The ethics of covid-19 vaccines

June 13, 2021

In recent weeks, I have encountered scores of people who are confused about Church teaching with regard to the morality of taking COVID-19 vaccines. This confusion comes not really because they have not heard that Pope Francis, two Vatican organs, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have all said that it is morally permissible to receive them. It is mainly because several prominent figures have undermined that teaching by publicly asserting that getting vaccinated is immoral. In so doing, they have essentially said that the Church’s well-established principles on cooperation in evil are not valid in the case of vaccines tainted in any way by the use of cell lines derived from abortions and that St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have all been in error with regard to their moral analysis of such vaccines. Such a claim, especially from figures with a reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy, is scandalous. Beyond obfuscating the Church’s position with regard to COVID vaccines, it renders papal judgments and formal Vatican declarations nothing more than erroneous opinions, something that cannot but undermine the teaching authority of the Church.

What are the principles of the Church with regard to receiving vaccines that in their development (J&J), production (J&J), or testing (J&J, Pfizer and Moderna) have involved cell lines derived from aborted fetuses? Since the Church emphatically condemns abortion, is it possible to benefit in any way from products derived from such an abortion, in these cases, one committed about fifty years ago?

This is the classic situation of cooperation in evil. The Church teaches that is always sinful to approve of a sin committed by another, which is called formal cooperation. More complicated is “material cooperation,” when one cooperates only in the bad action of the other without approving of the evil. Such cooperation can be morally permissible when the action is good or indifferent in itself and when there is a reason for doing it that is both morally good and proportioned to the seriousness of the other’s sin and to the closeness of the assistance provided to carrying out the sin.

Applied to the situation of taking vaccines that involve aborted cell lines, the action of taking a vaccine is in general good or at least neutral. There is a just reason: to protect one’s own or others’ health from a disease that has taken 3.3 million lives across the world. The assistance given to the original abortion by someone vaccinated today is nonexistent, since there is no evidence that doing so will promote other illicit cell lines. And the only thing that seems to be proportionate to the evil of abortion would be seeking to save innocent lives.

That is why the Church has concluded and taught that it is permissible to take the vaccines. At the same time the Church stresses that it is of course wrong to create abortion-derived cell lines and for pharmaceutical companies to use them that using vaccines benefitting from abortion-derived cell lines should be avoided when comparable alternatives with no connection to abortion, or less connection to abortion, are available and Catholics and all those concerned for the sanctity of life should protest the use of tainted cell lines and advocate for the development of vaccines with no connection to abortion.

So, the Vatican and the US Bishops have been clear that, under present circumstances, because of the seriousness of COVID-19, it is morally permissible to receive Pfizer, Moderna and the J&J vaccines, with preference given to the first two where possible, and that this does not constitute formal or material proximate cooperation in the abortions from which the cell lines involved in their development, production, or testing were derived. The Church also insists, however, on the duty to push for ethically untainted vaccines, and some are presently being developed.

What are the challenges?

Some think that the protest against tainted vaccines must be absolute. One well-respected bishop said that he could not in good conscience receive a vaccine even minimally derived from an aborted child and urged others to reject such vaccines. Our culture, he says rightly, has become habituated to the exploitation of aborted children. For that reason, he urged others with him to wait for ethically untainted vaccines in order to testify to the truth that abortion must be rejected in all its forms. Others think that abortion is so evil that the theological principle of material cooperation no longer applies, because to permit any abortion-derived vaccine would contradict the Church’s recognition of abortion as a grave moral evil. Abortion is so evil, one well-regarded bishop wrote, that any connection to an abortion, however remote, is an immoral cooperation with one of today’s greatest crimes and cannot be accepted by a Catholic with a well-formed conscience.

One cannot but give God thanks for these bishops’ profound pro-life convictions. At the same time, however, it is necessary to state, emphatically, that theirs is not Church teaching. A pro-life intention does not render every moral judgment that a person makes infallible. It does not allow one to overturn the Church’s principles with regard to cooperation in evil, which were formulated precisely to apply to situations of moral atrocities like abortion. And it does not allow one to presume a position of pro-life superiority to St. John Paul II, or Benedict XVI or Francis.

That said, while receiving a COVID vaccine is permissible, it is not a strict moral obligation. One can in conscience voluntarily refuse. Some may also need to decline vaccines because they are allergic to one of the ingredients or have a severely compromised immune system. At the same time, there is a duty to protect one’s health and to protect others, especially those who are weakest and most vulnerable. That is why the Church says that if one chooses not to be vaccinated, then out of love of neighbor and pursuit of the common good, that person must do his or her utmost to avoid becoming means for the transmission of COVID to others.

Charity is the context with which to understand Pope Francis’ words in a recent interview, “I believe that morally everyone must take the vaccine. It is the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others.” Christians are called to love one another as Christ has loved us. If the Good Shepherd laid down his life to save the lives of his sheep, Pope Francis is implying, we should be willing to take a vaccine if doing so might save the lives of one or more for whom COVID might prove lethal. So, while the decision to be vaccinated should be voluntary, the proper use of freedom should always be tied to love. Therefore, under ordinary circumstances, the case to be vaccinated against COVID-19 seems stronger than the case against.

That does not mean that governments should compel citizens to be vaccinated, since it is possible, like the bishops cited above, to have conscientious objections. But conscientious objection, which must be protected, does not make one immune from consequences of such decisions, like in the case of “local mandates” at schools, or hospitals, or certain business settings: one cannot be forced to receive the vaccine, but neither can such settings be forced to accept someone who is not vaccinated, if they determine that doing so is contrary to the common good.

In the midst of many questions surrounding COVID-19 and vaccines, the Church has worked hard to provide clear — even if sophisticated and highly nuanced — answers. It is important for Catholics who think with the Church to put in the time to listen to the authentic voices and to study Church teaching so that we may radiate true light to others at a time of confusion.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

June 6, 2021

A poor family was gathered around the dinner table for the birthday of the youngest son. After a short prayer of thanksgiving, the father said: “Son, it’s your birthday. Now make a wish, and then blow the candles.” The boy dutifully closed his eyes and then blew the candles. Then the father asked him, “Son, what was your birthday wish?” The boy said, “I wished that on my birthday next year, there will be a cake on the table so that I won’t be holding the candles.” The family was so poor that there was not even a small birthday cake on the table. But they knew that it was not what is essential in the birthday celebration. Rather, it is the gift of life that they are thankful to God for it is the family gathered together in love and harmony it is the assurance of God’s abiding presence that fills them with hope and joy. These are the things that make a birthday celebration truly meaningful, and not the cake, food, or merriment.

This Sunday we come together again to celebrate the Eucharist. It is always and essentially a thanksgiving, for that is what “Eucharist” means. The spirit of joy and gladness should be in us every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Unfortunately, there are many Catholics who do not see it that way anymore. Many have even left the Catholic Church because they found the celebrations boring and dry. They have come to Mass with lots of expectations and these have not been met, so they say. I am not saying that it is not good to have such expectations, but these are not what we came to Mass for. For instance, some are saying that the Mass does not provide enough entertainment, and so people are bored. A boy was asked why he had to keep quiet in the church. And he quickly replied, “Because there are people sleeping in church.” People want something new and spectacular every time. No wonder the most attended Masses are Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, and Christmas – there are added attractions: ashes, palms, Easter eggs, and Christmas trees! Many expect the priest to always have jokes and stories in his homily to keep the congregation wide awake. Others demand that the choir members have great voices and sing more “upbeat” music others want well-choreographed movements of the ministers, polished lectors, comfortable seats, the best lighting and sound facilities, and other amenities. Admittedly, these are all valid concerns and expectations.

Worse than these, moreover, some priests have fallen into the same trap. Instead of giving the people what God wants for them, these priests give what the people want to hear and see for fear of offending them. In effect, the Word of God is not preached faithfully and prophetically. The celebration becomes like a concert or stage play, and the real sense of God’s active presence is totally lost. Too much emphasis on the horizontal dimension – the relationship between human persons – has led to the utter neglect of the more important dimension in the liturgy, the vertical dimension – the relationship between God and man.

Unfortunately, many of us have lost sight of what is really essential in the liturgical celebration: Jesus Christ Himself. Pope Emeritus Benedict insists on this: “The Liturgy is God’s action.” The center of the liturgy is not man, but God. Therefore, no Pope, bishop, or priest can mess with the liturgy just to be accommodating and entertaining to people. Just as a cake is not that essential to a birthday celebration, so also the music, the ministers, the church facilities, and even the personality of the priest, cannot be more important than the divine and real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. We have come here to Mass, not because of the ministers, the congregation, the music, or the environment we have come here for Jesus, to encounter Him personally in the Eucharist. Knowing and believing that Jesus is truly present, we then do the best we can to make this celebration truly meaningful and joyful. That is where the other things come in: the good homily, the orderly and solemn rituals, the “heavenly” music, the splendid service of the ministers, and the like. Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “The best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist itself well celebrated.”

There is the classic saying in Catholic Theology, Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of faith. It refers to the relationship between worship and belief. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of faith: The Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition” (CCC 1124).

In other words, if we really believe that the Mass is the one and the same sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, that Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, then we will do the best we can to behave properly during Mass and to worship solemnly and appropriately. If we truly believe that the Eucharist is the sacrament of God’s love for us, then we who partake of it must also be motivated and filled with love. St. Josemaria Escrivá said, “You say the Mass is long and I add, because your love is short!”

On this celebration of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, let us renew our faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Let this renewed faith inspire and move us to always come to Church every Sunday full of joy and eagerness to encounter Jesus, and to make our Eucharistic celebrations meaningful and truly pleasing in God’s eyes. In this way, we will be duty-bound, first, to prepare ourselves properly in our physical and spiritual life second, to actively and meaningfully participate in the celebration and third, to worthily receive Jesus in Holy Communion. Then the Mass ceases to be boring and dry. It becomes for us the source and the summit of our life as Christians. The Eucharist is truly our life! Welcome Home!!

Praying for Hans Küng

May 30, 2021

When I first heard the news on April 6th that the 93 year-old Swiss theologian and author Father Hans Küng had died, I had just finished the prayers for the fifth day of the Novena of Divine Mercy. His death during the novena necessarily frames our Christian reaction. For the novena’s fifth day, Jesus had asked Saint Faustina Kowalska, and through her us, to bring to him “the souls of those who have separated themselves from my Church and immerse them in the ocean of my mercy.” The Polish Sister of Our Lady of Mercy, in turn, begged Jesus to “receive into the abode of your most compassionate heart the souls of those who have separated themselves from your Church” and implored God the Father to “turn your merciful gaze upon the souls of those who have separated themselves from your Son’s Church, who have squandered your blessing and misused your graces by obstinately persisting in their errors. Do not look upon their errors, but upon the love of your own Son and upon his bitter Passion, which he underwent for their sake.”

It was as if, in the midst of the scores of lengthy obituaries and elegies that immediately were being run in Catholic and secular sources, Jesus Himself, who chose the time of Küng’s visitation, wanted His Church to keep two things in mind: the sad reality of Father Küng’s obstinate persistence in separating himself from the teaching of the Church and the heartening reality that Jesus nevertheless was praying for Him, and asking His Church to pray for him, that in the end, he would receive the mercy arduously won on Calvary.

Küng was one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, rising to prominence as a theological celebrity at the time of the Second Vatican Council, where he was a peritus (expert) of Bishop Carl Joseph Leiprecht of Rottenburg, Germany. Immediately prior to the Council, at the age of 32, Küng wrote The Council, Reform and Reunion, which played a role in Vatican II documents on divine revelation, liturgy, interreligious dialogue, and religious liberty. At a time in which the media of the world was paying close attention to the Council and what it meant for the future of the Catholic Church, Küng became an international newsmaker. He was young, handsome, drove a sports car, dressed in stylish business suits instead of clergy apparel, was fluent in six languages, spoke and wrote with vivacity, intelligence, clarity, and candor, loved the spotlight and was unabashed in slipping to the press what was supposed to be confidential. All of these qualities taken together, however, would never have been enough to gain him stardom had he also not been a savvy doctrinal transgressor of a flavor matching the tastes of those — in the media, academy, Church, and world — hoping for revolution in Church teaching in subjects discordant to the spirit of the age. Küng did not leave those crowds disappointed.

Over the course of time, he undermined and opposed Church teaching on papal infallibility, the magisterial authority of bishops, euthanasia, abortion, contraception, the inadmissibility of ordaining women as priests, the need of a priest for the valid consecration of the Eucharist, the consubstantiality of Christ with God the Father, the meaning of Hell, and various aspects of Church sexual teaching, including the sinfulness of homosexual activity. He also was a persistent critic of the Church’s practice of mandatory priestly celibate chastity and an outspoken detractor of Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, his friend and colleague earlier in life on the theology faculty at the University of Tubingen.

When Küng started to veer off the path of sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), the Church tried hard to work with him, so that he might use his enormous gifts to strengthen rather than subvert the Church. On Dec. 2, 1965, at the end of Vatican II, Saint Paul VI met with him for 45 minutes and, according to Küng, asked him for whom he was writing — if not for God and the Church — and urged him to put his talents at the service of the Church, even offering him a Vatican position. Küng replied that he was “already at the service of the Church,” and that he was writing not for the Pope “who clearly doesn’t want my theology as it is,” but for those “who may need my theology.” After his 1968 book The Church and his 1971 Infallible? An Inquiry, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) notified him of difficulties they had found and asked him to explain how such views, especially with regard to papal infallibility, were not contradictions of Catholic doctrine.

After unsatisfactory replies from Küng, the Congregation published a declaration stating that in those works, “some views are found that in different degrees oppose the Catholic Church’s doctrine that must be professed by all the faithful” and admonished him “not to continue to teach such views” that “destroy [the Church’s] doctrine and place it in doubt.” The Church hoped, as the CDF wrote later, that he would “bring his opinions into harmony with the authentic magisterium.” But Küng did the opposite in multiple subsequent writings. So, in 1979 the CDF, with the approval of Saint John Paul II, was “constrained” to declare that Küng, “has departed from the integral truth of Catholic faith and therefore he can no longer be considered a Catholic theologian nor function as such in a teaching role.”

