Saturday, January 19, 2019

VICARIUS

A non-Catholic asked me recently a very pointed question about Pope Francis. It was not actually critical of him, but was asking why he is not a better example of what the Catholic Church teaches. It was actually very profound for someone who is not trained in Catholic theology. I gave a simple answer that points out the problems with treating the Pope as a celebrity, and also the fact that the Pope in Catholic theology is never viewed as perfect in holiness.

This also reminded me of the medieval acronym for "Vicarius" (the word in the Pope's title of "Vicarius Christi" which means "representative of Christ"). "Vir Inutilis Carens Auctoritate Rare Intelligentiae Umbra Superioris" shows up somewhere as a unique example of how they often thought of the Popes. The Latin phrase means essentially: “A useless man, lacking authority, rarely of intelligence, the shadow of his superior” (thanks Fr. Z). Yet, the Church still stands even when led by "useless men" (and that has happened more than once).

It does not appear in medieval times that there were people leaving the Church in droves when they had bad Popes. Rather, they just hunkered down and focused on what really matters -- faith in Christ Himself. One of the bad effects of having two very likeable Popes in a row (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) is that we expect to be able to like the current Pope. No such promise exists, and we should be careful not to presume that if we do not like him that he is automatically out to destroy us. Maybe he is out to destroy us, but whether or not that is true, we are still supposed to maintain our hope and faith in our Savior, not His "Vicarius".

Is it OK to dislike Pope Francis? Well, I would want to be cautious about that. We each must examine our hearts to determine if our dislike is genuinely an outgrowth of our love for God and all the things of God, or if we are just being cranky and finding reasons to gripe about every bad thing that occurs. In fact, if you spend some time reading 1 and 2  Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles in the Old Testament, you will see that God often gives us bad leaders precisely because He wants to test us to see if we will respond with faith in Him or throw up our hands in despair (and those who did the latter, were dealt with by the Lord accordingly). We each need to examine our hearts to determine whether we are passing this test that God is putting us in.

Do we have a good Vicarius or a bad Vicarius? I have spoken my opinion about this previously, but that is not really the issue. What matters is that we trust God to protect us from idolizing a good Vicarius, as well as from the attacks of a bad Vicarius (which is certainly possible). What would the latter be like? God never promises that we will not have to go through serious persecution (and He actually says if we are faithful, we will have to!). Ready yourself now. Husbands, help your families to be ready. Priests, help your parishioners to be ready. Let all of us do what is needed to stand firm for the future.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Two Confessional Errors

Some of you may be old enough to remember those commercials back in the 1980's where there was an announcer who spoke so fast you almost could not understand him. It was not a blur of words, because he actually voiced all the letters in each word he said, but it was like listening to something on fast forward. I think that I heard the confession of one of his grandchildren earlier this week. I got the impression that the individual wanted to get the confession over as soon as possible and had practiced saying the whole thing in under a minute.

The only thing that is actually worse than those "lightning confessions" is when someone wants to turn their confession into a counseling session. I once heard a confession where the actual confessed sins would have taken about 60 seconds to state, but the penitent was in the confessional for 30 minutes (yes, I tried, politely, to end it but it is not as easy as it sounds)! Although I do not mind giving counsel to a sinner who is repenting and wanting guidance about how to find holiness, it is not supposed to occur during the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

These are two errors that occur in Confession which are vital for all Catholics to avoid. Let us consider the first. It is true that no one really likes having to say those sins out loud (that is why the sacrament works -- it forces us to deal with our sins and not ignore them!). Yet, if we approach the Sacrament with the intention of speeding through it as fast as possible it is doubtful that we will be paying proper attention to what is going on, and thus not receive the fullness of the grace that is available.

Sometimes a priest can tell that a "penitent" is not there because he wants to be and that his heart is not really into it. The most obvious sign of this problem is when the penitent says the act of contrition so fast that he garbles up the words and ends up saying something ridiculous ("and I test all my sins cause I dread the lost in Heaven"!). If a person is nervous about going into confession, to rush through it is not going to make it easier. To a certain degree one's confession should never be "enjoyable" because we are doing spiritual surgery and sin never leaves happily. Slow down, and allow the grace to come to you (and parents, make sure you help your children with this!).

The other error is even more of a problem though. There are those who do not understand what the Sacrament of Confession is actually about. One of the things that has led to this error (and I pray that it will eventually be banished) is the "face-to-face" chair in the confessional. Many penitents come and sit in the chair and get this idea that it has now become a chat session. "Let's talk about my sins and you can help me figure out how to stop them". We have become a psychologized culture that genuinely believes that psychology has more answers than theology so it is not surprising that people will bring that into the confessional as well (at least no one has a "doctor's couch" in the confessional; at least I hope not).

