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Lift up Your Hearts!

18 Mar

cyril of jerusalemSandwiched between the more popular feast days of St. Patrick (yesterday) and St. Joseph (tomorrow), we celebrate the feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. This 4th-century Church Father and Doctor of the Church could be considered the “patron saint” of RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), as he has left us in his “Catechetical Lectures” instructions for new Christians in the days immediately before and after their initiation into the life of the Church at the Easter Vigil. In these catechetical instructions, we find very strong insistence on the value and efficacy of the Sacrament of Baptism as well as a clear affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

St. Cyril died in 386, just a few years after participating, as Bishop of Jerusalem, at the First Council of Constantinople. This Council is known for completing the Creed commonly known as the Nicene Creed.

Here is a short sampling from one of St. Cyril’s catechetical lectures, in which he unpacks part of the Preface (prayers) that are said immediately before the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. As you will readily see, this message is just as applicable to us as it was to Christians in St. Cyril’s time:

“The Priest cries aloud, Lift up your hearts. For truly ought we in that most awful hour to have our heart on high with God, and not below, thinking of earth and earthly things. In effect therefore the Priest bids all in that hour to dismiss all cares of this life, or household anxieties, and to have their heart in heaven with the merciful God. Then you answer, We lift them up unto the Lord: assenting to it, by your avowal. But let no one come here, who could say with his mouth, We lift up our hearts unto the Lord, but in his thoughts have his mind concerned with the cares of this life. At all times, rather, God should be in our memory but if this is impossible by reason of human infirmity, in that hour above all this should be our earnest endeavor.”

The Book of God

30 Sep
St. Jerome

St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church

One of the central documents of the Second Vatican Council was its 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.

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 Liber (“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 works of Christ. Dei Verbum, no. 9 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.

Bible Christians

While Catholics do not limit God’s self-revelation to the Bible alone (“sola scriptura”), we must affirm with St. Jerome, whose feast we celebrate today, 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. Continue reading

What Happened on Holy Saturday?

19 Apr

Our Lord’s descent into hell, under whose aegis Holy Saturday stands liturgically in the Church’s year, is an article of faith that is of particular significance to modern man. On Good Friday we contemplated Christ on the Cross, and beginning on Easter Sunday we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection.

Continue reading

What Did Jesus Know?

27 Aug

Finding in the TempleThe constant teaching of the Church is that Christ, in His human intellect, from the moment of His conception, knew all things that a created intellect could know.

This question of Jesus’ human knowledge points to the great mystery of the Incarnation, when, “in the fullness of time,” God took on human nature. In doing so, our God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, united Himself in some fashion with every human person. As we consider the mystery of Christ’s being fully human and fully divine, we are filled with wonder and joy. God is truly with us; He has visited His people (cf. Is. 7:14; Mt. 1:23; Lk. 7:16), offering salvation to all the nations.

Going a little deeper, we find that the Church affirms that human nature was “assumed” and not “absorbed” in the Incarnation. Christ is true God and true man, not some hybrid of the two (Catechism, no. 464). In trying to come to grips with this truth, many great minds throughout history have fallen into error by embracing only part of this magnificent reality. Many people today, in rightly affirming Christ’s humanity, have failed to leave room for the complementary truth that Christ is also fully divine. Indeed, “today, because of the rationalism found in so much of contemporary culture, it is above all faith in the divinity of Christ that has become problematic” (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter at the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 22).

It within this context that we examine Christ’s human knowledge. It is legitimate to ask how God could at the same time be one like us (cf. Heb. 4:15) and yet know everything. However, the answer to this question must be faithful to the data the Lord has revealed to us through the Church.

We must confess, as the Church has done consistently throughout her history, that Jesus Christ is fully human. This truth is summarized in the Catechism, which in turn quotes Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 22: “The Son of God . . . worked with human hands; he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin” (no. 470). Continue reading

What is the Assumption?

15 Aug

AssumptionToday the Church celebrates the great solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s such a significant feast day that the Church considers it a holy day of obligation, on which we are obliged to go to Mass and, to the extent possible, enjoy a day a rest and festivity.

So it’s fair to ask, “What does the Church teach concerning the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary?”

The teaching is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 974:

“The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up [‘assumed’] body and soul into the glory of heaven, where she already shares in the glory of her Son’s Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of His Body.” This is a paraphrase of a dogmatic statement issued in 1950 by Pope Pius XII in a document entitled Munificentissimus Deus.

While the dogmatic definition is relatively new, the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption is firmly rooted in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. The key scriptural verse is Genesis 3:15, in which the Lord says that He will put enmity between Satan and the “woman,” who is identified as the Mother of the Redeemer. “Enmity” means “total opposition.” This verse foreshadows Mary’s participation in the complete victory of her seed (Jesus) over Satan. According to St. Paul, the consequences of Satan’s influence on the human race are twofold: sin and death (e.g., Romans 5:21; 6:16; 6:23; 8:2; Galatians 6:7-8; Hebrews 2:14-15). Therefore, Mary, who shared in her Son’s victory over Satan, would have to be saved from both sin and the corruption of death. Thus, the Assumption manifests Our Lady’s “total opposition” to the devil.

