This is a transcription (slightly edited for length and continuity) of a conversation between Matthew S. Leonard, who runs his Catholic Podcast “The Art of Catholic,” and Dr. Andrew Jones, author of the book pictured above, “Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX.” You can find the audio of this interview here, if you prefer, and I highly recommend it. I tend to listen to Catholic podcasts and lectures through the BlueTooth audio in my car. But I wanted to type this out so that I could search it and reference it as the need arises. And in doing so, I was reminded just how monumental this concept is. I read the book with great interest and joy, and that too, I highly recommend. The link is above. So in the interview below, I don’t really distinguish between what’s Matt, and what’s Andrew. But if you read through it, I have no doubt it will be quite eye-opening, and I hope you will take that as a cue to buy and read the book. Enjoy!

Almost all of us have been co-opted by a completely false narrative that has totally corrupted our view of the world and our practice of the faith. Among other things, we’re going to look at the whole notion of “church and state”: categories that are treated almost as gospel by the modern world. And we’re going to expose how what so many of us have taken for granted as gospel truth is basically bull. In other words, the very categories that we use are totally modern inventions that totally undermine the very fabric of a Christian worldview and the Catholic Church, frankly, in particular.

So much of what we have been taught all of our lives is intrinsically opposed to our beliefs, and many of us have accepted it blindly, even though it essentially crushes our faith.

The way we’re going to approach all of this is to set off the problem of the narrative we’ve been fed, and then go back and look at how things really were, using the high middle ages as an example: the time before there was such a thing as “Church and State.” What we’re going to see is that the way things have progressed from there (or regressed, as it were) basically has made it so that Christianity has nothing to say about the way things are structured in society. So we’re going to try to start to put things back in their right order and realign our perspective to a truly Catholic worldview.

And to help us begin this rethinking is a guest with whom regular listeners to the program are familiar: Dr. Andrew Jones. He’s got a PhD in Medieval History from St. Louis University, and is an expert on the Church in the High Middle Ages. He is a faculty fellow at Franciscan University, and is also the Executive Director at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He loves to destroy the anti-Catholic paradigms and the false narratives we’re all taught to believe. He has a new book: “Before Church and State – A Study of the Social Order in Saint Louis IX’s Sacramental Kingdom.” I think many of you will find this book, and hopefully our discussion today particularly relevant, given what’s happening in society.

History’s about human beings, and it’s about the course of human beings in time. In order to do history, you necessarily bring in the theory of anthropology, or theory of humanity: who is this thing that I’m studying, called man? What are we? And modernity has a certain answer to that question, and Christianity has a different one. And so if we go to history, to the evidence of history as a Christian, we’re going to see things differently, because we believe human beings are different than the way modernity presents them as.

In the past, in the Middle Ages, which we all imagine as rainy and dark and muddy, there was the Church, and there were the kings. The pope and the bishops on one side, and then there was the king and the knights and all of those. These are two different institutions, and what you’re looking at in the middle ages, there’s a lot of conflict between the two. This is the typical narrative to those who read history.

And the way we normally tell it is that the Church (so the bishops and the papacy) are corrupt, by which we mean (and you see this by the way Hollywood makes movies about them) that they’re trying to be involved in politics, basically. So they’re after power, or wealth, or whatever the things that politics are about, the Church is trying to be in charge of that, or take over it, or somehow be involved, and the result is conflict with the monarchy, with the various kings and the emperors. And so, you have the battle between the Church and State. And this manifests itself in multiple different conflicts, most famously with the investiture controversy, which if you’re kind of a history buff, you recognize the story. But basically, the story is normally told, is that over the course of the middle ages, the papacy in its attempt to beat the monarchies, sort of corrupted itself to the point where it lost all credibility. And when it did that, that’s when you get into the Avignon papacy, where the papacy is moved into France, because it’s dominated by the French monarchy. While at the same time, the papacy is sort of corrupting itself, and the bishops along with them.

In politics you have the construction of the monarchies. So the French and the English in particular, starting in the 11th century. And so you have the two corresponding movements: the decline of the power of the papacy, and the rise of the monarchies. And they’re presented as necessarily correlated in that way. Because the power of the papacy is defined, basically, as its ability to coerce monarchies. So if the monarchies are getting stronger, the papacy’s getting weaker. That’s the way we normally tell the story.

So then you move into the early modern period where you have confessionalization, basically all that means is the creation of State Churches, Protestant or Catholic, it doesn’t matter. And then you get the wars of religion spin out of that, where all these kings are fighting each other, and their religion is all wrapped up into it. And that’s universally viewed as being this horrible sequence of events that are primarily caused by the confusion of religion and politics.