Furthermore, we must realize that there may be other people waiting to say their confession as well (and one does not know how many others have come into the Church since he entered the confessional). I know of someone who was saying his confession, and then noticed it was taking a while so he said, "I should finish up, but since there wasn't anyone else in line, can I ask another question?" Regardless of whether someone else is there (and like I said, we do not know), that is not the purpose of confession; get an appointment, and ask the question later.

The other thing that causes this is that in a culture that virtually worships doctors, we should not be surprised if more and more people are wanting to have their own therapist for everything. With that desire so prevalent, we should not be surprised that people want to take advantage of a free therapist! To be completely clear, I do not mind giving counsel to those in need. I regularly do quite a few hours of counseling in an average week (and not all of it in appointments). Yet, that is not the purpose of Confession. In the confessional we are supposed to confess our sins, and receive a brief advice from the priest, a penance, and then our absolution. Anything else should be reserved for the office.

In all, make sure that you really believe what God says about the Sacrament. It is for your forgiveness to be granted so that you can find holiness and move forward in the faith. Yes, sometimes you may need extra guidance and counsel, but that is not what God is granting in the Sacrament; He is granting the redemptive grace of the forgiveness that was bought by Christ. That forgiveness does not need any guidance to make it effective; it comes because of the gracious love of God. Receive it with all faith; trusting that God will do exactly what He says He will do. Go to confession!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Zombie Apocalypse?

It is quite funny how people use the reference of "zombie apocalypse" to refer to the general concept of total societal breakdown where everyone on the planet Earth is running for their lives. I have even heard people who do not like to watch zombie movies use the phrase. Maybe it is because there is a general consensus that whatever horrible events come in the future it would never be an actual zombie apocalypse so it is an easy fictional reference. I hope so.

What if, however, I was to tell you that the zombie apocalypse has already happened? In a recent trip to the grocery store, I was tempted (more than once) to check to see if someone that I was speaking to had a pulse. Some of them really did seem to be like the living dead. They were behaving mindlessly and carelessly; as though they were nothing more than re-animated corpses who thought about nothing but their own stomachs. Many people drive this way, should we be surprised that they live this way also?

People of this character are spoken of in Scripture frequently. Take for example the reference that St. Paul makes about those who are "enemies" of Christ: "Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things" (Philippians 2:19). Although not actual cannibals (as far as I can tell) some of these modern "zombies" seem to be bent on hurting others as though that were the only way for them to survive. They often mindlessly lash out in anger as though the anger and hatred of others is in itself enjoyable.

We have become an angry society (what else should we expect when we reject the peace of Christ and seek the peace of personal self-satisfaction?). What makes it worse is that a large number of people are acting like anger is a goal to achieve rather than an evil to avoid. The manner in which many people react to the slightest mishap tells us that they are actually looking for something to be angry at. The anger that we see from Jesus in the gospels is a calculated and intentionally planned expression. People had sinned and his anger was not over a personal offense, but an emotional and yet self-controlled response that says "God has been offended, and we cannot sit by and ignore it". That is not what we are seeing in people's anger these days.

Anger and hatred seem to have become (in the minds of many today) a justifiable state to live in on a regular basis. I know someone who works in construction and he has told me stories of the attitude of most of his fellow employees. These men appear to spend their lives in a constant state of anger and discontent with their lives. Nothing makes them happy, and so they seem to want to make sure that no one else is actually happy either.

What is most common in people is a mindless response (zombie-like) to the world around. They (as though their spirit is dead) do not think through their actions or words; they are behaving like brute animals who act only on instinct. This brutality is not new. Many times in history this is exactly what happens when people reject God. St. Paul gives a vivid description of people who have fallen into this frame of mind and it sounds like much of our modern world:
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them (Romans 1:28-32).
There is an older movie that is a satire of zombie movies; it is called "Shaun of the Dead" (it is not for everyone!). It was done as a comedy and it has a subtle underlying "jab" that it gives on society. At the beginning, there is running display of people in a town who are behaving like mindless automatons (i.e. like zombies). Then after the zombie apocalypse happens, they mostly just continue the same deadened behavior. The point is, we are already zombies, so the zombie apocalypse would merely be a continuation of the trend. There really is some truth to this, but my point in this post takes it one step further; we are not just mindless and unthinking, we have become a people who are mindless and vicious.

