Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Re-unification of Christianity

Over the past several years, I’ve been reading a lot about Protestantism and Catholicism, what separates us, and what we have in common.  Most recently, I read the new book by Peter Kreeft, titled Catholics and Protestants:  What Can We Learn from Each Other.  And so, today I’m thinking about what it might take to re-unify so that we may fully become what Christ intended …. one fold and one shepherd.  Though there are many more, I’ve come up with what I consider the five most troublesome doctrines, what Catholics believe and what mainline Protestants believe.  To my Protestant readers – if you find anything to be in error, please leave a comment.  To my Catholic readers, especially priests – please do the same!  I realize that there are many more sticking points, but I believe the following may be the most serious.

1)  The doctrine of Faith Alone, or Sola Fide.  Protestants believe that, to be saved, all it takes is for us to declare our faith in God and our faith in Jesus Christ.  As soon as we do so, we are saved and this cannot be reversed.  Catholics believe that salvation depends on what truly in one’s heart.  As such, much more is needed, such as good works and the sacraments, and we won’t know whether we are saved until Judgement Day.

2)  The doctrine of Scripture Alone, Sola Scriptura.  Protestants believe that Sacred Scripture is the sole authority as far as what the revealed truths are and what is to be believed.  Catholics believe that Sacred Tradition, whether recorded (Sacred Scripture) or not, contains the full truth.  There is also the issue of correct interpretation of Sacred Scripture.  Protestants believe that interpretation is up to the individual, whereas Catholics caution that accurate interpretation is important and therefore the individual should read a Catholic version of the Bible alongside a Catholic commentary, perhaps in consultation with a Catholic priest.

3)  The question of apostolic succession.  Protestants believe that the Church that Jesus founded became corrupt sometime after the death of the last apostle and did not get back on track until the sixteenth century.  Catholics believe that the Church that Jesus founded is the Catholic Church and that Pope and the bishops constitute an unbroken line of succession from the earliest days.  Catholics believe that these successors have met every heresy and obstacle that has arisen via various church councils, such as the Council of Nicaea and the second Vatican Council among many others, with the same authority as the apostles before them.

4)  Papal authority.  Protestants dispute the Catholic claim that the Pope, as the successor of St. Peter, has ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals.  They say that he (the pope) is just a man subject to human error and weakness and that the real authority is Sacred Scripture (see #2 above).  Catholics believe that one of the promises that Christ made to his Church is that he (Christ) will be with us “until the end of the age.”  Because of this, they believe that when the pope issues a statement in regard to faith and morals that he does indeed have the authority in these matters.

5)  The Real Presence in the Eucharist.  Protestants believe that Jesus was only speaking metaphorically at the Last Supper when he said “This is my body … this is my blood … do this in memory of me,” and in John, Chapter 6, when he first spoke of this.  Catholics believe that he instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist when he said these words and that his body and his blood are truly present in these consecrated elements under the appearance of bread and wine. 

The disagreements on these points appear to be insurmountable, almost like the points debated by the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S Congress!  In fact, some Protestant leaders have said that Catholics are not Christian.  And Catholics say that they have the fullness of the truth.  Well, I would like to propose a compromise.  Imagine this for a moment if you can.  The two factions come together and form a new religion, if you will, the Re-Unified Church of Jesus Christ, or, simply, Christianity.  Leaders of both factions hold a “council” and debate what can be agreed to 100% and what can never be agreed to.  Perhaps such a council can be held annually.  Then, allow the factions to go their way in these matters but promising mutual respect at the same time, while each being a part of this new re-unified church.  It would be a miracle, I know, if they were ever to agree on all the issues.  But let’s give ourselves time.  It’s been exactly 500 years since Martin Luther’s theses.  Maybe slowly, over the centuries, we will draw closer together and in the year 2517, we will jump the final hurdle and be fully unified.  I believe that with prayer and confidence in the will of God, this indeed is possible.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Intense and Passionate Love

Today, I’m thinking about Jesus’ answer to the question “Which is the first of all the commandments?” (See Matt 22:36 and Mark 12:28).  Remembering Moses’ statement to the Jews after returning from the mountain where he received the Ten Commandments (see Deut 6:5-6), Jesus responded (Mark 12:29-30):  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  My question is:  How does one know if the love one currently has for God is sufficient?  It sounds to me like this love must be quite intense and passionate.