Even though Küng remained somehow a priest in good standing of the Diocese of Basel, the Church pronounced him to be teaching heresy. The Declaration was a devastating blow, causing Küng to lose his position in the Tubingen Catholic theology faculty — whereupon he was given a position at the University’s Institute for Ecumenical Research — and led him, by his own admission, close to a nervous breakdown. He obstinately, however, stuck to the path he was on, incapable of receiving with humility and faith, it seems, the fraternal correction of the Church. While Catholics must pursue the truth in conscience and seek to live it, that is not the same thing as intransigently holding on to one’s opinions.

In its Declaration, the CDF stated, “If it should happen, therefore, that a teacher of sacred doctrine chooses and disseminates as the norm of truth his own judgment and not the thought of the Church, and if he continues in his conviction despite the use of all charitable means in his regard, then honesty itself demands that the church should publicly call attention to his conduct and should state that he can no longer teach with the authority of the mission which he received from her.” It commented that the mission of a Catholic theologian “is in fact a testimony to a reciprocal trust: first, trust on the part of the competent authority that the theologian will conduct himself as a Catholic theologian in the work of his research and teaching second, trust on the part of the theologian himself in the Church and in her integral teaching, since it is by her mandate that he carries out his task.” Since Küng had lost his trust in the integral teaching of the Church, the Church had a duty to say that it could no longer trust that he would conduct himself as a Catholic theologian. It is hard not to see the influence of Küng’s example and more than 50 books in the doctrinal confusion presently wounding the Church in Germany and afflicting heterodox theology faculties worldwide.

In the last 42 years of his life, while not recanting or revising any of his previous teachings and, sadly, doubling down on ones like assisted suicide — which he admitted he himself was considering as a result of Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, and macular degeneration that left him largely unable to see and to write — he dedicated himself to ecumenical efforts, to interreligious dialogue and to establishing a global code of ethics based on moral truths common to various major religions, the last an initiative that won the praise of Pope Benedict and many religious leaders. Küng seemed to be more comfortable — and effective — in non-Catholic settings in which he was building bridges somewhat of his own genius rather than faithfully standing with the living rock on whom Christ had built his Church, which Catholics profess is the pillar and foundation of the truth (Mt 16:13 1 Tim 3:15).

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who 60 years ago was Küng’s doctoral assistant, said that although Küng had “invented” his own theology rather than developed one based on the doctrine of the Church, his heart was always Catholic even if his behavior was not. Last summer, Kasper informed Pope Francis that Küng was near death and desired to die at peace with the Church. The Pope told Kasper to give Küng his blessing, something that Kasper interpreted as a “pastoral and human” reconciliation, although not a doctrinal one.

On Calvary, Jesus cried to the Father to forgive us because we do not know what we do. As we continue to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet, we ask that that plea for ignorance embrace the clever Father Küng, so that he may be admitted one day to the vision of the One who must always remain the object of sacred theology.

holy, holy, holy

May 23, 2021

The heart of the Christian liturgy is the Eucharistic Prayer, during which the offerings of bread and wine are consecrated into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In both the Eastern and Western churches, this great prayer is introduced by an ancient dialogue between the priest and the people. In the revised translation of the Roman Missal, this dialogue is as follows:

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right and just.

In an earlier article, I reexplained the reason for the change to “And with your spirit” in the new translation of the Roman Missal. As in other parts of the Mass, this is a prelude to a significant act of the priest on behalf of the people and as an icon of Christ. We pray that God’s Spirit be with his spirit as he carries out this solemn task.

When the priest then calls the people to “lift up your hearts to the Lord,” he is asking us to turn our whole mind, soul, and spirit towards the Lord so that we might participate spiritually in the prayer of the priest. The priest then calls us to give thanks (which is what the Greek word “eucharistos” means). In the Eucharistic Prayer, we give thanks to the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. In the original Latin text, the reply is much more succinct and to the point than our former translation we reply simply that it is “right and just” to give thanks in this way.

This dialogue, together with the prayer that now follows, is known as the Preface, because it introduces the great prayer of thanksgiving in which the bread and wine will be consecrated. The Preface changes with the seasons and the feasts and draws upon the significance of the specific occasion that is being celebrated.

The Preface always ends with a call for the gathered Church on earth to join in the praise of the angels in heaven. For instance, the priest says:

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim: …

In a previous article, I wrote about the “Glory to God in the Highest,” the first ‘song of the angels’ in our liturgy. Now we come to the second great angelic hymn in the Mass, known as the Sanctus (from the Latin word for “holy”). The first part of this short hymn comes from Isaiah’s vision of heaven (Isaiah 6:3) and St. John’s vision in Revelation (Revelation 4:8):

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

In both Isaiah and Revelation, this song is sung by the angels around the throne of God in heaven. There were a few changes from our former translation that would be good to review as we are celebrating the Year of the Eucharist in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

The first change, perhaps seemingly minor, is that there is no comma between “Lord” and “God.” The Name by which God is addressed in this hymn is “Lord God.” This identifies our God as the same God who revealed Himself by His sacred Name to Moses in the burning bush: YHWH, the “I AM,” “the Lord.”

Second, the Lord is described as the God “of hosts.” In the Latin text of the Mass, the word used here is “Sabaoth,” an untranslated Hebrew word which means “armies.” The reference is to the “hosts” of angels in heaven, as described by St. Luke in his account of the first Christmas: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13). The old translation (“Lord, God of power and might”) misses this important reference to the worship of the spiritual beings that populate heaven. In this song, the Church on earth joins her worship with the song that continues “day and night without ceasing” (Rev 4:8) before God in heaven.

Finally, although there was no change in this part of the text, I should explain why the angels sing “holy” three times to describe the Lord God. Ancient Hebrew had no comparative or superlative adjectives. To say that something was “very good,” they said that it was “good good” (cf. Gen 1:31). To say that something was “very holy,” they would say “holy holy.” Therefore, when they wanted to describe the Lord God as the “holiest of all,” or (as our Eucharistic Prayer II has it), “indeed Holy, … the fount of all holiness,” they would say that He was “holy holy holy.”

In our liturgy, this song of the angels is joined in seamless unity with a song of human origin. Known in Latin as the Benedictus, this part of the song continues:

Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

This is the song the people sang as they welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:19, Mark 11:9, Luke 19:38, John 12:13 cf. Ps 118:12). Hosanna is an Aramaic word derived from the same Hebrew word meaning “to save” which is the origin for the name “Jesus” (which means “Savior,” cf. Matthew 1:21). It is a cry for help (“Save us!”) which now functions as a liturgical shout of praise. Just as we retain some other Hebrew words in their original form, such as “Alleluia” (Hebrew for “praise the Lord”) and “Amen” (which means “truly”), so we still use this ancient Jewish word of praise in our liturgy today.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, He was greeted as the Son of David, the Messiah who was coming as King to His own city. Today when we sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” in the Mass, our song is also about Jesus. As once people welcomed Jesus riding on a donkey, now we welcome Him coming into our midst through the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist. At the same time, the cry “Blessed is he who comes” focuses us forward towards the Last Day, when Christ will return to raise the dead and judge all people. On that day, He will usher in the kingdom of God, to which every celebration of the Eucharist is a pointer.

In fact, everything about this section of the liturgy points our hearts and minds towards Jesus, who is always the One who is coming. While the opening dialogue calls us to “lift up our hearts” to God in heaven, the Sanctus and Benedictus remind us that through the Eucharist, heaven is joined to earth and the heavenly banquet is anticipated here on earth. The Triune God who is “holy, holy, holy”– is in our midst. By the presence of Jesus in His Body and Blood on our altars, we are privileged to join the worship of the angels.

I am certain that by “reexplaining” the new wording for the Mass, which we have been using in the United States of America for the past 10 years, we will become more aware of the heavenly dimension of our worship. I pray that our appreciation of the liturgy will be greatly enriched by the knowledge that, when we worship God in our churches, we are joined with those who worship Him “day and night without ceasing” in heaven.

from shadows into truth

May 16, 2021

When I make my annual retreat, I generally warm up by reading one or more lives of the saints. This helps me to leave the busyness of the world, enter more deeply into the milieu of God, and hear His gentle whispers. At the beginning of my last retreat, I picked up Father Juan Velez’s superb Passion for Truth: The Life of John Henry Newman. Fr. Velez, a trained medical doctor, is also an exceptional writer and Newman scholar who made it easy and thoroughly enjoyable for me to enter into Newman’s interior dynamism and dramas.

When I neared the end of the 588-page work, much more quickly than I anticipated because of Velez’s gifts as a biographer, I felt Newman and all of heaven smiling at me. As Velez was describing the circumstances of Newman’s death, I had anticipated he would have died on October 9, when the Church has celebrated Newman’s feast day since his 2010 beatification. (October 9, I later clarified, is the day in 1845 on which he became a Catholic.) Much to my surprise, I read that Newman died on the evening of August 11, 1890, almost exactly to the hour 129 years before I was finishing Velez’s biography. The providential occurrence strengthened the deeper bond Velez helped me establish with Newman as Newman became my retreat master. And it has made Newman’s feast, not to mention his canonization by Pope Francis, far more personal.

On October 13, 2019, Newman became the first Englishman since the 1600s to be canonized. Even though four others were being raised to the altars with him — religious sisters from India, Brazil and Italy and a third-order Franciscan from Switzerland — the focus of the Catholic world was mainly on Newman because of his enormous impact on the Church during his lifetime and since. There are many, especially in the Catholic intellectual tradition, who have long had a deep devotion to Newman, who have found his poetry and prose among the most eloquent in the history of the English language, and his spiritual insight and depth the makings of a future doctor of the Church. But I have also found that the former Oxford don is not as well-known to the Catholic masses as he should be. While saints like Padre Pio, Therese Lisieux, and Teresa of Calcutta have devotees in every culture and class, Newman is more like fine classical music, appreciated by those of classical training but generally abstruse and unappealing for those who prefer rock, pop, or country.

As a small attempt to remedy that situation, I would like to share ten reasons why I think Newman should be relatable, loved, and invoked by all Catholics.

First, he was an extraordinarily courageous man who was willing to suffer for the truth and pay the price for becoming Catholic, something that led to the loss of prestigious positions and the alienation from several friends and family members. Throughout most of his adult life, he needed to persevere through nasty political battles in academia, in the Anglican and Catholic churches, as well as in British society. When Pope Benedict beatified him in 2010, he called him a “confessor,” basically a bloodless martyr. Newman helps us not only understand the cost of discipleship but also shows us how to pay it with confidence, despite the obvious human sufferings involved.

Second, he is one of the greatest teachers and defenders of conscience in the history of the Church. In an age in which there are so many violations of conscience in the workplace and by governments, and when so many have been led to believe that this inner organ of sensitivity to God’s voice is nothing more than an echo chamber of imperative feelings, aspirations, or opinions, Newman recalibrates this interior compass.

Third, he had a tremendous capacity for friendship and was a loyal friend to dozens, both men and women. He made time for friends, hosting them, traveling with them, consoling them after the death of loved ones. Before telephones, emails, and instant messaging, he was a prodigious and prompt letter writer whose friends treasured his missives. Fr. Velez thinks that if Newman is ever declared a doctor of the Church, it would be fitting for him to receive the title Doctor Amicitiae, “the teacher of friendship.”

Fourth, he is a magnificent teacher who leads students to wisdom. There is a reason why most Catholic chaplaincies at secular universities are called Newman centers. His Idea of a University mapped out his educational philosophy, which is a helpful corrective to the exaggerated utilitarian or soft and sentimental educational approaches of today. In addition to being a famous tutor at Oxford and founder of the Catholic University of Ireland, he was also teacher of teachers, communicating through his own scholarship both substance and method.

Fifth, he is a profound tutor of prayer. The motto he chose when Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal was cor ad cor loquitur, “heart speaks to heart,” expressing the intimate dialogue that is meant to happen in prayer. Prayer is not so much the exchange of ideas or words with God, but a loving exchange of persons. Newman allows us to enter into his own prayer through the eloquent prayers he has left us.

Sixth, he was a devoted pastor. Both as an Anglican priest and later as a Catholic, he prioritized the sick and poor, solicitously making regular house calls, comforting the bereaved, visiting those in prison. His priestly duties were not a distraction to his academic work, but the heart of his life and chief identification. He was the type of attentive priest every faithful desires and deserves.

Seventh, he is an ardent promoter of the vocation to holiness of the laity. He challenged the laity of his time, precisely because he knew the gifts God had given to them, to become those who “know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.” He knew that God has created each of us for “some definite service, … some work … which he has not committed to another,” and he wanted to help everyone discern it and do it.

Eighth, he was a superlative preacher who, despite all of his many other duties and brilliance, never shirked the preparation of his sermons and homilies. Because he was on fire with love for Scripture and the faith, he was able to ignite others. He never ducked controversial issues, but he likewise always stressed how the faith was a gift before it was a task. His written sermons continue to inspire and inflame preachers and faithful today.

Ninth, he is a model for ecumenism, insofar as he was a passionate truth seeker who would follow Jesus the Truth wherever he believed the Lord, whom he called his “kindly Light,” was leading. He hoped, through the Oxford Movement he catalyzed, to be able to help bring about Church unity. Ecumenism is far more than a polite dialogue among those of different Christian Churches, or a lowest common denominator approach to harmony as if the disputed truths of faith do not matter, but is meant to be a response to Jesus’ Holy Thursday prayer for unity and for docility to the Spirit leading us to all the truth.

Lastly, he has proven an excellent intercessor, especially for Americans. The miracle for his beatification happened to Deacon Jack Sullivan of Marshfield, Massachusetts, who was healed of a spinal cord disorder in 2001. The miracle for his canonization happened in Chicago, when Melissa Villalobos, pregnant with her fifth child but with a blood clot in the fetal membrane as well as a hole in the placenta was bleeding profusely and at risk not only of losing her child but of dying. After praying to Newman, the bleeding immediately stopped, the room filled with the smell of roses, and doctors discovered that the subchorionic hematoma and placental hole had both inexplicably disappeared. I would urge you to pray through his intercession to God for miracles big or small, especially during this pandemic.

The canonization of Newman was a celebration that was meant to echo not merely in Rome, or England and Ireland, or scholarly circles, or the English-speaking Catholic world, but throughout the Church and, hopefully, in every aspect of the Church, because Newman is one of the most influential Christians of modern times, whose life and writings continue to be a reflection of the kind Light that leads us, as he inscribed on his tombstone, from “shadows and images into the truth.”

glory to god

May 9, 2021

I advanced towards the people. The church was full, and cries of joy echoed through it: ‘Thanks to God!’ ‘Praise to God!’ No one was silent the shouts were coming from everywhere. I greeted the people, and they began to cry out again in their enthusiasm. Finally, when silence was restored, the readings from Sacred Scripture were proclaimed (St. Augustine, The City of God, XXII).