And what we get out of that is the final modern “proper” sorting, where religion becomes a private, reflective category called “morality.” And then you have politics and economics, that are a different category. And the politics and economics become the social and public thing, and religion and morality becomes the private thing. The perfect example of this would be Catholic politicians who say things like, “Well, I’m personally opposed to abortion, but you know, when I’m voting for the public good or making laws, I’m going to act this other way, because my religion is separate from the secular world.”

But the reason why people can say those sorts of things is because when we say religion, now, what we mean is “things that don’t really matter.” That sounds like an extreme thing to say, but I believe that’s kind of what we mean. So, what doesn’t really matter? Heaven. And when I say it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t really matter here and now, as I walk down the street. Your relationship with God. So, your prayer life. What you do on Sunday morning. You go to the Sacraments or you don’t. You go to church or you don’t. None of these things affect the stock market. None of these things affect the war in Iraq. And so they’re not important. That’s what I mean by religion. We’ve created this category, in the modern period, where we can sort certain things that used to have real significance, socially, and declare them to be insignificant, socially, and then have a place for them to continue to survive.

The modern period was not interested, at least in its early phases, with the annihilation of Christianity. That’s not really what it’s about. In fact I would argue that, in contrary, that the modern period in a lot of ways constructs Christianity as a religion as we know it, as something that can be compared to something like Islam or Buddhism, like one religion among many.  Where do we get that idea? Well that’s a modern idea, where you have this category called “religion,” and there can be different kinds of people who have different religions. [And when we’re saying, “religion doesn’t matter, we’re talking about it from the view of modernity.] My argument is going to be that this is totally wrong.

Take someone like John Locke, for example. So John Locke basically defined religion as that category of a person’s life that is a matter of opinion, a matter of personal beliefs. And what defines it as that is that it doesn’t have social consequences. So, for example John Locke is all about religious liberty, but not for Catholics. Why? Because he’ll argue that Catholicism isn’t really a religion. Catholicism is political. Because Catholicism makes demands on the body politic, on society. And so that makes it political, as a matter of definition, not religious.

This is the same sort of thing, you can see this today, with Islam. In the pop culture we have the narrative of Islam is peaceful, it’s a peaceful religion. And that people who kill in the name of Islam are distorting it. Really (modernity will say), they’re being political. It’s a political action that’s using the religion of Islam as a tool for its ideological objectives.

But my point here is that, that’s a modern understanding of religion, and that’s all a matter of definitions. As soon as a religion becomes politically meaningful, then by definition it’s not religion anymore. So, Islam is peaceful, because all religion is peaceful. That’s what religion is. Religion is this peaceful thing we do in our private life. As soon as we try to take it out of that, and apply it anywhere else, then it becomes political, and then it’s a perversion of religion. And this is just modernity projecting its definitions of its terms. There’s no real substance there. So religion is defined as this private reflective peaceful (because it’s not politically relevant) category. And religion operates, then, within [the space politics allows it].

Here’s another example, which is great, where you can see this. The contraception mandate. What do we have going on there? The government is saying that certain businesses have to provide contraception to their employees regardless of their personal religious beliefs. Look at the way I just phrased that: “their personal religious beliefs.” So we’ve created this distinction. And what the government’s saying here is that, once you go out into the marketplace, then that’s in the public space; that’s no longer the place where religion operates. So your religious beliefs are relevant at home, and they’re relevant on Sunday, and they’re relevant those places, and that’s fine, that’s where they can survive. But once you go out into the marketplace, and start a business, then that’s where economics and politics happen, not religion. So it’s inappropriate for religion to govern how you perform those functions. And so, it’s ok for the State to coerce you to provide contraception.

The point, though, is that, that used to not be the case. So only a few decades ago, it would have seemed obvious that a private business owner, that the way he ran his business was a part of his religious beliefs. [Well you see this right now with the bakeries that won’t bake the cake to celebrate the wedding of two homosexuals.] Exactly right. So what you’re seeing happening is the re-definition of religion. So religion as a category is a category that functions within the secular politics [within the view of modernity]. That means that secular politics gets to define what the boundaries of religion are: what counts as religious and what doesn’t. That’s just another way of saying, to modernity, what are you allowed to do, and what are you not allowed to do. It doesn’t matter to us if you do this and this and this, so that’s religion. It matters to us if you do this, so that’s no longer religion, now it’s politics. What I’m arguing is that, within modernity, religion is a category of domination [by secular politics], really. To view Christianity as simply a religion, and to accept modernity’s terms on what that means, is to say that Christianity doesn’t really have anything to say about the structure of society. [And that’s where we are.]

