Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Small Ball and the Little Way

Christian Colon scores the winning run and celebrates with the team.
I don't normally talk about baseball on this blog, but I couldn't help seeing a connection between the performance of my Kansas City Royals and the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day is today. Bear with me for a moment, even if you know nothing about baseball and/or Catholic spirituality. Really: stay with me just for a few paragraphs, and see if it doesn't become clear.

Last night (early this morning, for those of us watching the game in Rome), the Royals beat the Oakland A's. This is the first time we've won a playoff game in 29 years. In fact, the last time we even made it to the playoffs was 1985, when I was seven months old (granted, we won the World Series that year, but we haven't even come close since then). But it's all the more remarkable for another reason: the Royals aren't exactly known for power hitting. As Rany Jazayerli of Grantland pointed out back in August:
They aren’t a Moneyball team, at least in the “get on base and hit home runs” sense. In fact, they’re last in the majors in walks and home runs. And it’s actually worse than that: The Royals’ walk rate (6.04 percent) is the lowest in the major leagues since the strike zone was redefined in 1969. They’re on pace for 99 homers, which would be the fewest by an AL team since 1994.
Since then, we only got worse on both fronts: our walk rate dropped to 6.03 percent, and we ended the season with only 95 home runs, the fewest of any AL team since 1992. So how does a team that doesn't make a lot of home runs end up in the playoffs? Jazayerli explained the Royals' strategy:
The Royals’ philosophy is decidedly retro, more suited for baseball in 1914 than 2014. Put the ball in play. Run fast. Play good defense. Somehow, finally, it’s working. When it comes to putting the ball in play, the Royals are, relative to the league, one of the most prolific teams in baseball history. Because while they’re last in the majors in walks, they’re also last in strikeouts: They’ve struck out more than 100 fewer times than every other team in baseball. 
Other stats tell the same story: for example, we ended the season behind only the Tigers in scoring singles. In other words, while we didn't make a lot of huge, splashy plays, we were consistent in doing the small things well.

And that's exactly what happened last night. More than once, the A's looked they were going to destroy us, with a couple of really epic home-runs. But the Royals came out on top by making the most of small plays: getting on base, stealing bases, etc. They brought the runners home carefully and deliberately, rather than risking it all on swinging for the fences. In baseball parlance, this is called “small ball”: doing the small things right.

Six of us Royals fans here at the North American College in Rome decided to watch the wildcard game,
which lasted from 2-6 AM local time. Two of the guys made it all the way through: I slept from the 6th-12th inning..
And that's exactly what St. Thérèse of Lisieux calls for in her “little way.” Thérèse was a young cloistered French nun who longed to do something great for God: specifically, she grieved over the fact that she couldn't be one of the great martyrs of the Church. This changed when, in reading 1 Corinthians, Thérèse realized that the greatest vocation was to love.

In 1 Cor. 12:31, St. Paul has just finished speaking of the different spiritual gifts, when he says, “earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” That more excellent way, Paul explains in 1 Cor. 13, is love. Great acts done without love are spiritually worthless, while small acts done with great love are priceless.

Thérèse realized that this was a call for her (and indeed, for all of us) to do all things lovingly:
MY VOCATION IS LOVE! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.
And these acts of love are not typically going to be great and heroic sacrifices. More often, they're going to be small, almost unnoticeable things: the sacrifices nobody else notices, the smile when you don't feel like smiling, and so on.

Here's how Thérèse described it, in a prayer to Jesus:
What this child asks for is Love. She knows only one thing: to love You, O Jesus. Astounding works are forbidden to her; she cannot preach the Gospel, shed her blood; but what does it matter since her brothers work in her stead, and she, a little child, stays very close to the throne of the King and Queen. She loves in her brothers' place while they do the fighting. 
But how will she prove her love since love is proved by works? Well, the little child will strew flowers, she will perfume the royal throne with their sweet scents, and she will sing in her silvery tones the canticle of Love. Yes, my Beloved, this is how my life will be consumed. I have no other means of proving my love for you other than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love.
Or, to put it in another way, we're not all called to hit grand slams, but all of us can play small ball. We can do the small sacrifices, offer up tiny acts of charity, and sanctify every moment of our lives, no matter how small.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pray to Saints? Why Not Go Directly to God?

I get some variation of the above question frequently from Protestants. This objection supposes that we have two options: go to the Saints, or go to God. From a Catholic perspective, this is a false choice. Of course we should go directly to God. As Hebrews 4:16 says, “let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” From the Catholic perspective, the right question is therefore: do we go before the Throne of Grace alone, or in company with the Saints?