When St. Augustine wrote this description of the beginning of the Liturgy on Easter Day in 426AD, the song we know as the “Glory to God in the Highest” was already well known, though it was not yet used in the Mass as it is today. Nevertheless, in this little story, he tells something of the excitement of the people as they gathered to celebrate the liturgy. It also tells us that the early Christians had the true and proper instinct of the purpose of worship on the Lord’s Day. Their whole intent was to give glory, thanks, and praise to God.

As we continue to reexamine the new translation of the Roman Missal as we celebrate this Year of the Eucharist in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, it is vitally important that we keep this in mind. Over the past few years, there has been quite a lot of commentary in articles and on television about the new translation. Unfortunately, the stories in the media have not always been reliable, and for this chief reason: the commentators do not have the same instinct as the early Christians, that the primary purpose of the Mass is to give “Glory to God.”

The “Glory to God in the Highest” is a hymn. For this reason, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) directs that it should, if at all possible, be sung. It was first introduced into the liturgy in the Western Church for use at the Mass of the Nativity at Christmas. Later it was extended for use on every Sunday except in Lent and Advent, and on all Solemnities.

Its use at Christmas was especially appropriate as it begins with the words the angels sang to the shepherds when they announced the birth of Jesus at the first Christmas. In the new translation, we sing the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” There are two places in the Mass where we place a song of the angels on our own lips – the other is in the “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This is a reminder to us that when we gather for worship, we gather in the presence of the angels of heaven. Psalm 137 reminds us of this: “In the presence of the angels I will bless you I will adore before your holy temple.”

Why do we give “Glory to God” in the liturgy? This hymn reminds us that the chief “glory” of God is that He humbled Himself and took on the form of a human being and dwelt among us. In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul records another early Christian hymn which tells us that Jesus “humbled himself…to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5-11). St. John writes in his Gospel that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son” (John 1:14).

At several points, the former version of the “Glory to God” that we used was an abbreviation of the original hymn. Where the old translation shortened the opening lines, we now have the full text:

We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory.

Praise, blessing, adoration, glorification, and thanks are offered to the Father “for (His) great glory.” What does this mean? It means that we praise, bless, adore, glorify, and thank God for being God! And our God is the kind of God who shows His glory chiefly in that He became “flesh and lived among us.”

For this reason, the hymn now changes from a hymn to God the Father to a hymn to God the Son:

Lord Jesus Christ,
Only Begotten Son,
Lord God,
Lamb of God,
Son of the Father.

Jesus is adored with His full divine titles but also as “Lamb of God,” whom John the Baptist identified as the one who “takes away the sins of the world.” Both here and later in the Mass, we praise the “Lamb of God” who comes to us in His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist so that our sins might be taken away. At this point too, the older translation was abbreviated. The new translation gives us the full text:

you take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us
you take away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer
you are seated at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy on us.

You may ask, “why the repetition?” Repetition is a natural part of prayer. If you listen to yourself as you pray your own prayers, you will probably find that you do this. Often in the liturgy, this tendency shows itself in groups of three, such as in the “Lord Have Mercy” or the “Lamb of God” or, as in the new penitential rite, the threefold repetition “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

But the repetition also includes subtle variations, as it does here in the “Glory to God.” The first response is “have mercy on us” the second is “receive our prayer.” So, to our adoration and thanksgiving is added contrition and supplication, fulfilling the four central kinds of prayer. However, the repetition also reminds us that Jesus was not only “incarnate of the Virgin Mary” (as the new translation of the Creed puts it) but also is “seated at the right hand of the Father.” Jesus is risen from the dead, and He has ascended to God in heaven where He shares fully in the Father’s glory.

For this reason, the hymn ends with this doxology (which means “song of glory”):

For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

This is a Trinitarian doxology, including the Holy Spirit, but still focusing on Jesus, who, together with the Father and the Spirit, is alone “the Holy One,” “the Lord,” and “the Most High.”

And so, by singing this hymn at the beginning of the Mass, we fulfill the instinct of the earliest Christians. I pray that as we continue to sing this ancient hymn, we will always remember that the chief purpose for our gathering to celebrate the Holy Mass is to give “Glory to God,” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

men of st. joseph

May 2, 2021

In this Year of St. Joseph, there are many ways all the faithful of the Church can learn from him how to be just, to obey God, to center one’s life on Jesus, to love the Blessed Virgin Mary, to live the Gospel of work, to prepare for a holy death. But there is a particular need for men and boys to learn from St. Joseph. Western culture is experiencing a crisis of masculinity brought about by several factors: a patriarchy-smashing radical feminism that tries to shame men simply for being men gender theory, in which masculinity is reduced to a psychological concept poor role models among celebrities, athletes, even clergy caricatured depictions in movies on television and in contemporary literature and perhaps most of all, from a crisis in fatherhood, which reduces fatherhood to a biological phenomenon often leaving children without the human and spiritual dimensions of mature manliness. What lessons can men and boys learn from Saint Joseph during this special holy year and beyond? Let us focus on seven.

First, St. Joseph shows us how to be a “just man” (Mt 1:19) by “ad-justing” his whole life to what God was asking. About King Saul, the prophet Samuel said, “The Lord sought a man after his own heart” (1 Sam 13:14). Saul did not live up to that divine desire. St. Joseph did.

Second, St. Joseph shows us what real faith means. “Throughout all of history,” Pope Benedict said in 2009, “Joseph is the man who gives God the greatest display of trust, even in the face of such astonishing news.” He shows us that obedience to God is not a threat to one’s freedom. Four separate times, he obeyed promptly and completely God’s commands conveyed to him in dreams, which he refused to deconstruct or dismiss. His whole life, like Mary’s, was a fiat. Many saints have compared him to Abraham: both were willing to leave one’s own country at God’s command without knowing the future both trusted that God could give a child outside the laws of nature both were willing to allow a chosen and beloved son to be sacrificed, knowing that God had the power to raise him. Like Abraham, St. Joseph is a true “father in faith.”

Third, St. Joseph reveals to us the characteristics of authentic fatherhood and the role of the father in the family. “Fathers,” Pope Francis writes, “are not born, but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child.” Joseph’s fatherhood was not grounded in biology but in his marriage to Mary, in his naming Jesus, and in the faithful and loving spiritual commitment he made with Mary to be at the service of Jesus’ life and growth. As a true father, he provided for the Holy Family from his hard work as a carpenter. He was also a protector, someone saints have called the “savior of the Savior of the world.” God the Father, to whom Joseph’s fatherhood pointed, had such trust in his capacity to promptly defend Jesus and Mary that He waited until the last second, in a dream, to tip him off that Herod’s assassins were approaching. It is no wonder why the Church has been similarly entrusted to his paternal care. Regardless of one’s state in life, every man can learn this type of spiritual fatherhood from him. Pope Benedict encouraged all dads to “take Saint Joseph as their model” since he shows the “deepest meaning of their own fatherhood.”

Fourth, St. Joseph shows us how to love chastely. Chastity is a precondition of love, because it keeps eros selfless rather than selfish, loving rather that lustful. Even though Mary was the most sublime creature God ever formed, and even though Joseph lived with her for twelve to thirty years, he protected her vocation to virginal maternity. Some people like to imagine that Joseph was 250 years old and therefore well beyond the stage of physical attraction, but this robs him of his virtue, not to mention infelicitously puts him in the category of really old men who marry really young women. St. Joseph lived with the most integrally beautiful woman of all time and loved her, ardently, but chastely, showing us that real spousal love does not need to be expressed uniquely in genital relations.

Fifth, St. Joseph shows us how to work hard. He was a tekton, “builder,” a word that sums up his entire life. He built stuff by the sweat of his brow and callouses on his hand. He traveled with tools. St. John Paul II said he was the “very epitome of the Gospel of work,” who taught Jesus human work. “If the Son of God was willing to learn a human work from a man,” John Paul II continued, “this indicates that there is in work a specific moral value with a precise meaning for man and for his self-fulfillment.” St. Joseph helps every man find that value and meaning.

Sixth, St. Joseph shows us how to become men of prayer. He is a contemplative man of eloquent silence, whose only recorded word in Scripture was pronouncing the Savior’s name at his circumcision. His life was an extended meditation — like a Rosary — on Jesus: Jesus’ life-giving words, example of humility and patience, diligence, charity, and other virtues. Joseph’s ruminative silence, St. John Paul II commented, “reveals in a special way the inner portrait of the man. The Gospels allow us to discover in his ‘actions’ — shrouded in silence as they are — an aura of deep contemplation.” Pope Benedict prayed that, in a world that is often too noisy, we would all be “infected” with St. Joseph’s silence.

Finally, St. Joseph shows us how to become men of the Eucharist. It is great that at the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis decreed that St. Joseph’s name be mentioned after the Blessed Virgin’s in every Mass because his life was like a Mass, “the little house at Nazareth was as the outspread square of the white corporal,” as Father Frederick Faber commented. The Holy House was a tabernacle where he and Mary lived in the Real Presence with adoration. Before Jesus would say the words of institution, Joseph gave his body, blood, sweat, tears — everything — for Jesus. St. Paul VI said that the secret of St. Joseph’s greatness is that he “made his life a service, a sacrifice, to the mystery of the Incarnation and to the redemptive mission that is joined to it.” Serving Christ, “with love and for love” was “his life.” In an age in which belief in the Real Presence must be strengthened, St. Joseph shows men how to live Eucharistic lives.

Pope Francis says that St. Joseph “reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.” “Great things” are not needed, but ordinary virtues lived fully and authentically. Joseph shows us those human and manly virtues. The name “Joseph” means “increase” and this holy year is a particularly auspicious time for men and boys to increase in devotion, learning from him how to serve God, their family, the Church, and society with similar manly zeal.

and with your spirit

April 25, 2021

The Third Edition of the Roman Missal was implemented in the United States of America on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011. As we Celebrate 2021 as the Year of the Eucharist in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, to aid in a fuller understanding of the changes in translation that were implemented with the new Roman Missal, I intend to devote a series of columns over the next several months to explain the specific changes that we have encountered. It is important to remember that the Mass itself did not change. We are using a new translation, but it is a translation of the same Mass, the Mass of the Roman Rite. The changes were introduced primarily so that the ancient and time-honored words of the liturgy may be more accurately and beautifully communicated in our prayer.

One of the first changes we noticed, and one that goes to the very heart of the character of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, is in our response to the celebrant’s greeting “The Lord be with you.” We had been accustomed to reply “And also with you.” In the revised translation, we now say “And with your spirit.”

This response occurs five times during the Mass in reply to the greeting from the priest:

• At the beginning of the Sacred Liturgy
• just before the proclamation of the Gospel
• at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer
• just before Communion and
• just before the Blessing.

You see therefore that this greeting must be something more than a sacred way of the priest and the people saying “hello” to each other. In this greeting, an exchange takes place which is not simply on the human level but involves priest and people extending a special prayer to one another before beginning a significant liturgical action. Something is taking place at the level of our spiritual relationship with one another.

“The Lord be with you: And with your spirit” is an exact translation of this ancient greeting in the Latin text of the Mass. Let us, like Mary, consider “what kind of greeting this might be” (cf. Luke 1:29). It is, admittedly, not a way of speaking that we hear very often today. That is because in our secular existence we relate to one another on a purely human plane. This greeting opens up a “third dimension” in the relationship between priest and people. It brings in the spiritual dimension of our relationship, the fact that both priest and people share a relationship with the Lord (that is, Jesus) and with His Spirit. It is a “Greeting of faith,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1687) calls it.

The priest’s greeting to the people is not a declaration that the Lord Jesus is with His people–although this is certainly our belief. Rather it is something between a prayer and a blessing, which calls upon the Lord to be with His people in the action that they are about to undertake. Therefore the greeting occurs at the very start of Mass, invoking the presence of Jesus upon the assembly as a whole and in the hearts of each one present as they embark on this most mysterious and sacred of all activities. It occurs again, as preparation for hearing the Gospel–for, without Jesus dwelling in our hearts, we cannot truly hear Him speaking to us. Then again, at the start of the Great Prayer, the priest calls upon the presence of the Lord Jesus so that we can “lift up our hearts” to Him in thanksgiving. The final occurrence of the greeting is related both to receiving the blessing of the Lord and the dismissal to go out into the world to continue serving Jesus in His name and power.

But now, contemplate the response: “And with your spirit.” One major advantage of the new translation of the Mass is that it is easier for us to see the connection between the words we use in the Liturgy and the very words of Sacred Scripture on which they are based. Twice in his letters, St. Paul says: “The Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Gal 6:18 Philemon 25). He does not use the plural your spirits” in other words, he is not simply asking that Jesus might be with his readers in an interior fashion. There is something deeper here. It involves the mystery that the Spirit of the Lord Jesus dwells in us and “bears witness” with our own spirits “that we are children of God” (Rom 8:14).

When the priest offers the Sacrifice of the Mass, he is acting in a double role. On the one hand, he is representing us, the whole assembly of God’s people, before the throne of God. On the other hand, he is representing the Lord Jesus we say that he is “in the person of Christ”–standing before us on God’s part and acting for us. In his greeting, the priest has offered a prayer/blessing that the Lord Jesus be present with us. In our response, we offer the prayer/blessing that the Spirit of Jesus also be present and active in his spirit, so that he can worthily and effectively act in his double role as our representative and as the representative of Jesus.

So you see, in this very small change to this simple greeting how the new translation of the Liturgy of the Mass brings out a new dimension in our worship. This dimension has always been present but we may not previously have been so aware of the depth of meaning in this simple exchange between priest and people.

As we continue to explore the new words of the Mass in the coming months, let us remember that the primary purpose of the changes was to deepen our awareness of the spiritual dimension, the “third dimension,” in the dialogue between the priest and the people, which is our relationship in the Lord Jesus and His Spirit.

making better confessions

April 18, 2021

For many Catholics, the only formal training they receive for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is what they are taught before making their first Confession in second grade. Sometimes that instruction can be superb, other times it can be inadequate doctrinally or practically, but in either case, the training given to eight-year-olds is never designed to last for a lifetime. If Catholics regularly receive the Sacrament at least each Lent and Advent, using a good examination of conscience sheet fit for their stage and state in life and receiving the grace of patient, encouraging, and helpful confessors, they normally mature as penitents. But if they go rarely, or their principal experience is of long Saturday afternoon confession lines or huge penance services where the emphasis can become giving absolution to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, that spiritual development may not happen.

