Saturday, August 28, 2010

Feast Day of St. Augustine of Hippo

Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Augustine, so it is a good occasion to review the works of this greatest of teachers. Thankfully, the Venerable Pope John Paul II of happy memory gives us such a review in his Apostolic Letter on St. Augustine.

Augustinum Hipponensem
Apostolic Letter on Augustine of Hippo

His Holiness Pope John Paul II
August 28, 1986

Augustine of Hippo, who, scarcely one year after his death, was called "one of the best teachers" of the Church by my distant predecessor, St. Celestine I, has been present ever since in the life of the Church and in the mind and culture of the whole western world. * * * later, Pius XI [declared] that, of those who have flourished from the beginnings of the human race down to our own days, none—or, at most, very few—could rank with Augustine, for the very great acuteness of his genius, for the richness and sublimity of his teachings, and finally for his holiness of life and defense of Catholic truth. * * *

The conversion of St. Augustine, an event totally dominated by the need to find the truth, has much to teach the men and women of today, who are so often mistaken about the greatest question of all life. * * * He understood that reason and faith are two forces that are to cooperate to bring the human person to know the truth. * * *

He understood that the first question to be asked about the serious question of evil, which was his great torment, was not its origin, but what it was; and he saw that evil is not a substance, but the lack of good: "All that exists is good. The evil about the origin of which I asked questions is not a substance." He concluded that God is the creator of everything, and that no substance exists that was not created by Him.

Taught by his own experience of life, he made the decisive discovery that sin has its origin in the will of the human person, a will that is free and weak: "It was I who willed and refused; it was I, I." * * *

1. Reason and faith

First of all, there is the problem that occupied him most in his youth and to which he returned with all the force of genius and the passion of his spirit: the problem of the relationship between reason and faith. This is a perennial problem, no less acute today than yesterday. * * * Augustine's intellectual and pastoral endeavor aimed to show, beyond any shadow of doubt, that "since we are impelled by a twin pull of gravity to learn," both forces, reason and faith, must work together.

He always listened to what faith had to say, but he exalted reason no less, giving each its own primacy in time of importance. He told all, "Believe that you may understand," but he repeated also, "Understand that you may believe." He wrote a work, perennially relevant, on the usefulness of faith, and explained that faith is the medicine designed to heal the eye of the spirit, the unconquerable fortress for the defense of all, especially of the weak, against error, the nest in which we receive the wings for the lofty flights of the spirit, the short path that permits one to know, quickly, surely and without errors, the truths which lead the human person to wisdom. He also emphasizes that faith is never without reason, because it is reason that shows "in what one should believe." "For faith has its own eyes, by means of which it sees in a certain manner that what it does not yet see is true." Therefore "no one believes anything, unless he has first thought that it is to be believed," because "to believe is itself nothing other than to think with assent...if faith is not thought through, it is no faith." * * *

2. God and man

* * * Although God is transcendent and ineffable, Augustine is nevertheless able, starting from the self-awareness of the human person who knows that he exists and knows and loves, and encouraged by Sacred Scripture, which reveals God as the supreme Being (Ex 3:14), highest Wisdom (Wis, passim) and first Love (1 Jn 4:8), is able to illustrate this threefold notion of God: the Being from whom every being proceeds through creation from nothing, the Truth which enlightens the human mind so that it can know the truth with certainty, the Love that is the source and the goal of all true love. For God, as he so often repeats, is "the cause of what exists, the reason of thought and the ordering of living, or, to use an equally famous formula, "the cause of the universe that has been created, and the light of the truth that is to be perceived, and the fountain from which happiness is to be drunk." * * *

He finds God as "the eternal internal," most secret and most present—man seeks Him because he is absent, but knows Him and finds Him because He is present. * * * Referring to the period before his conversion, Augustine says to God: "Where were You then for me, and how far away? And I was a wanderer far away from You.... But You were more internal than what was intimate in me, and higher than what was highest in me"; "You were with me, and I was not with You." * * *

The human person, accordingly, cannot understand himself except in relationship to God * * * his words, "You have made us for yourself and our heart has no rest until it rests in You," are very well known. He sees the human person as a capacity of existence elevated to the immediate vision of God, the finite who reaches the Infinite. * * *

3. Christ and the Church

One may rightly say that the summit of the theological thinking of the Bishop of Hippo is Christ and the Church. * * * The Church is inseparable from Christ. From the time of his conversion onwards, he recognized and accepted with joy and gratitude the law of providence which has established in Christ and in the Church "the entire summit of authority and the light of reason in that one saving name and in His one Church, recreating and reforming the human race." * * *

[Augustine wrote that] the mediation of Christ is accomplished in the work of redemption, which consists not only in the example of righteousness, but above all in the sacrifice of reconciliation, which was supremely true, supremely free, and completely perfect. The essential characteristic of the redemption by Christ is its universality, which shows the universality of sin. This is how Augustine repeats and interprets the words of St. Paul, "If one has died for all, then all have died" (2 Cor 5:14), i.e., dead because of sin: "The Christian faith, accordingly, exists precisely because of these two men"; "One and one: one for death, one for life." Therefore "every man is Adam; likewise, for those who have believed, every man is Christ." * * *

In Augustine's view, to deny this doctrine is the same as "emptying the cross of Christ"
(1 Cor 1:17). To prevent this, he wrote and spoke much about the universality of sin, including the doctrine of original sin * * *

Another fundamental theme is that of the Holy Spirit as the soul of the mystical body: "what the soul is to the body of a man, the Holy Spirit is for the body of Christ, which is the Church." The Holy Spirit is also the principle of community, by which the faithful are united to one another and to the Trinity itself. * * *

Another theme dear to Augustine's ecclesiology was that of the Church as mother and teacher, a theme on which he wrote profound and moving pages, because it had a close connection to his experience as convert and to his teaching as theologian. While he was on the path back to faith, he met the Church, no longer opposed to Christ as he had been made to believe, but rather as the manifestation of Christ, "most true mother of Christians" and authority for the revealed truth. * * *

[The Church] is a mother, but also, like Mary, a virgin: mother by the ardor of charity, virgin by the integrity of the faith that she guards, defends and teaches. This virginal motherhood is linked to her task of teacher, a task which the Church carries out in obedience to Christ. For this reason, Augustine looks to the Church as guarantor of the Scriptures, and attests that he will remain secure in her whatever difficulties arise for him, urgently exhorting others to do the same: "Thus, as I have often said and impress upon you with vehemence, whatever we are, you are secure if you have God as your Father and His Church as your mother." * * *

4. Freedom and grace

Even to indicate briefly the various aspects of St. Augustine's theology would be an infinite task. Another important, indeed fundamental aspect, linked also to his conversion, is that of freedom and grace. * * *

He always defended freedom as one of the bases of a Christian anthropology, against his former coreligionists, against the determinism of the astrologers whose victim he himself had once been, and against every form of fatalism; he explained that liberty and foreknowledge are not incompatible, nor liberty and the aid of divine grace. "The fact that free will is aided, does not destroy it; but because it is not taken away, it is aided." And the Augustinian principle is well known: "He who made you without your participation, does not justify you without your participation. He has made you without your knowledge; He justifies you if you will it." * * *

On the other hand, Augustine insists on the necessity of grace, which is the same thing as the necessity of prayer. To those who said that God does not command what is impossible, and that therefore grace is not necessary, he replied that "God does not command what is impossible; but when He commands, He exhorts you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot do," and God gives help so that the command becomes possible, since "He does not abandon us unless we abandon Him first."

The doctrine of the necessity of divine grace becomes the doctrine of the necessity of prayer
. * * * Grace is therefore necessary to remove the obstacles that prevent the will from fleeing evil and accomplishing what is good. These obstacles are two in number, "ignorance and weakness." * * *

The two obstacles of ignorance and weakness must be overcome if we are to breathe the air of freedom. It will not be superfluous to recall that the defense of the necessity of grace is, for Augustine, the defense of Christian freedom. Starting from Christ's words, "If the Son sets you free, then you will be truly free" (Jn 8:36), he defends and proclaims this freedom which is inseparable from truth and love. Truth, love and freedom are the three great good things that fired the spirit of Augustine and exercised his genius; he shed much light on the understanding of these.