And it turns out, Scripture provides an easy answer to that question. The reason that Hebrews 4 gives for why we can approach the Throne of Grace with confidence is that we're not alone: we've got a great High Priest, Jesus Christ, mediating for us (Hebrews 4:14-15). And Jesus encourages us to pray together, rather than in isolation: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

In fact, even when you “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6), you don't cut yourself off from the Body of Christ. Right after calling us to lift up prayers in secret, Christ gives us this prayer to pray:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
The Lord's Prayer is not the “My Father,” but the “Our Father.” It's a radical recognition that we are members of the Body of Christ: that we pray on our own behalf, and on behalf of others, and that they pray on our behalf, as well. Asking the Saints to pray for us, and joining with them in prayers to the Lord is simply a continuation of this Scriptural teaching.

But, the objector might say, isn't it still a waste of time? After all, every moment that you spend asking for the prayers of the Saints is a moment that you could just be praying directly to God. Such an objection is frivolous and perhaps even evil. Consider three reasons:

  1. Such an objection would condemn St. Paul for asking for the prayers of others. St. Paul takes the time to write to the Ephesians to ask for their prayers (Eph. 6:18-20): “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.” By the logic of our objectors, Paul should have spent that that praying directly to the Father. That's an absurd result, so we know the objection is wrong.
  2. Mathematically, the objection makes no sense. If you take a few moments to ask others for their prayers, and each of you spent the next five minutes entreating our Lord, that's more time spent in prayer to the Lord (ten minutes between the two of you) than if you were praying alone. And with the Saints in glory, they have eternity to lift up prayers on our behalf. So even if we accepted the utilitarian reasoning of this objection, it would still be wrong.
  3. This is “the Judas objection.” When Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus (John 12:3), it's Judas Iscariot who objects: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). Scripture doesn't look kindly upon this objection, and for good reason. It pits one good (anointing the feet of Jesus) against another (giving to the poor). It's the devil's way of trying to divide the Kingdom of God against itself: whenever you someone do one good thing, the temptation is to say, “why didn't you instead do [some other good thing]?”

    Meanwhile, Judas doesn't raise have a problem stealing money (John 12:6). In pitting one good against another, he ignores the need to choose right from wrong. In other words, the right objection isn't, “why did you do this one good thing, instead of the other?” but “why do you waste your time on frivolous or evil things, rather than good things?” In other words, don't worry about how the time you spend invoking the prayers of the Saints could be spent praying directly to God. Worry about the way that the time you spend watching TV or complaining or gossiping or looking at pornography could have instead be spent praying to God.

P.S. I have a handwritten draft of this post that differs in some respects. So if you want a different take, check out the comments.
P.P.S. Or check out David Bates' blog. We'd both written posts on the topic this week without realizing that the other one had done so (he wrote his first, but I was first to publish... I think I'm the Edison to his Tesla in this situation).

Monday, September 22, 2014

What Should You Wear to Mass?

I'm on a silent retreat this week (this is being auto-posted), so it seemed like a good idea to post a nice, non-controversial post since I won't be around to respond to the comments for a few days. Instead, I wrote this one on wearing proper attire to Mass.

Let's start with Scripture, Matthew 22:1-14:
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Marriage of the Duke of Nemours
to Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha at Saint Cloud (1840)
And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.’ But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
So, just as you wouldn't go to a wedding or formal event without preparing yourselves, you shouldn't go to Mass without making the proper preparations. There are a couple major points to be made here:

1) The disposition of your soul matters most. 

Moritz Calisch, Young Italian Woman Praying (1850)
From the outset, the wedding garment is part of a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. The sort of preparations that Christ is talking about are spiritual. When you get to Mass, your soul should be ready to receive the graces that God wants to give you, and you shouldn't be presenting yourself at Communion without preparing yourself properly.

You wouldn't go to a wedding covered in filth, so don't receive Jesus Christ in the Eucharist with a soul covered in filth. Wash yourself off first, by going to Confession. This is a requirement for those who have commit a mortal sin (canon 916). Nor is this rule something that the Church made up, or has the power to change. Receiving Christ irreverently is blasphemous, because it profanes Christ. “Profane” literally means “unholy, not consecrated.” To profane something is to treat a holy thing like it's not holy. And profaning Christ is gravely sinful.

St. Paul lays out the stakes in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
Nor is this just about preparing yourself for Mass. The Eucharistic Banquet is the Table of the Lord here below, but we're going to enjoy that Banquet in its fullest in eternity: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). That's the Banquet we most need to be ready for. Someday, we know not when, you and I are going to stand before God at the Last Judgment. Every single day of our life should be spent preparing for that.

2) Your clothes still matter.

