Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fasting, Abstinence, Almsgiving and Valentines

Our pastor said yesterday in his homily at Mass that this is the first time Valentine’s Day has fallen on Ash Wednesday since 1945!  That’s the first time in 73 years!  No wonder I didn’t remember it ever happening before.  I am not yet 70 years old!

In the Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence.  This means that, in order to help us on our path to our heavenly home, our beloved Church has declared that we must fast and refrain from eating meat on that day, the first day of Lent.  The fasting requirement means no snacks between meals and only one full meal.  The abstinence requirement means that the meals must not include any meat, such as beef, pork, chicken, turkey, etc.  Catholics must settle for cheese products, eggs, or fish, etc., for the main course in any meal. 

But what about the fact that it was Valentine’s Day this year?  It is a day when we especially enjoy a celebratory breakfast, lunch and/or dinner with our spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend.  How should that play out?  First, I understand that the Bishops decided not to grant a dispensation from the requirement.  Okay, so we must fast and abstain.  My wife fixed a nice breakfast of hot cereal and fruit.  It was good, but, other than lit candles, nicer placemats, and greeting cards on the table, it was nothing out of the ordinary.  Then, for lunch, we enjoyed a filet-o-fish sandwich and a local McDonalds.  I hadn’t had their fish sandwich in quite some time and forgot how good they are!  Okay, then dinner was to be our one full meal.  My wife again came to the rescue … she prepared salmon filets with a vegetable and fruit.  No dessert.  How good it was!

One of my Facebook friends lamented in a post yesterday the fact that one of her friends saw the situation as an opportunity to go out and enjoy a nice lobster dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant.  It was one of those “What’s wrong with this picture?” moments.  An expensive dinner that is more exciting that any steak, pork chop or fried chicken is not my idea, nor hers, of an observance of Ash Wednesday!

But, aside from all of this, I think it is important to stop and consider what all of Lent is about for us devoted Catholics.  It is not just a time to punish our bodies by eating less or by avoiding eating certain foods.  It is about preparation … mental preparation for what is going to happen at the end of the self-sacrificing agony … Holy Week and Easter.  The self-denial , and almsgiving too, makes us aware of the world around us.  It is about becoming aware of people in need and how it feels to live day-to-day not knowing where our next meal is coming from.  And then it makes us more aware of the great sacrifice that Jesus Christ accomplished for us through his horrific crucifixion and how our faith is affirmed through his glorious Resurrection. 

So this year, let us fast, abstain, make personal sacrifices, and give alms to prepare our minds and hearts for the celebration to follow.  Easter will then be a glorious day indeed!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Faith vs Government

I’ve sometimes wondered what life would be like if everyone in the world were Catholic.  That’s right.  No Protestantism.  No Judaism.  No Islam.  No paganism.  No atheism.  No Buddhism.  No Hinduism, no whateverism.  Everybody is Catholic.  Do you think this is what Jesus had in mind when he founded the Catholic Church that everyone be Catholic?  No, I don’t think so. 

For one thing, he was an advocate of the separation of church and state.  When asked about it, he said this:  “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  (Matt 22:21).  So he envisioned our being governed in matters of state separate from matters of faith.  For another, he was fully aware of the presence of evil in the world, with references to the “Evil One” and “Satan” and “Beelzebub” in his preaching.  I believe he also knew we would be tested by non-believers, as he himself witnessed in John, Chapter 6, when many of his disciples “walked away and went back to their former way of life” when he began saying that to be his followers, we must eat is body and drink his blood (John 6:66).  So while he challenged us with an order like this:  “Go and make disciples of all nations, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19-20), he knew we would not be 100% successful.  And, of course, we have not been.  And we never will be.  There will always be these “isms” that will forever challenge us when we try to make disciples of all nations.  We will always co-exist with non-believers.  But that does not mean that we should not take the mandate seriously, that we should not try.