When I preach retreats, I generally encourage retreatants not just to take advantage of the opportunity to go to confession, but to try to make the best confession of their life. I have been moved by how many try to respond to the challenge, using the time on retreat to prepare better and go more deeply. Others have told me candidly over the years that they would like to make better confessions, but do not really know what to do. To make better confessions begins with greater faith, hope and love: faith in God’s working through the Sacrament He established on Easter Sunday evening (Jn 20:19-23) as well as faith that God can give us His mercy through the same instruments through whom He gives us His Body and Blood hope that helps us to trust in God’s promise to grant us His mercy and a fresh start if we turn to Him love for God that makes us regret how we have injured our relationship with Him as well as love for others that leads us to ask for God’s help to repair the damage that by our thoughts, words, deeds, and omissions we have inflicted.

The next step is improved preparation for confession. This involves striving to make better examinations of conscience, to have greater sorrow, and to formulate firmer purposes of amendment. An examination of conscience is not a forensic accounting of the soul or an exercise in psychological introspection. It is seeing our behavior in the light of God, the truth He has taught and the charity to which He has called us. It involves seeing how our choices have strengthened or wounded our relationship with God and others and taking personal responsibility for those choices. How do we calibrate our conscience, this inner organ of sensitivity, to God and His ways? The Word of God, the teaching of the Church, the wisdom of the saints, and the practice of virtue all help. In terms of examining our conscience for confession, most people are trained by looking at their life through the light of the Ten Commandments. Frequent penitents no longer committing grave sins against the commandments can find examining via the Decalogue quite dry. In those circumstances, it is good to scrutinize one’s soul through the prism of the seven capital sins, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the beatitudes, or through the two-fold command to love God and neighbor. Doing a brief examination each night can sensitize our conscience to the areas of daily harmony and disharmony with God, leading us to thank God for His accompaniment, ask forgiveness for the times when we have not corresponded, and solicit His help for the morrow.

Examining our conscience, however, is not the most important part of the preparation, even though it is where people generally spend most of their time. The most important part is the sorrow. St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests and perhaps the greatest confessor in the history of the Church, used to teach, “It is necessary to spend more time asking for contrition than making the examination of conscience,” and called contrition “the balm of the soul.” St. John Paul II in 1984 said that contrition is “the essential act of Penance on the part of the penitent” and the “beginning and the heart of conversion.” He worried, however, that the “majority of people in our time are no longer capable of experiencing” contrition because they are no longer sufficiently motivated by the love of God to experience true sorrow. They may experience “imperfect” contrition, sorrow because of the present or future consequences we suffer because of sin, but less frequently “perfect” contrition, which means sorrow out of love for God. How does one grow in perfect contrition and accordingly prepare for confession? I generally recommend that people examine their conscience holding a crucifix since Jesus died to take away each sin we have committed. Sin is not just the transgression of a rule or even the wounding of a relationship, but ultimately an action with a cost that Christ had to pay on Calvary. Real contrition not only helps us to experience having selected Barabbas in disguise over Christ but also the extraordinary love of God to rescue us from the eternal consequences of that choice.

Such contrition also leads to a much firmer purpose of amendment, which is the third act of preparation. The more sorrowful we are, the greater our resolve not to wound the Lord, Himself, or others again. Few people spend much time in preparation for confession fomenting their resolve never to sin again their commitment remains basically a wish. True sorrow, however, leads us to come up with a solid plan not only to avoid recurrent behavior but also to exercise the virtues we need not to give into temptation again. This plan of spiritual conversion should be just as serious as what Bill Belichick draws up for the Super Bowl.

How do we make such a plan? I would recommend, first, to depend more on supernatural help than human willpower. “We trust too much in our resolutions and promises,” St. John Vianney once said about the amendments we make, “and not enough on the good God.” Second I would urge you to get spiritually cutthroat, like Jesus suggests when He declares we need to be willing to pluck out eyes or chop off hands and feet if they lead us to sin (Mk 9:43-47). It is to say, “What would I do to avoid this sin if I knew I would physically die if I committed it again?” We could and would avoid almost anything if we knew that the consequences were that stark.

When we come to confession, we should seek to be candid, clear, and concise, stating how long it has been since our last confession and getting off our chest first what we think are the most serious sins. I would urge you to pray for your confessor, that he might really be an instrument of God, giving you good advice and helping you to experience a little of the joy of heaven at your absolution. We should not be afraid to ask the priest for help if we need it, since confession is not an oral examination but a sacramental encounter. We should receive absolution as the restoration of our soul to its baptismal beauty and participation of Christ’s triumph over sin and death.

After confession, we should try, as quickly as we can, not only to do the penance imposed by the confessor and to live our firm purpose of amendment with the same seriousness with which we complete our penance. We should seek to pay the mercy we have received forward, remembering the Parable of the Two Debtors (Mt 18:21-35) and the need to forgive as we have been forgiven. Transformed, we should become ambassadors of divine mercy trying to draw others to receive the same gift. And we should try to form the habit of frequent confession, perhaps taking up Pope Francis’ suggestion of going every two weeks. St. John Paul II once told young people that the fastest way to mature was to become better penitents because it was through the experience of confession that not only would we be freed of the weight of sin but learn those areas in our life where we need God’s help. That advice is valid no matter our age!

taste and see

April 11, 2021

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. ~ Mark 6:30-44
Just about anything tastes good if you are hungry enough!

I remember one summer at camp when the program staff had assembled for duty but the cooks and the groceries had not arrived quite yet. We were too far away for pizza delivery and everyone was really hungry. So another leader and I decided to improvise. We found some old noodles and put them on boil. There was a half a jar of spaghetti sauce … for about twenty people. No matter. We found a small can of tomato paste dumped it in the pot. We discovered a couple of fresh tomatoes, chopped them up and put them in the mix. There was no ground beef to be had, but I think we tossed in some carrots and a few other surprise vegetables we found in the refrigerator. Then in the fridge we found what we really needed: an almost full jar of Heinz 57 sauce. Mmm-mmm, that’s right, noodles and ketchup! How gourmet can you get!

We dumped in oregano and parsley and every other spice we could get our hands on. We tasted our Frankenstein monster spaghetti sauce and it wasn’t half bad. Nervously we served our new friends and cabin mates our spontaneous creation … carefully avoiding any mention of the word “ketchup.” We were expecting people to politely eat their supper to tide themselves over until we could get some real food in the morning. We did not expect people to ask for seconds. Or thirds! We certainly did not expect people to compliment the chefs on our delicious spaghetti sauce. Or inquire as to what made it so very good. It just goes to show that if you are hungry enough anything tastes good.

Jesus and his disciples were hungry. They were so busy caring for people that they did not have time to eat. That is when you know you have a problem, when the tyranny of the urgent keeps you from addressing your basic human needs. So Jesus pulled the disciples away from the crowds to give them some down time the rest they so desperately needed. The strategy did not work, at least the way Jesus originally planned it. The crowds beat them to their solitary place, hungry for more good teaching.

It appears that the disciples have lost their patience with Jesus. At the end of the day they still had not found the rest they were looking for … and probably not the food they were hungry for either. They make a completely reasonable suggestion to Jesus send the crowds away so they all can get some food before dark. This would also give the disciples the chance to grab a bite to eat. Jesus responds to their reasonable suggestion with an unreasonable answer: “You feed them!”

Forget the problem of needing eight months wages to buy the bread for five thousand men and the women and children that had joined the crowd. They were out in the wilderness where there was no food to be purchased. The multitudes spontaneously left their homes without their lunchboxes to chase Jesus, hoping they could draft Him, a military messiah, to wage guerilla warfare against the Romans. Jesus will not lead them to battle, but He expects His lieutenants to serve up supper the way generals feed their armies.

The disciples and the crowds were hungry enough that they were willing to entertain a miracle. Tempting as it is to turn this into a moral tale of strangers sharing their supper, the feeding of the five thousand is simpler than that. This is not about passing the ketchup bottle around this is a true miracle story. Jesus did something wildly unexpected and unexplainable. In John’s version of the story we learn that Jesus took a boy’s five small barley rolls and a couple of sardines, the food of poverty, and turned them into a tasty feast for thousands. If you’re hungry enough, just about anything tastes good, even the miraculous. This is a desperate story for desperate people.

This is a story to devour when you are starving for something more. The Feeding of the Five-thousand scarcely makes sense in our abundant society, until we get to the place where we cannot take care of ourselves anymore until we get to the place where our friends cannot meet our needs anymore until we get to the place where only a miracle of God can feed us. If you are hungry enough, you will eat anything. You will even go looking for God to meet your needs.

Jesus offers us something out in the wilderness we cannot possibly cook up for ourselves or others: the grace of God. If you are a picky eater, you just might miss out on the rare dish set before you: salvation born of desperation. This is not the time to be finicky. This is not the time to claim that you are on a diet. Taste and see that the Lord is good! Depend on Jesus Christ to be your sustenance and nourishment for the journey.

easter message 2021

April 4, 2021

In ancient Christian cultures, disciples greet each other in these days with the words: "Christ is risen! He is truly risen. Alleluia!" Those words express the great fact that has energized Christians for two thousand years. "Christ is risen! He is truly risen."

The readings of the Easter Vigil recount the long story of creation, of sin and rebellion, and above all of the provident hand of God sustaining His people as they stumbled down through history, sinning and repenting, and so often feeling lost in an alien world. Finally, after the prophets had prepared the way, God came into this world Himself, to live as we are meant to live during our brief time on earth, so that we might learn not just how to live here as children of God, but so that we might become fully alive. These past days of Holy Week we have pondered the rejection of Christ and have recognized in the figures of the Passion our vulnerability to the power of evil in the great drama of life and death.

Mortal death is inescapable to humans, but Jesus was brought to the Cross by people who had already died what the Apocalypse calls the "second death" and His torture and brutal death were caused by them. The first death is natural death, to which we are all subject. But the second death is the death of the soul it is death that is chosen when we willingly succumb to the power of evil. It is mortal sin. So often in life the second death in one person brings physical death to others, and that happened on Calvary, as the betrayal of Judas, and the cowardice of Pilate, and the hatred of the religious authorities, and the fury of the mob, all led to the death of Jesus on the cross.

We recognize every day, in the world around us, the power of the second death which we see revealed in the Passion of Our Lord and, if we are honest, we can sense its gravitational pull in our own souls. But just when evil seemed to triumph even over the Holy One of God, and His disciples were distraught with grief, and had lost all hope, the full plan of God was revealed, foreshadowed through His provident hand lifting up His people throughout the ages. Those first disciples were the first to realize, "Christ is Risen. He is truly Risen. Alleluia," when the Risen Lord broke into their lives and changed them utterly.

Astonished, they found the tomb where they had placed His body to be empty. That simply proves that the resurrection is a fact of history. Much more importantly, again and again, they encountered the Risen Lord, not simply risen to earthly life, as Lazarus was, and as was the son of the widow of Nain, but radiant in glory.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus find a stranger walking with them, who revealed to them the meaning of the Scriptures when they came to Emmaus, He took bread, blessed it, and broke it, and they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread. They raced back through the night to Jerusalem to spread the Good News of the resurrection. Thomas doubts what the others have experienced, but then he too encounters the Risen Lord, and the skeptic is on fire with faith which he will share in distant lands for the rest of his life. This transformation has happened again and again through the centuries.

Peter and the others are back at their work of fishing, and the beloved disciple recognizes the one who awaits them on the shore: "It is the Lord!" Jesus invites Peter to a profession of love to match His faith and entrusts the Church to him. This is glorious. It is the experience of the Risen Lord down through the ages that has made the Church a beacon in a world of darkness and does so to this day. In the service of our Risen Lord, the monasteries brought peace and hope wherever they were established. In the service of the Risen Lord, the Church invented universities, so that the light of faith and reason might illuminate our path, and to this day that light shines.

I wish people could come with me, as I daily travel through this community of faith, on every side experiencing the signs of the resurrection manifest in the loving service of those who know and serve Our Risen Savior and show it through their lives. As I travel constantly throughout our parish, it is my special privilege and joy as priest to experience personally the power of the resurrection that enlivens our people through Word and Sacrament, seeking to draw close to Jesus, the Lord of the Universe, who lifts them up in their struggles and sends them out to bring His light to this world, just as at the Easter Vigil when the darkened church became radiant with light as the solitary flame of the Easter Candle, the sign of the Jesus, risen in glory, was shared from person to person. As we give His light away, it becomes brighter in this world. That which we celebrate in symbol, we must celebrate through action in daily life, sharing the Light of Christ by what we do and by who we are.

There is an old story told of a missionary who had given her life to caring for the most destitute, those suffering in the most terrible ways, a person not much different from so many disciples of the Risen Lord who serve unnoticed throughout our parish family. A worldly visitor, who could see so much and yet saw nothing, remarked: "I wouldn't do that for a million dollars." She replied: "Neither would I."

This is the immense spiritual strength of the Church, the community of the servants of the Risen Lord Jesus. It continues to baffle the worldly. This is glorious, this experience of the Risen Lord manifest in the lives of His disciples. This is the greatest sign of the resurrection: those dispirited first disciples, who believed that the death of Jesus on the Cross had proven the triumph of evil, those disciples were suddenly transformed by the powerful, unexpected, direct experience of the Jesus they loved, and whom they had mourned, now risen in glory. They themselves were given new life, and filled with joy, and energized with the power of the Holy Spirit to spend the rest of their earthly journey proclaiming the triumph of their Risen Lord.

So it was. So it is. So it shall always be.

The Church is not just an organization, though some are under the illusion that it is. It is not just a place where we can support one another in living a good life, or in learning an ancient spiritual wisdom. It is the community of the disciples of the Risen Lord. It is the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. The Church is radiant with the divine power of the Risen Lord. It is the heavenly Jerusalem, and in the lives of faithful Christians it is to some degree already made present in the midst of Babylon the Great. Through Baptism the disciples of the Lord wash their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. But they will be tested on their journey and must resist the power of the "second death." Life is a spiritual combat. Christians who have received the light of Christ are free to blow it out, but in the Easter Sacrament of Reconciliation, that extension through time of the healing power of Baptism, the Risen Lord gives them His Light again.

