Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Centerpiece of the Catholic Church

Catholics believe that the bread and wine consecrated at Holy Mass are the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.  That belief is based on the words of Jesus during the so-called Bread of Life discourse found in the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 6 (John 6:34-66), and also on the words of Jesus at the Last Supper found in all four gospels.  In addition, this belief is reinforced by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians 1 Cor 11:23-29).  Today, I‘m thinking about what non-Catholics seem to think about this belief and what might be the Catholic response.

Protestant Christians believe that Jesus was speaking metaphorically in John 6 and in the gospel accounts of the Last Supper in the same way that he speaks metaphorically when he calls himself the light of the world (John 8:12), or the sheep gate (John 10:7-9), or the good shepherd (John 10:14).  Did he speak literally?  No, it is clear that he is not a light, or a gate, or a shepherd in the literal sense … he is only speaking metaphorically.  They believe that he is referring to the bread and wine in that same metaphorical sense.

The Catholic response?  Jesus says this in John 6:  “… the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  (John 6: 51).  Jesus also says this in John 6:  “… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”  (John 6:53).  And he says this:  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  And this:  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in my and I in him.”  (John 6:56).  After all this teaching, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”  (John 6:66).  But did he stop them?  Did he explain that he was only speaking metaphorically?  No, they walked away and returned to their former way of life.

And St. Paul’s reinforcement?  St. Paul repeats the words of the last supper (without having had the benefit of reading those words in Scripture, since they had not yet been written down).  (1 Cor 11:24-25).  And then he says this:  “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgement on himself.”  (1 Cor 11:29).  St. Paul thus says that he believes that the bread and wine are the literal body and blood of Christ.  And this is how it was for 1500 years until the Protestant reformers came along and made a new interpretation, telling people that it was only a metaphor … something neither Christ nor St. Paul did.

So in the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is the centerpiece.  Not the sermon.  Not the singing.  Not the personality of the preacher.  The Eucharist.  In the words of Allen Hunt, a former Protestant mega-church minister who converted to Catholicism:  “The Eucharist binds us together.  Without the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, we merely have our own ideas rather than true unity.  In the Eucharist, Jesus fuels and empowers his church.  Everything rides on the Eucharist.”  Amen, Mr. Hunt!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What Heaven is Like

People are known to wonder what it will be like in heaven.  "Will my dog be there?  Will I still be happy when I find out that my spouse didn’t make it?  What if my worst enemy is there?  Will there be pain and suffering in heaven?"  On and on.  I have some thoughts this morning about what the Scriptures say.  So let’s take a look at a few examples.

In his first letter, St. John says:  “Behold, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  (1 John 3:2).  This implies to me that we will have glorified bodies and will behold the Beatific Vision, meaning the face of God.  This is heaven.

St. John writes this in his Gospel:  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”  (John 14:2).  In other words, we will be where Jesus himself is.  There will be lots of space there; space prepared by Jesus himself for our personal fulfillment and gratification.

My favorite Scripture passages about heaven, however, are those that present the parables, especially those parables that begin with the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like …”.  What could be more descriptive of heaven than those illustrations that Christ himself gives us with that leading phrase?  See especially Matt 13:24-50.

Here is a grand example:  The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field (Matt 13: 24-30) and an enemy comes at night and sows weeds.  So we have good seed and weed seed growing together, righteous and sinful men together.  In the end, harvesters (angels) separate the righteous from the sinful, and the righteous will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father.”  (Matt 13:43).

Will your dog be there?  Jesus doesn’t mention dogs or a pet of any kind.  I believe we won’t have any desire to have a pet when we are in the presence of God.  Will you care if your spouse is not there?   I believe we will have no thought about him or her because we will be staring at the face of God.  Will you care that your worst enemy is there.  If this person is there, he/she is on equal footing with you in terms of glory and righteousness and you will have no thought of your enmity back on earth.  Will there be pain and suffering in heaven?  No.  It is impossible to have pain and suffering when living in a place prepared especially for you by God.  Rather, we will be in a place where we "shine like the sun!"

So where are the people who the angels separate out due to their wickedness?  They are in “the fiery furnace where there is wailing and grinding of teeth.”  (Matt 13:50).  A place of torment.  Where would you rather be for all eternity?  Lord, thank you so much for these parables.  Amen!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Before Time Began

Most of us who believe in God believe that He is the Creator of all things and that he is the one thing that has existed forever, that there is no “Day 1” for God, that no one created God.  This begs the question “What was it like before He created all things?”  Was it just God and nothing else? 