To pause briefly in consideration of this last good, that of freedom, we must observe that he describes and celebrates Christian freedom in all its forms, from the freedom from error--for the liberty of error, [that is, the false "freedom" to err,] is "the worst death of the soul"--through the gift of faith which subjects the soul to the truth, to the final and inalienable freedom, the greatest of all, which consists in the inability to die and in the inability to sin, i.e. in immortality and the fullness of righteousness. All other freedoms which Augustine illustrates and proclaims find their place among these two, which mark the beginning and the end of salvation: the freedom from the dominion of the disordered passions, as the work of the grace that enlightens the intellect and gives the will so much strength that it becomes victorious in the combat with evil (as he himself experienced in his conversion when he was freed from the harsh slavery); the freedom from time that we devour and that devours us, in that love permits us to live anchored to eternity. * * *

In the case of the grace that strengthens the will, he insists that it operates by means of love and therefore makes the will invincible against evil, without removing from the will the possibility of refusal. * * * "Do not think that you are drawn against your will: the spirit is drawn also by love." But love, as he also observes, works "with liberal sweetness," so that "the one who observes the precept with love, observes it in freedom. "The law of freedom is the law of love." * * *

Augustine teaches no less insistently freedom from time, a freedom that Christ, the eternal Word, has come to bring us by his entry into the world in the incarnation: "O Word that exists before time, through whom time was made," he exclaims, "born in time although You are eternal life, calling those who exist in time and making them eternal!" It is well known that St. Augustine studied deeply the mystery of time and both felt and stated the need to transcend time in order to exist truly. "That you may be truly yourself, transcend time. But who shall transcend it by his own power? Let Christ lift him up, as He said to the Father: 'I wish that they too may be with me where I am.'" * * *

* * *

Before concluding, let us ask this extraordinary man what he has to say to the modern man. I believe that he has indeed much to say, both by his example and by his teaching.

He teaches the person who searches for truth not to despair of finding it. He teaches this by his example—he himself rediscovered it after many years of laborious seeking. * * * His legacy includes the ardent desire to understand his own faith—"Be a great lover indeed of understanding," is his command to others, which he applies to himself also; likewise the profound sense of the mystery—"for it is better," he exclaims, "to have a faithful ignorance than a presumptuous knowledge". * * *

Another contribution of Augustine's teaching to the men and women of today which we may briefly mention is his proposal of the twofold object of study that should occupy the human mind: God and man "What do you wish to know?" he asks himself. And he replies: "God and the soul are what I wish to know." Nothing more? Nothing at all. Confronted with the sad spectacle of evil he reminds modern men and women that they must nevertheless have confidence in the final triumph of the good, i.e., of the City "where the victory is the truth; where dignity is holiness; where peace is happiness where life is eternity." * * *

Given at Rome, at St. Peter's on August 28, on the feast day of St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, in the year 1986, the eighth of my Pontificate.


Friday, August 27, 2010

S. Monica Ora Pro Nobis

Today is the feast day for St. Monica, loving mother of St. Augustine who struggled and suffered in his search for truth. As he recalled in his Confessions,

I was in a ferment of wickedness. I deserted You and allowed myself to be carried away by the sweep of the tide. . . . But in my mother’s heart you had already begun to build Your temple and laid the foundations of Your holy dwelling . . . How presumptuous it was of me to say that You were silent, my God, when it was I who drifted farther and farther away from You! Can it be true that You said nothing to me at that time? Surely the words which rang in my ears, spoken by Your faithful servant, my mother, could have come from none but You? Yet none of them sank into my heart to make me do as You said. . . . It all seemed womanish advice to me and I should have blushed to accept it. Yet the words were Yours, though I did not know it. I thought that You were silent and that she was speaking, but all the while, You were speaking to me through her, and when I disregarded her, your handmaid, I was disregarding You, though I was both her son and Your servant. (Book II, ch. 2-3)

The conversion of Augustine (who went on to become perhaps the greatest of the doctors of the Church) occurred only after many years of prayer on his behalf by Monica.

You sent down Your help from above and rescued my soul from the depths of this darkness because of my mother, Your faithful servant, wept to You for me, shedding more tears for my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son. For in her faith and in the spirit which she had from You she looked on me as dead. You heard her and did not despise the tears which streamed down and watered the earth in every place where she bowed her head in prayer. You heard her, for how else can I explain the dream which which You consoled her? . . . She dreamed that she was standing on a wooden rule, and coming towards her in a halo of splendor she saw a young man who smiled at her in joy, although she herself was sad and quite consumed with grief. He asked her the reason for her sorrow and her daily tears, not because he did not know, but because he had something to tell her, for this is what happens in visions. When she replied that her tears were for the soul I had lost, he told her to take heart for, if she looked carefully, she would see that where she was, there also was I. And when she looked, she saw me standing beside her on the same rule.

Where could this dream have come from, unless it was that You listened to the prayer of her heart? . . . In the flesh she brought me to birth in this world: in her heart she brought me to birth in Your eternal light. (Book III, ch. 11; Book IX, ch. 8)

The pious Monica did not confine her prayers to those for her son. Rather, it was her custom to go and pray at the various tombs of the saints and martyrs on their memorial days. And so it was that soon after her prayers for her son's conversion came to fruition, and only a few days after they had a conversation reflecting on the nature of eternal life, that the Lord called her to Himself.

I closed her eyes, and a great wave of sorrow surged into my heart. It would have overflowed in tears if I had not made a strong effort of will and stemmed the flow, so that the tears dried in my eyes. What a terrible struggle it was to hold them back! . . . For we did not think it right to mark my mother's death with weeping and moaning, because such lamentations are the usual accompaniament of death when it is thought of as a state of misery or total extinction. But she had not died in misery nor had she wholly died. Of this we were certain, both because we knew what a holy life she had led and also because our faith was real and we had sure reasons not to doubt it. (Book IX, ch. 12)

But, even though during her life Monica was widely regarded as a "living saint," still Augustine did not presume upon God's mercies. And this is an important lesson for us all today, in this age when we go to funerals and find people assuming that the deceased is automatically in heaven.

Now that my soul has recovered from that wound, in which perhaps I was guilty of too much worldly affection, tears of another sort stream from my eyes. They are tears which I offer to You, my God, for Your handmaid. They flow from a spirit which trembles at the thought of the dangers which await every soul that has died with Adam. For although she was alive in Christ even before her soul was parted from the body, and her faith and the good life she led resounded to the glory of Your name, yet I cannot presume to say that from the time she was reborn in baptism no word contrary to Your commandments ever fell from her lips. . . . and however praiseworthy a man's life may be, it will go hard with him if You lay aside Your mercy when You come to examine it. But You do not search out our faults ruthlessly, and because of this we hope and believe that one day we shall find a place with You. . . .

And so, my Glory and my Life, God of my heart, I will lay aside for a while all the good deeds which my mother did. For them I thank You, but now I pray to you for her sins. Hear me through Your Son, who hung on the cross and now sits at your right hand and pleads for us, for He is the true medicine of our wounds. I know that my mother always acted with mercy and that she forgave others with all her heart when they trespassed against her. Forgive her too, O Lord, if ever she trespassed against You in all the long years of her life after baptism. Forgive her, I beseech You; do not call her to account. Let Your mercy give Your judgment an honorable welcome, for Your words are true and You have promised mercy to the merciful. If they are merciful, it is by Your gift; and You will show pity on those whom You pity; You will show mercy where You are merciful.

I believe that You have already done what I ask of You, but, Lord, accept these vows of mine. . . . By the strong ties of faith Your handmaid had bound her soul to this sacrament of our redemption. Let no one tear her away from Your protection. Let not the devil, who is lion and serpent in one, bar her way by force or by guile. For she will not answer that she has no debt to pay, for fear that her cunning accuser should prove her wrong and win her for himself. Her reply will be that her debt has been paid by Christ, to whom none can repay the price which He paid for us, though the debt was not His to pay. . . .

O my Lord, my God, inspire Your servants my brothers -- they are Your sons and my masters, whom I serve with heart and voice and pen -- inspire those of them who read this book to remember Monica, Your servant, at Your altar and with her Patricius, her husband, who died before her, by whose bodies You brought me into this life, though how it was I do not know. (Book IX, ch. 13)

So, let us remember St. Monica and emulate her holy life. Let us pray steadfastly for others, as we ask her now to pray for us.