Religious liberty, religion, all these ideas, these categories, are concepts that the overriding fundamental secular dominance controls. So what does it mean to have religious liberty? It’s like, I have the right to do this sort of thing, this list of things, in juxtaposition to this whole other world which isn’t a part of those things. [You’re setting them up against one another.]  But religious liberty, or the thing we’re free to do, which is called religion, subsists within the larger context, which is the secular. And the secular really gets to determine where the boundaries are. The government gets to say what counts as religious liberty and what doesn’t. [The secular is basically the reality, and religion just sort of exists as part of that reality.]

[So your whole argument here is basically is that there is an integration, there used to be, an integration of all this, so that these categories didn’t exist previously.] What I argue is not that in the past, the religious and the secular and the political and the Church were all mixed up together. What I’m trying to suggest is that those categories themselves didn’t exist.

Let’s talk about Sovereignty. Thomas Hobbes. 17th century, English. And he is one of the founding fathers of modern political thought. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote the book, “Leviathan.” And what he argues in it is that mankind, in its state of nature, as he calls it, is engaged in a war of “all against all.” So there’s just continual violence and each individual against every other individual, they’re all trying to seek their personal gain at the expense of each other, and that this is really sort of a nasty world. This is the famous Hobbes quote (I’m not sure I’m going to get it exactly right) that, “in the state of nature, man’s existence is nasty, brutish, and short.” What’s the solution to this war of all against all? And what Hobbes tells us is that the solution is for everybody to surrender their power to inflict violence against each other to one power, one person, who assembles together all of that power, and then has the ability to inflict violence everywhere and always; and that his power will be so overwhelming that all the other people in society will refrain from exerting their own violence, because if they do so, they’ll get the wrath of this Sovereign against them. So he’ll enforce peace. But the way in which he enforces peace is suppression of all violence. So the idea is that as soon as the overwhelming violence of the State, of the Sovereign, is weak enough that someone thinks they can get away with an act of violence against someone and profit from it, they’ll do it. Modern political thought starts here, with this idea of the conflict between people necessarily. This is human nature. There really is something to that. What is human nature? Human nature is totally depraved. [This is a completely Protestant notion, obviously, of original sin.]

One thing that is important, also, is that if that is correct, if Hobbes is right, then modern political theory may be correct. The only way you achieve any type of peace is with the overwhelming power of a State that monopolizes all violence in society, and is capable of enforcing a concord between people [a police force].

So, the Sovereign is that absolute power that all legitimate power in society is derived from. So it’s all delegation from the Sovereign. But it’s not simply that it’s the absolute power. It has to be all-encompassing power. So there’s nothing that falls outside of the power of the Sovereign. There’s no compartments of society that the Sovereign couldn’t exert force in if he saw fit.

So we have all these things like constitutions, and all these legal ways of managing the sovereign power. But when it really comes down to it, the Sovereign power can make war. Including civil war. And that is the suspension of whatever those legal formalities are. So we can have all the constitutions we want. But if there’s always the sovereign power to suspend that in the name of peace, that’s one of the defining features of sovereignty. So there is no legal limit to the power of the Sovereign. There can’t be.

[What’s the alternative?] This goes back to anthropology—the question of who we are as human beings. And this is the core of the argument I’m making. The underlying idea that leads to sovereignty is this idea of a ubiquitous and primordial violence, from the state of nature.  And what Catholicism teaches us that that’s not the case. That in fact, the primordial condition is condition of peace and love.

Think of Adam and Eve. And that sin hasn’t led to total depravity [the Protestant teaching of original sin]; sin has wounded us severely [the Catholic teaching of original sin] (and there’s all sorts of political consequences to that, which I can talk about in a minute), but it’s not complete. So, there’s still the ability for charity, for love. And that grace is what actualizes that ability. Through grace we can achieve actual virtue. What the Catholic anthropology shows us is that different people can be united with each other in their difference in a true unity that is not one of domination and submission, and it is not one of destruction of their differences. An example of this would be a father and a son. A father is a father only because he has his son. A son is a son only because he has his father. And they are very different from each other. So, the father’s responsibilities, his duties, his obligations, his role, is very different from that of the son. And their relationship, though, when they come together, if they have a relationship of perfect peace, it’s precisely in those differences that that peace exists. So, they each fulfill their obligations to each other, and they find peace, through love. But it’s not a peace of exchange—it’s a peace of gift. So, the father gives himself to the son, and the son gives himself back to the father. And they give themselves to each other in a way that’s reciprocal, that constitutes each other. Like I said, the father can’t be the father without the son, and vice versa. And it’s precisely their gifts of each other, in their difference between each other that makes their peace a real thing.