Obviously, the way that we prepare for Mass involves much more than putting on appropriate clothes, but what we wear matters. Why? Because one of the ways that we should show respect is by dressing respectfully. Hopefully, you wouldn't dream of going to a job interview or your wedding wearing a t-shirt and shorts. If you did, it would seem either clueless or deliberately insulting, like you weren't taking the occasion seriously. Why dress that way to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, then?

Who Are We Dressing For?

Fashion plate of men's golfing clothes, Sartorial Arts Journal (1901)
Unfortunately, much of the discussion only about how we dress for Mass focuses exclusively on whether young women are wearing clothing that's revealing. Certainly, that's one way to dress inappropriately for Mass. Young women shouldn't be wearing clothing that's immodest, or which shifts the focus from Our Lord to their bodies. We live in a culture saturated in sex, and especially for teenage boys and young men striving to live a holy life, this can involve a constant battle for purity, and a constant need for vigilance and custody of the eyes. We should be supporting them in this heroic struggle, rather than leading them into greater temptation.

But the problem is much bigger than that: often, the girls dressed like they're going to a nightclub are sitting with a dad who looks like he's going golfing, or a mom who looks like she's going jogging, or a brother who looks like he's next up at bat. You can have every inch of skin covered, and still be dressed inappropriately for Mass.

A major part of the underlying issue is this: are you dressed like Mass is the most important part of your day? Are you dressed like being pleasing to God is more important than impressing the people in the pews around you?  

I alluded to sports attire a moment ago, but I want to touch on that a bit more. Sometimes, people go to Mass on Sunday with their kids in jerseys, so that they can get them to the game right after Mass (even leaving right after receiving Communion). When they do this, they're saying something about Who and what matters most. The message you're sending to those around you and to your own kids is that Mass is just an obligation we check off the list before we get to the important stuff like the game. 

Think about it. If Mass were more important than the game, why wouldn't you be dressed for it? After all, if your day's to-do list consisted of an official state dinner to meet with the Queen of England, followed by a baseball game for your kid, you probably wouldn't show up to the dinner dressed for the game to save time. At Mass, you encounter the King of Kings.

That's why this is infinitely bigger than dressing to avoid scandalizing the distractible guy in the pew behind you. Even if you were literally the only person in the pews, you should still take the time to dress up, because you're meeting with Someone very important: Jesus Christ.

Embodied Cognition

It's easy to imagine that the clothes we wear are irrelevant, that they don't impact how we view ourselves or how we carry ourselves. Scientists are now discovering that this isn't true. There's a field of social psychology that studies “embodied cognition,” which is “the idea that aspects of your thoughts are shaped by your body.” You're both body and soul, and how you treat the one impacts the other. 

For example, Professor Adam D. Galinsky gave a test to three groups of students:
Some would wear a white coat, and were told it was a doctor's coat. Others wore an identical coat, but were told it was a painter's coat. And a third group merely looked at a white "doctor's" coat. The subject then took an attention test where they were asked to point out differences between two images and speedily write them down. Those who wore the "doctor's" coat performed significantly better than the other two groups.
In a similar test between students in lab coats and students in street clothes, “those who wore the white lab coats made about half as many errors on incongruent trials as those who wore regular clothes.” Galinsky concluded that, “clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.” Simply dressing smart made them act smarter. We should take that lesson to heart. Dressing holy isn't enough to become holy, but it's definitely a good start.

Some Important Nuance

Having said all of this, let me close with a few caveats: 
  1. I'm speaking here about Sunday Mass, because our Sunday should revolve around Mass, including in our clothing choices. Daily Mass is a different story, both because nobody is required to go to it, and because it's during the workweek. There's a good chance you're coming in before your shift or over your lunch hour or before or between classes, and it's more than fine to dress accordingly. Same goes for retreats or other special occasions. (Ironically, this week, I'm dressed more casually than I would normally like, due to the retreat).

  2. Sometimes it's just not possible to dress well for Mass. Maybe you're on vacation and forgot to pack church clothes, or maybe you just haven't had time to do laundry, or maybe you can't afford a decent wardrobe right now. These things happen. Fear not. God knows your soul, and it's better to show up at Mass dressed sloppily than not to show up.