I am certainly not an expert with the current state of this mandate in other nations of the world.  However, as a voter in the United States of America, the present state of affairs with our government is my business and that is where the present-day argument lies for me.  There are many examples of how our church comes into conflict with our state.  For example, we had a Supreme Court in 1973 come down with a decision that a pre-born child is not a person as defined by the constitution and therefore has no firmly established right to live like all post-birth people have.  This decision opposes Catholic teaching and we believe offenders commit sin.  So we cannot, in good conscience, support this decision.  In addition, we have religious liberties, things that have been allowed for us believers through the years, to now be disputed.  The example here is our belief that the use of artificial birth control methods is seriously sinful and that Catholics who own businesses must not be forced to have their employees’ health insurance cover these methods.  I could go on.

So what is the solution?  Jesus said to make disciples of all nations.  We must endeavor to change the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens.  We must suggest to them that the Catholic position on these matters is important; that the elimination of sin in our world is our primary concern; that our heavenly reward should be everyone’s goal.  There are strong anti-Catholic biases out there.  There are even Catholics in our government who apparently oppose their Church’s teachings.  But we must not be deterred.  

My prayer for today:  Lord, please, in your compassion, help us with your challenge to make disciples of all nations.  Help us to come up with strategies to combat evil in our world.  Guide your people in methods to change hearts and minds.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Come Home to the Catholic Church

Have you been baptized as a Catholic?  Have you, for whatever reason, abandoned the faith?  Do you believe there is an afterlife with a heaven and a hell?  If you have answered “yes” to these three questions, then my thoughts this Thursday are about you and traditional Catholic teachings that you may or may not have heard about.

Heaven is where God is and hell is where He is not.  Heaven is where you want to spend your eternity and hell is where you do not want to spend your eternity.  Heaven is where you go if you die in the state of grace (with no sin on your soul).  Hell is where you go if you are in the state of mortal sin. 

You may know that mortal sins are serious offenses that go against the ten commandments, such as killing someone (fifth commandment:  Thou shalt not kill.) or sex outside of marriage (sixth commandment:  Thou shalt not commit adultery.).  The ten commandments were given to Moses in ancient times, but they are still relevant today, as Jesus has told us (Matt 19:16-19).  Mortal sins are also serious offenses that go against the six precepts of the Catholic Church, the Church that Jesus founded.  Examples here include missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation without good reason and also receiving the Eucharist while in the state of mortal sin (this sin is called sacrilege).  Remember that Christ’s Church, the Catholic Church, was given the authority to bind and loose in these matters of faith.

So what makes a sin mortal, and are there sins that are not mortal?  What if I don’t know that a mortal sin is mortal?  What if I commit a mortal sin, but do not fully consent to it?  The church teaches that for a sin to be so deadly as to send you to hell if it is on your conscience when you die, three things are required:  1) has to be mortal (as taught by the Church), 2) the sinner must know that it is mortal, and 3) the sinner must fully consent to it.

How does one get mortal sins off their soul before death?  Jesus taught that we must repent of our sins.  Jesus instituted the sacrament of Confession in his church for that purpose.  So if you answered “yes” to the very first question in this blog, you are eligible to have your sins forgiven through the sacrament of Confession.  Please see a priest as soon as possible.  You don’t know when death will come.

What about the scandals of which the Catholic Church is guilty?  Yes, there have been some very serious and mortal sins committed by those in which Catholics have placed their trust.  It proves that his Church is not immune to the temptations that are out there.  But abandoning Christ’s Church is not a good decision.  Praying for the Church is the right decision.

What if you have professed a different faith since your Catholic Baptism and have been following the teachings offered by this faith?  My experience is that these other faiths often interpret Scripture in a way different from the Catholic Church.  This is a serious problem, in my opinion.  Please come back to the Catholic Church and be reconciled.  There are many, many Catholic parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles out there who are very sad and upset about this state of affairs.  I am counted among them.  Please come back.  Please come home.  Where you go for all eternity depends on it. 

