Thursday, December 29, 2016

Have You Been Saved?

As you may have been able to discern via this blog over the last 3+ years, I have had a keen interest in the Protestant doctrine of “Salvation by Faith Alone” compared to the Catholic view of salvation.  The differences are found in answers to the question:  “Have you been saved?”  Devoted Protestants who have been “re-born” or who have “a personal relationship with Jesus” will say “yes” because they believe they have the lone requirement, which is the gift of faith in Jesus.  Devoted Catholics, on the other hand, would be perplexed by the question and would not be able to answer it “yes” or “no.”   That is because they believe that they will not know if they are saved until after they die and God renders His judgement on the state of their soul.   Why is it that these two Christian groups differ on this important question?  I would like to give you my perspective on this.

I believe that “Faith Alone” could be a legitimate doctrine if the word “faith” in this context is carefully and authentically defined.  Is it faith that is held deep in one’s heart, or is it faith that is only found on the tongue and lips?  Protestants will attach the word “works” to their argument.  In other words, they say that salvation does not depend on our doing good works.  Good works, such as visiting the sick and imprisoned, donating money to or raising money for charitable causes, and assisting the poor and homeless with their day-to-day needs are examples of things that may result from one having faith, but, in the Protestant view, they are not required for salvation.  In addition, “works of the law,” that is actions that we must perform by church law, are also not required because they might cause a person to boast about it, and such boasting is condemned in Scripture.  A Catholic would agree that such boasting is wrong.   

So where does that leave us?  What does it mean to have faith that is deep in one’s heart and not just on the tongue and the lips.  First, if one has such deep faith, then he/she would practice it with humility. i.e., no boasting.  Let God see it but don’t practice your faith so that you want it to be obvious to others.  The need for true humility is found all over Scripture.  Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  (Mat 6:3).  Second, in the Catholic Church, if one has deep faith, he/she will have a burning desire to receive the sacraments frequently, particularly Reconciliation and the Eucharist.  The Church recognizes this and has set absolute minimums as far as actions regarding these sacraments is concerned.  Catholics must go to Confession at least once a year and must go to Mass, presumably to receive the Eucharist, on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.  The absolute minimum.  But do it with humility and not so that you can boast about it. 

These sacraments, Reconciliation and the Eucharist, are available in the Catholic Church every day.  I believe that true faith … faith held deep in one’s heart … would be evidenced by sincere and humble reception of these two sacraments as often as possible.  They were instituted by Christ Himself to give us grace … the sanctifying grace required for salvation.  Do it in secret.  Don’t do it in order to be able to say you did it.  And don’t let it be known.  Practice humility.  This is the personal relationship that Jesus wants with us.  "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."  (John 6:54).  Even if you do these things, a humble person will still not know if he/she will be saved until it is revealed to all by God on the day of judgement.  

Thursday, December 22, 2016

That Beautiful Canticle

This week at Holy Mass the Gospel readings are from Luke, Chapters 1 and 2, beginning on Tuesday with the story of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38) and ending Sunday, the Christmas Mass at dawn, with the story of the shepherds’ visit to the Babe in the manger (Lk 2:15-20).  My personal favorite is the Gospel reading from today, Thursday, which is the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, specifically Mary’s canticle, which has come to be known as the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-56).  Let us consider this canticle, one or two sentences at a time.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.  For He as looked upon his lowly servant.” (Lk 1:46-47).  Why is her soul proclaiming the greatness of the Lord?  Why is she thinking how great the Lord is at this moment?  A few weeks earlier, she gave her consent to the angel Gabriel to become the mother of God and became pregnant with Jesus.  Now, after a long trek on foot to visit Elizabeth, she is plainly breathless with excitement.  The idea of becoming the mother of God had not been on her radar screen.  God is great because He chose her, a young, lowly servant.  Jesus was expected to be born into richness and perhaps royalty.  Mary hardly fit the bill.  Perhaps humility and lowliness was what God wanted for this role.  At any rate, she is excited beyond words!  She referred to God as her Savior.  Some question why she needed a savior if she was sinless according to the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Scripture.  Yes, God granted her an immaculate conception.  His act as Savior simply occurred sooner in her life than it did for the rest of us.

“From this day, all generations will call me blessed.  The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.  He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.”  (Lk 1:48-49).  Indeed, all generations have called her blessed:  Blessed Virgin, Blessed Mother, etc.  This prophecy came true.  Then, she recognized that what happened was a great thing, which indeed it was … God becoming man through her motherhood.  She also recognized that this God is also the God of all past and future generations.  He showed his mercy throughout the Old Testament and it is a pretty good prediction that his mercy will endure through all future generations.  She knew her God well.