  3. I'm writing this so that you can dress better, and so you can encourage your kids and friends to do the same. Don't take this as permission to sit in Mass judging people for not dressing well. Remember the first part of this post: our spiritual preparations for Mass are what's most important, so if you're approaching (or spending) Mass judging others, you've got bigger problems to worry about.
Bearing this nuance in mind, let this be a call for all of us to be more mindful about how we are physically and (especially) spiritually readying ourselves for Mass.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How Your Online Tone Could Send You to Hell

The before-and-after photos used by Rorate Caeli.
After the Soviet Union had Nikolai Yezhov executed,
his image was carefully purged from official photographs.
A few weeks ago, Msgr. Charles Pope wrote a blog post on his blog (which is on the Archdiocese of Washington's website). It quickly disappeared, leading the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli to decry “the Catholic Samizdat.” If you don't get the reference, they were comparing the Archdiocese's decisions about what goes on its own blog to totalitarian Soviet censorship. To drive the point home, they ran these before-and-after photos, showing how the Soviet Union removed Nikolai Yezhov from official photos after they executed him. That analogy's not just hyperbolic, it's unhinged.

Using Msgr. Pope as a pawn to slur the bishops is particularly ironic, given Pope's own views on the matter, and his “concerns about disunity in the Church”:
In particular my concerns center around the dismissive attitudes many have developed toward the bishops. While this attitude was once the domain, largely, of dissenters on the theological left, it has now become quite a common attitude among many theological and ecclesial conservatives as well.

I am well aware of the (often legitimate) frustrations by some Catholics that the Bishops, either individually or collectively have not always shepherded in a clearer way; a way that both disciplined dissenters and corrected liturgical abuses and also encouraged those who tried to remain faithful. I get that. These have been difficult decades for the Church and for our culture.

But frustrations should not be permitted to draw us, even subtly, toward a posture that practically speaking severs our union with the bishops. Some of the comments that routinely come in to the blog here are quite shocking in their sweeping dismissal of the bishops, even the Pope. Some of them are so strong that I cannot post them. What makes them particularly shocking is that, these days, most of the comments of this sort come from those who would define themselves as conservative Catholics. That reflects somewhat the readership of this blog (i.e. more conservative), but it is shocking to hear conservative Catholics use the language that I had always associated with dissenters back in the 1970s and 80s.
Msgr. Pope wrote that back in 2012, during Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate. Things have only gotten worse since then. Offhand, I can point to specific instances in which I've read or heard Catholics (and again, apparently orthodox Catholics) refer to the bishops as “useful idiots” of the Obama Administration for their long-standing support of universal health (it's another Stalin reference, but at least the bishops aren't Stalin this time?); derisively refer to Cardinals by first name (e.g., mockingly referring to Cardinal Dolan as “Timmy”); and openly advocate that we just ignore Pope Francis (who gets derisively referred to as “Jorge”).

This problem is particularly acute on the Internet, where people are more prone to being both outraged and rude. The Internet Counter-Magisterium spends an incredible amount of time seeking out things by which to be scandalized and outraged (often, after only hearing one half of the story). But by no means is this just an online problem, nor is it just Traditional Catholics, nor am I myself innocent in this regard.

To put the matter bluntly, Catholics of all stripes have taken to being downright venomous towards the Magisterium when they don't like the bishops' position on an issue, even a prudential one. My concern is that this is becoming the norm: people speak about their spiritual fathers, the successors of the Apostles, like they would speak about politicians with which they disagreed. And while the acidic tone of politics is lamentable, it's many times more lamentable when it's brought into the Church.

Make no mistake: this is a moral issue.

Your opinions about (for example) Cardinal Dolan's participation in the St. Patrick's Day parade, or about what office Cardinal Burke should hold, and the like, make no difference [unless you happen to be Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Burke, or Pope Francis... in which case, welcome to the blog!]. What does matter, and what you'll be accountable for at the Final Judgment, is how you voice those opinions. So let's recall the major moral principles at play here.

I. The Sins of the Tongue

St. James the Just, traditionally believed to be the author
of the Epistle of James
James 3:1-10 has a lot to say about the sins of the tongue:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of GodFrom the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.
So if you go about rudely opining about how the bishops ought to do things, and how the Church ought to be run, you're setting yourself up for harsh judgment for two reasons. First, because you're making yourself out to be some sort of Christian teacher, despite having not been called to such a position by the Church. You're asking to be judged more strictly.

But more importantly, you're unleashing some of that hellfire that James warns against. His analogies are great: the small rudder guides the giant ship, and the small bit in the mouth can be used to guide a huge horse. So the devil can lead us astray by unholy speech, like cursing “men, who are made in the likeness of God.

Jesus Christ has an even more stark warning to us in Matthew 12:36-37, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” What else is there to say? The way that you talk trash, even if you're just carelessly blowing off steam, could well lead to your eternal damnation. So says the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

II. The Lord's Anointed

Guernico, Saul Attacking David (1646)
Everything in the last point applies generally to how we speak about our neighbors, but this is particularly acute when we're talking about the pope or the bishops. That's because, as Exodus 22:28 says, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.

