Thursday, December 24, 2009

St. Augustine on the Meaning of Christmas

On this Christmas Eve, I just wanted to share these thoughts, from a sermon by Saint Augustine found in the Office of Readings for today's Divine Office. It concerns the taking on of human flesh by Jesus, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity---which, of course is the REAL point of this whole Christmas thing anyway.

Truth has arisen from the earth and justice has looked down from heaven

Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened ‘to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.

Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of the Virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God.

Truth has arisen from the earth: because the Word was made flesh. And justice looked down from heaven: because every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.

Truth has arisen from the earth: flesh from Mary. And justice looked down from heaven: for man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.

Justified by faith, let us be at peace with God: for justice and peace have embraced one another. Through our Lord Jesus Christ: for Truth has arisen from the earth. Through whom we have access to that grace in which we stand, and our boast is in our hope of God’s glory. He does not say: “of our glory,” but of God’s glory: for justice has not come out of us but has looked down from heaven. Therefore he who glories, let him glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.

For this reason, when our Lord was born of the Virgin, the message of the angelic voices was: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men of good will.

For how could there be peace on earth unless Truth has arisen from the earth, that is, unless Christ were born of our flesh? And he is our peace who made the two into one: that we might be men of good will, sweetly linked by the bond of unity.

Let us then rejoice in this grace, so that our glorying may bear witness to our good conscience by which we glory, not in ourselves, but in the Lord. That is why Scripture says: He is my glory, the one who lifts up my head. For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God?

Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.

Concluding Prayer
Hurry, Lord Jesus, do not delay.
We put our trust in your loving kindness:
may your coming bring us consolation and support.
You live and reign with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever.
Find more reflections here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How Can I bring My Fallen Away Catholic Family and Friends Back to the Church?

I have some friends who were born Catholic but who have left for evangelical churches. What are some ways I can nudge these friends to research Catholicism again? They seem to be happy where they are.

While it's primarily the work of the Holy Spirit and God's grace acting with a person's free will that ultimately brings them to conversion, there are still a lot of things you can do to be God's instrument in this.
If they belong to evangelical churches, they may or they may not be happy where they are. In order to make them take fresh look at the Church from an objective standpoint, you have to clearly show them two things:

[1] That there is something that the Catholic Church posseses that they can't get anywhere else, even in a local church community to which they may have some emotional attachment. There are a number of things that fall under this category: The Eucharist and the other Sacraments as means of grace; the Church's historical origin in Christ as well as her historical continuity; an authoritative, Christ given authority to interpret the Scriptures in contrast to the multitude of personal, often conflicting biblical interpretations; the profundity of the liturgy; a unified and clear teaching voice on moral issues; and so on.

To this end, you should be ready to answer any questions they might have about the Catholic Faith (just because they were raised Catholic, you should not assume they know the rudiments of the Faith--in fact, the opposite is probably true since many Catholics drift away precisely because they do not know the Faith, or possess a very young child's understanding of it.). This doesn't mean you need to be an expert in theology, Scripture, Church law and apologetics, but you should at least be able to answer their basic questions. If you don't know something they ask about, don't be afraid to say "I don't know, but I'll look it up and get back with you," then do it.

[2] That they would gain all the things they have at their non-Catholic church but at the same time they would not be losing anything essential if they left there and returned to the Catholic Church. This might be a little tricky if they consider some un-essentials to Christianity itself --such as warm fellowship, good musicians, childcare during services, easy availability of Bible studies, dynamic preaching, etc -- to be absolutely essential. In that case, you'd have to show them how -- nice and helpful as these things are -- they do not comprise the essence of being a Christian -- that is, the grace found in the Sacraments, being in full communion with the Church body established by Christ, the holy example and solicitude of the Saints, and the fullness of truth found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition-- which can only be found in the Catholic Church. Having said that, it's also true that you often can find many of those nice non-essentials in many (though, admittedly, not all) Catholic parishes.

The above, and your own example of a holy, Christian life (with lots of prayer, their own honesty and openess to the truth, and God's grace) will bring them home. Hope that helps. :)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pope Benedict on "Faith in Progress"

First, a confession: I've had a copy of Pope Benedict's second encyclical, Spe Salvi (Latin for "Saved In Hope"), on my nightstand largely unread since I bought it shortly after it's release in November of 2007. It wasn't due to lack of interest, of course. My nightstand, at any given time, is normally groaning under the weight of several stacks of new books, books I want to reread, magazines and printouts of articles I've downloaded and printed out from the Internet. It's only since I've self-imposed a moratorium on buying myself new books that the top of the nightstand has begun the see the light of day.