[So you’re saying that it’s differences that beget peace, and sameness will lead to violence.] In the Hobbsian modern view, the reason why two men go to war with each other is because they’re different. So one of them has more land than the other, or has land that the other guy wants, whatever it is. And those differences are what opens up the possibility of violence between the two, because they can look at each other and say, I have more power than you, therefore, I can take your things. Or, you have things I want, I’m more powerful, I think I can win, so I’m going to take it. So differences lead to conflict when two people encounter each other. And so the drive in modernity is toward sameness. How do we create peace? We create peace by making everyone the same. And the way that modernity does that is through things like rights.  In the Catholic view, difference is precisely the place where there are things like gifts, duty, responsibility, love. And it’s only in giving those gifts to each other that they have the common good, which is a family. Obviously, the reason why I’m using the father and the son analogy is because of the trinitarian connection. And that is, that man is trinitarian. By analogy we are like the trinity. And the trinity is the ultimate example of different persons whose very personhood contains within it the other persons. You can’t even talk about the Father in the Trinity without talking about the Son and the Holy Spirit. They’re constituted by each other, and yet they’re not lost into each other. Their distinctions are so profound that it’s where we get the very notion of persons. And yet their unity is real. And it’s not the unity of contract, or agreement, or compromise. It’s a true unity of perfect charity.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that in the Catholic anthropology, the Catholic conception of humanity, it’s possible for human beings to associate with each other in a way that is not based in conflict. In fact, we would reverse the modern notion, and say that human beings’ normal way of interacting with each other is in love. And that sin, which is an aberration, which is a distortion of the norm (of the very structure of reality), is where that conflict comes in.

So, what that means then, is that if you go back to that Hobbesian idea, that violence is everywhere and always, and you have the Sovereign, which is just superior violence, and that’s the only path to peace and political order. But in the Catholic conception, we deny those points. It’s not the case that human beings are necessarily always and everywhere at war with each other. And it’s not the case therefore that we need a more powerful human being who has absolute total power over all of us in order to suppress all of our violence.

[So if the modern model is wrong, how does society look, if it’s not that?] The way that I would answer that is to ask, has there ever been a society ordered by Catholic principles, and what did it look like? And that, I think, is 13th century France. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect. And that’s the thing. One of the things that’s overriding in this study is that the overarching thought is about conflict and violence and how we do deal with it, because we live in a fallen world. So it’s not some sort of utopia where there isn’t fighting. The whole father and son analogy is a perfect one, because fathers and sons fight with each other all the time. But we don’t think that a father’s relationship with his son should be the same as a father’s relationship with an employee. We think something should be really different about it. So if you imagine that relationship, of a family, extending out into larger concentric circles, involving more and more people. So you have a nuclear family, then an extended family, then a village, a tribe, a clan—but the difference in relationships is what you have in 13th century France. What that means is that relationships between people are personal.

The first thing is, stop being fooled by modernity’s linguistic games. So, Christianity is not a religion, in the modern sense. It’s a vision of all of reality, all of the cosmos. It’s a worldview that includes everything. So there’s no area of our lives that isn’t governed by what Christianity tells us to be true about the universe. All human interaction is necessarily about charity. It’s all ethical, it all has moral implications. There’s no such thing as an amoral interaction two people.

So what that is, is denying the existence of the secular. It doesn’t exist. If Christians internalize that, then it changes the way we do politics, profoundly. So what that means is that the division is not between the secular and the religious. The division is between the truth and untruth, between virtue and vice, between charity and hatred. Those are the divisions of the world. And so when you view the political scenario, that’s what you’re looking for. Not that there’s some realm of politics or economics that we can engage in in a sort of neutral way. So the first step is we stop thinking that way.

And part of that is acknowledging that other people in society that are not Christians are not themselves neutral. If you really adopt a Christian world view, you’re going to see, you’re really going to start to understand, that the opponents of Christianity are rival theologies, rival churches, rival doctrines. In religion, everything involves these questions of truth and justice.

The second thing to recognize that human beings, that the only way you get out of violence and conflict is through transforming yourself into virtue, and the Church, moving into virtue as a community, who loves God and loves neighbor. To the extent that we don’t do that, to the extent that we are selfish and greedy, and grasping, then the moderns are right, and what  we need is a totalitarian state that treats us as numbers, gives us our little battery of rights, and consigns us to our little place where we can not kill each other. But to the extent that we do move out of sin and into virtue, and to the extent that we do improve ourselves and become faithful and charitable people, that’s not true, and that’s not true of society, either. Because we become sons, and not slaves, as we move toward God.