Tomb of St. Monica
Basilica of Sant'Agostino, Rome


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Seeking Truth and Allowing Truth to Find Us

Dear brothers and sisters,

In the life of each of us, there are persons who are very dear to us, to whom we feel particularly close - some are already in the arms of God, others still share with us the journey of life. They are our parents, our relatives, our teachers - persons to whom we have done some good or from whom we have received some good, persons whom we knew or know we can count on.

But it is also important to have "travelling companions" in the journey of Christian life - such as a spiritual director, a confessor, persons with whom we can share our experience of faith. But I am also thinking of the Virgin Mary and the saints.

Each of us should have a saint who is "familiar" to us, to whom we feel close in prayer and in seeking their intercession, but also to be emulated.

Therefore, I wish to invite you to know the saints better, starting with the one whose name you carry - read his/her life and writings. You can be sure that the saints will be good guides for loving the Lord ever more and will provide valid assistance for your human and Christian growth.

As you know, I too have a special connection to some saints. Among them, in addition to St. Joseph and St. Benedict whose names I bear, there is St. Augustine, whom I had the great gift of knowing quite closely, so to speak, through study and prayer, and who has become a good travelling companion in my life and ministry.

I wish to underscore once more an important aspect of his human and Christian experience, which is relevant even in our time when paradoxically, relativism seems to be the "truth" that guides thinking, choices and behavior.

St. Augustine is someone who never lived with the superficial: the search, the uneasy and constant thirst for Truth, is one of the fundamental characteristics of his existence - not, however, of "pesudo-truths" that are incapable of bringing lasting peace to the human heart, but of that Truth which gives meaning to existence and which is "the home" in which the heart finds serenity and joy.

We know his was not an easy journey. He thought he could find Truth in prestige, in career, in possession of things, in voices that promised him immediate human happiness. He committed errors, he underwent sorrows, he met with failures - but he never stopped, he was never content with anything that only gave him a glimmer of light. He was able to look into the depth of himself and he realized, as he writes in his Confessions, that the Truth he sought, the God whom he sought with all his powers, was more intimate to him than his own self, that He was always with him, had never abandoned him, was waiting to be able to enter into his life definitively (Book III, ch. 6, 11; X, ch. 27, 38).

As I said in commenting on the recent film on his life, St. Augustine came to understand, in his uneasy seeking, that it was not he who had found the Truth, but Truth itself, who is God, who had chased him and found him.

Romano Guardini, commenting on a passage in Chapter 3 of the Confessions, said: "St. Augustine understood that God is "the glory who brings us to our knees, the drink that extinguishes thirst, the treasure that makes us happy . . . (He not only had) the pacifying certainty of someone who had finally understood, but also the beatitude of a love that knows: 'This is everything, and it's all I need'." (Pensatori religiosi, Brescia 2001, p. 177).

Also in the Confessions, Book IX, our saint recalls a conversation with his mother. St. Monica - whose memory we celebrate on Friday, the day after tomorrow. It is a beautiful scene: he and his mother are in Ostia, in an inn, and from the window they can see both sea and sky - they transcend sea and sky, and for a moment, they touch the heart of God in the silence of Creation.

Here appears a fundamental idea in the journey towards Truth: that creatures should be silent in order to achieve the silence within which God can speak. This is true even in our time. At times, we seem to fear silence, meditation, thinking about our own actions, about the profound sense of our life. Often we prefer to live every fleeting moment, deluding ourselves that they bring lasting happiness.

We fear searching for the Truth. Or, perhaps, we fear that Truth will find us, take us in its grip, and change our life, as it had happened with St. Augustine.

Dear brothers and sisters, I wish to tell everyone, even those who are in present difficulty in their journey of faith, and those who take little part in the life of the Church or who live "as though God does not exist" --

Do not fear the Truth, never interrupt the journey towards it, never stop searching for the profound truth about yourself and about things with the interior eyes of the heart. God will not fail to give us light to see and warmth to make our heart feel that He loves us and that He too wants to be loved.

May the intercession of the Virgin Mary, St. Augustine and St. Monica be with us on this journey.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Witness Even Unto the Cross

Catechesis of Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience of August 11, 2010

Castel Gandolfo

[This week we] commemorate some of the holy martyrs, both of the first centuries of the Church, such as St. Lawrence, deacon; St. Pontian, Pope, and St. Hippolytus, priest; as well as of a time closer to us, such as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, patroness of Europe, and St. Maximilian Kolbe. Hence I would like to speak briefly about martyrdom, the way of total love of God.

On what is martyrdom based?

The answer is simple: on the death of Jesus, in His supreme sacrifice of love, consummated on the Cross so that we could have life (cf. John 10:10). Christ is the suffering servant of whom the prophet Isaiah speaks (cf. Isaiah 52:13-15), who gave Himself in ransom for many (cf. Matthew 20:28). He exhorts His disciples, each one of us, to take up our cross every day and follow Him on the way of total love of God and of humanity: "And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:38-39).

It is the logic of the grain of wheat that dies to sprout and bear life (cf. John 12:24). Jesus Himself "is the grain of wheat which came from God, the divine grain that lets itself fall to the ground, that lets itself sink, be broken down in death and precisely by so doing germinates and can thus bear fruit in the immensity of the world" (Benedict XVI, Visit to the Lutheran Church of Rome (March 14, 2010)).

A martyr follows the Lord to the end, freely accepting to die for the salvation of the world, in a supreme test of faith and love (cf. Lumen Gentium, 42).

Once again, from whence comes the strength to face martyrdom?

From profound and intimate union with Christ, because martyrdom and the vocation to martyrdom are not the result of human effort, but the response to an initiative and a call from God, they are a gift of His grace, which makes one capable of offering one's life for love of Christ and of the Church, and thus of the world. If we read the lives of the martyrs, we are amazed by their serenity and courage when facing suffering and death: The power of God is manifested fully in weakness, in the poverty of the one who entrusts himself to Him and places his hope in Him alone (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9).

However, it is important to point out that the grace of God does not do away with or suffocate the liberty of the one facing martyrdom, but on the contrary, improves and exalts it: The martyr is an extremely free person, free in the face of power, of the world; a free person, who in one definitive act gives his whole life to God, and in a supreme act of faith, of hope and of charity, abandons himself into the hands of his Creator and Redeemer; sacrifices his own life to be totally associated to Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. In a word, martyrdom is a great act of love in response to the immense love of God.

Dear brothers and sisters, as I said last Wednesday, we are probably not called to martyrdom, but none of us is excluded from the divine call to holiness, to live in a lofty way our Christian existence, and this implies taking up our daily cross. All of us, especially in our time in which egoism and individualism seem to prevail, must assume as a first and fundamental commitment that of growing every day in greater love of God and of neighbor to transform our lives and thus also to transform the world.

Through the intercession of the saints and the martyrs, let us ask the Lord to inflame our hearts to be able to love as He has loved each one of us.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Where Jesus Is, So Too Must Mary Be

The Dormition of the Virgin, Fra Angelico
with Jesus holding the baby Mary in His arms
Convento di San Marco, Firenze

Here is a piece that I wrote as a guest contributor for the blog Runs With Angels . . . Lives With Saints --

When His Holiness Pope Pius XII formally defined the Dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Munificentissimus Deus (1950), he said that he was doing so at the insistence and petitioning of countless bishops, theologians, and lay faithful. The Pope did not declare anything new in this formal proclamation, and he recounted the long history of belief in the Church in this Marian doctrine. How curious it is, then, that following this long history of belief and the outpouring of requests for a formal declaration, that so many people today would know so little about the doctrine. Were you to ask most Catholics to explain the Assumption of Mary, they most likely would be unable to.

So, what is the "Assumption of Mary," which we celebrate on August 15 in the liturgical calendar?

The Assumption is one of the four major Marian doctrines of the Church, and it is related to and follows from the others, which are: the Immaculate Conception, her Perpetual Virginity, and that she is the Theotókos, the Mother of God. And, like all the Marian doctrines, the Assumption really says more about Jesus Christ than it does about Mary. In Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius provides the formal definition:
we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
If you go to Rome, you can visit the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul at the respective basilicas that bear their names. Their bones have been confirmed to be there. Similarly, you can visit countless other churches or the catecombs or cemeteries, where the relics of saints and the faithful departed may be venerated.