The Old and New Testament are filled with examples illustrating this teaching. We see several in the First Book of Samuel, while King Saul is trying to hunt down and kill David. Without a doubt, David and his men are the ones who are morally in the right. Yet David still orders his men to show restraint, because God anointed Saul as King over the nation of Israel (1 Sam. 9:15-17).

For example, King Saul unwittingly wandered into the cave in which David and his men were hiding, yet David refused to kill him, reasoning: “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 24:6). On a separate occasion, when they find Saul sleeping, David forbids his men from killing him in these words: “Do not destroy him; for who can put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless?” (1 Sam. 26:9).

In speaking with or about King Saul, David is unceasingly respectful, even as Saul tries to have him killed. The second time around, David goes so far as to chastise Abner, Saul's commander, for failing to protect his king (1 Sam. 26:15-16):
Are you not a man? Who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not kept watch over your lord the king? For one of the people came in to destroy the king your lord. This thing that you have done is not good. As the Lord lives, you deserve to die, because you have not kept watch over your lord, the Lord’s anointed.
Eventually, Saul is wounded in battle against the Philistines, and decides to take his own life (1 Sam. 31:3-4). He falls on his sword, but doesn't die right away, and convinces one of his soldiers to finish the job (2 Sam. 1:9-10). When that soldier recounted this afterwards, David asks, “How is it you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” and has the man killed (2 Sam. 1:14-16).

Edouard Moyse, The Grand Sanhedrin (1868)
What David is illustrating is the need for respect for the office, even if the man occupying the office isn't living a holy life. It's this principle that makes the Reformation unthinkable, no matter how rotten or wicked some members of the clergy were at the time. And we find this principle in the New Testament as well as the Old. Yesterday, I mentioned Matthew 23:1-3, but it's worth recalling:
Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.
That's respect for the office. And even though Christ, who was above the Pharisees, condemned them as “whitewashed tombs” in Matthew 23:27, we shouldn't forget what happened in Acts 23:1-5,
And Paul, looking intently at the council, said, “Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day.” And the high priest Anani′as commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
So Paul, upon learning that the man he insulted was the high priest, takes back his harsh words -- not because they were false, but because he was out of place speaking evil of the high priest in that way. If such a debt of honor is owed to the Jewish high priest, how much more to a Catholic bishop or the Vicar of Christ himself?

Beyond the Old and New Testament, we can find a bottomless well of illustrations of this principle with the Saints. Sometimes, this takes the form of their express teachings: witness, for example, St. Ignatius of Antioch or Pope Clement calling the people to greater respect and obedience of their bishops. But more often, we find this principle illustrated in the Saints' very lives. Consider how Padre Pio was forbidden by the Holy See from publicly saying Mass or hearing confessions when they suspected (wrongly) that he faked his stigmata, or how both St. Joan of Arc and St. Mary MacKillop were invalidly excommunicated by their bishops. Indeed, not infrequently does Our Lord call the Saints to greater holiness by letting them be scourged by their own superiors. Yet how often did these Saints turn to invective, name-calling, and publicly smearing their superiors?

In other words, it's not enough that you're convinced that you're right, and the bishop is wrong. Even if you are right, you don't have permission to treat the bishops disdainfully, and more than your children have the right to treat you disrespectfully anytime you sin or make a mistake.

III. How Should We Respond, Then?

Given everything that I've said above, I should mention what I'm not saying. I'm not suggesting that we're never able to criticize the bishops, or that we have to agree with everything that they say or do. Not so: David treated King Saul with respect, but he didn't turn himself in to be unjustly killed; St. Paul treated the Jewish high priest with respect, but still defended Christianity against him. That's an instructive model for us to follow today. I'd cite as a positive example the recent article by Edward Peters, which manages to decisively answer all of Bishop Tobin's arguments for permitting adulterers to receive Communion, while being unceasingly respectful.

What I'm describing here is a tall order, and it's counter-cultural. We live in a rude age in which people tear each other apart over religious and (especially) political differences. To comment on religious and political affairs in such a culture without sinning is not easy. But what I'm describing is the clear teaching of Scripture and the Church (it may be helpful to recall the Catechism's definitions of rash judgment, detraction, and calumny), and the witness of the lives of the Saints.

After all, whoever said that sanctity was easy? Besides that, we have an alternative. If you hear something troubling, something over which you have no control, pray for those involved. Pray especially for the pope and the bishops, because they will be held to a higher standard than the rest of us (James 3:1; Hebrews 13:17). The vast majority of the time, such heartfelt prayers will accomplish a world of good more than will badmouthing those involved.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Gospel of St. Peter's: Jesus Doesn't Need You.