The point, then, is that politics is not the answer. We can’t look at society and say, oh there’s this big sea of individuals out here and they’re just the way we are, and we need better policies. But Christianity teaches us that the big sea of individuals out there ought to be better people, not just better governed. So, converting society is the only path to peace. Not politics. In fact, politics, by which we mean the use of force to achieve some set of objectives, is precisely the area in the social life where sin reigns, because we’re using violence against people. So, politics is–the goal of our social action ought to be—to make politics as unnecessary as possible. To achieve social virtue to the point that the police functions of society, the coercive aspects, can recede. So, if you want liberty, if you want less state, the only way that works is through virtue. From a Christian perspective, we would like to have less people coerced, because our relationships are based on truth and love and charitable relationships, so that the need for an all-encompassing force just altogether disintegrates (or rather recedes). That’s the eschaton, in heaven. We have no problem imagining an individual getting better spiritually, but we have difficulty imagining society getting better spiritually. But human beings are by nature social, so the pursuit of sanctity is a social thing, it’s an ecclesial thing. And so for a society to pursue sanctity is inevitable if individuals are doing so. It’s two parts of the same movement.

So what does that look like? That’s the thing about a Catholic political theology. It doesn’t view humanity as this great sea of inert desires and movements like the way modern economics or modern political theory does. It views humanity as a large family of individual persons who are to love each other and have relationships with each other. And that that family’s dysfunctional. But correcting that dysfunction is the objective of the Church. And that correction is real. It actually changes. And the way people need to be instructed changes as they grow in sanctity.

If we believe that, we don’t say that there’s some sort of laws of society that are fixed. And if we figure them out properly, and design the correct mechanism, it will construct the perfect society and engineer the way people interact because we have these laws of human behavior. No, actually. The laws of human behavior change as human beings ascend toward God. So those principles of sociology, of economics, of politics, those modern principles, all assume sort of fixed nature of man. And that fixed thing is total depravity.

So you look at economics, and what’s the assumption? The underlying assumption is that man is self-interested, irrational, he makes decisions in his own self-interest, and that there’s a scarcity of resources. By which they mean that everyone would rather have more of everything at every moment if they could. So there’s always a scarcity because you would always take one more if you could. And then all of modern economics is based on that. So, I as a Christian say that’s just not true. That’s not the way human beings are. It’s the way human beings can be, and it’s maybe the way that a lot of are, and maybe the way a lot of society is.  But we don’t have to be that way. And to the extent that we are that way, ok, modern economic theory may be very good at predicting the way we’re going to behave. But it’s not going to be good at predicting the way a convent of cloistered nuns are going to behave. Why? Because they’re not that way.

So we can move away from that starting point and ascend to a higher point. And then our way of understanding human society, politics, has to change with it. What I hope you take away from this discussion is that a lot of the things we take for granted as the narrative is not right, and it’s not the Catholic worldview. This other worldview that has been foisted upon us, a lot of us have just bought this without realizing this isn’t the way that it has to be. The objective of the book is to show a time and a place where things were different, and to allow us therefore to imagine that there is a more Catholic way to approach society than what we find in modernity. We wonder why it is we’re constantly running up against these walls, and butting our heads into the rest of society? It’s because there used to be an integration that does not exist anymore. Catholicism contains the answer, because it’s given to us, the Church has been given to us, by God, so that we can ascend the divine ladder toward Christ and toward our end goal, which is the complete and full integration, that grafting into the family of God for which every one of us was made. That grafting can take place now. This worldview is what everyone one of us is called to, and the only way we’re going to get through is through a life of grace and a life of prayer. It always come back to personal sanctity.

My Favorite Christian Movies

In a recent homily, I rattled off a short list of Catholic movies as a way to introduce my discussion of “A Man for All Seasons.” I got a lot of positive feedback (for which I am very humbled and grateful), and a number of requests for that list. So I decided to assemble my particular list of movies I think Catholics who are into movies would enjoy, or at least would benefit from watching. Some of them are fun; some are more serious dialogue than action; some are difficult to watch and deal with more difficult themes, or have some violent content that parents might want to preview before watching with children. There are movies I intentionally left out, either because I didn’t particularly care for the movie, or haven’t seen the movie, or don’t remember enough of it to include. I’m sure there will be comments of recommendations, and you can take them as you will. There’s a moderate chance that I will also update this list as I watch more movies that feel they would improve my list! God bless, and Enjoy!