But if you go to Jerusalem, you will not find the Body of Jesus Christ. You can see the tomb where He was placed, but the tomb is empty -- He is not there. Likewise, you can visit Ephesus, where tradition has it that the Holy Mary lived with St. John, and you will not find her body entombed or buried there. There is a place in Jerusalem which claims to have been her tomb, but she is not there either. You will not find the relics of the Blessed Virgin anywhere. Rather, at the the end of her earthly life, Mary was assumed into heaven in the entirety of her being -- not merely her spirit went to heaven with her body remaining behind, but she was bodily assumed into heaven.

Why? What reason could there be for the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven?

One reason for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is that, her being "full of grace," just as it was not fitting that the womb who carried the Lord should be stained with Original Sin (hence the Immaculate Conception), so too was it not fitting that that womb, that holy tabernacle, dwelling place of the Lord, should experience the corruption of the grave.

Another reason has to do with the nature of Jesus Christ. As Lord, He is eternal. That is, He transcends temporality and is outside of time, such that, not only do all moments in human history exist simultaneously for Him, but each individual moment exists in perpetuity. Jesus being eternal, from His perspective, just as He is forever on the Cross, so too is He forever in the womb of Mary, Mother of God. (cf. Rev. 12:1-2) Similarly, Jesus, the New Adam, is bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh. His Body is made up entirely of her body. And being "full of grace," Immaculate Mary is forever joined to Christ. Thus, if He is in heaven in the entirety of His being, soul and body, so too must Mary be in heaven in the entirety of her being, soul and body. As Pope John Paul II relates,
"St Germanus I of Constantinople (†730) puts these words on Jesus’ lips as he prepares to take his Mother to heaven: 'You must be where I am, Mother inseparable from your Son...' (Hom. 3 in Dormitionem, PG 98, 360)."
Moreover, although, like the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption was a unique privilege for Mary, the bodily assumption of Mary points the way to all the faithful in the resurrection of the body.

The entire life of Mary is not only a model, but the model for all of us. Her entire life, not merely her earthly life, but her eternal life is a model as well. In her perpetual virginity, she gave the entirety of herself to God, and it was because the pureness of that love that her relationship with God was not only unitive, but fruitful. In the mystery that is the all-powerful God, who is in need of nothing, choosing to need our help in the work of salvation, Mary, the New Eve, Virgin Mother of God, gave her very body to the Redeemer, without which there would have been no salvation. In her fiat, her loving "Yes," the Handmaid of the Lord intimately carried Jesus within her very self. She clothed Him, fed Him, cared for Him, and followed Him even unto the Cross, where her heart was pierced, but where she also was made a gift to us all as our own "mother."

This same sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, and His subsequent Resurrection, which, being eternal, that is, beyond human time, "worked backward" to the very conception of Mary in the womb of her holy mother Anne, so as to preserve her from Original Sin, also "worked forward" to the end of the Virgin's earthly journey, such that she might immediately know the resurrection of the body, rather than her body having to wait to the end of human time for the resurrection. Just as she was our model in her earthly life, so too is the glorified body of Mary, now in the New Jerusalem, our model for eternal life.

She, the Queen of Heaven who is "with child" and "clothed with the sun," is the eschatological destiny for all the faithful. (Rev. 12:1-2) We will not be bodily assumed into heaven, but we do profess a belief in the resurrection of the body. We who "die" in Christ Jesus will rise with Him in His Resurrection. On the last day, the old world will pass away, and those who remain faithful to Him, who are privileged to make themselves clean and pure in the Blood of the Lamb, will be raised up and given glorified bodies, fit to inhabit the New Jerusalem.

That is why the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which we celebrate on August 15, is so very important for us. It is more, much more, than some curious honor and privilege granted to the mother of Jesus. Just as at Cana, and now, Mary always points us toward her Son, and so too does her Assumption point us to the Resurrected One and, thus, to our own resurrection.

She is our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
All-powerful and ever-living God, you raised the sinless Virgin Mary, mother of your Son, body and soul to the glory of heaven. May we see heaven as our final goal and come to share her glory. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns wth you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Some questions for you to ponder:
* What significance, if any, is there to the Transfiguration of Jesus, as applied to the Assumption of Mary?
* Death is said to have come into the world because of Original Sin. But because of her Immaculate Conception, Mary was without this stain of sin from the first moment of her existence. So, did Mary actually die before she was bodily assumed into heaven, or was she taken up while still alive?

(See more at Catholic Culture here and here.)

Eternal Life, Mary's and Ours, in the Fullness of Our Being

Homily of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Solemnity of the Assumption

August 15, 2010

Eminence, Excellency, Authorities,
Dear brothers and sisters:

Today the Church celebrates one of the most important feasts devoted to the Most Blessed Mary in the liturgical year: the Assumption. At the end of her earthly life, Mary was carried body and soul to Heaven, that is, to the glory of eternal life, in full and perfect communion with God.

This year will mark the 60th anniversary of when the Venerable Pius XII solemnly defined the dogma of the Assumption on November 1, 1950, and I wish to read -- even if it is a bit complicated -- the form with which it was dogmatized. The Pope wrote:

The revered Mother of God, from all eternity joined in a hidden way with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a most perfect virgin in her divine motherhood, the noble associate of the divine Redeemer who has won a complete triumph over sin and its consequences, finally obtained, as the supreme culmination of her privileges, that she should be preserved free from the corruption of the tomb, and that, like her own Son, having overcome death, she might be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven where, as Queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages.

Munificentissimus Deus (1950)

This, then, is the nucleus of our faith in the Assumption: we believe that Mary, like Christ her Son, triumphed over death and already triumphs in celestial glory, in the totality of her being, "in body and soul."

St. Paul, in the second Reading today, helps us to throw some light on this mystery, starting from the central fact of human history and of our faith. The fact, namely, of the Resurrection of Christ, who is "the first fruit of those who have died." Immersed in His Paschal Mystery, we have been made participants in His victory over sin and over death. Here is the surprising secret and the key reality of the entire human experience.

St. Paul tells us that we have all been "incorporated" in Adam, the first man, the "old" man - and we all share his human inheritance: suffering, death, sin. But to this reality that we can all see and live every day, a new thing has been added: we are not just heirs of the human race that began with Adam, but we are also "incorporated" in the new man, in the risen Christ, and thus, the life of the Resurrection is already present in us.

Therefore, that first biological "incorporation" was incorporation into death, an incorporation that generates death. The second new one, that is given to us at Baptism, is "incorporation" that gives life.

I will further cite the second Reading today, where St. Paul says: "For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the first fruits; then, at His coming, those who belong to Christ" (1 Cor 15,21-24).

Now, what St. Paul says of all men, the Church, in her infallible magisterium, says of Mary, in a precise manner and sense: the Mother of God was situated in the Mystery of Christ to the extent of taking part in the Resurrection of her Son with her entire being at the end of her earthly life -- she lives that life that which we await at the end of times when the "last enemy" is destroyed, death (cf. 1 Cor 15:26). She already lives that which we proclaim in the Creed: "the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting."

We may then ask: what are the roots of this victory over death that was so miraculously anticipated in Mary?

The roots are in the faith of the Virgin of Nazareth, as testified by the passage of the Gospel that we heard (Lk 1:39-56): a faith that is obedience to the Word of God and total abandon to divine initiative and action as announced to her by the Archangel. Faith, therefore, is Mary's greatness, as Elizabeth joyously proclaimed: Mary is "blessed among women" and "blessed is the fruit of her womb," because she is "the mother of the Lord" -- because she believes and lives the "first" of the beatitudes, the beatitude of faith.

Elizabeth proclaims this in her joy and that of the baby who leaps in her womb: "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (v. 45).

Dear friends, let us not limit ourselves to admiring Mary in her glorious destiny, as a person who is very distant from us. No! We are called to look upon what the Lord, in His love, also wished for us, for our final destiny: to live through faith in a perfect communion of love with Him, and thus, to truly live.

In this respect, I wish to dwell a bit on an aspect of the dogmatic proclamation, where it speaks of assumption to celestial glory. We are all aware that today when we say "Heaven" we do not refer to some place in the universe, a star or something similar. No!

We mean something much greater, and something difficult to define with our limited human concepts. With the word "Heaven," we affirm that God, the God who made Himself close to us, will never abandon us, not even in death or beyond it, but has a place for us and grants us eternity. We are saying that in God, there is a place for us.