Anyway, I've finally been able to begin seriously reading this (when I first got it I did do a perfunctionary scan). It's not an especially arduous or voluminous work (my copy is 105 pages), but like most worthwhile reads, it is one that takes a while to read if you want to do it justice by pondering and praying over it, and mining the text for nuggets of insight. As one might surmise from the title, the topic is about the Christian virtue of Hope (which is distinct from our common use of the word hope, as in "I hope my team wins the game"). The Pope's first encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, you may recall, was about the Christian virtue of love (or, "charity").

I'm around page 51 of Spes Salvi now, and Pope Benedict is in the midst of a discussion about the virtue of Hope, and it's relation to the virtue of Faith ("Transformation of Christian Faith-Hope"). This discussion revolves around the contemporary meaning of the word "progress" and how it relates to authentic Christian Hope. Here is a passage, from section 22 of the encyclical, which I found striking:

First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world. (Emphasis added)

The idea of the incompatibility of man's technical progress with his ethical progress is not original to the Holy Father, of course. Many people in the last century (including, most famously perhaps, Albert Einstien speaking specifically about atomic weapons) have lamented that we have have put the tools of mental giants in the hands of moral midgets. What struck me (albeit not for the first time) was the characterization of "progress" as something a person might tend to put their faith in, i.e. as a type of religion.

On his final studio album, Double Fantasy, the late John Lennon had a very nice song about his young son Shaun called Beautiful Boy. One of the lines in the song goes something like this:

Before you go to sleep, say a little prayer:
"Every day, in every way, it's getting better and better."

This lyric is not merely a reflection of hopeful sentiment; it reflects a worldview popular in the 1970's that you can will positive thoughts into a situation and it will actually make those positive things happen (this is also a premise of the recent New Age book, The Secret, promoted by Oprah Winfrey). In the 19th century among some Christian groups there was a popular doctrine called post-millenialism. Very simply put: looking around at a relatively peaceful time with a great flowering of literary and technological marvels (this was the so called "Gilded Age" of the Industrial Revolution) Christian post-millenialists believed that man would progress and society would improve in a fairly linear manner eventually reaching the point that mankind would reach such a perfected level, it would precipitate (and presumably flow into) the Second Coming of Jesus. After the horrors of two World Wars, the sheen on this particular view dulled quickly, and hardly any mainstream Christians believe it today.

While today you won't find many post-millenialists around, and pop-spiritual fads like The Secret are only taken seriously by the spiritually immature and the flakey, there is an underlying (and I believe pervasive) belief in our culture in the "spirituality of progress." How I would describe it would be as the assumption that most people seem to hold that, since man has progressed in his technological achievements (and they seem to us to be most impressive), the fact that he has devised these things by rational means is de facto license to apply them at will without adherance to objective moral norms.

There are a number of examples I could mention but let me give just one: stem cell research. There is no denying that the technology behind this procedure is truly amazing and that the potential benefits for saving and improving lives is probably immeasurable at this point. However there are numerous ethical problems when the issue of embryonic stem cells is thrown into the mix. These cells, as you may know, are created by fertilizing an egg in a laboratory so that a human embryo is created. The stem cells are then extracted and the embryo is discarded---a clinical euphemism for: a human baby is created, it's useful parts harvested, and then he or she is killed and thrown away.

Apart from the fact that embryonic stem cells are as yet unproven in curing or treating anything (in contrast to adult stem cell and even placental cells which have displayed remarkable promise), what is the moral dilemna here? Is this the killing of an innocent human life, or is it not? If it is, can it be justified in appealing to a "higher good"? And more to the point of the present argument: Just because we are able to do something, does that make it moral to do so?

I would say, generally speaking and apart from any one issue, that every situation having arguable moral implications is worthy serious examination in the light of objective moral norms (what constitutes "objective moral norms" is concurrently under attack in our culture and itself may have to be clarified before one makes a decision. Unbelievably, many people if pressed, cannot articulate a defined set of objective norms). The most basic norm, of course, is the protection of human life -- especially innocent human life. When man arrives at an acheivement that touches upon this most basic of human rights, the default position should always be to do what is objectively moral; to not do evil in the name of good, and at all times to choose life. Then, perhaps we can reach the point that "everyday, in every way, things are getting better and better..."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

December 12: Our Lady of Guadalupe

Today is the feastday of Our Lady of Guadalupe which celebrates the occurence of a series of apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the poor Indian peasant, Juan Diego, in the year 1531 just outside Mexico City. On the last visit, she left a miraculous image of herself on the humble cloak--or tilma--of Juan Diego, an image that is still visible today. Here is a link to a website that tells the whole story, as well as amazing scientific facts about the image on the tilma of Juan Diego.