My prayer for today:  Lord, please, in your mercy, inspire your wayward children to come back to your church.  Shower them with the gifts of your compassion, your kindness, your grace, and your forgiveness.  Please place them once again on the right path to their heavenly home.  Amen. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

What is a "Doctor of the Church?"

On January 24 (yesterday) each year, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of St. Francis de Sales.  As I read a little about his life yesterday, I became aware that he has been declared a “Doctor of the Church.”  While I was aware that some Catholic saints have this title, yesterday’s feast got me thinking about them.  What is it that makes a saint a “Doctor of the Church?”  How many saints have been declared “Doctors?”  Who are they?  What are some of their qualifications and accomplishments?

I found a concise definition of “Doctor of the Church” in the book The Essential Catholic Handbook, a publication of the Redemptorist religious community.  The definition is this:  “An ecclesiastical writer of eminent learning and outstanding holiness because of his/her contribution to the explanation and defense of Catholic doctrine.”   So, what makes a saint a Doctor of the Church and what are the qualifications?  The saint must be a writer who has demonstrated superior learning as well as outstanding holiness and must have contributed majorly to interpreting and defending Catholic doctrine.  How many saints have been thus declared?  There are currently thirty-four Doctors of the Church, the most recent being St. Gregory of Narek who was thus declared by Pope Francis in 2015.  All have been declared doctors by popes

Some on the list are easily recognizable to Catholics and non-Catholic alike, including St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Therese of Lisieux.  Others lived around the time of the Protestant Reformation and were known for defending Catholic doctrine in the face of the reformation movement.  These include our St. Francis de Sales as well as St. Teresa of Avila, St. Robert Bellarmine, and several others.

St. Therese of Lisieux is an especially interesting example.  She is best known for writing her autobiography The Story of a Soul.  In it, she describes what has come to be known as “The Little Way,” which is a way to holiness for those who live a life of poverty and who serve God through love and through small and simple means.  It has been recognized as a great work for people who are not known for their accomplishments or greatness but for their love of God and simple acts of obedience and love.  It turned out that her “little way”, despite the implication of its title, was recognized as a “great way” for anyone, even the smallest among us, to reach the highest level of sanctity.  It was recognized as a work that demonstrates her outstanding contribution to Catholic doctrine by Pope St. John Paul II in 1997.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reflections on Race Relations

This past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day, a national holiday in the United States.  The photograph accompanying this post is one that I took several years ago of the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C.  The celebration caused me to reflect on my personal experience with race relations throughout my life.   

I grew up on a small farm in western Iowa and attended a Catholic parochial school, grades 1-12, in a nearby small town, graduating from high school in 1966.  The only race I experienced first-hand in this community was Caucasian, mostly the offspring of German immigrants.  There were no African-Americans or Hispanics and no one from any foreign country in the school, or in the four other nearby small towns and Catholic schools.  Sports teams were all white, both my teams and the opponents teams.  Teachers were all Caucasian, almost all of them nuns.  Priest likewise were all white.  I did encounter utterances of the N-word at times among my family members and peers, but these were minimal.

One might think that with these non-experiences I might have been influenced in a negative way toward other races when I entered college in the fall of 1966, Iowa State University.  But this was not the case.  Early on, I came to know two black students, one occupying a room next to mine upstairs in a boarding house near campus and the other in my chemistry classes (I was a chemistry major).  I remember that I was rather unconcerned about their being of a different race; I was more much more concerned about succeeding in my studies, which were quite challenging.  I rarely saw the student in the room next to me; he kept a very low profile.  However, the chemistry student was quite annoying.  I befriended him, and he came to my room periodically for help in his studies, but he seemed more interested in converting me to his religion, which was Mormonism.  This was not an issue for me, however.  There was no way he would pry me away from Catholicism.  I also had a graduate student from Nigeria as my calculus teacher.  The only thing that bothered me was that I couldn’t understand him!