St. Peter's Square
St. Peter's Basilica is one of the largest, most famous, and most beautiful churches in the world. Rightly has it been called “the greatest of all churches of Christendom.” Although the pope's cathedral is actually St. John Lateran, St. Peter's Basilica is the church typically associated with the papacy.

After all, it's built on the Tomb of St. Peter, the first pope, and the Basilica was something of a symbol of the Reformation. After the original St. Peter's Basilica started to show wear and tear, a larger and more beautiful church was designed. It took over a century to complete (beginning prior to the Reformation, and being completed in 1626), and it was the sale of indulgences to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter's that sparked the Reformation.

So for both better and for worse, St. Peter's came to represent the papacy during the Reformation period. Given this, you might expect it to boast of papal power, with grand declarations of the primacy of St. Peter and his successors. The truth is much more surprising. Just as the Gospel of Matthew couples Christ's establishment of the Church on Peter (Matthew 16:17-19) with a quick reminder of Peter's unworthiness for the task (Mt. 16:21-23), St. Peter's Basilica is filled with reminders of the pope's unworthiness, and our own. Let me give you four examples:

1) The Transfiguration, by Raphael

This is one of the first mosaics that you see when you enter St. Peter's. The top half is clearly the Transfiguration of Jesus, but the bottom half might be confusing at first. Mark 9:2 says that the Transfiguration happened after “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.” Given that, what are all of these other people doing there?

The answer is, Raphael is juxtaposing two Biblical scenes, and the second one is surprising: it's the Apostles when they were unable to drive out the demon from a possessed boy (cf. Mark 9:14-29). You can see St. Peter on the left, in blue and yellow, in both scenes. But why does Raphael use this scene? What's being said here? If you look at the composition of the lower scene, you'll see that they're facing the center (and each other), but that the center is empty. Then draw your eyes upwards, and you'll see the glorified Christ directly above the void. He's absent from the bottom scene, because the Apostles are trying to do this themselves. Even though Christ commissioned the Apostles to drive out demons (Matthew 10:8), they're incapable of living out their mission without His constant assistance. 

2) “The Altar of the Lie” by Roncalli

While the Transfiguration is one of the first things that a visitor sees upon entering St. Peter's, that's not necessarily the case for priests. If they're celebrating Mass, chances are, they're entering the Basilica from the sacristy. And what are they greeted with upon entering? The so-called “Altar of the Lie.” It's a side altar with a massive mosaic above it by Roncalli, depicting the death of Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

If you don't recall, let me recap: Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell a piece of property, and go to present the proceeds to St. Peter and the Apostles. Secretly (or not so secretly, as we're dealing with God here), they decided to keep some of the money back. They then lie to St. Peter, claiming that this was the full amount. They are both struck dead on the spot, and the last words Ananias hears are St. Peter saying, “you have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4). Think about what is being said to the priest as he is about to celebrate Mass: you've promised God everything, and are now about to celebrate at His Altar. Don't hold anything back.

3) The Chair of Peter, by Bernini

In the aspe of the Basilica, in the center of the back wall, is one of the most famous parts of St. Peter's: the Cathedra Petri (Chair of Peter) by Bernini. It's built around an actual 9th century papal throne (located inside the bronze throne you see here). The Cathedra, or “Chair,” represented the “seat of power” in antiquity and in Scripture, and it's the root of words like “Cathedral.” Christ speaks of the Pharisees having binding authority (despite their sinfulness) because they taught from “the Chair of Moses” (Matthew 23:2). Because of this, He instructed His followers to “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Mt. 23:3). That's some pretty loaded imagery, because it acknowledges that someone -- even the pope -- might be totally unworthy to wield the authority God has given them.

Around the Chair of St. Peter, we see four men using ropes to holding up the seat. These are the four of the Doctors of the Church: Saints Ambrose and Augustine from the West, and Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom from the East. These four men bravely shepherded, defended, taught, and strengthened the Church in difficult periods, as she faced persecution from without and heresy from within. Yet if you look more closely, you'll see that they're not really holding up the Chair of Peter:

The ropes lie slack in their hands. Instead, the Chair is actually being held up by the golden rays emanating from the Holy Spirit. The meaning is clear: in the final analysis, the papacy isn't protected because we have holy popes, or brilliant theologians, or clever apologists, or even great Saints. The papacy is protected because it's upheld by the Holy Spirit, regardless of whether the men sitting in the Chair (or helping to uphold it) are brilliant or stupid, holy or wicked.