Is this what we have become? Are we merely a culture of brutes and beasts who behave no better than a pack of wild dogs? God tells the prophet Ezekiel that when people refuse His commandments and instead choose false idols as their gods, that He would deliver them "into the hands of brutal men" (Ezek 21:31). This has truly happened to us. This is why those of us who seek faithfulness to the Lord need to concentrate our efforts at being even more holy than before. We need to stand out as mindful, caring, and loving people, who are willing to speak the truth because we care. We need to promote the fullness of godly life in a culture of death. We need to show the world the truth of Christ.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Basic Tutorial for Communion on the Tongue

Communion on the tongue; it frightens many Catholics, and makes others a bit nervous. Most of those who practice it regularly know how it works and are likely doing fine, but if they have never received any specific instruction, then there is a potential of room for improvement. Certainly, anyone who receives communion on the tongue is likely more concerned than most with the need to show reverence to the Sacramental Christ, so they will wish to be sure that they are doing so in the best manner possible. So then, with no particular person or error in mind, here is a basic tutorial for how to receive communion on the tongue. You may have already read something in this regard, but please consider the points that are made here.

There are three things that you need to be attentive to: the "shape" of your tongue and mouth, the position of your head, and how much you move. First, there are a few mistakes that new-comers make, and positioning the tongue and mouth are usually involved. I want everyone to think "basketball hoop" and not "coin slot". Holding your mouth open only a small amount means that the priest is needing to "insert" the host between your teeth, rather than to place it on the tongue (which is always preferable). If the mouth is only open a small amount, then your tongue will be "hiding" inside and is not easily reachable by the priest (who really does not want to touch your tongue, lips, or teeth, any more than you want him to).

Additionally, your tongue should be laid out flat on your lower lip. A "flat" tongue is an easier space for the priest to place the host. There are some who stick their tongue out and "point" the tip of it, thinking that this will make it easier, but it actually has the opposite result. A tongue with a "rounded" tip, laying flat on the lower lip acts like a "landing pad", whereas a stiffened tongue with a pointed tip acts like a "landing strip". The difference is that the host sits and remains more easily on the wide and flat tongue than it does on the thin pointed tongue. Therefore, there are far more occurrences of the host falling off the pointed tongue than of the flattened tongue. The only time I ever had a host fall off of a wide flat tongue was when the person had a very dry mouth and pulled his tongue in quickly, thus forcing the host to fall off.

Second, we have to consider the position of the communicant's head. A head that is leaning forward causes the tongue (even if laying flat and wide on the lower lip) to be more in a vertical position than horizontal. Therefore, if the tongue is in the least bit dry, the Sacrament is likely to fall off. This means that it is best to hold the head tilted back just a bit so that your tongue is closer to a horizontal position. You, obviously, do not want to tilt your head so much that the priest has to "reach over" your chin to serve the host, but just enough so that your eyes are about at a 45 degree angle to the priest (as though looking toward his eyes when he says "the body of Christ").

Finally, there is the factor of the movement of the head. Even if the above two points are followed, but a person moves his head (either wobbling or "jutting" it forward towards the host) then the host can still be knocked to the ground because the priest is having to "hit a moving target" (not fun--trust me). Please work to keep your head stationary, and let the priest bring the host to you. Certainly, there are some older folks who have health issues that make them shake, but the priest can usually tell that is the case and he can deal with it. If he presumes that you do not have any such health issues then he will also assume that you are going to stay in one place.

The only factor that can influence the head movement is if an altar boy is not holding the hand-paten directly under your chin. Technically, even with all the above "rules" followed, accidents can still happen (we do live in a fallen world). So the hand-paten is the "catch all" (pun intended) to make sure that the host does not touch the ground. Therefore, if the hand-paten is not directly under your chin, do not open your mouth until you see it moving in that direction. I once had someone move his head at the last second to get his chin over the paten, and that caused me to "bump" the host on his tongue, and it bounced right back out of his mouth.

With all this said, I must make it clear that these are merely suggestions gleaned from years of serving communion on the tongue. There may be other suggestions that a different priest may make, but these seem to work the best for me. Consider these helpful points, and--to make it easier for you--practice beforehand; you can do so in a mirror at home, but it is not best to wait until you get to the rail and try to remember all that was said here (and parents, help your children to prepare!). This way you will be ready to receive Christ in the most reverent and godly manner.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Catechism(s) on Husbands and Wives

I am currently preparing an article for the next edition of the Ordinariate Observer (the official magazine of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter). This time I will be discussing the role of the Catholic husband and father. I first went to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993) to get some useful quotes. I was not surprised, but definitely disappointed. Although it says much about spouses and marriage, it gives no specific references to the role and duties of a husband or father (or of a wife or mother, either). Yes, it does talk about the responsibilities of spouses to each other, but no difference is made between the husband and wife.