In addition to Genesis 3:15, there are several other scriptural passages that point to the Assumption of Our Lady. For example, there is Luke 1:28, since her bodily assumption is a natural consequence of her being “full of grace.” Other passages include Revelation 12:1, in which Mary’s coronation implies her bodily assumption, and 1 Corinthians 15:23 and Matthew 27:52-53, which support the possibility of a bodily assumption. And lastly there is Psalm 132:8, which provides: “Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark which you have sanctified.” Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, who physically bore the presence of God in her womb before bearing Christ to the world.

The Assumption is also witnessed by sacred Tradition. For example, St. Gregory of Tours (d. 593) wrote: “The Lord commanded the holy body [of Mary] to be borne on a cloud to Paradise where, reunited to its soul and exalting with the elect, it enjoys the everlasting bliss of eternity.” The doctrine was also explicitly taught by Church Fathers such as St. Germain of Constantinople, St. Andrew of Crete, and St. John Damascene.

There is a maxim that provides “Lex orandi, lex credendi” (“the law of praying is the law of believing”). This maxim summarizes the truth that the liturgical life of the People of God plays an important role in preserving and celebrating the Faith of the Church. Already in the sixth century there were liturgical feasts dedicated to Mary’s Assumption. And indeed, from the 13th century on, the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption was taught with near unanimity in both the west and east. And the Rosary, which includes the mystery of the Assumption, has been an important part of Catholic piety since the early 13th century.

In defining the Assumption as a revealed dogma, Pope Pius XII did not infallibly answer all the questions that relate to the “where, when, and how” of the Assumption. For example, we do not know how old Mary was and whom she was with at the time. Also, the Holy Father did not attempt to resolve the controversy as to whether she was in Ephesus or Jerusalem, as there was no mention of where she was at the time of her Assumption. In addition, Pope Pius XII’s definition said nothing about Mary’s mediation, her queenship, or other privileges.

And significantly, Pope Pius XII left open the question of whether Mary “died.” Note that the definition intentionally uses the ambiguous phraseology, “having completed the course of her earthly life.” Some maintain that she did not die, because her Immaculate Conception freed her from the effects of original sin, including death. The more probable opinion, endorsed by Blessed John Paul II, is that the Blessed Virgin Mary did die, so that she could be fully conformed to her crucified Son. Thus she freely accepted death in order to more fully associate herself with her Son’s redemption (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no. 58). It is important to note in this regard that if Mary did die before being assumed into heaven, it did not involve the bodily corruption that usually accompanies death as a consequence of original sin.

The foregoing, in modified form, was originally published by Catholics United for the Faith.

Digesting the Content

27 Jun

Catechesi TradendaeChurch documents can seem a bit daunting at first, especially to lay people who have not studied Catholic theology for any length of time. Yet the writings of the Popes and other Church authorities are far too important to be left merely to scholars or so-called “experts.”

I received a tip many years ago that I have found very helpful: Most Church documents, including Vatican II documents and papal encyclicals, are divided into numbered sections. Each section is bite-sized, usually 1-4 paragraphs in length. The tip is to read the document one numbered section at a time, and then try to summarize the content in one sentence. This may be a little challenging at first, but eventually you will get the hang of it and quickly zero in on the main point of the section.

One of Blessed John Paul II’s longest documents is Catechesi Tradendae, a 1979 apostolic exhortation on Catechesis in Our Time. Below you will find my summary of this document, with a few memory verses thrown in at no extra charge. Especially during this “Year of Faith,” you might want to try this method with one of the documents of Vatican II or an encyclical on a topic you find most interesting. Continue reading

Not by Faith Alone

20 Jun

faith and worksAll Christians affirm that no one can be saved by his or her own efforts. We are saved by the free, undeserved grace of God. Amen to that!

Where some Christians differ is regarding the role of human cooperation in our salvation, as some communities stress God’s primary activity in the work of salvation without adequately accounting for our responsibility to respond to the gift of grace. The truth is that God does not save us against our will, nor does He expect us, once justified through faith and Baptism, to sit back and not allow our faith to transform all that we are and all that we do.

Following, then, are but a sampling of New Testament passages affirming the truth that we will be judged not merely on our faith alone, but on a faith that manifests itself in charitable, upright deeds.

“The Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.” –Matthew 16:27

“Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” –Matthew 25:44-46

“For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” –Romans 2:6-8

“He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor.” –1 Corinthians 3:8

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.” –2 Corinthians 5:10

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” –Galatians 5:6

“What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?” –James 2:14

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done.” –Revelation 22:12

And then there’s 2 Timothy 3:16, which is often cited to affirm the special place of Scripture in the life of the Christian. Yet, the following verse (v. 17) affirms that the purpose of Scripture is so that we may be “equipped for every good work.”