4) St. Peter Enthroned

Finally, we come to another of the most famous statues in St. Peter's (and indeed, the world). The statue is St. Peter Enthroned. It's believed to be the work of the 13th century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio, but some scholars date it back as far as the fifth century.

Whatever the case, it's clearly of St. Peter sitting on a papal cathedra, holding the Keys to the Kingdom in one hand, with the other hand raised in blessing. But there's a weird feature: the arm holding the keys is in a sling. Why? Because the Keys to the Kingdom of God are too much for any man, apart from Divine assistance. St. Peter can't bear the Keys on his own, and the sling represents the way that he is upheld by Someone stronger than himself.


All of this art exists to proclaim the same message: the Church is founded on Peter and the Apostles, defended and strengthened by the Doctors of the Church, and spread throughout the world by each one of us. Yet Christ doesn't need Peter or the Apostles or the Doctors, just as He doesn't need us.

It may not sound like it, but that's Good News. Why? Because none of us are capable, on our own, of fulfilling the good works that God has called us to. We can't make it on our own, and if everything relied upon else, it'd be a disaster. Instead, we need Him. We - priests and laity alike - need to turn over everything to Him, holding nothing back, and entrusting all to the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Vocation Story (Plus Two More!)

Laurent Okitakatshi, Archbishop Joseph Naumann,
Daniel Koko Oleko, and yours truly.
Several people have asked for my vocation story, but I haven't written much on the subject. So let me share a bit about how I got to be where I am now. This is from a radio show that I did with my bishop, Archbishop Joseph Naumann's, on his radio show, “The Shepherd's Voice,” back in April.

As I mentioned earlier, I had an hour-long interview on Vocation Boom on EWTN. The first part is my vocation story, and the second part is Q&A on vocations-related questions. If that sounds interesting to you (or you just want to hear how weird my voice sounds), check out the audio below:

You can also download it here.

At the time, I was in Kansas City along with two of my friends, Daniel Koko Oleko and Laurent Okitakatshi. Daniel and Laurent are seminarians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and were in town for Holy Week. Bill Scholl, who helps to put the show together, was more than happy to have all three of us on the show.

So this is really three vocation stories, plus the story of Daniel's conversion to Catholicism, plus (during the first couple minutes), an explanation of Archbishop Naumann's vision for the future of the Church.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why Are Catholics So "Into" Mary?

Aureliano Milani, Expulsion of Adam and Eve (18th c.)
Today's post is for those Protestants who view the Church's teachings on Mary as unnecessary and odd, rather than evil. There are a lot of you out there, and for good reason.

Let's be honest. If you're not Catholic, or even if you're a Catholic who grew up without much of a focus on Mary, the Catholic devotion to Mary is hard to understand. It seems, if not idolatrous or superstitious, at least ... weird. More specifically, it seems excessively devotional and sentimental, the sort of thing that might work in a culture in which men kiss each other when they meet, but which just doesn't fit in our culture.

But Marian devotion is neither superstition nor mere emotionalism. In fact, Catholics care about Mary so much because Scripture does.

At first, that answer sounds surprising, because Mary doesn't seem to be mentioned that often in Scripture. But that's just on the surface. We need to dive deeper. To see what I mean, let's consider Genesis 3:15. In the midst of cursing the serpent for his role in the Fall, God says:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
To get what's going on here, let's look at several dimensions of this passage.

1) What's meant by the “Seed” of “the Woman”?

“Seed” is one of the ways that descendants are described in Scripture. But it's measured through the man. In part, that's because ancient cultures tended to have an inaccurate understanding of human sexuality. They understood how agriculture worked: you planted the seeds of a certain plant in soil, and if the soil was fertile, then the offspring of the original plant grew. They assumed human reproduction worked the same way, with the man providing the “seed,” and the woman providing the “soil.” Many of the terms used today (like “fertility”) are holdovers from this view. Hebrew was no exception to this: the same word, zera` meant seed, semen, and descendent, as we see in passages like Genesis 38:8-9.

The point is, we hear continually about “the seed of Abraham” (2 Chronicles 20:7), “the seed of David” (1 Kings 11:39), “the seed of Jacob” (Psalm 22:23), etc., but not the seed of a woman. There are only two exceptions to this in all of Scripture. One of those times is in Genesis 16:10, in which the angel promises Hagar that she'll have many descendants. There, they're referred to as her seed, because it's specifically about her children, not Abraham's children by his wife Sarah.

The only other time is here, in Genesis 3:15. Why?

The answer is clear enough. As the Evangelical pastor John MacArthur explains, “the unique reference in Genesis 3:15 to “her Seed” looks beyond Adam and Eve to Mary and to Christ.