This Feastday is extremely important to Catholics of Latin American heritage. Devotion to OLG is also strong in other places such the Philippines. Just this morning, I arrived at our local parish for my usual Saturday morning men's group meeting, and the parking lot was packed with cars at 6:30 A.M.--it was a Mass for the Spanish speaking community for today's feastday. We had our meeting in a small side chapel, but we could hear the celebration going on next door in the main church--joyful singing, clapping and lots of cool mariachi music.

Many years ago, I was extremely blessed to be able to visit the basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City and see the image close up, although I didn't appreciate it at the time. This was before my religious conversion and I was visiting the city as a tourist solely to have a good time and to see the many sights, the visit to the basilica (at the time) being just a side trip. I distinctly remember, however, reprobate heathen though I was at the time, being deeply impressed and affected. I can't help thinking now that God used this visit to eventually bring me close to him. There are other episodes in my earlier life that, in retrospect, also seem to have blessed me and prepared me (such when I first saw Pope John Paul II on Guam--but that's another story).

One thing that often annoys me is to see Our Lady's beautiful image in places that don't seem to give her honor. If you see it on a gang-banger's car or t-shirt or tatooed on his back or arm, you can't help but wonder how much of the religious significance of the image is impressed on the wearer. It's a fact that the image is in the minds of many of my fellow Mexican-Americans is as much (or more) a cultural icon as it it is religious.

I say it annoys me rather than angers me because I also know that there is a lot religious ignorance and at the same time good intention involved here. If these particular folks (most of them young men and women) weren't brought up with a good religious education, whose fault is that? Shouldn't those of us who know and love the Faith be doing more to bring the fullness of the truths of that Faith to those who desperately need to hear it?
UPTATE: The blog Whispers in the Logia has uploaded videos of several Guadalupe celebrations going on around the country. You can view the site here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

America's Royal Family Continues It's Downward Slide

Another Kennedy Blasts Bishops over Abortion

Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest child of Robert F. Kennedy, has blasted the nation’s bishops for opposing the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Mrs. Townsend is the first cousin of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), whom Bishop Thomas Tobin has publicly called to repentance and conversion for supporting abortion.

“There are millions of pro-abortion rights Catholics who understand that women faced with unintended pregnancies or complications in wanted pregnancies have to make difficult, complex decisions for themselves and their families,” Mrs. Townsend writes. “They do not make the decision to have an abortion lightly and without weighing all of their options. They must retain the ability to make this decision and the ability to access the care they need, whatever their choice may be. That means they must have access to health insurance that covers abortion care-- just as millions of Americans must have access to affordable health insurance and health care.”

Straining credulity, Mrs. Townsend’s concluding paragraph leads readers to believe that the Vatican would support health care legislation that would fund abortions. “I want Catholic bishops to heed the Vatican’s call for charity and justice for all, not just for the wealthy and well connected,” she writes.

Straining credulity, indeed. Does Mrs. Townsend honestly believe that when the Vatican talks about "truth and justice" they are using secret code for "we support governments paying for poor womens (or anyone elses) abortions"? This in spite of the fact of crystal clear, unambiguous Vatican teaching that abortion is an intrinsically evil in any and all circumstances?

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (to quote only one source):

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish. ( Didache 2,2:SCh 248,148; cf. Ep. Barnabae 19,5:PG 2 777; Ad Diognetum 5,6:PG 2,1173; Tertullian, Apol. 9:PL 1,319-320.)

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. ( GS 51 § 3.)

2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae," by the very commission of the offense," and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.

Maybe -- just maybe -- Mrs. Townsend is broadly interpreting the very general term "truth and justice" as what she wants it to mean, i.e., in a manner that is politically expedient to her wrapped in the mantle of compassion. I mean, who could argue with anything in the name of these two great virtues? If Mrs. Townsend were a properly catechicized Catholic with a well formed conscience (i.e., a conscience that is fully formed and guided by the teachings of the Church), she would argue against herself. In that case, it is hoped the better formed and better informed version of her would prevail. A lot of innocent lives could potentially be saved in the process.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Celebrating, Understanding and Defending the Immaculate Conception

Tuesday, December 8th, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Holy Day of obligation for Catholics (so if you're Catholic, get thee to your local parish), but at the same time one of the most misunderstood beliefs that are held by Catholics.