No generation of disciples is given a free pass, any more than was the first one each generation must humbly and repentantly encounter the Risen Lord and live for Him alone. Theirs must be the words of Thomas, the doubter, when he encountered Jesus, risen in glory, the week after Easter: "My Lord and my God!" We say this with our lips, but we must say it with our lives.

In the Resurrection of our glorious Savior, the Lamb that was slain but now rules the universe from the heavenly throne, Satan and the powers of evil are cast down, for the evils of this world hold no ultimate power over us, though we still are free to refuse to live as faithful disciples of Christ, and to choose the second death. We are always free. But the second death is not for us: in Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist, and in all of the Sacraments, and in His living Word in Scripture, we encounter Our Risen Lord, as did those first disciples. He invites us to be fully alive in faith, in hope, and in charity, as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, now, at this moment, and in each moment of our earthly journey, until this world drops away at our own mortal death and we see Him face to face.

No Greater love the easter triduum

March 28, 2021

The great task of the spiritual life, one saint of the early Church was accustomed to say, is to “un-forget.” Like the Jews in the desert, who were prone to forget both the great miracles by which God freed them from Pharaoh and the great care that motivated those wonders, so all people, Christians included, can lose touch with the ever-present reality and meaning of God’s past actions.

To counter this human tendency, the first Christians developed ways to fight spiritual amnesia. They called this process “un-amnesia” (anamnesis). One of the simplest and most important forms of this un-forgetting has been retained in the part of the Mass literally called the anamnesis or memorial acclamation. By proclaiming repeatedly, “We proclaim your Death, O Lord and profess your Resurrection until you come again,” we are supposed to frame all our present experiences—from tragic sorrows to immense joys and to the vast majority of ordinary human life in between — within the coordinates of these most important facts in the history of the world.

We are preparing to enter the days of the Sacred Triduum, during which we are called not only to un-forget the events of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, but to enter into them and grasp what they really mean. Many of us can give a ready catechetically-sound answer to the salvific significance of the Paschal Mystery, but during these days, we are called to let that response emanate not just from the head but from the heart. Jesus Himself gave us the interpretative key to the significance of these events during the Last Supper, when He declared, “No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). On the morrow, His love surpassed even that standard, as He gave His life not just for His friends but for those who had made Him their enemy.

The stunning manifestation of this love was not lost on the early Church. St. Paul exclaimed, “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). St. Paul’s amazement at the deep meaning of the events we are preparing to celebrate, however, went even further. He grasped that when the Good Shepherd said that He would lay down His life for His sheep (John 10), He did not mean just for His flock in general, but every one of His lost sheep in particular. “The Son of God,” St. Paul wrote poignantly to the Christians in Galatia, “loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). For Paul, the Cross became the key to unlock both the unfathomable mystery of God’s love as well as the unsurpassing worth of every human being for whom individually Christ died. While before his conversion, as a Jew raised in a Greek culture, he looked at the bloodied, brutally executed Jesus as a “scandal” and as “folly,” he now saw that Christ on the Cross was the greatest witness possible of the “power and wisdom” of God’s love” (1 Cor 1:23-24). This is the deep meaning of the events that each of us is called, during this Triduum, to un-forget.

Rekindling that memory of God’s personal and individual love, however, is not enough. At the same time when Jesus told us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, He told us, “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34 15:12). The early Christians knew that they were called to love others in the self-sacrificial, merciful way Christ had loved them. “Let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action,” St. John wrote the first Christians. “Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16, 18).

St. Paul said that our “spiritual worship” would be to imitate Christ’s giving His Body and shedding His Blood for others. “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

St. Peter stated simply, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” adding that Christ’s sacrifice made it possible for us to follow in his loving steps all the way: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:21-22). We have been healed by Him so that we might love like Him.

Therefore, the great process of remembering, to which the faith as a whole and the Sacred Triduum, in particular, calls us is more moral than mental. From the Cross, Christ beckons each of us, “Follow me!” He calls us to die to ourselves and live—and, if necessary, die—out of love for God and for others. This is the path that will unleash “the power and wisdom of God” in our own lives and in those around us. This is the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies only to rise again and bear great fruit (John 12:24). This is the path to the resurrection and eternal life.

During that first Triduum, Jesus left us the means par excellence by which never to forget these saving events or their meaning. In giving us the Mass, He became our anamnesis incarnate and allowed us all in time to enter into these eternal events. The Mass is the daily portal into the Sacred Triduum when with Christ we enter into the Upper Room to receive the Body and Blood He gave for us on the Cross, the very Body and Blood that is now risen from the dead. In commanding us to “do this in memory of me,” He not only calls us to participate in the Mass, but to make our lives a Mass of similar self-giving love.

Through the power of His resurrection, may Christ make both our celebration of these sacred mysteries and our living them a true sacrament of love.

the higher road

March 21, 2021

At the beginning of the Lenten season, at daily Mass, the Church has a heavy focus on Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. That is not particularly surprising, insofar as Lent is intended to foster a thorough spiritual reset and Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, gives us the Magna Carta of Christian behavior. On Ash Wednesday, for example, we focus on Jesus’ words about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and over the next week and a half, He teaches us the Our Father, urges us to have confidence in prayer, and calls us to live by the Golden Rule.

The major emphasis, however, is on what Jesus describes as the particular Christian way of life. He tells us that He wants our “righteousness” to surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees (who fasted twice a week, prayed three times a day, and tithed everything they owned) and expects our holiness to exceed that of the virtuous pagans (who treated their family members well and loved those who love them). What He delineates about the Christian way of life is important not just to live a good Lent but is especially relevant to the time in which we are living, when so many Christians—including fervent, practicing Catholics—have succumbed to the temptation to lower their standards with regard to some of the fundamental orientations with which Christians are supposed to treat others, including and especially those with whom they disagree.

We are living in an age when political and social life has become rancorous. Insults and ad hominem attacks are rife. Cancel culture celebrates character assassination by frenzied mobs, often regardless of the veracity or gravity of accusations. Various tabloids, websites, and television programs peddle nothing but gossip. Twitter and other forms of social media ooze with hatred and misanthropy, from non-stop political cyberbullying to caustic criticism by vituperative virtual vultures. It is hard in such a mordant culture not to descend into the gutters. The stakes are high. Those pushing radical agendas often do not even feign civility. If they are driving bulldozers on what seems to be a narcotized rampage, many Christians feel justified, even called, to commandeer tanks to beat them at their own infernal game.

But this is not Christ’s way. Let us listen anew to the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,” He tells us, “‘You shall not kill, and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother ‘Raqa’ [‘empty-headed’ or ‘airhead’] will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” Jesus is stating quite clearly that He considers insulting others to be like murder. We know that homicidal thoughts routinely begin in contempt for others, and Jesus is trying to address murderous deeds at their root. And He says that those who judge others or who call them idiots or morons are liable, like assassins, to hell.

Over the past several months, I have heard many people call President Trump and Senator McConnell, President Biden and Speaker Pelosi—not to mention the Pope, Bishops, celebrities, athletes, and even total strangers on social media—far worse things than fools. Worse, they often seem proud of it. Do those who speak this way recognize the eschatological consequences of such mental and verbal bile? The apostle St. John wrote to the early Christians, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer,” and added, “Anyone who says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Dorothy Day had a harrowing saying based on these words: that we love the Lord to the extent that we love the person we like the least. Often, in the least of Jesus’ brethren, we treat Him about as well as the Roman soldiers did on Good Friday.

Jesus is calling us to a much different standard. “You have heard that it was said,” He tells us the following day, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.… Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The rabbis in Jesus’ day spent a lot of time distinguishing between “neighbor” and “enemy.” Jews, they said, were called to love their neighbor as they loved themselves, but despise their enemy, whom most rabbis said referred to everyone who was not a Jew or at least a God-fearing Gentile. Jesus, however, calls us to live as chips off the old divine block, to treat even those who have made themselves our adversaries and persecutors the way the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son regarded the child who dealt with him as if we were dead and asked for his inheritance immediately because he could not wait for his dad to die.

God the Father loves both the good and the bad. He wants us to pray for both, and to treat each with unconquerable benevolence. He wants us to love Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, pro-lifers and abortionists, marriage defenders and dismantlers, even the most radical QAnon and BLM subversives. To love them infinitely more than we passionately may oppose their erroneous ideas or immoral actions. To state this is not to pretend it is easy. It is excruciatingly hard. But the one who calls us to this standard died for the good and the bad—and, morally, all of us were in the latter category. With a gloriously scarred hand He calls us to follow Him on this path. And He would not be doing so unless He was prepared to give us all the help He knows we need to live up to it.

The next liturgical weekday Jesus brings these teachings to a conclusion, when, in a passage from the Sermon on the Plain—the echo in St. Luke’s Gospel of the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel—He brings us back to the Father who wants to help us to treat others as true brothers and sisters: to become Abels, not Cains. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” he says. “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.… For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

Jesus contrasts judging and condemning with mercy. He is not telling us we cannot judge the moral quality of particular acts—He obviously does, in telling us not to murder or to insult people as fools—but He clearly is instructing us to beg for God’s mercy for them rather than treat them as beyond it. And He makes clear one of the clarion points of the Gospel: that the standard by which we judge others will be the standard by which God judges us.

He tells us, for example, after teaching us the Our Father, “For if you do not forgive others their sins, neither will the heavenly Father forgive you yours.” And after the Parable of the Two Debtors, He adds, with reference to the condemnation of the servant who had been forgiven 165,274 years worth of work (10,000 talents) and yet refused to forgive another 100 days wages (100 denarii), “So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

So, the standard Jesus calls us to apply is not the way others treat us, or even the way we would want them to treat us, but the way we hope God Himself will treat us. The devil’s great temptation is to get us to think Jesus’ way is unrealistic, untrustworthy, and a path for “losers.” Lent is a time in which, together with Jesus, we go out into the desert, away from diabolically-induced loathing and lies, so that we, repentant and faithful, might return with Jesus to behave like Jesus—even and especially when others do not.

Going up the mountain

March 14, 2021

As the pilgrim people of God, it is interesting to ponder the fact that we are all called to ascend a “holy mountain.” In coming to Mass, we are all called to climb the “holy mountain” to encounter our God. And we are called in Sacred Scripture to go higher as we progress in our spiritual life. But when I see how fierce the wind blows at this stage in my spiritual journey, I am reminded that this is about as far up as I want to go! But, my brothers and sisters, we must go higher, for at the mountaintop is where we will meet our Father, learn of His constant help, and be given the hope and strength that will sustain us in the valleys below. So, as one of my favorite saints, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, used to say, “Verso l’alto!” To the top!

The first mountain we ascend together is Mount Moriah. Here we behold a scandalous episode indeed! How could God ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son? This does not seem like the God we know, the God who has said that burnt offerings from us He would refuse. Our sacrifice, He has told us, must be a contrite spirit for a humbled and contrite heart He will not spurn. And besides, Abraham’s son Isaac is the key to the covenant that God made with Abraham. God promised Abraham that he and his wife Sarah, despite their old age, would become fertile and would bear a son, Isaac. And it was through Isaac that Abraham would be the father of many nations, of peoples as numerous as the stars. These are the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, a people set apart to be an example to all mankind that God alone is our God and we are His children. From the people of Israel, our elder brothers and sisters, we have inherited this covenant and Abraham is our father in faith. For Abraham to sacrifice his only son, his beloved son, would dissolve all of this.

Abraham was aware of what was at stake but his faith in the Lord was rock-solid. He trusted that God would find a way to keep His promise. Abraham’s only concern was fidelity to God’s command: to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, his beloved son. He will pass this test of faith. So, Abraham ascends the mountain with his only son, carrying the wood and knife for the sacrifice, and builds an altar on which to accomplish it. He then places his son on the wood and as he takes the knife to slaughter him an angel of the Lord stays Abraham’s hand. He assures Abraham that his intention, his devotion, his obedience, his willingness to do even this is as good as if he had done it. Then the Lord provides a ram, caught by its horns in the thicket, to take Isaac’s place.

But what is the Holy Spirit trying to teach us by putting before us such a chilling account? I believe it is this: that even in the midst of unthinkable sacrifice, when our circumstances in life make demands on us that seem unbearable, God is always by our side, watching and waiting to help us and to bless us abundantly. But, we must be obedient to Him, trust Him, and have unwavering faith in Him. Unlike Abraham, we may not be called to make heroic acts of faith in God. But, like Abraham, it is not what we accomplish that matters. God judges not the results of our works but the intention of our hearts. In our hearts He sees our devotion. When we suffer injury and illness with a heart of patience and humility, He is there. When we spend long, agonizing hours at the bedside of a dying loved one with a heart of commitment and love, He is there. When we say farewell to our sons and daughters going off to war with hearts of trust and generosity, He is there. Finally, when we strive during Lent to uproot our vices and sins so that our hearts are open and free, He will bless us abundantly and give us not descendants but graces as numerous as the stars.

But, our faith tells us that our lesson on Mount Moriah is not the end of the story. Sacred Scripture points us to the second mountain we must climb: Mount Calvary. Abraham’s witness prepares us for the ascent, for here God the Father Himself, as St. Paul tells us, “did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for us all.” Here too we behold an Only Son, a Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, ascending a mountain of sacrifice to God, submitting to His Father’s will, carrying the wood along the Way. He too was placed on the wood, but for Him the nails and the knife of the soldier’s lance were not held back. For Him there was no ram caught in a thicket. He himself was the ram, suspended from the thicket of the cross, to take the place not of one, but of all mankind.

Faced with this parallel, St. Paul asks us, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He who did not spare His own Son but handed Him over for us all, how will He not also give us everything else along with Him? From His Sacrifice Jesus was raised and now sits at the right hand of God, interceding for us. Even on Mount Calvary we are again assured of God’s constant love and help. We must never doubt the lengths that God has gone and will go to help and save us. No scene in our lives – not even divorce, separation, abuse, violence, sin, or death – is darker than the scene the only beloved Son of the Father has already entered and overcome.

At this point, let us step back a moment. We are in the season of Lent and have encountered Mount Moriah and Mount Calvary, the scenes of great sacrifice. Let us not think that the fruits of these encounters: hope, consolation, and divine assistance are only things that we squeeze out of suffering like blood from a turnip! God’s blessings do not require that we perform mental gymnastics or fool ourselves in order to find them in the midst of suffering. They are as real as the suffering is if we want them to be. But because they come from God, they have the upper-hand and transform our suffering from destructive force to purifying fire that prepares us for the glory that God intends for us.

