason or another, have simply abandoned all religious practice, as the poor formation many Catholics have received has proven to be no match for the relentless secularism of our society. Some, however, have met “Bible Christians” who have found in these biblically hapless Catholics easy targets for their proselytism.

In my own life–despite 12 years of Catholic school–I found myself as a young adult woefully ignorant of Christ. Scripture was not a priority in our home and was not convincingly proclaimed at school or at Sunday Mass. Our beautiful, large, family Bible was used mostly to keep important documents and newspaper clippings flat (because of its size), and safe (because no one would ever think of opening it).

Even as the Holy Spirit was gently leading me home in the 1980s, it was difficult to find sound Catholic materials on Scripture. The first book I picked up discussed how St. Paul didn’t write many of the Epistles the Church attributes to him. The second book said we had to focus on the human Jesus and proceeded to explain away the miraculous occurrences in the Gospels. The third book went so far as to deny the Resurrection, saying that it wasn’t a historical event, but basically, “It’s the Church’s story and we’re sticking to it.” These were all considered mainstream “Catholic” books that I later encountered, among others, in seminary. No wonder we’re confused!

While there’s much more work to be done today, the climate is already subtly but unmistakably changing. My kids (not just Sr. Evangeline!) and their friends not only know the Catechism, but are quite at home–where they should be–in the Bible, and in fact have more of it memorized than I do. The Liturgy of the Word–not just at Mass, but also in other sacramental celebrations and the Liturgy of the Hours–now receives greater attention. The faithful are exposed to more of the Bible than before, and in its natural habitat to boot: the sacred liturgy. Catholics in unprecedented numbers are engaged in life-changing Bible studies. Catholic apologetics, thanks to Karl Keating, Pat Madrid, and so many others, has undergone a remarkable renaissance, such that Catholics are increasingly able to explain the biblical basis of our beliefs. Continue reading