One answer to this question is to say that time was created right along with the heavens and the earth.  If that is true, then words like “forever” and “before” are nonsensical words when trying to contemplate what was here before the beginning.  There is no answer in Scripture, as far as I know.  Chapter 1 of Genesis only says “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland and darkness covered the abyss, while wind swept over the waters.”  And it goes on from there, with God creating light on the first “day,” the sky on the second day, vegetation on the third day, the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day, etc., etc.  Obviously God existed before the beginning, but otherwise, no word about what it was like “before the beginning.”  No word about the creation of time.  It seems to me that it is one of those inexplicable mysteries that only God can answer, like the Blessed Trinity or Transubstantiation (the changing of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood while retaining the appearances of bread and wine). 

But that doesn’t stop philosophers and scientists, both atheists and believers, from speculating.   And we also have the so-called “Big Bang” theory, in which everything we see, everything that exists, began with the massive explosion.   But what was here before the explosion?  Much of modern speculation seems to be about that, as well as about parallel universes and other seemingly nonsensical things.

Well, allow me to add my two-cents worth of speculation.  The Big Bang was not the beginning of everything, but only the beginning of the observable universe.  With this comes the idea that there is much more out there.  Perhaps the cosmos is infinite.  But I’m not the first to propose that.  Perhaps the cosmos has been here all along, right along with God.  But that contradicts Genesis, does it not?  Light and “the heavens” were created on the first day and the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day.  Okay, back the drawing board.  But Genesis does say that the earth was “a formless wasteland and darkness covered the abyss …").  What exactly is/was the “abyss” anyway?

I love to contemplate these things.  I’m not smart enough to be a philosopher in this modern day and age, but I do have an imagination, just like you, and I love to read about all the speculation.  And it is great fun, this imagining and speculating.  You know what?  We’ll all have the answers when time ends.  All we can do between now and then is believe in God and live our lives accordingly.  Amen

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Fire and Brimstone vs Kindness and Mercy

A “fire and brimstone” sermon used to be deemed necessary to get a person out of a sinful funk.  In other words, in order to convince a person to stop his/her sinful behavior, a clergyman would confront the person with the reality of Judgement Day and the likelihood that they would have to spend their eternity in that god-awful place we call “hell,” where the fire never extinguishes and the falling brimstone is like hot coals perpetually raining down.  And such a sermon can be effective, certainly, considering that particularly cruel condition that is eternal damnation on the horizon for this person’s soul.  As Jesus said:  “It is would be better for that man if he had never been born” or “It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea ...”  (Matt 26:24 and Luke 17:2).

But you never hear of “fire and brimstone” being used today.  Today, it is “kindness and mercy.”  Most clergymen today seem to want to be more “pastoral,” meaning that they act and speak out of kindness, with smiles and welcoming committees and the promise of mercy on Judgement Day.  Or, perhaps the concept of final judgement isn’t even mentioned.  They think that the sinful person is more likely to react negatively to fire and brimstone and eternal damnation and would then never be seen in church again.  And this would be a correct in many cases.  Sinful people don’t want to think about their eternal destiny.  And those persons would instead react positively to thoughts of mercy, kindness and eternal happiness.  But to me, it is still important to mention forgiveness in the same breath.  People must be made conscious of their mortal sins, of the Catholic track to forgiveness, and of the consequences of rejecting God’s mercy.  It is very important.  Eternal damnation and its opposite, eternal happiness, are not figments of someone’s imagination.  Jesus talked about them all the time.

What got me thinking about this is last Sunday’s gospel at Mass – the story of a Canaanite woman whose daughter was tormented by a demon.  Jesus seemed to respond cruelly to her, using the metaphor of food given to dogs to mean his assistance given to a Canaanite woman and her daughter.  The implication was that it would be of no use.  But she did not give up.  She said she picks us scraps of food from the table of her masters, which I took to mean bits and pieces of faith that are Jesus’ words.  Jesus was thereby convinced that she had “great faith” and he then cured her daughter (Matt 15:21-28).

I believe, then, that what it takes is “great faith” in order for us to avoid the fire and brimstone of damnation and to be kindly and mercifully welcomed into heaven.  I don’t care what your lot in life is, that is, what your sin is.  You can fill in the blank.  Everyone, please, take Jesus’ advice and go and sin no more (John 8:11).  A place of such happiness that we cannot even imagine awaits us.  Amen.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Where We Got the Bible

I’m currently reading the book Where We Got the Bible by Bishop Henry G. Graham.  Graham is a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism.  The book was first published in 1911 and reprinted many times since then.  The point of the book is that the Bible is a product of the Catholic Church.  So here is a summary of the what and when of the Bible as we currently have it through the eyes of someone who is eminently unqualified … me … but derived from someone who is eminently qualified … Bishop Graham. 