This lesson we learn as we ascend our third and final mountain: Mount Tabor. Here we find Jesus with His three favorite apostles: Peter, James, and John. Six days before this episode, Jesus taught them that He must soon suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes be killed and after three days rise again. Furthermore, “If any man would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This was unthinkable to Peter who took Jesus to be the Messiah the Jews expected, one who would triumphantly defeat all their foes so they would never have to suffer again. How could He, the Messiah, suffer and die?

Jesus rebuked him for thinking this way but out of His great love and generosity takes him along with James and John to Mount Tabor to strengthen them. James and John too must have been scandalized by Jesus’ prediction and distraught that Jesus rebuked Peter, their leader, so strongly. But, on the seventh day, He showed them and us that God never abandons us even in our deepest despair. He appeared transfigured before them, along with Elijah and Moses, and His garments were glistening and intensely white. He allowed His glory to shine forth, the glory that is rightfully His as the Divine Son of God, the glory He set aside in order to be like us. This He did in order to encourage His apostles and us to follow the difficult way that leads to our own glorification.

At the end of Mass, we are sent to “Go Forth.” We will descend the mountains of Moriah, Calvary, and Tabor and return to the valleys of our everyday lives, our schools, our homes, our workplaces. We will return to our Lenten penances and sacrifices, to our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving, to our Stations of the Cross. We may even be returning to much suffering and pain. But let us not forget the mountains we have climbed and what we witnessed at the top of each one. Let us return with renewed hope and strength, reminded of God’s constant help and presence. The God who stayed Abraham’s hand and provided for him on Mount Moriah is the same God who provides for us. The God who loved us so much that He allowed His only Son to die on Mount Calvary on behalf of all mankind, is the same God who loves us today. The God who strengthened the apostles by allowing them to behold the glory of His Divine Son is the same God who strengthens us. Let us be faithful and obedient to Him with the hope that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18) at our coming Easter.

the importance of a single word

March 7, 2021

On Ash Wednesday, priests in the United States changed the way we finish the Collect or opening prayer at Mass. For nearly 50 years, we have prayed, “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.” Beginning Ash Wednesday, we eliminated the word “one.” Many other English-speaking countries—England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand—made this change last November 29, 2020, on the First Sunday of Advent. Canada made it the same time as the USA. The change comes in response to a May 13, 2020, directive of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which said that “one God” is an inaccurate translation of the Latin original, undermines the intended affirmation of Christ’s divinity, and may even give rise to dangerous theological misunderstandings.

The problem begins with the peculiarities of Latin grammar. In Latin, word order does not matter much, because the endings of the words tell you what function they play in a sentence. When fourth century Christians composed the Latin formula that ends the Collect, rather than placing the word “God” (Deus) next to the word for Christ, they moved it to the end of the sentence, where it referred to the word “who” (qui) nine words earlier. It seems, because of word order, that the original English translators must have been confused and thought the word “God” was referring not uniquely to Christ, to the Father (“with you”) or to the Holy Spirit, but to their Trinitarian union. And because the words “Holy Spirit” come right before the word “God,” which in English would suggest that “God” refers to “Holy Spirit”— a confusion that could not happen in Latin because of word endings—the translators added the word “one.”

This affirmation of Trinitarian monotheism is not unheard of. In Arabic speaking countries, for example, because Muslims often mistakenly believe that Christians worship “three Gods” instead of “one God in three Persons,” Arab Christians, when they make the sign of the Cross, say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the One God.”

In other translations from the Latin original, however, translators tried to remedy the potential confusion that tripped up the English interpreters. In a few languages they changed the word order. In Italian, for example, we pray (in English translation), “Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who is God and lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever” in Portuguese, “Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who is God with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit” and in German, “We ask this through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord and God, who in the unity of the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns with you forever.” In Spanish, the translators clarified by adding words: “Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit and is God forever and ever.” In French, as in English, the exact wording of the Latin is followed, but the French don’t add “one” before God. It is clear, therefore, that the English translation was an outlier.

Some might wonder how much difference it makes to emphasize Christ’s divinity over the Trinitarian unity since both are among the most fundamental truths of the faith. Some might argue that to emphasize the Trinity necessarily affirms the divinity of Christ. That is true, of course, but the Trinitarian unity is already mentioned in the Collect formula, too, when we refer to “in the unity of the Holy Spirit.”

Beyond accuracy, however, for priests who celebrate Mass in different languages, it makes a big difference. The guiding principle of praying the Mass is what is normally called the “art of celebrating,” which Saint Benedict 1,500 years ago said meant “mens concordet voci,” that the mind should align itself to the voice, or to the words being said. In normal speech, we think before we speak but in vocal prayer, and especially in liturgical texts, the words precede the mind of the one praying them. To pray the words signifies letting them enter into the mind and meaning them as we say them.

The Collect of the Mass frames the whole celebration of the Mass. Whether one finishes the prayer emphasizing Christ’s divinity or Trinitarian unity matters. And when one celebrates in English, and then in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian or German, or even in Latin or French, your mind is aligning with two different affirmations. The nature of Catholicism is that one should be praying the same thing regardless of the language and not experiencing some form of liturgical schizophrenia. That is why the new translation of the Roman Missal that appeared ten years ago was so important. That is why this change—although to some seemingly petty, and to priests and faithful alike a little awkward after 50 years—is highly significant.

As we get used to the new wording, what are some ways we can profit spiritually from the change?

The first should be a renewed attention to the words we say to God at Mass. Sometimes priests and faithful alike can go through the motions, repeating memorized formulas without truly praying them. This change reminds us that words matter. In fact, every word matters.

The second should be a renewed appreciation for accurate translations. The ancient aphorism, “The law of prayer is the law of faith” (lex orandi, lex credendi), teaches us that the words we use to pray matter, because they will influence our idea of God, the truths of our faith, and more. We should be grateful that the Church is vigilant to remedy inaccurate translations. It is a sign that Church leaders recognize the connection between liturgy and life and, out of love for God and us, are seeking to keep the liturgy rightly attuned to the fullness of the faith we profess.

Third, the change can help us to focus on Christ’s divinity more throughout the Mass. The whole point of the revision is to help us keep in greater focus the divinity of Jesus, which fourth-century bishops wanted to emphasize against the heretical Arians, who did not believe Christ was of the same divine substance of the Father. Focusing on Christ’s divinity can help us much better appreciate the liturgy of the Word: God Himself speaks to us. It should also help us to remember the awesome gift we have in the Holy Eucharist: we receive Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul and, yes, Divinity. As such, coming to Mass should never be routine. In fact, coming to Mass should be worth the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fourth, the change can help us appreciate that when we approach God the Father, we are doing so in the name of His divine Son. We have a divine mediator. What confidence that should give us!

Finally, since the change began on the first day of Lent, we should make this 40-day journey with a particular focus on Christ’s divinity. Normally in Lent, as we ponder Christ’s hunger in the desert, His suffering and death, it is easy to emphasize His human nature. This Lent perhaps we can bring His divinity to the fore. A great opportunity for this is by meditating upon His Transfiguration when His divine glory was revealed. Throughout this Lent, however, we can contemplate more deeply the divine kenosis: how Jesus, even though He was God, humbled Himself even to crucifixion (Phil 2:5-11), entering our humanity even to death so that we might share in His divinity.

To focus on Christ’s divinity is to remember, ultimately, His call to holiness, to pick up our cross and follow Him, as He seeks to lead us, with Him, to eternal glory, where He lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever.

Coming to Know Blessed Carlo Acutis

February 28, 2021

On October 10, 2020, in the little town of Assisi, Carlo Acutis was beatified. On Monday, October 12th, the Church celebrated his feast for the first time, on the 14th anniversary of Carlo’s 2006 death of acute leukemia. The time between Carlo’s birth into eternal life and his being raised to the altars was almost as brief as his 15 years of life on earth. In that short span, however, Carlo not only experienced the “life to the full” (Jn 10:10) that Christ came into the world to bring, but became a teacher to his parents, peers, the poor, and now the whole Church.

He may already be the most famous 15-year-old to die of all time. While the beatifications of Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, John Paul II, and John Henry Newman were bigger than the pandemic-reduced crowds in Assisi, none had 15 days of preparation and veneration, or a vigil of prayer the night before, as he did. The others were all quite famous during their life, while few outside of Milan and Assisi would have known Carlo. But now, just 29 years after his birth, Carlo is perhaps touching far more people than any of those great saints did when they were 29. And he is just getting started. Pope Francis penned three paragraphs about him in his 2019 exhortation to young people Christus vivit and now thousands of articles and hundreds of websites tell his story.

When I first learned about him, I was impressed by his precocious hunger for God: he prayed the Rosary every day from a young age made his first Holy Communion a year early and then attended daily Mass thereafter cared for the homeless each night traveled regularly to Assisi loved the saints learned computers to develop websites to spread his love of the Eucharist and Mary and to teach about angels and the four last things. I figured, frankly, that he must have come from a home similar to the one that produced, for example, Saint Therese.

Instead, he came from a home that, as his garrulous mother Antonia has humbly said in various interviews, was not even lukewarm. By the time Carlo was born, Antonia had only been to Church three times in her life, the days she was baptized, confirmed, and married. Carlo, through his questions and zeal, eventually got her to take her faith more seriously, and she was just one of many converts. While Carlo’s grandparents practiced the faith and he attended Catholic schools, it seems clear that the Lord interacted with Carlo much like he did the young prophet Samuel.

Several things strike me about his life.

He had an advanced awareness of the meaning of life and how to live well. “To be always united to Jesus is my program of life,” he declared. In contrast to contemporary narcissism, he said that happiness comes from keeping “one’s face turned toward God” and sadness from focusing your attention on yourself. “Not I, but God” was his mantra. “Find God,” he stated, “and you will find the meaning of your life.” He lived life with a certain urgency: “Every minute that passes,” he said, “is one minute less to become like God,” and to become like God was his desire. “What does it matter if you can win a thousand battles if you cannot win against your own corrupt passions?” he asked. “The real battle is with ourselves.” Right before he died, he said, “To have a long life doesn’t mean that this is a good thing [because] one can live a very long time and live badly.” He humbly confessed, “I am happy to die because I have lived my life without waiting a minute on those things that do not please God.”

He had an ardent love for Jesus in the Eucharist. He lived a Eucharistic life, calling the Eucharist “my highway to heaven.” He attended daily Mass from the time he was seven and spent time each day in adoration. “The more Eucharist we receive,” he believed, “the more we will become like Jesus.” He had a Eucharistic amazement, so fascinated by the Eucharistic miracles across the centuries that he went on an adventure to try to visit them all and to document them so that others could share his astonishment. It did not make sense to him that there would be huge crowds for soccer games and rock concerts but no lines before the tabernacle where God is present and lives among us.

He had a deep love for Mary. “The virgin Mary is the only woman in my life,” he said and called the Rosary, which he prayed daily, the “shortest ladder to climb to heaven” and the “most powerful weapon,” after the Eucharist, “to fight the devil.” Like his inspiring 196-part series on the Eucharistic miracles that have posthumously traveled the world, he also had conceptualized a 156-part series on the Marian apparitions completed by his mother after his death. The apparitions were signs of maternal care that actualized the love of Mary seen in the Gospels.

He had a love for the Church and the saints. “To criticize the Church means to criticize ourselves,” he said, because “the Church is the dispenser of treasures for our salvation.” We judge the Church not by those who do not live according to her teachings but by those who do, which is why he drew near to the saints, like Saint Francis of Assisi and various great young saints like Tarcisius, Aloysius, Dominic Savio, Bernadette, and Francisco and Jacinta Marto.

He had a vibrant charity. He stuck up for classmates being bullied, invited to his home kids who were suffering because of their parents’ divorce or domestic problems, tutored classmates who were struggling with homework or computer problems, patiently rescued friends experimenting with drugs or addicted to porn, spent time with the elderly helping them with tasks, “hunted” for litter in parks or on the beach to beautify the world, brought warm drinks and food to the homeless, and used his allowance to buy them sleeping bags or warm clothes. “Life is a gift,” he said, “because as long as we are on earth, we can increase our level of love.

His greatest charity was to try to share the faith. From the time he was 11, he taught Catechism and sought to inspire younger kids to choose to strive for sanctity. To make the faith practical, he made a “Holiness Kit” for them that involved nine steps that he himself practiced: to love God with all your heart each day to try to go to Mass and receive Communion, pray the Rosary, read a passage of Sacred Scripture, and make a visit to Jesus in the Tabernacle each day to go to confession once a week to help others as often as you can and to rely on your guardian angel as your best friend. He attracted people to the faith more by his example and friendship than by words. His mom said, “To live close to someone like Carlo means not to remain neutral in your faith.” His zeal led him to use his computer skills to try to design websites not only on the Eucharist and on Marian apparitions but also a 170-part series on the Last Things and a 131-part series on Angels and Demons in the lives of saints.

Despite all of this, there is a danger in the devotion to him now growing very fast. It is that, like Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, he might suffer from well-meaning but superficial caricature. Some reduce Frassati from a man of the beatitudes and heroic charity to a “holy hunk” who hiked and smoked a pipe. Similarly, some are promoting Carlo as a Play-Station-competing, comic-book-loving, jeans-and-sneaker-wearing computer whiz. In trying to make holiness “cool,” they’ are instead making it mundane by focusing on accidents rather than substance.

Like his beloved St. Francis, however, Carlo was an “influencer for God” not by his worldliness but by his ordinary other-worldly radicalness. His most famous quip was, “All people are born as originals, but many die as photocopies,” and some are unfortunately trying to make him two-dimensional, evidently believing that the depth of his originality in God’s image would repel rather than attract the young even more. The world and the Church, however, are in need of the real thing!

What is the purpose of a homily?

February 21, 2021

In my last column, I discussed the Pew Research Center’s recently released study entitled, “The Digital Pulpit: A Nationwide Analysis of Online Sermons,” which examined the online audio or video sermons and homilies of over 6,000 Christian Churches, showing that Catholic homilies are considerably shorter, far less Scriptural, and uploaded much less frequently than those in mainline Protestant, Evangelical, or historically black Protestant Churches.