So…first, the Catholic movies… (in no particular order)

  • Going My Way (1944) Bing Crosby, Frank McHugh, Risë Stevens
    Bing Crosby plays Fr. O’Malley, a young, joyful priest who replaces a faithful old pastor, and raises up a boy’s choir to help raise funds for the parish
  • The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) Ingrid Bergman, Bing Crosby
    Bing Crosby reprises his role as Fr. O’Malley, this time to help a Catholic parochial school, run by Mother Superior, played by Ingrid Bergman
  • Nunsense (1993) Rue McClanahan
    A wonderfully funny and moving stage musical presented by a small cast of sisters to raise funds for their convent, and convey the beauty of religious life
  • Sister Act (1992) & Sister Act 2 (1993) Woopie Goldberg, Maggie Smith
    Lounge singer gets in trouble with the mob, Witness Protection hides her in a convent, and she can’t resist but to “help” the sisters’ struggling choir
  • Pope John Paul II (2005) Cary Elwes, John Voight, Christopher Lee
    Cary Elwes plays the young JP2, and John Voight takes over in the second half. A beautiful tribute to a beautifully holy pope.
  • Passion of the Christ (2004) Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci (dir. Mel Gibson)
    A powerfully graphic presentation of the the Passion of Christ, creatively presented in the original language of Aramaic with subtitles
  • Doubt (2008) Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
    Adapted from the stage play, it explores the distrust borne of the clergy abuse crisis. Very well acted, of course, with such a phenomenal cast.
  • I Confess (1953) Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
    A murderer confesses his criminal sin to a priest, who then becomes suspected for the murder, and is unable to defend himself.
  • The Scarlet and the Black (1983) Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer
    A Jesuit monsignor conspires to protect the people of Rome in a dangerous battle of wits with the Nazis
  • Becket (1964) Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole
    The story of Saint Thomas Becket, 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed by his friend King Henry II, expecting an easy alliance
  • A Man for All Seasons (1966) Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles
    The story of St. Thomas More, the 16th century martyr who refused to acquiesce to Henry VIII. Very clever dialogue!
  • For Greater Glory (2012) Andy Garcia, Ruben Blades, Peter O’Toole
    Movie sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, explores the Cristero movement resisting the anti-Catholic politics of early 20th c. Mexico
  • Romero (1989) Raul Julia
    The story of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who worked for peace in El Salvador’s violent mid-20th century. He was assassinated while celebrating Mass.
  • Calvary (2014) Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly
    A priest is told in confession he will be killed for the sins of the priesthood. The priest continues his ministry, trying to identify his would-be attacker.
  • Babette’s Feast (1987) Stéphane Audran
    In 19th century Denmark, two religious elderly women take in a French refugee, Babette. Pope Francis’ favorite movie.
  • The Mission (1986) Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson
    Eighteenth-century Spanish Jesuits try to protect a remote South American tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Maria Falconetti
    French silent film; regarded as a landmark of cinema, especially for Falconetti’s performance, which is listed as one of the finest in cinema history.
  • There Be Dragons (2011) Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott
    A journalist investigating the life of JoseMaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, discovers that his father was a long-time intimate friend of the saintly priest.

Christian movies (inspiring, not specifically Catholic)

  • The Chosen (2017)
    New series available online, only season one so far, presenting Jesus from the perspective of the Apostles. Beautifully done!
  • The Robe (1953)
    The Roman centurion who wins Jesus’ cloak at the foot of the cross is haunted by his cooperation in the crucifixion, and seeks the Christians.
  • Risen (2016) Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth
    A Roman Tribune in Judea is tasked to find the missing body of Jesus Christ to quash the rising tensions in the wake of the crucifixion.
  • The Nativity Story (2006) Keisha Castle-Hughes
    A beautiful presentation of Joseph and Mary as they grapple with the angel’s message and the events leading up to the birth of Jesus.
  • Son of God (2014) Diogo Morgado, Roma Downey
    Continuing from Roma Downey’s miniseries “The Bible,” which covers the Old Testament, this is one of my favorite movies of the life of Jesus.
  • The Gospel of John (2003) Christopher Plummer
    The ENTIRE Gospel of John, in 3 hours. It helps to experience this rich Gospel book in complete continuity.
  • Godspell (1973) Victor Garber, Lynne Thigpen (music by Stephen Schwartz)
    A classic “passion play” with a hippie visual representation. Beautiful, silly, and poignant, with very memorable presentations of the parables!
  • Ben Hur (1959) Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
    Epic classic movie of a 1st century Roman Jew whose adventurous life periodically encounters Jesus. The chariot race scene!
  • The Ten Commandments (1956) Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter
    The classic epic movie of Moses. The parting of the Red Sea!
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
    The latest version of this C. S. Lewis classic fantasy-Christian allegory.
  • The Shack (2017) Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Tim McGraw
    A powerful and unusual encounter with God, bringing healing from grief and unforgiveness after a child’s abduction and death
  • Favorite Evangelical Christian movies (mostly the same people involved):
    • Courageous (2011)
      Four police officers struggle with their faith and their roles as husbands and fathers; together they make a new commitment.
    • Mom’s Night Out (2014)
      The moms’ version of Courageous, builds up Christian motherhood and women trying to make it as faithful Christians in the modern world
    • War Room (2015)
      Made by the same troupe as the previous two, but better, the focus is on the family, and the spiritual battle of prayer
    • God’s Not Dead (2014) Kevin Sorbo
      This had a lot of the same feel as the above movies, perhaps a bit preachy as well, but feel-good contemporary Christian movie
    • Heaven is for Real (2014) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly
      Based on the book of the near-death experience of 4-year-old Colton Burpo, and his childlike revelation of what he experienced
    • Unplanned (2019) Ashley Bratcher
      About Abby Johnson, who left her prestigious job as a Planned Parenthood director after witnessing an abortion on an ultrasound