Have you ever experienced love for another human being?  Say, your spouse?  Your girlfriend?  Your boyfriend?  Your mother?  Your father?  Son or daughter?  Did you love him/her with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength?  If so, how did this affect your behavior toward this person?  What does it really mean to you?  My answer would be that I would want to spend time with this person; that I would want to please this person; that I would want to tell him/her that I love them (and really mean it); and that I would want to fulfill every want and need that this person has;  and so on and so forth.

Now, imagine having this same love for God.  What would it mean?  Spending time with Him?  Yes!  Making every effort to please Him?  Yes!  Telling Him often that you love him?  Yes!  Doing things (good works) that would fulfill your neighbor's every want and need?  Yes!  And so on and so forth?  Yes, yes, and yes!

Perhaps you feel that showing your love by attending church services once a week would accomplish all of the above.  Someone in my parish recently wrote a piece in the parish bulletin in which she essentially said that very thing … she loves God so much that she attends Mass every Sunday.  It made me chuckle a little.  The Church says that this is the absolute minimum that is required for adoring and loving God and it is a mortal sin if you don't!  My interpretation of “all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and being intense and passionate about your love means it has to be much, much more.  Attending weekday Masses would be a great start.  Start with one extra day each week, say, on Wednesdays, and see what happens.  Praying a daily rosary would be a great start.  Again, start with one day a week.  Reading and studying Sacred Scripture daily would be a great start.  Making regular holy hours in church in front of the Blessed Sacrament would be a great start.  And on and on!

I have tried all of the above and I feel my love for God has grown immeasurably.  Try one or more of these.  I think you will feel much better about yourself because you are demonstrating your passion and intensity about your love for your Creator.  And your love will grow!  Trust me.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Overcoming Distractions During Mass

Today, I’m thinking about how a faithful Catholic often finds himself or herself being distracted during Holy Mass.  I feel I am eminently qualified to write on this topic because happens to me and nothing makes one better qualified to write about something than personal experience.  Lately, I have met this seemingly disgraceful pattern of behavior with some original prayers.  I would like to share them with you.

The first one occurs during the penitential rite, the prayer the congregation prays as a group at the beginning of the Mass.  Its purpose is to “call to mind our sins” in preparation for this most solemn celebration so that we can tell the Lord “I’m sorry” and beg forgiveness before proceeding.  Here is the prayer:  “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what if have done and what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask the blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”  Notice the appeal “to pray to you, my brothers and sisters.”  In other words, everyone present is appealing to everyone else present to pray for them.  In this case, I combat distractions by silently uttering a prayer for all present and ask the Lord to forgive their sins, which is, after all, what they are asking me to do.

The second one occurs during the consecration – the point at Mass at which the celebrant (the priest) speaks the words of Jesus at the Last Supper which transubstantiates the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  This is the most solemn moment at Mass and deserves my undivided attention, i.e., no distractions!  And so, after the celebrant consecrates the bread with those sacred words and during the brief moment of silence that follows, I silently articulate this prayer:  “The body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ are present on this altar right here, right now.”  And then, after the consecration of the wine, I say this:  “The blood of Christ, shed at Calvary, is present in this chalice on this altar right here, right now.  These prayers help immensely to focus on the most sacred mysteries that just occurred.

The third that I would like to share occurs when I receive the Lord in Holy Communion.  In order to concentrate fully on what is happening, I repeat, over and over, my favorite Scripture passage, John 6:54:  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  I do that over and over again until I am confident that have paid close attention to each and every thought and word expressed in this passage. 

So if you find your mind wondering during Mass, try my prayers, or make up your own.  I can attest that it draws you closer to the Lord during this most holy and awesome occasion, the Holy Mass.  

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"Progressive" Tendencies

One thing that is possible with Facebook is that you can view a friend’s personal page and see what his or her particular belief system is about.  After viewing a few posts of one of my friends recently, I visited his personal page and noticed he described his religious beliefs as “progressive Christianity bordering on agnosticism.”  My reaction was that if anything can be described as oxymoronic, this was it.  It got me thinking about a whole range of things, way more than I would allow myself to write about in this short space.