Various commentator’s objected to Pew study’s findings that Catholic homilies, at a median length of 14 minutes, are considerably shorter than mainline Protestant Churches (25 minutes), Evangelicals (39), and historically black Protestant Churches (54), as well as to the findings with regard to the use of Scripture. They noted that Catholic homilies are part of the Liturgy of the Word, which contains four readings of Sacred Scripture, something that not only should be factored into calculations of length and Scripture use. These are valid criticisms, but they would only moderate not undermine the Pew conclusions. And while the criticism would certainly apply to the comparison between Catholic versus evangelical and historically black Protestant Churches, it would not to most mainline Protestant Churches, which also incorporate preaching within a similar—sometimes identical—Liturgy of the Word.

Many commenters made the point that the emphasis should not be on length, but on quality of content and communication, saying that the goal should be “better” preaching. “If the priest preaches the fullness of the Gospel with no sugarcoating, I don’t care how long it is,” one commenter said. If it is poor, however, “ten minutes feels like an hour at the dentist!”

Others insisted that reason why Catholic homilies are shorter is not that Catholic attention spans are somehow inexplicably feeble compared to their Protestant counterparts’ but because Catholic homilies take place within a liturgy in which the greater focus must be on the encounter with Jesus in holy communion. “Jesus told us to eat his flesh and drink his blood in memory of him,” one noted, not “preach great sermons.” “The desire for ‘better preaching,’” another charged, “is what gave us the Reformation.” Therefore, various argued, we should not heed polls about what the “competition” is doing and “make the Mass something it is not” by increasing homily length to Protestant standards. Having a Bible study while “Christ is being crucified on Golgotha” is totally inappropriate, one insisted.

When some commentators rebutted that the homilies of many of the greatest priestly saints in Church history, from Fathers of the Church to Saint John Vianney, often lasted an hour, they were met with the prediction that if Catholic preachers lengthened their homilies, Mass attendance would inevitably drop, since, as one candidly quipped about himself and others, many faithful are simply “more concerned about getting home for the Sunday pot roast.”

While some readers said that they were blessed to be in parishes where the preaching was consistently excellent, many more expressed various commonly repeated frustrations about homilies that are poorly prepared and meandering, passionless and uninspired, shallow, somniferous and irrelevant to daily life, light on Scripture, God, prayer, the last things, and difficult areas of Christian morality, and heavy on fundraising, movies, impertinent jokes, the preacher himself and his political opinions. Some questioned whether the preachers they have heard really believe the faith they are commissioned to preach and whether they pray at all about what they are going to say. “Many times I feel that I could write a better homily,” someone exasperatingly confessed.

Such complaints are not new. The US Bishops in 2012 noted, “In survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.” Pope Benedict wrote in 2006, “Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved.” Pope Francis in 2013 stated, “So many concerns have been expressed about this important ministry [of preaching] and we cannot simply ignore them.”

In order to improve homilies, however, there needs to be—in addition to infectious zeal on the part of preachers to share the Good News, coupled with the holiness of life and the art of effective communication—a clear understanding of the goal of liturgical preaching. If the target is off, then even if preachers hit it, what the Church hopes will happen will never come to fruition.

There are various misconceptions about the purpose of preaching found in the comments. Some said it is to “give a very brief thought or two on the readings,” to “provide the faithful a point to pray and meditate upon,” to leave people “with at least one resolution” to apply to their life. Others said it is to “tie the readings together.” Others asserted it is to teach the doctrine of the faith, and therefore homilies should be more catechetical. All of these have some element of what the Church is looking for but are all seriously short of the mark.

The Second Vatican Council taught that the purpose of sacred preaching is “conversion and holiness.” Pope Benedict wrote, “The homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives. It should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic liturgy.” Pope Francis stressed that homilies are supposed to bring about the heart-to-heart dialogue between God and his people, proclaiming God’s work of salvation, restating the blessings and demands of the Covenant he has made with us, and guiding us to respond with faith and enter into a life-changing communion in the Eucharist. The homily is “part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace that Christ pours out,” meant to form, Francis said, evangelized evangelizers, missionary disciples, capable of living the word and sharing it.

Those are the lofty goals toward which homilies need to be prepared and on which they need to be evaluated. Do they convert preacher and faithful and strengthen them to become saints? Do they illumine daily life with the light of Scripture, inspiring people to greater faith, prayer, communion with God, and the capacity to share the Gospel effectively with others? Do they attune us to God’s voice, remind us of His grace and call, and strengthen us to align our life lovingly to His will?

In other words, the point of a homily is not just to give us something to chew on for the week or lead us to make a minor course correction in our life. It is ultimately to form us cumulatively to become Christ-like, so that we respond, like Mary, “let it be done to me according to your word.” Meeting such goals require a great deal of preparation. They, moreover, require some time in delivery considering the fact that many listening have hardened, rocky, and thorny soil, to use Christ’s image, and not just good soil ready to bear 100-fold fruit. Finally, to reach a supernatural goal requires a supernatural means, and that is why preaching with Sacred Scripture, inherently inspired by God, is so important.

Why are catholic homilies so short?

February 14, 2021

On December 16, 2019, as Catholic clergy were in the heart of their Advent preparations for Christmas and getting ready to mount the pulpit for one of their most important preaching opportunities of the year, the Pew Research Center released an intriguing, first-of-its-kind study entitled, “The Digital Pulpit: A Nationwide Analysis of Online Sermons.” Using advanced computer technology, the study examined the websites of 38,630 Christian Churches in the U.S., found 6,431 that publish audio or video recordings of the Sunday sermons and homilies in English, and analyzed them, among other things, for length and vocabulary. The results were rather striking.

First, the survey revealed that Catholic clergy preach much more briefly than clergy in mainline Protestant Churches, Evangelical Churches, and historic black Protestant Churches. The median length of Catholic homilies or sermons was 14 minutes, compared to 25 for mainline Protestant Churches (traditional Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, United Church of Christ, Quakers), 39 for Evangelicals (a reawakening movement in some of the mainline Churches, as well as Pentecostals, many non-denominational churches and others) and 54 for the historically black Protestant Churches (like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, various Baptist Churches and more).

Second, it showed that Catholic homilies referred far less to Sacred Scripture than their counterparts did. In the 2,706 Catholic homilies studied from April and May 2019, 68 percent mentioned the New Testament and 28 percent mentioned the Old Testament (compared, respectively, to 93/66 for Evangelicals, 85/65 for Historically Black Protestant and 82/43 Mainline Protestant). Seventy-three percent of Catholic homilies mentioned one or the other, compared to 97 percent for Evangelicals, 84 percent for Historically Black Protestants, and 88 percent for Mainline Protestants.

Lastly, the study examined the vocabulary used by preachers in various churches. Across the denominations, almost all 49,719 sermons and homilies studied mentioned the words God, Jesus, love, life, good, and right. Catholic preaching was distinct in mentioning words like Eucharist (61 percent of homilies), diocese (30), Gospel (28), paschal (28), John Paul (26), chalice (25), parishioner (24), venerate (24), and Catholic (19).

It would be worthwhile to spend some time focusing on what the survey shows about the use of Sacred Scripture in Catholic preaching. Since the survey was conducted from the Fifth Sunday of Lent through the Sixth Sunday of Easter in 2019, and since the Acts of the Apostles replaces the Old Testament during the Easter Season readings, it is understandable that Catholic use of the Old Testament might be a little diminished compared to the rest of the liturgical year, but the survey nevertheless reveals that 32 percent of Catholic homilies did not directly cite any of the three New Testament readings given on a particular Sunday and 72 percent did not reference the Responsorial Psalm, which is, of course, part of the Old Testament. Since homilies by definition are meant to focus on the readings and the liturgical prayers of the Mass, one might wonder what the focus of such homilies would be if 27 percent of Catholic homilies—more than one out of four—did not mention the Word of God at all.

I would like to focus, however, on what the survey reveals about how short Catholic homilies are compared to Protestant sermons. It is no surprise that Catholic homilies are shorter. Any Catholic who has had occasion to hear Protestant homilies in person or watch them on television already knows that Protestants generally preach much longer. There is a liturgical reason why one would expect Catholic homilies to be shorter, for example, than evangelical and Historic Black Protestant Churches, where the Sunday sermon, the reading of Sacred Scripture, and singing are the main liturgical actions. Catholic homilies are contained within a liturgy and the length of the Word of God, which involves the readings of the Sacred Scripture and the homily, must be proportioned to the Liturgy of the Word-made-flesh, during which Catholics believe that the same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and adored by Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men becomes present on the altar and takes up His abode within communicants. If the Liturgy of the Word were too long, it might suggest that it is no longer an appetizer for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but the main course.

The typical reason given, however, for why Catholic homilies are shorter—a rationale often heard in seminaries and clergy workshop—is that people today do not have the attention span to follow longer homilies. Catholic priests and deacons, therefore, are explicitly trained, on account of that “fact,” to keep their homilies brief. While it is true that some adults, and not just children, are affected by diagnosed and undiagnosed attention deficit disorders, something that preachers, teachers, television and movie producers, politicians, and public speakers all need to consider, I have always found this truism unsatisfying and unintentionally self-deprecatory. How is it that American Catholics have considerably shorter attention spans than American Protestants, who watch the same programs, listen to the same music, and participate in the same culture? In most places, Catholic schools have much higher academic scores than their local public counterparts. If anything, Catholics should have greater attention spans. Moreover, when Catholics travel to places like the Caribbean, Africa, or South America, they discover that Catholic homilies there are much longer than those in America, and sometimes last even an hour. How is it that average Catholics in rural villages of Uganda or impoverished cities in Haiti have much greater attention spans than their much more educated American counterparts? The premise about Catholic attention spans in the U.S., I believe, total nonsense, especially as concerns capabilities.

But there are two ways of looking at attention span. One refers to ability the other, to interest. While jocks should have the same attention span for NFL games as for the ballet, they will snooze at the Nutcracker. Budding actresses have the same natural attentiveness for movies and Shakespeare as for cricket and golf, but they will be bored only at the latter. Teen guitar players and rappers should be enraptured by good music, but after ten minutes of listening to Debussy, you will need to take out the defibrillators. Why? Because they lack interest. The same contrast in attention spans can happen in the faith. If people are interested, their attention span will be greater if they are not, then every additional minute is an endurance test.

So why are American Protestants considerably more interested in hearing the word of God explained and applied than their Catholic counterparts? Why do American Protestant ministers have much greater zeal and woe to preach the Gospel than Catholic clergy? Part of the answer, I think, may be that Protestants, in general, are noted for a greater love for Sacred Scripture and a greater hunger to understand it than Catholics, and Protestant clergy, knowing this, are emboldened to feed that hunger. Part of the reason may also be, as surveys have shown, that Protestant clergy spend much more time on average preparing what they will say on Sunday than Catholic clergy do, and it is much easier to listen longer to higher quality sermons than poor ones.

I think the calls in various Catholic circles for brief homilies, including by Pope Francis, who urges 8-10 minutes (even though his homilies are normally considerably longer than that), are based on a prejudice that average Catholic homilies are not very good, probably will not get better, and therefore are more prone to drive people away than light them on fire, especially the longer they go. Therefore, it is no wonder, if the expectation is that Catholic homilies will be boring, uninspiring, unprepared, unintelligible, scattered, monotone, confusing, and extraneous to life, that the advice is, “The shorter the better.” Moreover, if faithful have come through experience to have generally low expectations for homiletic excellence, it is no surprise that they will echo, and even incentivize through Church-hopping and donations, such advice.

Poor and spiritless preaching, as surveys have repeatedly shown, is a major factor in why many have said they stopped coming to Mass or migrated to evangelical or Pentecostal Churches. It is a serious problem. The solution, however, is not shorter, poor, and spiritless preaching. It is much better preaching. And the better the preaching, the more hunger and attentiveness to the Word of God will grow, the more people will keep coming to Mass and perhaps return, and the more people attending Mass—or listening or watching online—will be prepared to go out into the world to preach the Gospel to every creature.

a house divided

February 7, 2021

Jesus was clear in the Gospel that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mt 12:25). Against the devil’s work of isolation, alienation and separation, Jesus came to gather and unite. On the vigil of His crucifixion, when He could have easily been distracted by the details of His imminent fulfillment of gruesome Biblical prophecies, He rather prayed four times that His disciples “may be one,” just as the persons of the Blessed Trinity are one (Jn 17:11, 21-23). The fulfillment of His mission, He suggested, hinged on Christian unity: otherwise, He said, the world would not be able to believe in the incarnation or in the Father’s love (17:23).

Jesus’ prayer for unity not only reveals something about God and our being made in His image, but also about the priority Jesus gives to communion among His followers. That is why His prayer will always remain an urgent ecumenical imperative. Christians cannot sincerely pray, “Thy will be done” and not simultaneously hunger, beg, and work for unity among the baptized. Christian unity, however, is a means not an end. It is meant to be an efficacious, exemplary sign of the communion to which God calls all human beings. God created Adam and Eve in His own image not so that they would live thereafter as Cain and Abel, Jew or Gentile, or slave or free. He wants Christians to reveal the divine image of communion so that the Church may become a credible, effective collaborator in the Redeemer’s mission of gathering the lost sheep and reconciling all things in Himself (Col 1:20).

Church unity is supposed to be a model and means for a much deeper harmony and communion among others. As experience has shown, the virtues of effective ecumenical dialogue make possible more consequential interreligious dialogue, and the virtues of successful interreligious dialogue can catalyze every other form of important verbal or existential conversation. If fervent believers can learn how to live harmoniously while disagreeing about some of the deepest and most important questions of human life, then everyone can learn better from them the traits to co-exist when disagreements concern mainly politics or current events. This is true, however, only when religious believers act like religious believers and practice what they believe and preach. To use Jesus’ image, this takes place only when Christians as “salt of the earth” (meant to preserve from corruption, start a fire, and give flavor) do not lose their salinity when as “light of the world” (meant to illumine and warm), they do not hide like a candle under a basket when as “leaven” (meant to lift up the whole dough, even when tiny), they do not themselves get corrupted by the yeast of the lax or the rigid.

We are living in a time of great division, as the January 6th riot on Capitol Hill, the November election and its aftermath, and the chaos, rioting, and looting of last Spring in cities across the country have all made undeniably clear. The United States is struggling to remain united. The fault lines between red and blue, black and white, young and old, traditional and progressive, familial and individual, police and citizens, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, the one percent and everyone else, are widening. Some are talking openly about a national divorce or secession others are whispering more ominously about another civil war. Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 reminder of Jesus’ words concerning a house divided are becoming increasingly politically relevant.