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, 1968, I had a job working in a lab in Chicago.  There were black lab technicians in the lab that I found very friendly and good-natured.  I remember my mother being fearful of my being in the big city of Chicago, especially since race riots and the infamous 1968 Republican National Convention were the news at that time.  Of course, Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated that April.  I was aware of the heightened tensions and had some fear myself.  One day, I took a little road trip and, by accident, wound up in Gary, Indiana.  I needed gas, and stopped at a filling station in Gary.  I was very frightened when I observed that I was the only white person around and felt that everyone was looking at me.  I was a fish-out-of-water and knew it!  But I calmly filled my car with gas and got back on the road.

Later in college and in graduate school at the University of Texas, I began to encounter many students and faculty of other races.  In the fraternity that I pledged at Iowa State, there were two foreign students, one from South Vietnam and one from Iran.  Both were congenial, pleasant people and we got along quite well.  I never thought of them as being different from me – only from another country.  In my undergraduate research program, I met a black man who was studying for a PhD.  In my graduate program at Texas, I joined a fairly large research group.  There were a number of foreign PhD candidates in this group, one from Japan, one from Turkey, etc.  Still not the slightest problem with friendship or prejudice.  Later, in the workplace, I met black men and foreign professionals who were PhDs … still no problems.  In my 37 professional career as a community college professor, I had black students and foreign students from Iraq, Vietnam, China, Japan, and other countries.  I had no problems relating to them in any way in my role as their teacher.

While my life experiences were perhaps unique, I think I understand the pressures and prejudices that are often experienced by black persons and foreigners.  I see it on TV and in the newspapers.  However, my story is one that proves that we can all get along and even establish good friendships.  My prayer for today:  Lord, in your kindness and goodness, bring all races together in this country and beyond and help us to settle our differences by peaceful means, knowing that we are all your children, all worthy of life with you in heaven.  Amen.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Modern Science and the Interpretation of Scripture

The idea that Sacred Scripture appears to be just a bunch of storybook fables and unscientific fictional narratives has pushed many people to conclude that God does not exist and that principles of faith are just things dreamed up by us well-meaning humans.  But with all that exists around us – the vastness of the cosmos, the complexity of the human body, and the beauty and intricacies of nature to name a few – I believe that this atheistic worldview is terribly shortsighted.  But to change minds and hearts on this subject will require an interpretation of Scripture that would answer all the objections.  What can we say in a space as small as this blog?

Primary in such a discussion would be a justification of the creation story in the Book of Genesis given the facts of modern science.  Of course, I don’t doubt the Theory of Evolution, so I won’t be trying debunk its principles.  What is necessary, then, is a “discrediting” of Sacred Scripture in terms of its being a literal description of how things got started.  Here is something to think about:  the Genesis account is the inspired word of God, and, as such, had to make sense to the Jewish people of 1000 BC, 500 BC, 33 AD, 500 AD, 1000 AD, 1500 AD, and 2018 AD.  That is over 3000 years of recorded history, from the uninformed of ancient tribes of Israel, to the illiterate people of the time of Christ, to the scientific theories put forward by early scientists, to the advances put forth by Galileo and many others, and finally to the modern advanced mathematical description of the heavens.  You can see the impossible task that God had when He was giving His inspiration to the authors of Genesis!  That means that today, in 2018, we must provide some interpretation of Scripture that doesn’t conflict with modern science.  On the surface, this would seem impossible.

There are those of us who believe that the Catholic Church is the entity on earth that provides the correct interpretations of Scripture for us.  So, what does the Church have to say?  First, the Church does not attempt to discredit modern science in any way, and so the correct interpretation must leave open any credible scientific discovery regarding the universe.  Many people point to the definition of the word “day.”  According to Scripture, God created light on the first day, but there was no sun or moon until the fourth day.  So immediately we see that a “day” in these ancient times cannot be the same as a “day” as we know it.  Even the people in ancient Israel must have recognized that.  Perhaps “day” is not a good translation of the original manuscripts!