To understand this reality a little better, let us look at our own life: we all experience that a person, after his death, continues to subsist in some way in the memory and heart of those who knew and loved him. We can say that a part of that person continues to live in them, but like a "shadow," because even this "survival" in the heart of his dear ones is destined to end.

God, however, never passes away, and we all exist by the power of His love. We exist because He loves us, because He has thought us up and called us to life. We exist in the thought and love of God -- where we exist in all of our reality, not just as a "shadow."

Our serenity, our hope, our peace, are based precisely on this: in God, in His thought and in His love, it is not just a "shadow" of us that survives. In Him, in His creative love, we are cared for and introduced with our whole life and our whole being into eternity. It is His love that triumphs over death and that gives us eternity, and it is this love that we call "heaven."

God is so great that He has room for all of us. And the man Jesus, who is God at the same time, is our guarantee that being-man and being-God can exist and live eternally, one within the other.

This means that, for each of us, it is not just a part of us that will continue to exist, a part ripped, so to speak, from the rest of us, while the other parts end up in ruin. It means rather that God knows and loves the whole man, that which we are. And God welcomes to His eternity that which now, in this life made up of suffering and love, of hope, of joy and sadness, grows and "becomes." All of man, all of human life, is taken in by God and, purified in Him, receives eternity.

Dear friends, I think this is a reality that should fill us with profound joy. Christianity does not just announce some generic salvation of the soul in an imprecise afterlife, in which everything that was precious and dear to us in life would be annulled -- but it promises eternal life, "the life of the world to come." Nothing of that which is precious and dear to us will end in ruin but will rather find their fullness in God.

All the hairs on our head are counted, Jesus said once (cf. Mt 10,30). The world to come will be the fulfillment of this earth, as St. Paul affirms: "Creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rm 8,21).

Thus, one can understand why Christianity gives strong hope in a luminous future and opens the way towards realizing this future. We are called, precisely because we are Christian, to build this new world, to work so that one day it becomes "the world of God," a world that will surpass everything that we ourselves could ever hope to build.

In Mary assumed to heaven, fully participating in the Resurrection of her Son, we contemplate the realization of the human creature according to "God's world." Let us pray to the Lord that He may make us understand how precious our whole life is to His eyes; strengthen our faith in eternal life; make us men of hope, working to build a world that is open to God -- men full of joy who can perceive the beauty of the future world in the midst of the concerns of daily life, and who live, believe and hope in such a certainty. Amen.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The "Obligation" to Go to Mass

It is said that there is an "obligation" to attend and participate in the Sacred Liturgy on Sundays and specified Holy Days of Obligation. In a post at her blog, Runs With Angels, Some Catechesis: Now, Pay Attention!, Jan announces and makes the challenge,

"Bender will begin the series with the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is celebrated August 15th. And I’ll wager that he’ll explain to us why observing these holy days is not really a 'hassle' at all, but a privilege!"

Well, she's right. It's not really a "hassle." Or, at least, it should not be. If it is, it's not God's fault.

It's not a hassle, and really need not be seen as an "obligation," because it should rightly be seen an an opportunity. An opportunity to be with God and love Him, as explained in that prior post:

Willful failure to go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is more than a violation of the Church’s “rules,” it is contrary to love for God.

If we love God, and if we want to be with Him in heaven, then we should want to be with Him for a little bit while we are still sojourning down here on earth. If we purposely do not go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, we are saying that we do not want to be with God, we do not want to spend a measly one-hour in His presence, and that would be a sin. A serious, mortal sin.* It would be contrary to the First Commandment (we would be putting our own earthly gods, including ourselves, before Him) and, in the case of Sunday Mass, it would be contrary to the Third Commandment (by failing to keep holy the Lord’s Day). And if we refuse to go to Mass, not because we do not love God, but because we cannot stand the other people at Mass (what they sing, how they act, how boring they are), then that is contrary to the commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us, and it would be a rupture of the communion of the Church. In any case, it would be a rejection of the Blessed Sacrament and Jesus’ request that we participate in the Eucharist in memory of Him.

It is true that we don't need to go to Mass to pray to God. We can pray to God at home. We can form a spiritual communion with Jesus at home. But one thing that we cannot do at home is to establish full communion with Him, communion in the entirety of our being. Prayer away from Mass accomplishes only a partial communion with Him, a spiritual communion. But we are more than spiritual beings, we have bodies as well. Only do body and spirit together make up the entire person.

And we can obtain full communion with Jesus, spirit and body, only at Mass in the Eucharist, the actual Body and Blood of Christ. Only at Mass can we be one with Him fully, and in a profoundly intimate way, our soul one with His, our body one with His. Holy Communion is the only true communion, everything else falls short.

Mass on Sundays and Holy Days and every other day of the year (technically Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday or Holy Saturday) are not "obligations," they are unique opportunities for Communion with the Lord.

Moreover, ours is not an individual faith, but a communal faith. Our relationship with Christ is not a limited one-on-one relationship. Rather, we are one with Him, and He is one with everyone else, such that we are meant to be one in communion with all the other faithful in heaven, on earth, and in purgatory. When we pray at Mass, we celebrate one liturgy, we pray as one, with the entirety of the Church, both across geography and across time.

When we do our own thing, staying at home because we think that we do not "need" Mass to have a relationship with God, we rupture that communion with the Church, which is the Body of Christ.

If the liturgy is poorly done, or if the music is bad, or the homily is boring, or the other people are dressed inappropriately, or the priest/deacon/ministers are too liberal or too conservative or too this or too that, or you stayed out too late the night before, or you've done some things that you shouldn't have done and thus are in a state of sin, or you don't understand some of the teachings of the Church, or you think you know better and oppose the Church, or whatever million other excuses you can come up with, even when you are fully justified in your dissatisfaction, none of that is God's fault. None of that is on Jesus. Maybe it is on other people, maybe it is on us. Maybe it is on YOU. Maybe it is on me.

But it's not God's fault. Don't take it out on Him. He is the remedy to all these problems. He is the priceless pearl. The Eucharist is "the source and summit" of our faith. The Blessed Sacrament is Emmanuel, God with us. No matter how lousy everything else is, do not let that keep you from Him. Even if it is not proper for you to receive Holy Communion because you've done something you shouldn't but like it and intend to keep on doing it, so that you're not ready to go to Confession yet, don't go up for Communion, but do still go to Mass! Jesus Christ is there! If you must, go to a different parish, but do not go to a different "god." Do not stay away altogether.

If you have been away for awhile, for whatever reason you left and/or have stayed away, do not be afraid to admit that you are starving. Come home. The father will slaughter the fatted calf and all of heaven will rejoice and celebrate.

Mass is not an "obligation," if by obligation one means a burden or bother or hassle. Rather, it is an opportunity. It is the ability to receive the "medicine of immortality," i.e. the Eucharist. It is hope, the hope by which we are already saved.

(Cross-posted at Runs With Angels)


Addendum: By the way, if the liturgy is poorly done, or the music is bad, or the homily is boring, or the other people are dressed inappropriately, or the priest/deacon/ministers are too liberal or too conservative or too this or too that, etc., and you do attend Mass (as it is good that you do so), but you spend most of the time angry or disgusted or resentful or grumbling, etc. about these things, then it is pretty close to not coming to Mass at all. "Coming" to Mass means coming with a proper disposition, especially if receiving Holy Communion, which means a warm and loving heart -- if not enthusiastically loving one another (which includes loving other people you don't like (it's easy to love people you like, but Jesus calls us to love everyone)), then at least leaving that anger, disgust, resentment, etc. at home, or at least in the car.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Why didn’t the Father come to save us Himself?"

When he was much younger, Msgr. Charles Pope, asked, "Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?"

Many years ago, when I was just a teenager I remember being puzzled by the oft quoted John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . .” Now everyone used this verse to demonstrate how much God loved us. But I got stuck thinking, “What kind of a Father is this that he sends his Son to suffer horribly and die!?” My own Father wouldn’t send me in harm’s way, he’d go and face the threat and protect me. But God the Father sent his Son to do the hard and dirty work, to get slaughtered and die. Why? Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?

As I asked this question no one had a real answer. Even the priests looked at me like they didn’t understand my question. As the years went by I eventually connected the dots and found the answer. But recently I was reminded of my question as some one asked me, “Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?”