In looking at different lists from different sources to remind me what movies I didn’t want to to forget, I ran across this personal list on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) that has a lot of the same movies and a whole lot more! Truly Catholic Films

Reflection: Evening Prayer before Diaconate Ordination

This evening our parish celebrated Evening Prayer as a community, gathered on the occasion of offering prayers and Eucharistic Adoration for Henry Reese, who is set to be ordained as a permanent deacon in Harrisburg tomorrow morning by Bishop Gainer. Below is the reflection I offered after the ordinary psalmody for the day, and the reading from Acts 6 describing the 7 men chosen and ordained as deacons for the distribution for the needy of the Church.

Praise him, servants of the Lord, who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God. Praise the Lord for the Lord is good. Sing a psalm to his name for he is loving.”

These words from the psalms beautiful describe what we’re doing here this evening. It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give Him thanks, our holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. We praise God for the grace he gives us to fruitfully and faithfully live out the call he gives us: our vocation: our beautiful part to play in his perfect plan of love; for our salvation, and the salvation of others, and for the glorious majesty of God. As Henry will later witness to us of God’s presence with us, in his intercession for us, and in his compassionate, loving service to us, in God’s love poured out to us through him, so this evening, we witness to Henry God’s presence with him, our prayers of intercession for him, in God’s love poured out to him through us.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin, “voco, vocare, vocatio” – to call. God creates us in our mother’s womb with a job to do, a unique and irreplaceable function in God’s perfect plan of love. Of course, God wouldn’t be much of a loving and wise God if he created us for a function, and then didn’t give us the capacity to fulfill that function. So we each have our own unique assortment of gifts, talents, and natural abilities, which help us not only to discern our vocation, but to enable us to fulfill our vocation.

Unfortunately, the more we fulfill, or even prepare to fulfill, our part in God’s beautiful plan, the more the diabolical enemy is going to attack us with doubts and fear and other tools of his trade. We need to acknowledge our doubts, fears, and struggles, and entrust them to God, and ask for his protection, even asking the Saints for their prayers as well.

So now that we are aware of why we are here—to praise God as the assembly of his church, and to lift Henry up in the prayers of the Church—let’s talk for a moment about what it is that Henry’s getting himself into.

Of the seven holy sacraments of the Church, Holy Orders is one of the three that imprint an eternal mark on the soul. Like Baptism and Confirmation, once the sacrament is received, the person who received the sacrament is forever different, forever more configured to Christ according to the character of the particular sacrament. However, Holy Orders is unique among the sacraments in that it can be conferred and received in three different degrees. It is also the only sacrament that can only be conferred by a bishop, a direct successor to the apostles. The three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, to remind you, are the order of the diaconate, for deacons, the order of the presbyterate, for priests, and the order of the episcopacy, for bishops. All those fancy words are from the Greek, the Church’s first language, and the language of the New Testament. “Episcopacy,” from “episcopos,” literally means “overseer,” one who is responsible for that particular community of the Church, which is a diocese. “Presbyterate” from “presbyteros” literally means an “elder,” those who manage, temporally and spiritually, a smaller grouping, a parish, within the Christian community, representing the authority and ministry of the bishop, the overseer. And then “Diaconate,” from “diakonos,” means a “servant,” those who, like in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, are ordained to work closely with the priests in their pastoral care of the Church. Of course many people can and do assist the pastor in his pastoral care, as appointed pastoral assistants, such as those of religious orders who humbly and beautifully carry out this role with great love. So without downplaying their invaluable ministry in any way, the deacon has a particular sacramental grace, which orders his personal faculties in a way that is unique to diaconal ministry.