If I were a young man preparing for marriage and wanting to know what my role as a future husband and father was, I would be left with virtually nothing except a few generic statements that apply to both husband and wife. Why is this so? Why did the Church spend so much time defining matrimony and the significance of spousal relations and chastity, without giving anything of any usefulness to the specific differences between men and women (which it does affirm the existence of in other places; e.g. CCC 372) in the marriage covenant? There is a long list of the offenses to marriage and the various types of sexual sins, but that only refers to what not to do in marriage.

Furthermore, the references to the role of husband and wife as spouses is not much different than the role of one Catholic to another: be good to each other, forgive one another, and pray for each other (yes, I am simplifying and summarizing, but not much). Thankfully, the new Catechism does refer to the importance of raising children, but it consistently says "parents..." as though there is no distinction between how fathers and mothers are to fulfill their roles. I am not even speaking about the duties in the home (though the Trent Catechism was very specific in this way!), but merely the fact that God made them "male and female" and not some androgynous duo with different shapes. Yes, the devil does want us to believe that is the case, but we are not supposed to give in to him.

Sometimes we teach volumes by what we do not say just as much as by what we do say. I have had quite a few Catholics say that they do not accept the "old teaching" that husbands are the head of the home. Where did that come from? I suspect that it was taught to them in their home as they were growing up, but it also had to be supported by the clergy. Although I cannot get into the minds or motivations of those who wrote the modern Catechism, the choice to leave out this important matter is not a small thing. Few today will read the Trent Catechism (though I wish they would!), and that means that most Catholics who look to the Catechism are left with a very vague (and unhelpful) explanation of what the roles in marriage are.

I do not want to believe that it was done for egalitarian purposes. I will give them the benefit of the doubt that the choice was because the Catechism of the Council of Trent had already done such a stunning job that Rome felt that nothing else needed to be said. Either way, even a passing reference to Trent would have been helpful (it is cited in other places). I will leave aside criticisms and critiques and merely say this: much of our faith has been watered down in many places. Even some clergy have caused grave confusion about what the Church teaches. Let us not allow our families (the "domestic church") to be infected with this same confusion; to do so is to let our children be catechized by the world.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Lousy Excuses

What is the technical and theological definition of the term "Holy Day of Obligation"? I have searched far and wide and read through many sources to come up with the most accurate and clear definition, and I would like to give it to you here, right now.
"Lousy excuses don't cut it"
Actually, here is the rule in Canon Law:
On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to assist at Mass. They are also to abstain from such work or business that would inhibit the worship to be given to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, or the due relaxation of mind and body (1247).
The Catechism also says that we can only be excused "for a serious reason", and thus we have my original (very tongue in cheek) definition. "Serious reason" is not specifically defined, and in many instances that is left up to the individual. Just how sick a person really is, is not subject to the determination of others -- you know how sick you really are and how bad you really feel (and you know that God knows as well!). "I have a hangnail that is really bothering me" or "I'm having a bad hair day" are what we would categorize as a "lousy excuse".

We always tend to be too easy on ourselves when we make determinations about things like this. One general rule that people like to use (though it too can be abused) is "would you go to work?" If not, then you probably should not go to Mass. It would be helpful though if I gave a few examples of some things that are really "lousy excuses" (otherwise known as "justifying your sinful choice").
1) I can't drive myself and don't want to bother anyone else (most priests would be happy to find someone to come get you)
2) I'm not in the mood (all the more reason to grow in sanctification)
3) I have company, and they are not Catholic (the testimony of your commitment to your faith may be the very thing they need to be told about -- before they arrive!)
4) I forgot it was a Day of Obligation (there are a million resources to plan ahead for Holy Days and many people even ask for time off months in advance to make sure they can attend--if you care about it, you will do the work to make it possible!)
We must also add to this list the "long term" excuses. Except for those in "mercy vocations" (doctors, nurses, police, firemen, etc.) where they help others who are in genuine immediate need, there is no job that can be considered a justifiable excuse for missing Mass (regardless of how much more money you can make). If someone has a job in which he believes it is necessary to work and miss Mass (Sundays, or Holy Days of Obligation), then he should check with his priest about it (before missing Mass). The priest may be able to give him a dispensation (and transfer the obligation to another day of the week), but that is up to the wisdom of the priest, not the individual's self-determination (ever!).

We all know why this subject is so sensitive to us in these modern days. Every one of us struggles with being told what to do, and extra "days of obligation" can seem like a silly rule (and terribly inconvenient in our self-focused busy lives). We often get a bit "snarky" when the Church gives commands that require certain distinct behaviors (do not eat meat, give money to the Church, etc.). Therefore, the discipline involved in obeying (especially when we struggle with the command) is there precisely for our own good. The Church does have the authority to tell us what to do in many and various areas of our lives, and being present at the amazing event of the sacrifice of the Holy Mass is not a "duty" as much as a "privilege".