Of course, the books of the Bible were written long before the printing press was invented by Johann Gutenberg in about 1450 AD.  The original texts were hand-written on papyrus parchment in Greek and Hebrew languages.  This is true of the New Testament documents written by the sacred authors, St. Paul, St. John, and the others.  I understand that papyrus parchment is extremely perishable, brittle, and delicate and does not last long.  The original documents were also plundered and destroyed by persecutors of the Church in those early years.  No documents written in the original authors’ handwriting survive.  However, thousands of copies were made.  For Catholics, the fact that we don’t have the original documents to fall back on is not an issue, because our authority is not the “Scripture alone,” but the Church founded by Jesus Christ himself.  Church officials made copies of the originals down through the centuries and the originals were allowed to perish.

Catholic monks living in monasteries were subsequently charged with making the copies in their own handwriting and translating them into Latin.  This was a painstaking task and, it is thought, not without the possibility of error or the introduction of heretical words.  However, as time passes, we are assured that the Catholic Church, which was promised to be guided by the Holy Spirit, got it right.  Of course, all Bibles in existence today, both Catholic and Protestant, came through this period in history, the so-called “dark ages.”  Any changes that were made during the Reformation and later by non-Catholic individuals and groups, cannot have the assurance of accuracy since they are not from the Church that is guided by the Holy Spirit.  Examples of errors are the addition of the words “alone” or “only” that were added to the word “faith” and the removal of six books of the Bible by Protestant leaders – books that had been approved to be the inspired word of God by the Catholic leaders centuries earlier.

Today we have many different translations and versions.  The Catholic Church has its approved versions and, of course, uses these approved versions, especially the New American Bible as it is called, in the Bible readings used at Holy Mass. 

I am so happy to be Catholic and to be able to confidently read the version of Sacred Scripture that is the product of the Church that preserved the meaning and intent of the words of Jesus Christ, St. Paul, and others through history.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Our Unworthiness Before God

Today I’m thinking about this passage from Isaiah:  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”  (Isah 55:8-9).  The ways of God … the thoughts of God ... How high the heavens are above the earth … this is all very difficult to fathom.  It certainly brings to mind our unworthiness before God.  He is our Creator.  He is the Supreme Being who made all things.  He is in his heavenly home.  We are here on the earth where sin is rampant.  Yes, we are not worthy of him. 

St. John the Baptist said it this way about Jesus, who is God:  “I am not worthy to unloosen the thongs of his sandals.”  (Luke 3: 16).  The Blessed Mother even got into the act:  “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.  For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness.”  (Luke 1:46-48).  All of this makes me wonder how it is that we can even approach God, or how we can even dare to ask him for things, or how we can possibly dare to approach his altar to receive his body and blood.  He has the supreme power to reduce us to nothingness.  But he doesn’t.  In fact, out of love he has saved us from our sins if we only have true faith in him.

It brings to mind the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew, Chapter 8:  “When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.’  He said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’  The centurion said in reply, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.’”  (Matt 8: 5-8).  Jesus then said to him:  “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”  (Matt 8:10).  And at that very hour, his servant was healed without Jesus even being present in the centurion’s home.

Catholics recognize the passage from Matthew 8:5-8 above because a version of it is used at Mass just prior to our coming forward to receiving the body and blood of Christ.  Talk about our unworthiness!  Consuming the body and blood of Christ at Mass is the ultimate in our unworthiness!  Here is the exact wording:  “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  Even though we are so unworthy of this great sacrament, the Lord expects us to come forward, because it is an act of our faith and Christ rewards us for our faith just as he did the centurion.

I’ve heard it said that the Church uses this expression of our unworthiness at Mass so that in case we have any venial sins on our soul, we can get them temporarily forgiven prior to receiving the sacrament.  What great gifts we have in our faith and in our Church!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Basilica of St. Mary Major

This Saturday, August 5, the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.  I was privileged to see this basilica with my own eyes last fall during my pilgrimage to Italy.  It is the largest church in Rome and the only “papal” basilica dedicated to the Blessed Mother.  It is one of seven papal basilicas and one of the four “major papal” basilicas located in Rome.  Hence the name St. Mary Major.

Like all the famous papal basilicas, it is an absolutely beautiful church.  I’m not a connoisseur of art, but one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the art in this church (see photos).  The thing that I found most amazing is that this church claims to have pieces of the wooden manger in which Jesus was laid after being born in Bethlehem.  These are located in a reliquary beneath the high altar (see photo), a site that is called the Crypt of the Nativity.  This high altar has a canopy over it (see photo) that makes the whole scene simply breathtaking.  There is also a sculpture of Pope Sixtus III.  He is seen seated in a chair and facing the manger reliquary.  Sixtus was pope back in the fifth century when the original structure was built.

The original structure is said to have been inspired by an appearance of the Blessed Mother to a Roman patriarch and his wife in which she asked that the structure be built.  The exact site of the building was inspired by a mysterious snowfall in the middle of summer (August 5 in the year 352 AD).  The snow only fell on the exact area where the church was to be built.  The church was later named Our Lady of the Snows at its dedication.