Understood in this way, the passage is quite beautiful: it means that at the very moment of the Fall, God promised that the story wasn't over yet, that Satan wouldn't have the last laugh, and that the Virgin-Born would come and save us from our sins.

This interpretation is also the only one to explain the strange language used. Jesus doesn't have a biological human father, so it would be inaccurate to refer to Him as “the seed of Joseph.” He's the offspring of the Virgin Mary in a way that He's not the offspring of anyone else. Given the Virgin Birth, it becomes clear why God should speak of “her Seed.”

2) What's meant by “the Woman”?

Given the answer to the last question, this one is simple. If Genesis 3:15 is a promise of the Virgin Birth, then the Woman” is the Virgin Mary. You can't have the Virgin Birth without the Virgin.

But this point is an important one for two reasons: first, because it establishes a parallel between Mary and Eve, a parallel that the early Christians grasped. They even share a title, Woman. Remember that, at the time of the Fall, Eve is still called “Woman” (Gen. 2:23), as she doesn't get renamed Eve until Genesis 3:20, a few verses later.

But it's important for a second reason. It means that the Virgin Mary is prophesied from the very first Book of the Bible. God is promising us (and threatening Satan) that a woman will come along who will give birth to a Son who will save us.

And note well: Scripture speaks of “the Woman,” not just “a Woman.” Too often, the Virgin Mary is treated as an unnecessary element (or at best, a replaceable part). But Scripture shows that she was part of God's plan of salvation from the very moment of the Fall. In fact, we can say that God, who “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), chose the Virgin Mary for this role from all eternity. Genesis 3:15 is just the first time He reveals this to us, since it's the first time we need redemption.

3) The Two Teams

Often, when Genesis 3:15 is mentioned, the debate has revolved about the second half of the verse. Since a neuter pronoun is used, the second half of the verse literally translates, “it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise its heel.” Is this a reference to Jesus? Mary? Christians? The Church? All of the above? This is an interesting debate, but it risks missing the other half of the verse, which is no less shocking.

Recall that God is addressing the serpent, Satan. He says: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” That is, Our Lord depicts the battle between good and evil as a battle between Mary and Satan. Those are the two sides: you're either with Mary, or you're with the devil. You can be a child of Mary, or you can be a child of the devil. There's no room to be lukewarm (Revelation 3:15-16).

That's what Genesis 3:15 is saying. To be sure, it's saying a lot more than that: for example, about the ultimate triumph of Christ over Satan. But it's hard to get around the fact that the enmity between the serpent and the woman is a foreshadowing of the fight between Satan and Mary, a fight that continues between his offspring and hers until the Last Judgment. Given this, the reasons for the Catholic devotion to Mary should be clear. It's not about excessive emotionalism, but understanding the spiritual battleground.

4) Why Mary's Team?

Domenico Beccafumi, Fall of the Rebel Angels (1530)
Everything up to this point has been, in my view, pretty straightforward exegesis. Even Protestants like MacArthur admit that Genesis 3:15 is about the Virgin Birth, and no Christian can claim ignorance of who that Virgin is. But when we ask why God should description the battle as the serpent against the Woman (instead of the serpent against the Seed of the Woman, as we might expect), we are speculating a bit.

But it's worth asking, because it might sound that Genesis 3:15 is raising Mary to the level of God. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Scripture continually shows Satan being defeated by created beings. For example, in a passage heavily reminiscent of Genesis 3,  Revelation 12 describes the fall of Satan in this way (Revelation 12:8-9, 13):
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. [...] And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child.
So once again Scripture speaks of how Satan, the serpent, is at war against the woman [the Mother of Christ, the “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5)]. A few verses later, after he fails to corrupt the Mother of Christ, he goes after us (Revelation 12:17): “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” In other words, the devil is at war with those of us on Mary's team.

So we see the devil fighting (and losing) first against St. Michael, against the Mother of Christ, and against Christians. But why does Christ choose to defeat Satan by proxy? I suspect it's that God doesn't treat Satan as a worthy adversary, because he's not. It's the heresy of dualism to treat God and Satan as equally-powerful opposing forces. They're not. This is the very heart of the matter. Satan's arrogance is encapsulated in his claim: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). But despite his fiercest efforts, Satan will never succeed in making himself like the Most High. God's decision to repeatedly defeat Satan via created beings like the Virgin Mary makes this fact abundantly clear.


Of course, this is in no way an exhaustive examination of the Scriptural references to Mary. But I think it does enough to show why Mary is so central to Catholic spirituality: Scripture presents her as part of the plan of redemption from the very moment that redemption is needed, and depicts the choice between good and evil as a choice to be a child of Mary or a child of the devil. Given this, go be a child of Mary!