I’ve been noticing that “progressive” is a word that liberal-minded people seem to have adopted to describe their beliefs, as if to say that their beliefs are characterized as “progress” or “improvement.”  And I think I understand the concept of “progressive Christianity.”  There are plenty of folks who decide to no longer adhere to traditional and conventional Christian attitudes and sort of branch out on their own in the name of progress and improvement.  This is true in Catholicism as well as, I assume, in other Christian religions.  I am mostly at odds with the direction they take, but I know that such “progressive” tendencies are out there.  Such people are “left-leaning” and “liberal” in their politics as well.  We tend to get along, though I find myself cringing when something comes up with which I disagree.

To link this progressive Christianity to agnosticism, however, makes no sense at all.  Agnosticism is the belief that the human mind cannot know whether there is a God, or anything, beyond material phenomena.  To be Christian, I would assume, accepts the fact that God exists and that God has manifested himself in the person of Jesus Christ.  You see the dilemma that presents itself here.  Christianity cannot "border on" agnosticism

I have great concern over this “progressive” culture that we have around us.  God certainly exists.  I just cannot buy into the idea that material phenomena just came into existence on its own.  The beauty and complexity is far too great.  One could cite the beauty and complexity of the cosmos; one could cite the beauty and complexity of the human body, or the human mind; one could cite the beauty and complexity of nature; one could cite the beauty and complexity of certain gifts that we have in order for us to have made such marvelous material progress over the centuries.  I’m thinking here of electricity as a perfect example.  On and on.

As a Catholic, I believe that God has revealed himself to us through the Judeo-Christian history book we call Sacred Scripture.  It just makes so much sense.  It is because of that I have these concerns that I have.  We must live our lives based on God’s personally delivered messages, or we are doomed.  That is what it is all about.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Until the End of the Age

The celebrations occurring within the Catholic Church this time of year are those commemorating the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven and Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles in the upper room in Jerusalem.  Accounts of the Ascension (see the photograph accompanying this post) are presented in Chapter 24 of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:50-51) and in Chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:6-10).  Before this, as recorded at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, he told them “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  (Mat 28:20).  The account of Pentecost is presented in Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1-4).  This coming of the Holy Spirit had been prophesied in the Old Testament and also promised by Jesus himself, when he said this:  “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name – he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”  (John 14:26).  It seems pretty clear that the Church Jesus founded is promised to have the full support and guidance of the Holy Spirit in all things until the end of time.

We all know that the Church has faced many challenges in its history.  One that comes to mind is the Arian heresy.  In the fourth century, a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, by the name of Arius began to teach that Jesus was not God, that he did not have a divine nature but only a human nature.  This, of course, went against the teaching of the Church that says that Jesus had both natures.  It was a serious challenge to the Church because Arianism began to have many followers, including bishops, and threatened to divide the Church.  In the year 325, the Council of Nicaea was convened to solve the controversy.  This council was the first of many “ecumenical” councils called to address controversies and/or clarify Church teachings.  The Arian issue was not fully settled until the Council of Constantinople met in the year 381.  But it WAS settled and traditional Church teaching was upheld.  Was this not the work of the Holy Spirit?

Another challenge that comes to mind is the Protestant Reformation.  The Protestant Reformation began early in the sixteenth century when a German priest, Martin Luther, posted his “95 Theses” on the door of a Catholic Church in 1517 and a real and serious splintering of the Church occurred.  The reformers claimed that the Church Jesus founded fell into corruption and began teaching many errors and falsehoods soon after the last apostle died back in the second century!  So for about 1300 years, in the view of the reformers, the Church was apparently no longer guided by the Holy Spirit and Jesus had reneged on his promise that he would be with us “to the end of the age.”  While Christianity was most certainly fragmented as a result, one Church, one religion, the Catholic Church, did not buy into this new teaching and today still claims to be continuing as the Church founded by Jesus, complete with apostolic succession, true guidance of the Holy Spirit, and true adherence to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  There has been no Church council that has been able to solve this controversy and so today, in the twenty-first century, Christianity remains fragmented – a very sad state of affairs.

So today I pray that this fragmentation will soon come to an end.  We must believe that, with God’s help, anything is possible.  On Judgement Day, all will come to know the truth.  I pray that the narrow gate that Jesus refers to in Mat 7:13 will become wider and soon.  Amen.