“He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”  (Lk 1:51-53).  The conceited proud, the mighty on their thrones, and the rich … all sent away empty.  It’s simply unbelievable that he would lift up the lowly; someone who is poor … hungry much of the time, perhaps even destitute … but now filled with good things, filled with love, hope, joy, and the exhilaration at the prospect of living life as the Mother of the Redeemer!

“He has come to the help of His servant Israel, for He remembered His promise of mercy, the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” (Lk 1:54-55).  Mary recognizes this awesome gift as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, finally, after many centuries of time passed.  People may have thought that God forgot his promise of a Redeemer.  But, no, Mary is now prepared to shout out the world that He has not … He remembered his promise!

This is such an beautiful poem.  Going forward now, Mary is prepared to serve her Master as well as anyone could.  What a gift for her.  I would love to be a fly on the wall as she now returns to her life in Nazareth.  Imagine the broadest smile on her face as she begins the rest of her life knowing she and all future generations have been given the greatest gift anyone could ever hope for … the formula for eternal life.  And, yes, that means you and me.  Amen.

The photograph accompanying this post is of Mary's visit to Elizabeth.  I snapped it on the grounds of the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Impact of the Incarnation

One astounding impact that the Incarnation (God becoming man) has had on the history of the world is the fact that it split history in two.  The Incarnation divided all of history into two periods:  the time before the coming of Christ, BC, meaning "Before Christ," and the time after the coming of Christ, AD, meaning "Anno Domini," Latin for "In the Year of Our Lord."  The entire world, including Christians, Muslims Jews, atheists, Russians, Chinese, and any other group you can name uses the birth of Christ as the epoch point in time that divides history.  That is pretty mind-blowing if you ask me, given the different belief systems that  are out there and the apparent rivalries that exist between them, sometimes to the point of war.  

This division of history was one of three major impacts cited by archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in his book Life of Christ.  Archbishop Sheen was a Catholic archbishop who had a popular weekly television show back in the 1950's.  He is the foremost of all Catholic apologists.  Archbishop Sheen died in 1979 and is on track to be canonized a saint in the Catholic Church.  According to the synopsis on the back cover of the book, Life of Christ "has been hailed as the most eloquent of Sheen's writings (which are extensive) and the fruit of many years of dedication and research."

What are the other two major impacts according to Sheen?  They are 1) Jesus is the only religious leader in history who was pre-announced, whose very birth, life, and death were prophesied, and who validated those prophecies; and 2) Jesus is the only person who ever lived who came into the world specifically to die.  His death was first and His life was last.

Protestant David Limbaugh in his book Jesus on Trial:  A Lawyer Affirms the Truth of the Gospel has this to say concerning Sheen's statements:  "Imbibing these truths caused me to look at Christ and Christianity in an entirely different way; it provided a new prism through which to understand the faith, one that infused salvation history with fuller meaning and helped me to understand Scripture with greater depth."

What other religious leader was prophesied, divided history, and came to die?  None!  All other religious leaders were not predicted to exist, did not have an epoch impact on the history of all humanity, and did not die to save mankind from sins.  That should be enough to convert even the worst of sinners.  Thank you, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, for your eloquence and brilliant scholarship.

The photo accompanying this post depicts the Incarnation.  It is a painting found inside the Pantheon in Rome.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Immaculate Reception in Football

Today, December 8, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.  It is the day, we celebrate the fact that the Blessed Mother was conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, free from original sin.  This momentous event occurred around 16 B.C.  So then, you might ask, what was the immaculate reception?

The immaculate reception was a football play that occurred on December 23, 1972 A.D. in a nationally televised NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders football teams.  A few days before, I was awarded a Masters Degree in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin and now was at home in Iowa preparing to celebrate Christmas with my family on the farm.  I was completely oblivious to what occurred that day in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  You see, I was not particularly a fan of NFL football, though I did follow (and still do) college football.  How could I not, having just spent three football seasons on the campus of the Texas Longhorns, one of which was when they won the national championship (1970)?

But back to the subject.  It amazes me that a famous football play would be given a name that would, at the same time, conjure up thoughts of one of the most hallowed solemnities of Catholicism!  So what was the play?  Terry Bradshaw was the quarterback and his team, the Steelers, were losing, 7-6, in the closing seconds of the game when he threw a pass to his teammate, John Fuqua.  The ball bounced off the hands of Raiders defender Jack Tatum and, just before it would have touched the ground, Steelers fullback Franco Harris grabbed it and ran for a game-winning touchdown.  Steelers win, 13-7.  I suppose you had to actually see it to appreciate it, because it wasn't so immaculate.  In fact, it was a mistake.  Harris was not the intended receiver.  Besides, that kind of reception is not that uncommon.  But this one, for some reason was considered immaculate.