In such circumstances, faithful Christians cannot remain on the sidelines when Christian salt, light, and leaven are most needed. Christians are three-quarters of the U.S. population, Catholics one-quarter. In one of the Eucharistic Prayers, we ask God that “in a world torn by strike, your people may shine forth as a prophetic sign of unity and concord.” If we live our faith, Christians have the numbers — not to mention supernatural resources — to be that sign, but to do so will require courage, magnanimity, and perseverance, and likely suffering and sanctity as well. If Catholics are going to become part of the remedy, what are the virtues needed? Let us focus on seven Biblical habits.

First, love your neighbor (Mt 22:39). Jesus calls us to love even those who have made themselves our enemies and says that the way we treat them, we treat Him (Mt 25:40). If a Samaritan could cross the road to help a wounded Jew, the road is much shorter for Republicans and Democrats. Even in the midst of vigorous disagreements, the other cannot be dehumanized to a label, but remains a brother or sister I must love.

Second, stop judging lest we be judged (Mt 7:1). This does not mean, of course, that we cannot judge attacks on human life, racism, and other evil actions to be wrong, but it does mean that we must stop demonizing persons, as is happening more frequently because of political demagoguery or woke cancel culture. Even when we disagree, the Thomistic principle of finding the aspect of the good motivating the other not only prevents mutual alienation but may pave the road to some political win-wins.

Third, do not bear false witness (Ex 20:16). There has been so much lying that many can no longer trust anything others are saying. News outlets have become so unabashedly partisan that no Walter Cronkite exists to report persuasively on the outcome even of a presidential election. Everything one does not want to hear becomes treated as fake news. When people cannot communicate truthfully, interpersonal communion breaks down. We must tell the truth even at the cost of suffering, for unless we tell the truth, we will not be free (Jn 8:32).

Fourth, seek first the kingdom of God (Mt 6:33). We are called to render unto Caesar and be excellent servants of our country, but we are called to be God’s good servants first. We must beware of false political messianism that equates God’s will too closely to political leaders and programs. Catholic have been repeatedly coopted by Republicans and Democrats to acquiesce to things self-evidently contrary to God’s kingdom for the sake of some political advantage in other areas. Many have identified more with party, or a particular politician or movement, than they have with the faith, and they have often ceased working to change their party from within, lest that weaken the party or candidate electorally. A Catholic should never feel fully at peace in any political party but work without ceasing to transform the platforms and positions that do not correspond to the truth taught by faith. To stop short of that is to count pieces of silver.

Fifth, blessed are the peacemakers (Mt 5:9). Many imagine peacemakers to be kumbaya-singing librarians who think that with enough timeouts, crayons, and construction paper they can convert mortal enemies into best friends. Real peacemakers are the most courageous people on the planet, who go into extremely dangerous of places to disarm the deadliest types of interpersonal bombs. Christians are called to be bomb squad technicians as well as patient and determined negotiators who persuade people to let go of their hostages, within or without. Jesus calls peacemakers “children of God”: we cannot live up to our divine filiation without becoming one.
Sixth, pray for all those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2). St. Paul wrote this as his arms were chained to walls by the very authorities who would eventually decide to behead him. Do we pray for the authorities much more than we criticize them or cheer them?

Seventh, be as shrewd as serpents but as pure as doves (Mt 10:16). The time in which we are living requires not naivete but wisdom. Jesus laments how the children of the world are more prudent than His disciples in dealing with their contemporaries (Lk 16:8). He wants us to be as savvy as He was before Pilate and Herod, and as firm in conscience as Catharine of Alexandria and Thomas More under duress. Clergy, religious, and faithful must all become, through study, experience and grace, more astute and uncontaminated.

The vocation of Christians at this troubled time is not to run to mountain top monasteries, or join the opposition, or insert within the administration. It is to be salt, light, and leaven, just like so many generations of Christians, in diverse contexts, have been before us. It is to allow Christ’s prayer Ut unum sint to become living and active within us so that we can renew our national motto E pluribus unum and help restore national unity.

knowing what we are doing

January 31, 2021

Last year, I had the privilege to offer Mass for the 5,000th time as a priest. It is a great source of thanksgiving for me. Sometimes people are surprised when other priests or I mention exactly how many Masses we have celebrated, as if, on the positive side, we might have the world’s greatest memory, or, on the negative side, we might be neurotically obsessed about details. There is a spiritual reason, however, why this is a good practice. Priests are called to celebrate each Mass as if it were their first, their last, and their only. Each Mass is meant to be cherished, because in each we engage in what our faith teaches us is the most important event that happens that day in the world, when the Son of God miraculously becomes incarnate on the altar.

Such an approach toward Jesus’ self-giving in the Eucharist is not just for priests. When I prepare young people for their first Holy Communion, I emphasize that the most important aspect of the experience is not the “first” but the “communion.” I tell them that the “second” is just as important, as is every subsequent communion. Occasionally, one of them will come to me some time later and say something moving like, “Father, today is my 100th Holy Communion!” Such a comment reveals the type of eagerness and appreciation for the Gift and the Giver that all believers should have when approaching Holy Communion. Whether or not they keep track, it shows how precious each Mass is for them.

The recent Pew Research Center study about U.S. Catholics demonstrated that we have much work to do to ensure that priests and faithful have this awareness and appreciation. Only 50 percent of U.S. Catholics said that they knew the Church’s teaching that after the consecration, the bread and wine are totally changed into Jesus’ body and blood. Even among the 50 percent of those who were aware of the Church’s teaching, a third said that they still regarded the Eucharist as a symbol, leaving only 31 percent who believe the Church’s teaching that the Eucharist is Jesus. In my articles in last month’s bulletin, I reflected on where, I think, this grave crisis in Eucharistic faith originated and on nine practices I believe would help us know, love, and live this faith better. Everything begins, however, with knowing clearly what we profess to be doing during Mass.

At his ordination, a priest kneels before the bishop who says, as he places a paten and chalice in the baby priest’s hands, “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate.” It is key for priests to recognize the supernaturally profound reality of what they are doing in the celebration of the Mass and to help the people of God recognize it too. The Pew Research Center’s study shows that we cannot take that knowledge for granted. Without this basic understanding, we cannot imitate the mystery of the Mass and “do this” in Jesus’ memory. Without it, we will not grasp who it is we receive and how He wishes in the Holy Eucharist to transform us, and through us transform the world. Therefore, now is the time for bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, parents, godparents, writers, and all those with the responsibility to pass on the faith to articulate with clarity and conviction the Church’s Eucharistic faith.

We do not have to reinvent the wheel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 1374-80, presents succinctly what we believe about the Eucharist. It underlines, “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained. This presence is called ‘real’ … because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” The Eucharist is not a symbol, but truly Jesus.

The Catechism defines transubstantiation—a term that many of the Catholics surveyed could not define—as the “conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood,” saying, “It has always been the conviction of the Church … that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” This term was first used in the 12th century by the future Pope Alexander III to describe how after the consecration, the whole substance of the bread and wine are changed into Jesus while the appearances of bread and wine—their size, extent, weight, shape, color, taste, smell—are preserved miraculously by God. “The Eucharistic presence of Christ,” it continues, “endures as long as the Eucharistic [appearances] subsist,” and for that reason it is fitting that we adore and love Him, bring Him to the sick and pray before Him in the tabernacle.

The Catechism then turns from the “that” of the Eucharist to the “why.”

“It is highly fitting,” it says, “that Christ should have wanted to remain present to his Church in this unique way. Since Christ was about to take his departure from his own in his visible form, he wanted to give us his sacramental presence, …the memorial of the love with which he loved us ‘to the end,’ even to the giving of his life. In his Eucharistic presence he remains mysteriously in our midst … under signs that express and communicate this love.” What Jesus ultimately wants is an encounter: “Jesus,” it emphasizes, “awaits us in this sacrament of love.”

In teaching about Jesus’ Real Presence, I have always found it helpful to ponder His words in Capernaum (Jn 6:22-69). There He identified Himself as the “Real Manna” and the “Bread of Life” and underlined, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains and me and I in him.” Many disciples — not strangers, but those who already believed in Him — responded, “This saying is hard who can accept it?” and many of them left. They were probably disgusted, thinking that Jesus was speaking like a cannibal. Jesus then turned to his closest followers, the apostles, and asked whether they too would leave. Peter spoke up and gave the fundamental principle of Eucharistic faith: “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.” He had no better idea of how Jesus would give His flesh and blood to consume than the departing disciples did, but because he believed in Jesus, he believed in what He said. The Church’s Eucharistic faith is based directly on our trust in Jesus.

Jesus’ words about how we would eat His flesh and drink His blood would finally make better sense a year later, when during the Last Supper, Jesus would take bread and wine, change it into His body and blood, and say, “Take and eat,” “Take and drink.” He kept the appearances of bread and wine, it seems, so that we would not be nauseated eating something that looked like human body parts rather than something reminiscent of normal food. They knew, however, that He who had changed water into wine in Cana was certainly capable of changing wine into blood. They would then become ministers of that miracle. Today, I have the awesome privilege of being Christ’s instrument to bring about that wondrous transubstantiation as I continue to strive to know what I am doing and imitate what I am celebrating.

The Knights of Our Age

January 24, 2021

It was strangely fitting that the October 31st beatification of Father Michael McGivney, a parish priest of the Diocese of Hartford and founder of the Knights of Columbus, was marked by COVID-19 restrictions because Blessed Michael died during the coronavirus pandemic in 1890, which took one million lives. He joined a list of eleven American saints and five American beatified raised to the altars. He is interred within St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, where he spent the first 7 of his 13 years as a priest serving as a parochial vicar and where he founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882.

I was at St. Mary’s shortly before I left as pastor of St. Benilde Church because I had been asked to preach at a young adult retreat on Michael McGivney and the Call to Holiness. I was moved—as a diocesan priest and a Knight of Columbus—to be in the sanctuary in which Blessed Michael brought Jesus Christ from heaven to earth, where he prayed for his people, led his people in adoration, celebrated so many baptisms and First Communions, heard countless confessions, prepared the young for the Pentecost of Confirmation, joined couples’ hands in marriage, and presided at funerals. It was particularly poignant to climb the pulpit where, with what his parishioners remember as a “soft, pleasant voice” and “perfect diction,” he shared Jesus’ words of eternal life and helped people, including many initially non-Catholics who would come to hear him preach, to embrace the truth that sets us free.

I had a chance to speak about his extraordinary deeds of charity for the sick, widows, orphans, and those on death row. He founded the Knights of Columbus as a means to institutionalize his pastoral solicitude for families that had lost a breadwinner as well as to form the men of his parish to keep and transmit the faith. Little could he have known that what he started four years after ordination with 24 laymen in the St. Mary’s basement would like a mustard seed grow into a tree encompassing 1.9 million men in 17 countries, donating 75 million volunteer hours and $185 million annually to charity.

Just like the abiding patrimony of a dad or mom is in his or her kids and grandkids and the greatest legacy of the founder of a religious order is his or her spiritual sons or daughters, so Blessed Michael’s greatest fruits are in the quality of men found in the Knights. I would like to focus on two.

The first is Daniel Schachle, whose son was healed in utero through the intercession of Blessed Michael in the miracle that led to the beatification. When Daniel and his wife Michelle—then parents of 12 children and five who had died in the womb—were informed after an ultrasound that their son had Down Syndrome, they received the news as a blessing. Later, however, their doctor discovered that he had fetal hydrops, which in most cases is fatal. The doctor suggested there was no hope and that if they terminated the life of their child, it would not “really” be abortion since the child was going to die anyway.

Daniel, who not only is a Knight but works for the Knights in Nashville, instead turned with faith and hope to Father McGivney, promising that if he prayed for their son, they would name him Michael, even though they had already settled on a family name. After asking their family members and friends to pray through Fr. McGivney’s intercession, they went on a pilgrimage they had won to Rome, Fatima, and Spain, perseveringly praying for a miracle. When they returned, they were told, to the amazement of doctors, that their child would live. Mikey was born on May 15th, 133 years to the day on which Fr. McGivney chartered the first Council of the Knights of Columbus.

The night before the beatification, Daniel gave a testimony at St. Mary’s Church about the miracle. His words conveyed the type of ordinary heroic faith found and formed in so many Knights of Columbus. Mikey, he said, “was born to a Knights of Columbus family … that had a long-standing devotion to Fr. McGivney. We had even named our home school ‘Father McGivney Academy’ over a decade ago. We’ve worked together as a family on Tootsie Roll drives, Special Olympics, food drives, other KOC charity events, and caring for widows and orphans.” Turning to the miracle, he said, “We are so humbled by this extra grace from heaven. We didn’t deserve it. We just kept trying to do what we thought God would want.” Then he got to the heart of the loving, holy generosity with which he and Michelle have lived their marriage. “I have wondered since this happened,” he said, “what if we had decided to tell God that we thought we needed to stop at 2, 4, 8, or even 10 children? We certainly had friends and even clergy along the way who suggested as much. But we can’t imagine life without Mikey and now God is working through his story to bless the whole Church.”

The other example is Andrew Walther. Andrew, a 45-year man, who had been Vice President for Communications and Strategic Planning for the Knights before being appointed President and Chief Operating Officer of EWTN News in June. Andrew had been diagnosed in July with an aggressive leukemia. Within two weeks, in circumstances that seemed miraculous, he had recovered. The week before the beatification, however, the leukemia returned, and his situation was grave. Many knelt at Blessed Michael’s tomb beseeching another miracle. The miracle for which they were asking did not come. God came for Andrew on All Saints Day.

Andrew was a true Knight. He made those around him better, bolder, wiser, and humbler. He cared for those falling through the cracks, especially those Christians persecuted in far off lands. His work for and among these heroic Christians made him even more intrepid both with regard to the causes for which he was fighting as well as to the holy grit with which he waged the battle against leukemia. He was chivalrous to the last, refusing to let his life be taken from him, but like Christ, freely laying it down for God and others (Jn 10:18). He was a living example of St. Paul’s valedictory as he fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith, in a way that taught those who knew him to fight better, run with greater urgency, and keep the faith, like him, by trying to preserve and proclaim it.

Many have remarked that today we are experiencing a crisis of manliness and especially an undermining of spiritual fatherhood. In Daniel Schachle and Andrew Walther, we see how the Knights of Columbus are forming valiant men, true sons of Father McGivney, to respond to that need.