The answer really comes down to one word, a word we’re not so good at understanding in these modern times. The word is “obedience.” The simple answer is that the Father cannot obey the Father, only the Son can do that. For it is not just the suffering of Christ per se that saves us, it is his obedience that saves us. . . .

And why such terrible suffering? Here too some get stuck on thinking that God is blood thristy. We need not conclude this any more that we would conclude such a thing of a surgeon. The surgeon clearly makes use of radical proceedures, slicing open the body, sawing through bones, cutting out flesh and the like. But strong medicine is needed when the situation is grave. Rather than looking at the crucifixion and saying, God has a problem (i.e. he is blood-thirsty) we ought to see how desperate our problem is. Sin is a very serious condition and we should not make light of it. In order to resolve our problem, God had to resort to this. . . .

"Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?"

It seems to me that the premise of the question (or maybe a related question) is:
Why is there a Son?

(And how are they, or why do we call them, “Father” and “Son”?)

Of course, God is Love, and love is relationship, love requires an other, hence the Trinity, where the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and the love that proceeds from the Father and the Son is a Person as well, a loving communion of three persons in one divine nature. And, of course, this understanding, the knowledge that God is a Trinity, would never have come about if Jesus had not Himself revealed the existence of this Son-Father relationship.

Whether we called them Father and Son, or Person 1 and Person 2, someone needed to do it, if anyone was going to come to save us. If the Father had come, we might as well ask, why didn’t the Son come? And the answer for many might end up being that He is a lazy good-for-nothing just lying around heaven not doing much of anything.

Given that God is Love, God is relationship, and the whole purpose of this Creation Project of God’s is relationship, reason suggests that it had to be the Son because it had to be an act of love. Love is an act of self-giving, it is service, it is obedience, doing what those you love want or need doing.

"And why such terrible suffering?"

Because God is not only Love, God is Truth. And the truth is that sin exists. Sin exists and it has evil effects, sin causes horrific suffering. The effect of sin is made manifest in Christ’s flesh. God takes that horror, caused by man, upon Himself. Had God instead simply waved His divine hand, that would have been a lie. To simply pretend that the sin did not happen, that sin does not have horrific consequences, would have been wholly contrary to truth. And it would have been contrary to that aspect of truth which is justice.

The sin happened, the window was broken. You can forgive throwing the ball through the window, but you cannot simply act as if there is not a gaping hole in the glass. To pretend like the window is not still broken, even after forgiveness, is to allow the rain and snow to come in. The truth is that the window is broken, the scales of justice must be balanced, justice requires a return to the status quo — an unbroken window. Thus, truth is, and justice demands, that someone needs to suffer all the trouble to fix it.

Jesus volunteered for the job. Jesus takes the reality of sin, the truth of evil and the horrific consequences of sin, upon Himself so that we do not have to take it upon ourselves. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said immediately before he was elected Pope, in Jesus on the Cross, love and truth coincide.
Christ's mercy is not a grace that comes cheap, nor does it imply the trivialization of evil. Christ carries the full weight of evil and all its destructive force in His Body and in His Soul. He burns and transforms evil in suffering, in the fire of His suffering love. The day of vindication and the year of favour converge in the Paschal Mystery, in the dead and Risen Christ. This is the vengeance of God: He Himself suffers for us, in the person of His Son.
The truth is that suffering caused by sin exists. If Jesus doesn’t take this terrible suffering upon Himself, we have to, as a matter of truth and justice, take it upon ourselves.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Our Father in Heaven

The Anchoress today raises the issue of "gender-inclusive" language when referring to God.

In a former parish, there was a sister-liturgist who–eager to promote “sensitivity”–decided that the Gloria should be sung with the refrain “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to God’s people on earth;” she was content to brutalize the ear, change a liturgical prayer that is not supposed to be changed, and disorient the people just a tad, in order that no one should be subjected to that troubling male pronoun, “His.”

I always thought it was a nonsensical point; why go to the trouble of training the people to avoid the “His” in that sung prayer, when it proceed to refer to God as “Heavenly King, Almighty God and Father,” and to Jesus as “only Son of the Father.” And of course, I got into a civil debate with her about it.

“You don’t understand,” she said kindly (because she was a very kind sister) “it’s important that we begin to think of God as having no gender at all, containing aspects of both mother and father, but not limited to our understanding as 'Father.' . . . There are a lot of people in the world who have had bad fathers, they have bad memories, a lot of people find referring to God as Father to be distancing and hurtful. They cannot relate.” . . .

Well of course God is neither male nor female, He simply IS. Even Joseph Ratzinger, called an ultra-harsh misogynist by those who knew nothing of him, has said so many times in his writings and addresses, that God, being Complete, has both paternal and maternal qualities, before and after he became Pope Benedict XVI.

However, notwithstanding this truth about the nature of God, Jesus did invite us to call God in heaven "Father," did He not?

Was Jesus wrong? Or just being insensitive or ignorant? Did He not know that a lot of people find referring to God as “Father” to be distancing and hurtful?

Besides, there is also the whole relationship between God and Israel being described in spousal terms in the Bible, with Israel being the Bride. And that same spousal relationship has described Christ and the Church since the beginning. I suppose in this day and age of same-sex "marriage," it would no longer be absurd to stop referring to God as a "He," but then we have that pesky problem of the Word of God using "He" to refer to "Him."

And the fact is that not only do a lot of people today have biological fathers who are bad and abusive, but they also have biological mothers who are mean or distant or abusive. (I won't say that my own mother is bad, she's not, but we do not have the greatest and most perfect of relationships. There are occasional tensions, as most people have with their own earthly mothers. But Jesus also said that we could call His own mother our "mother," which does not cause me to think less of Mary, but thankful that I could look to her for maternal love.) And there are plenty of brothers and sisters and neighbors and strangers and even enemies who we have bad memories of. Indeed, the world is full of jerks.

So transferring references about God to something other than "Father" or "He" really doesn't solve the problem. Whichever alternative pronoun we use has bad associations with it as well. And transferring references to some out-of-this-world concept that is totally foreign to our common understanding only ends up creating a distant and unrelatable God. That is even worse!

The spousal meaning of the body of man, male and female, being made in the likeness and image of God, reveals how we are social creatures who are made for relationship, not only any relationship, but that very special and intimate relationship which, through love, is capable of communion, a relationship which is not only unitive, but fruitful. And we are made for such relationships, not only amongst ourselves, but between mankind and God.

In that relationship with God, mankind is the "female." We are the bride, the mother. This is again revealed in the human body, which is fruitful, that is, it produces children. But we do not produce children by our own self-made fertility, we make them with the Creator of all things. We did not make ourselves, God made us. If mankind is the female, then God necessarily must accomplish the role of the "male," the bridegroom, the father. He is rightly, then, called "He." (We see this quite plainly when the Virgin Mary conceives by the power of the Holy Spirit, who thus is not to be thought of as some neutral or androgynous being, an "It", but as a "He.")

God is not really exclusively "male" or "female," of course, He is neither, and He is both. As the "I Am," He is not limited or incomplete in this way, as are humans made to be. But it is crucial that we think of Him in understandable terms of relationship -- the spousal relationship that He Himself has chosen as the model throughout all of Salvation History -- if we are to ever come close to knowing Him and being able, then, to love Him and allow Him to love us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Should All Three of the "Sacraments of Initiation" -- Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion -- be Conferred During Infancy?

In the United States and many other countries, the Sacrament of Confirmation is not administered until the early to mid teen years (7th to 10th grade). Why not do it earlier? Why not confer Baptism and Confirmation together, as they do in the Orthodox and some Eastern Churches?

Indeed, following recent comments by Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, that perhaps we might allow children to make their First Communion at an earlier age than the current 6-7 years old, some people have even advocated administering all three of the "sacraments of Christian initiation," Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist, during infancy.

But unless it involves someone coming into the Church via RCIA, doing all three at the same time does not seem to be a very good idea, and the Church proves herself to be wise in the current age structure for these sacraments.

Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist are three separate sacraments for a reason. If Jesus wanted to lump everything together, He wouldn’t have bothered to come up with seven of them. Doing them at the same time, at least with children, tends to lead to confusion and an inability to differentiate (especially between Baptism and Confirmation).

And since the Last Supper preceded Pentecost, having First Communion before Confirmation is appropriate. It was good enough for the Apostles.