This article and this article will help you appreciate and understand the background of this singular privilige granted to Mary, the mother of Jesus (and, since Jesus is God, the Mother of God) --a privilige granted to her not because of Mary's own merits or glory, but because if it's fittingness in relation to her role as Mother of Our Redeemer (like all of the teachings of the Church about Mary, the doctrine says more about the uniqueness and holiness of Jesus than it does about Mary).
If, however, you find yourself in the position of having to explain this wonderful Christian truth, here is a helpful article from Catholic Answers. It answers the questions:

1. Why does the Church teach that Mary was immaculately conceived? Her conception is never even mentioned in Scripture.

2. If Mary is sinless, doesn’t that make her equal to God?

3. How could Mary be sinless if in the words of the Magnificat she said that her soul rejoices in God her savior?

4. How can you reconcile Mary’s sinlessness with Paul’s statement that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?

5. Didn’t the Church just invent the doctrine 150 years ago?

This article may also be helpful.
To misunderstand a concept is to fear and hate it, but to know the truth often leads one to love it. Be ready when your questioning friends and families are looking for answers and help lead them from fear and hate, to truth and love.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence": What Does It Mean?

One of the favorite hymns we like to sing in our parish men’s group is "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," taken from the 5th century Liturgy of St. James. It is set to the harmony of the French carol, “Picardy” and is a universal favorite during Advent and Christmas. More than once, primarily because of the obscurity of some of the words in the song, the question has been asked “What is the song about and what does it mean?” This is my attempt to explain some of the more arcane features of the song:

In main, the song is primarily a song about the Incarnation (coming in human flesh) of Jesus Christ. From all eternity he was the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the pre-existent Logos (Word of God) as it speaks about in John 1:1-14. Jesus steps out of eternity to become a human being while remaining fully God.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

All mortal flesh (we humans) should stand in awe of the fact that God has come to earth to become man. While thinking and meditating about this, all other (by comparison) unimportant matters should be pushed aside. Our God descended to earth to become one of us, while remaining God, to whom we owe worship!

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood.
Lord of lords in human vesture,
In the body and the blood,
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Even though Christ is King of kings, Lord of lords and Creator of the universe, he came in human flesh as a baby, born to Mary. It is this same human flesh, now glorified, that he now gives us to consume in the Eucharist—The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the pow'rs of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

Rank on rank…hosts of heaven—the angels (the host of heaven) are pictured as forming a vanguard (a double line of soldiers lining the path of a person of high rank, like a king or a great conqueror) for Jesus as he descends to earth.
Light of light—Jesus is, as we say in the Creed ‘light from light’; that is, of the same substance of God.
Descendeth…from the realms of endless day—Jesus came down from heaven, where there is no night or no day (Revelation 21:22-25).
The reason Jesus came was to defeat the power of hell (of death) over us, so that we will not have to live in the darkness of sin any more.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim, with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the Presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia! Alleluia!Alleluia! Lord Most High.

The seraphim are a rank of angel. The name means ‘burning ones’ as they are thought to be the angels that stand closest to God in heaven, and so are burning with the intensity of God’s love and holiness. They are mentioned in the Bible, most notably in Isaiah, chapter 6. They are pictured there as having six wings—two of which are used to cover their eyes in the presence of God, who is too holy for even them to gaze fully upon.
The cherubim are another rank of angel. It was a cherubim that guarded the entrance to Paradise after Adam and Eve were cast out (Genesis 3:24). As a sentries, they never slept.
Alleluia is a combination of two Hebrew words, hallel, which means ‘praise,’ and a contracted form of the divine name Yah-weh, which the Jews avoided pronouncing. Together, it means ‘praise God.”

You can hear a midi version of this song here:

Encouragement For Christians During Tough Times

From St. Paul of the Cross:

"Now that the enemies of your soul have gathered about you, the time has come when God wants you to fight, trusting not in yourself but entrusting everything to him. Observe the spirits of the world, the flesh and the devil but never lose heart. Have courage and be of stout heart knowing that with Jesus Christ you shall have no need to fear. You have no need to tremble before anybody.

The cross is the way to paradise, but only when it is borne willingly. For now, rest sweetly in the company of your beloved spouse, Jesus. Never worry about hell. Never worry about anything in this world. Never worry about your own flesh but have no doubt that the Lord will allow you to be tempted. He will never abandon you , even though interiorly, in the inferior part of your soul, it may seem you are abandoned . . . "