How else can I say this other than to be direct and clear? Yes, in case anyone missed it: it is a grave sin to choose to miss Mass by our own action. Although there are legitimate reasons to be absent from a required Mass, we cannot take God's generosity for granted. If we really knew what was going on in the Mass (that remarkable miracle that occurs when Jesus comes to be physically present with us in the Eucharist), we would never ask whether it is "required", we would be seeking the next wonderful opportunity to attend!

What about those situations where someone does not actually miss Mass, but they are not genuinely present for the entire celebration? If you intentionally show up late (for whatever reason) you have not fulfilled your obligation. Yes, things happen (flat tires, unruly children, etc.), but those are out of our control; if you are in control of the decision, you are accountable. Also, if you intentionally leave early (i.e. before the final blessing) you are also not fulfilling your obligation. "Attend Mass" does not mean "attend until you no longer want to be there" but "attend all of it"! Once again, if we understand what the Mass is, we would want it to last longer, and not seek to find ways to avoid it.

Looking out at the pews at a particular Holy Day of Obligation last year, I prayed that those who were not present were attending somewhere else that day. I do not know their situation, but I know that priests all over say that attendance is rarely the same on Holy Days of Obligation as it is even on an average Sunday. Commitment to the Mass equals commitment to our Lord. If you do not want to be with Jesus in the Mass, how can you say you love Him? What is your commitment to the Mass itself? Do you struggle with the requirement? Ask the Lord to change your heart; seek to understand Christ better; and commit yourself to following Him--especially when you are not in the mood to do so!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Somewhat Joyful (!)

I like to keep my daily schedule written down in a little book that I keep with me, and so I abbreviate things to make sure that I have room for all of it. I formed the habit, years ago, of writing "funeral" as "fnrl", because the natural abbreviation of the first few letters "fun" is not the way that I (or anyone with a godly understanding of death) wants to think of a funeral; they are not fun. That said, however, someone made a comment to me today that really caught my attention.

A few hours ago, I had just finished a funeral Mass for a dear parishioner that I knew a bit better than most. He and I hit it off when we first met, and although a priest should be careful never to be "too close" to his parishioners (for fear of looking like he is showing favoritism), he and I had a connection. I got to know he and his wife over the last couple years while he struggled with cancer, and today I helped her to say goodbye to him until they meet again in eternity. After the funeral, one of those in attendance said to me, "that was the first catholic funeral I've ever been to, and it was not as depressing as I had thought, it was actually somewhat joyful".

I am sure that he would not have said it was "fun" (as the avoided abbreviation may give the impression of), but he did say it was "joyful". Now, I should be perfectly clear, when I say a funeral Mass there is nothing about it that is "playful" or "fun" (as I have heard some priests attempt to do in order to encourage the people [shame on you my brothers!]). I do the Mass as reverently as I am able (though in the Novus Ordo that can be difficult). So that is not what he meant by saying it was "somewhat joyful".

As we spoke about it briefly, it was clear to me that what he found joyful was what a funeral should be: it was encouraging. A funeral is not (and absolutely never should be) a "celebration of life" but a recognition of death. If we attempt to ignore that the person is dead, then all we are doing is denying reality and not allowing people to mourn properly. When, however, we accept that the person has passed on from this life and keep that in the context of Christ (Who is always supposed to be the focus of every Mass--this is why a eulogy is forbidden in a Catholic funeral) only then are we able to be encouraged the way that God would have us to be.

If our focus is Christ (as it should be in every Mass), then we can be encouraged when someone has passed. It is natural, and proper, for us to mourn and grieve at the death of a loved one. Yet, how do we grieve? The Scriptures tell us "not to grieve as others do who have no hope". That is the point of a funeral, is it not? To grieve, but do so with hope! The only way that we will have hope is if we focus on Christ and His grace. If we focus on the deceased, then we will lose hope, because it is so easy to forget the love of our Savior when He is left out of things. No, we do not ignore the deceased in a funeral (of course not), but only in Christ can we remember them rightly.

Yes, it was truly sad; especially at Christmas time. Yet we can find hope in the darkest of life's trials; if we seek it in our Lord and Savior. We can find such hope and encouragement that people who have never been to a Catholic funeral before can say "that was somewhat joyful". Joyful it was, not because we are without our dear friend, but "joyful" because we know He Whom we are entrusting his soul to.