Confirmation and the Eucharist do indeed grant us certain graces, or more technically, they provide an increase of graces, but grace works upon nature, grace is the seed thrown upon the ground, and if the ground is not properly prepared, those graces, although received, can go totally for nought. (cf. Mt. 13:3-23; Lk 8:5-15)

For example, with Confirmation, probably 99 percent of people fail to fully benefit from the graces imparted thereby largely because they have no clue as to what they are or why they are. Consequently, those graces are like the gift received and stuck in the back of the closet, unopened and unused.

Jesus could have simply made one sacrament for Baptism and Confirmation, which is effectively how they are treated when done together, but He didn’t make one, He made two, so they should be treated as two.

Canon law currently provides that, except in the emergency situation where there is a danger of imminent death, the person to be Confirmed must be of an age when he has the use of reason and discretion, and that he be suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew the baptismal promises. (Canon 889, 891)

Moreover, Confirmation is not merely for one's own personal benefit. Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation, but it is not initiation into the Church herself -- that is accomplished in Baptism. Rather, it is an initiation into the mission of the Church. As Canon 879 states, the Sacrament of Confirmation imposes an obligation on the recipient to more firmly be a "witness of Christ by word and deed and to spread and defend the faith." (see also Lumen Gentium 11) And in order to comply with this obligation of being an active participant in the mission, and not merely a passive member, one must necessarily be of an age to be able to fulfil those duties of witness and defense of the faith.

With respect to First Communion, Canon 913 states that "administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion."

Those who advocate for infant reception of Confirmation and First Communion, so that these infants might obtain the graces from those sacraments at an early age, tend to overlook the necessity for proper preparation and some level of understanding by the recipient. To see why this is so, one need only look at the Sacrament of Matrimony.

We would be vastly better off if more priests said to couples, “no, I will not marry you, you are not ready yet.” Instead, couples zip through a couple marriage prep classes and, even if it is obvious that they are not properly prepared, there is the argument made that the priest should go ahead with the wedding because at least they will gain the benefits of the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony, which they would not receive if the priest said “no.”

And we all see how well that has worked these last 40-50 years. That is to say, it has been scandalous. A total scandal given the number of annulments that are given in the United States following those weddings on the grounds that they were never truly “sacramental” marriages.

You don’t get the benefit of those graces if you are like the hard and rocky soil. (cf. Mt. 13:3-23; Lk 8:5-15) The seed thrown down will never take root and will instead be eaten up by the birds. Why? Because the soil was never properly prepared. People were not fully and adequately catechized.

Giving the sacraments to the ignorant is an invitation to disaster. Even if there are a small handful of people who would benefit from infant reception of Confirmation, everyone else would end up having those graces left unused because of their utter lack of preparation, resulting in ignorance, rather than understanding. They would be in a worse position than before. And a baby obviously cannot fulfil his Confirmation duty to participate in the mission of the Church to be a witness for Christ. As for the Eucharist, following Baptism, a baby is already in a perfect state of grace until shortly before the traditional time for First Communion, given an infant's incapacity to commit sin before the "age of reason."

Jesus took nearly three years to instruct the Apostles and other disciples before He gave them the Eucharist, and He took another 53 days to give them Confirmation in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And before that, God in heaven took about 2000 years to prepare mankind for Jesus. The early Church also insisted on a significant and substantial period of instruction for catechumens.

This is all because ours is a faith that seeks understanding, it is a faith of reason, not a faith of ignorance. Grace builds on nature, and if the nature is not well-disposed, if the soil has not been prepared, it withers and can even die. Grace is next to useless if the person is unable to accept it because of ignorance.

We see that with the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony already. We should not do the same thing with the First Communion and Confirmation.


Here are Pope Benedict's thoughts on the matter, with which I agree. We should not be unduly harsh and strict, but there is a need for some level of preparation, as indicated by the Holy Father here and in many other addresses on the matter of catechesis.

Meeting of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
with the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone, Italy

August 6, 2008

Fr. Paolo Rizzi, parish priest and lecturer in theology at the Higher Institute for Religious Sciences: Holy Father, I am parish priest and lecturer in theology at the Higher Institute for Religious Sciences. We would like to hear your pastoral opinion about the situation concerning the Sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation. Always more often the children, boys and girls, who receive these Sacraments prepare themselves with commitment to the catechetical meetings but do not take part in the Sunday Eucharist, and then one wonders: what is the point of all this? At times we might feel like saying: "Then just stay at home". Instead we continue as always to accept them, believing that in any case it is better not to extinguish the wick of the little flickering flame. We think, that is, that in any case, the gift of the Spirit can have an effect beyond what we can see, and that in an epoch of transition like this one it is more prudent not to make drastic decisions. More generally, 35 years ago I thought that we were beginning to be a little flock, a minority community, more or less everywhere in Europe; that we should therefore administer the sacraments only to those who are truly committed to Christian life. Then, partly because of the style of John Paul II's Pontificate, I thought things through again. If it is possible to make predictions for the future, what do you think? What pastoral approaches can you suggest to us? Thank you.

Pope Benedict XVI: Well, I cannot give an infallible answer here, I can only seek to respond according to what I see. I must say that I took a similar route to yours. When I was younger I was rather severe. I said: the sacraments are sacraments of faith, and where faith does not exist, where the practice of faith does not exist, the Sacrament cannot be conferred either. And then I always used to talk to my parish priest when I was Archbishop of Munich: here too there were two factions, one severe and one broad-minded. Then I too, with time, came to realize that we must follow, rather, the example of the Lord, who was very open even with people on the margins of Israel of that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open - according to many official authorities - with sinners, welcoming them or letting them invite him to their dinners, drawing them to him in his communion.

Therefore I would say substantially that the sacraments are naturally sacraments of faith: when there is no element of faith, when First Communion is no more than a great lunch with beautiful clothes and beautiful gifts, it can no longer be a sacrament of faith. Yet, on the other hand, if we can still see a little flame of desire for communion in the faith, a desire even in these children who want to enter into communion with Jesus, it seems to me that it is right to be rather broad-minded. Naturally, of course, one purpose of our catechesis must be to make children understand that Communion, First Communion is not a "fixed" event, but requires a continuity of friendship with Jesus, a journey with Jesus. I know that children often have the intention and desire to go to Sunday Mass but their parents do not make this desire possible. If we see that children want it, that they have the desire to go, this seems to me almost a sacrament of desire, the "will" to participate in Sunday Mass. In this sense, we naturally must do our best in the context of preparation for the sacraments to reach the parents as well, and thus to - let us say - awaken in them too a sensitivity to the process in which their child is involved. They should help their children to follow their own desire to enter into friendship with Jesus, which is a form of life, of the future. If parents want their children to be able to make their First Communion, this somewhat social desire must be extended into a religious one, to make a journey with Jesus possible.

I would say, therefore, that in the context of the catechesis of children, that work with parents is very important. And this is precisely one of the opportunities to meet with parents, making the life of faith also present to the adults, because, it seems to me, they themselves can relearn the faith from the children and understand that this great solemnity is only meaningful, true and authentic if it is celebrated in the context of a journey with Jesus, in the context of a life of faith. Thus, one should endeavour to convince parents, through their children, of the need for a preparatory journey that is expressed in participation in the mysteries and that begins to make these mysteries loved. I would say that this is definitely an inadequate answer, but the pedagogy of faith is always a journey and we must accept today's situations. Yet, we must also open them more to each person, so that the result is not only an external memory of things that endures but that their hearts that have truly been touched. The moment when we are convinced the heart is touched - it has felt a little of Jesus' love, it has felt a little the desire to move along these lines and in this direction. That is the moment when, it seems to me, we can say that we have made a true catechesis. The proper meaning of catechesis, in fact, must be this: to bring the flame of Jesus' love, even if it is a small one, to the hearts of children, and through the children to their parents, thus reopening the places of faith of our time.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Harming God through Acts of Desecration

With news of another act of desecration of the Eucharist, comes the issue of whether God is "hurt" by such things. Our good friend Jan over at Runs with Angels asks:
What hurts Jesus? What hurts God? Is Jesus not 'beyond' being hurt, since He's already suffered the ultimate hurt? Or is the Passion in continuous motion and all these new sins and hurts keep piling on?

For that matter, it must not 'feel' too good to be chewed like cud every day. On a side note - my First Communion Nun told us to NEVER chew the Host, just leave it until it melts.
Here we confront the mystery of God become man.