And therein lies the most important solution of the problem.  With a “day” undefined, the possibility of a “day” being a very long period of time becomes credible and modern ideas like the Big Bang Theory and the Evolution Theory also become credible.  So, then, what is Scripture actually saying in Genesis?  The Catholic interpretation would be that all that it is trying to say is that God created everything that exists.  This is a huge statement for those who see our magnificent universe as having its beginning brought into being by the hand of God.  Can you imagine the inspired authors making reference to the Big Bang or the Theory of Evolution in their writing?  I cannot.  It would have meant immediate rejection of Sacred Scripture in those days of Genesis by its readers.  No, the authors had to write something believable by uneducated and illiterate people.

I love how the Catholic Church is open to interpret Sacred Scripture so that such interpretation is compatible with modern science.  It respects my basic belief as a scientist myself … that there can be no conflict between faith and proven scientific theories.  It places our future regarding these science/faith matters in total harmony.

There are many, many other statements and stories in Sacred Scripture that are difficult to even imagine being true, as any reader of Scripture can attest.  Currently, I’m reading a book by Catholic apologist Trent Horn titled Hard Sayings:  A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties published by Catholic Answers.  I highly recommend it.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Organized Religion

Have you ever heard someone express the view, “I don’t care for “organized religion.”?  What they are saying is that they want to be free to be who they want to be faith-wise, and don’t want to be “confined” by what they might call a set of rules for their spiritual life.  Such a person may or may not be an atheist.  If he/she is an atheist, a reasonable response would require arguments in favor of the existence of God, which would be arguments more basic to the question.  Rather, today I’m thinking about what a reasonable response would be for someone who does believe in God but, for whatever reason, does not believe that an established religion is the way to go.

The question comes down to who God is and what He has revealed to us.  God is the Supreme Being who is responsible for all things in existence.  As such, we would know nothing about Him, except for what He has chosen to reveal to us.  Christian and Jewish religions believe that God has revealed Himself to us through the centuries from ancient times via the writings by inspired writers.  So we have what has been called “the word of God” given to us through the Sacred Scriptures, the Bible.  The Jewish faith is an organized religion.  God chose this religion in ancient times for His revelations.  To us who believe in organized religion, this truth is important to remember.  It is a fundamental truth that God has revealed Himself through an organized religion. 

We regard as truth, then, revelations seen in the Bible, that God created all things, that man committed a serious sin early on and that God then chose to send us a Savior for the purpose of redemption. So thus God’s Son, Jesus Christ, was born and came among us to right the ship.  The next question is specifically, how did He do this.  He established and organized a new religion – Christianity, or, as a devoted Catholic such as myself would say, the Catholic Church.  Starting with a band of twelve apostles from which He chose a leader, St. Peter, the rock upon whom he built this church (Matt 16:18), he organized a religion.  This is a fundamental truth carried out so that man could have a path to eternal salvation.  And, since the time of Christ and the apostles, the work was carried on via St. Peter’s successors, the popes, and the apostles’ successors, the Catholic bishops.

So if someone doesn’t care for or follow this “organized religion,” the Catholic Church founded by the Son of God, it would make sense that his/her eternal salvation would be in jeopardy.  True, there are rules to follow, but these are necessary and dictated by God Himself or via the Church that He established.  Beginning with the Ten Commandments from ancient times and continuing with commandments and rules dictated by Christ’s Church, we have important and fundamental “rules” that need to be followed.

And how can we be sure that the Catholic Church is the one true organized religion that has come down to us and that we should obey her rules?  After Christ told St. Peter that he would be the rock upon whom he would build His church, He said, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  (Matt 16:18-19). 

So while believing that an organized religion, the Catholic Church, is the way to go does require an acceptance of God’s word through Sacred Scripture, it makes sense.  It is obvious that we are surrounded by evidence of Man’s sinfulness and it make sense to me that God would takes these steps to rectify the problem.