But now, what of the Immaculate Conception?  Well, it was no mistake.  Mary was selected by God to become the mother of the Redeemer before she was conceived.  She was the only human being besides Jesus Himself, who was conceived free from sin.  She remained "full of grace (Luke 1:26-38) throughout her life.  So her conception was truly immaculate.  Her "team" went on to give birth to the Savior of the human race, a singular event, and we are all feeling the effects 2000 years later and will continue to do so right up to the end of time.  Now if you are thinking that this dogma is not truly scriptural, you are correct.  However, Pope Pius IX, in 1854, declared it to be true, and since it is a matter of faith and morals, it is held to be true because of the pope's infallibility in these matters.  Besides, it was affirmed by the Blessed Mother herself twice since during the famous apparitions to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France, in 1858, and to St. Catherine Laboure in Paris, France, in 1830.

Along with these thoughts, I'm thinking of another "reception" that occurred just this past Saturday, December 3, 2016 A.D.  Six novices of the religious communitry called the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary were formally received into this community at an event called their Reception.  It is the equivalent to a wedding for these six young women.  This occurred at the American home base for this community in Waukesha, Wisconsin.  So I congratulate them, and their formation director, my daughter, Sister Emily, and pray for a long and holy life for them in the service of Christ and His Church.  Amen.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Andy, Pete, and Jesus

Yesterday, November 30, was the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle in the Catholic Church.  There are several places in Sacred Scripture where St. Andrew (let’s call him Andy) is mentioned.  One is in the Gospel of John, Chapter 1, where Andy is identified as one of two disciples of John the Baptist.  On this occasion, John the Baptist, who is talking to the two of them, points to Jesus and says to them: “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Andy and the other disciple (who is not identified) subsequently tell Simon, whom, we are told, is Andy’s brother, that they have found the Messiah.  Upon introducing Simon to Jesus, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Cephas, which is translated “Peter.”  (See John 1: 31-42.).  So we have brothers Andy and Pete who are, now, followers of Jesus. 
Andy is also mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew, Chapter 4, and Mark, Chapter 1, again identified as Simon’s brother in each case.  This time, both are recognized as fishermen.  Jesus happens by just as they are casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee to catch fish when Our Lord says to Andy and Pete “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men,” after which they drop everything and follow Him.  (See Matt 4:18-20.).  Matthew then mentions that Simon’s name has been changed to “Peter.”  Okay, so, yes … Andy and Pete, brothers (sons of Jonah).

I have often wondered how it could be that Andy and Pete, and then, a few steps later, John and James (Johnny and Jim?), sons of Zebedee, were so magically drawn to Jesus that they would “at once drop their nets” and “immediately” become followers of Jesus.  (See, for example, Matthew 4:20-22.).  But perhaps now I have the answer … simply, the scene in John 1 occurred before the one in Matthew 4!  So perhaps they were already familiar with the teachings of Jesus and just needed a little nudge.  Luke’s version of this is further reinforcement, although Andy’s name is not mentioned.  (See Luke 5:1-11.).  Here, Jesus works a miracle for Pete such that Pete, after a day of futility (i.e., no fish caught) on his boat, catches so many fish that his net is breaking.  He was awestruck. 

If this wasn’t enough for the two of them, there is a third scene in which Jesus works another miracle, this time curing Pete’s mother-in-law of a fever in the presence of both Andy and Pete.  (See, for example, Mark 1:29-31.). The chronology of these things, especially given the different versions given by the evangelists, is unclear.  But I think it can be said, without doubt, that once all of these things occurred, Andy and Pete were solidly in line behind Jesus, following him and experiencing many more miracles.  That is very clear after Jesus tells them that he will give them his flesh to eat and his blood to drink.  Jesus told the crowd that this will result in the reward of eternal life and that they will be raised up on the last day.  The promise of eternal life was not enough for many of his disciples at this point, and they returned to their former way of life.  But not Pete, Andy and the rest.  Pete stated what they all were thinking:  “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”  (See John 6:60-69.).

Andy is numbered among the twelve apostles later when the evangelists list their names (See, for example, Luke 6:12-16.).  He is also mentioned at the time of the multiplication of loaves and fish, informing Jesus of the presence of the boy with the five barley loaves and two fish that were subsequently multiplied.  So let us all rejoice in the life of St. Andy … uh … St. Andrew, and the gift of all the apostles who stuck with Jesus in spite of the suggestion that they will eat his flesh and drink his blood some day.  Today, of course, we rejoice because we can partake of this wonderful, one-of-a kind gift every day of our life in the celebration of the Eucharist at Mass.  Amen

The photograph accompanying this post was taken on my recent pilgrimage to Italy.  It depicts the Last Supper with Jesus and the apostles (and Judas heading out the door).  Too bad I don't know which one is Andy!  I found it hanging on the wall in a chapel on the grounds of Basilica of St Francis in Assisi.