On the one hand, God, being all-powerful, cannot be hurt or injured in anyway. We humans especially do not have that power over Him. All of mankind could be Hitlers and it wouldn't harm Him one bit. As such, there is no need for God to ever get "angry" or retaliate against people. References in scripture about God acting in that way are feeble human attempts to use understandable human attributes to understand a God who is beyond our comprehension and understanding.

The Commandments are not so that we won't hurt God, they are so we won't hurt ourselves. WE are the ones injured by sin, not God. And, being Love, He does not want to see us hurt ourselves. The Commandments, even the first three, are for our benefit, not His. Our service to Him is for our benefit, not His. He is complete in Himself, He has need of nothing -- He certainly doesn't "need" us to be His heavenly butlers or constantly bowing up and down at Him. He is not an egoist who needs our validation or our love. He wants our love, but He doesn't need it.

On the other hand, God became man. Fully human in all ways except sin. Jesus was and can be hurt, physically, mentally, and emotionally. "Jesus wept" at the death of Lazarus, He got frustrated repeatedly and busted up the marketplace, He knew hunger and thirst, and, of course, in His Passion, He knew excruciating physical pain, literally ("excruciating" being from the Latin for "from the cross"). Even today, Jesus bears the marks of His crucifixion in His Body. And, God being eternal, that is, transcending temporality, being outside of time, not only do all moments in human history exist simultaneously for Him, but each individual moment exists in perpetuity. Jesus did not suffer on the Cross 2000 years ago -- from His perspective, He is being scourged now, He is being nailed to the Cross now, He is hanging there now and will to the end of time. And each of our sins is another tear into His flesh. As fully human, He did not use His divinity as some sort of painkiller. So, yes, God can indeed feel pain, He can be hurt and injured. He can and does have "compassion" -- He suffers with us.

Regarding the Eucharist, He did not merely give us His Blood, He purposely gave us His Body and said, "eat" it. He knowingly took bread for this purpose, and to eat bread means to chew it up before swallowing. If He didn't want people to chew, He would have stopped at the wine become Blood. But even if chewing were inappropriate because it could somehow hurt Him, is it really any less painful to be swimming around in a pool of stomach acid after the Host is swallowed? Is using teeth any different in any significant way than using enzymes in saliva, which effectively break down, i.e. chemically chew, the Host?

As for desecration, or inadvertently dropping the Host and not being able to get each and every minute particle off the floor with a damp purificator (or spilling the Precious Blood in parishes that are foolish enough to confer it in a carpeted area (shaking his head), not to mention the minute dust particles of the Host that remain on the palm of the person who receives in the hand (all the more reason to receive Holy Communion by mouth)(after distribution, ministers of Holy Communion purify their fingers of these tiny dust particles by rinsing them in a small lavabo bowl of water)), Jesus the God-Man can indeed be hurt, but God is also incapable of being hurt. And it is fully within His power to have the Hosts "revert" back to their prior state if He were to so choose. He can avoid any contemporary injury in that respect. (It should be noted that the Real Presence already does not remain forever or even very far in the digestive process (microscopic Jesus isn't bouncing around your intestines). Rather, the Real Presence no longer remains when the "accidents" (the appearance of bread and wine) are so broken down that they are no longer compatible with the species of "bread" and "wine," whether in the stomach or if the Host is placed in a glass of water or the Precious Blood is diluted.)

Does He actually "revert back" in cases of desecration, etc.? I don't know, but He could if He were to choose to do so. I think we can safely say that God knows how to protect and take care of Himself. Rather, the injury He does suffer by the abuse of desecration of the Eucharist is by His willful act of compassion on the Cross. The desecration is all part and parcel of the Passion, which covered not only the sins that had accrued up to that point in history, but all of the future sins.

The biggest injury from desecration of the Host is to the person who engages in it. HE is the one who is harmed. It does not harm God in heaven one iota. Desecrators are not more powerful than God, they cannot shoot arrows of pain up into heaven to hurt Him. Rather, they are the ones who are injured, they are the ones who are harmed. They are the ones who will end up in the cold and dark abyss of Hell, not Him.


See also --
This post on a 2008 case of desecration of the Host
The Blessed Sacrament -- the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, Part One, and Part Two
The tabernacle as dwelling place of the Lord
What's really real in the Eucharist
Reality vs. Appearance and Seeing with God's Eyes
The Drug of Immortality and Life in Abundance

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Religious Education

A commenter over at the Anchoress asks:

Is there a reason why religious education apparently ceases after Confirmation? Not everyone goes online or to the CCC on a regular basis. I’m sure plenty of Catholics couldn’t explain why priests can’t marry, why they mustn’t eat on Fridays (or realize that it’s more than just during Lent), or what the sacraments do and how to prepare for them.

At some point, the birds do leave the nest, whether after the Confirmation year or later. So formal religious education is going to end at some point.

But not all parishes end CCD after the Confirmation year (and Catholic schools obviously do not), which typically in the United States is the early to mid teen years (7th to 10th grade). But even where the year of Confirmation is the last CCD year, many/most parishes have youth groups, and a good Confirmation prep catechist will be sure to repeatedly impress upon the students that learning about the faith DOES NOT END WITH CONFIRMATION. We are on a journey, and learning about the faith IS A LIFELONG PROCESS.

There is also the fact that, as brief as CCD is in practice (about an hour a week tracking the school year), after eight or nine years of CCD, one does kind of run out of new topics to teach about. Especially with Confirmation prep, where you might basically cover 80-90 percent of the topics in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (even if only briefly), there are often no new subjects to teach. And there is also the fact that, to a great degree, Confirmation is about sending people out into the world, joining in the mission of the Church to be a witness for Christ, just like, at some point, Jesus stopped teaching and sent the Apostles out into the world. So, by design, Confirmation is something of a natural, if not “ending” point, then a time to start transitioning to something else.

Certainly, by the time of Confirmation, they have already been taught the essentials in order to receive the Sacraments. So what is left to teach is merely going deeper and deeper into topics that have already been taught before, and finding everyday situations in which to apply what they have learned (which is increasingly necessary as they approach adulthood).

Going deeper into the faith is part of that lifelong endeavor, but when you are doing it in the classroom, you also have to account for the boredom factor. There comes a point where, no matter how important and interesting, teenagers are simply not going to sit around for formal CCD instruction. And that is where the youth groups can step in, to get teens involved in various activities in order to learn the faith by doing the faith.

And, of course, even after the end of CCD, many/most parishes have an adult religious education program. Blessed Sacrament has an excellent religious education program at all levels. And if your particular parish does not, then other parishes in a given diocese probably will, where people can go to various talks, seminars, etc. Arlington Diocese always has something going on somewhere.

Lifelong formal religious instruction is there, it is available for those who want it, but they have to come willingly. You can’t compel adults to come (unless they want to get married or have their kid baptized), and there comes a point where you can no longer force teens to go.

AND, to come back to Confirmation — we are ALL called to be witnesses for Christ, both to the world, and to our fellow Christians. We are ALL called to help and strengthen our fellow Catholics in the faith, including religious education. We have all been enlisted in the mission. It is not solely the province and “job” of parish religious education programs to teach the faith — we all have a Confirmation duty to help pass on the faith to teens. All of us, not just parish/diocesan catechists, not just parents — everyone — before CCD, during CCD, and after CCD ends.

At Blessed Sacrament (and other parishes in the Diocese of Arlington), we’ve been blessed with some excellent priests who fairly often combine some element of catechesis with their homilies. Of course, they have almost certainly read a number of homilies given by Pope Benedict, which are always a learning experience, and his manner of giving homilies has clearly influenced the younger priests of today.

And things like Theology on Tap and other “young adult” initiatives are really big in this area. Again, we are blessed to have a thriving diocese that has an enthusiastic emphasis on teaching the faith.

Unlike some places that are stuck back in the 1970s, where the same old dinosaurs are pushing the same warmed-over dredge for the last 40 years, Arlington is a young diocese that sees the future as bright. There are still too many young parents who need to be brought up to speed, but even if they themselves are not as knowledgable as they should be, they at least have a desire that their kids learn the faith. But then again, we are an enthusiastic diocese where most of the parishes are pretty strongly pro-Magisterium, and even those "social-justice" parishes that are not big cheerleaders for the Magisterium are still thriving in their own way, catering to the more progressive types. I think we are doing more right than we are doing wrong here.