The deacon’s role in the order of the Church’s community is reflected in the deacon’s role in the celebration of the Church’s liturgy. The deacon has an invaluable insight, being both clergy, on the one hand, and sharing in the secular, marital, and family concerns of the laity, on the other hand. The deacon represents the Church’s care for the particular temporal and spiritual needs of the members of the Body of Christ. The deacon calls the people to repentance and conversion, in offering the Penitential Act at the beginning of the Mass, and offers the intercessions in the Mass, bringing the needs of the Church into her liturgical prayer. As the deacon proclaims the gospel in his ministry to the Church in the world, the deacon also proclaims the gospel reading to the Church in the liturgy of the Mass. He is also ordained to preach, bringing the gospel into relationship with the context and needs of the faithful living in the current times, informed by the particular experience of the faithful, and inspired by the Holy Spirit to both console—and challenge—the faithful in their own call to holiness.

The deacon, of course, also assists at the altar. As the priest is the fulfillment of the Old Testament priesthood, offering the sacrifice of the Lamb on the altar of God for the atonement and thanksgiving of the people of God, so the deacon is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Levite, the Temple attendants, assisting the priests in their liturgical sacrifice. The deacon is most especially associated with the chalice, the blood of Christ sacrificed and poured out for the salvation of the world. As Christ is the union between the life of the divine and the human, the deacon, in a way, is the union of the life of the clergy and the faithful.

For a short description of the experience of a deacon, wanting to faithfully live out his living ministry to the Church, I defer to Deacon James Keating, whose intellectual insight, dry sense of humor, and desire for holy ministry, I greatly appreciate. To paraphrase Deacon Keating:

“…[T]he vocation of the deacon is complex. The complexity arises from the net of relationships in which the deacon finds himself upon ordination, a net that is not to be escaped but embraced. Unfortunately, the intricacy of the relationships of the diaconate can tempt a man to despair, as he makes efforts to please all of his constituencies: wife, children, bishop, pastor, employer, parishioners… fellow deacons, and more. …[T]he deacon also feels pressed to “perform” well in his ministries, which can be various and often emotionally consuming; however, looking at the vocation of deacon from the perspective of what Christ is sharing with him, the deacon can receive clarity on a vital truth: it is not the quantity of acts of service that matter to Christ, but simply one’s fidelity to the character of ordination. Excessive activity and neurotic hand-wringing about whether “I am doing enough to help others” gives birth only to stress, not holiness…

The key to living the diaconate in a simple yet effective way is found within one’s fidelity to the character received at ordination. … As one meditates upon the meaning of diaconal character, one realizes that Holy Orders mediates a gift to be received and not simply tasks to accomplish. [As a deacon embraces his ordained vocation…], the various and complex relationships that make up his life will become a support to him in his ministry and will no longer be rivals for his time and emotional capital.”

We’re gathered here this evening to praise God, and to thank him for his merciful love. We’re gathered here to pray for Henry, and to assure him of our love and support, as he becomes, and learns and embraces what it means to be… a holy deacon of the Church.

Saint Stephen, the Deacon… Pray for us.
St. Philip, the Deacon… Pray for us.
St. Lawrence the deacon, and patron saint of deacons… Pray for us.

C. S. Lewis – The Weight of Glory

The book “The Weight of Glory,” was published in 1941, containing nine sermons and addresses delivered by Lewis during World War II, including “Transposition,” “On Forgiveness,” “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” “Learning in War-Time,” and his most famous, “The Weight of Glory.” This text is widely available online. But so that I am not dependent on any of those sites maintaining their pages, I have added another page here. The blue text is what I highlighted when I originally read it. The red text is the substance of what is usually being spoken of when anyone makes reference to “the weight of glory.” 

The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses : C. S. Lewis : 9780684823843

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of rewards. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not, victory being the proper reward of battle as marriage is the proper reward of love. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation. There is also a third case, which is more complicated. An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just insofar as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward.

The Christian, in relation to heaven, is in much the same position as this schoolboy. Those who have attained everlasting life in the vision of God doubtless know very well that it is no mere bribe, but the very consummation of their earthly discipleship; but we who have not yet attained it cannot know this in the same way, and cannot even begin to know it at all except by continuing to obey and finding the first reward of our obedience in our increasing power to desire the ultimate reward. Just in proportion as the desire grows, our fear lest it should be a mercenary desire will die away and finally be recognized as an absurdity. But probably this will not, for most of us, happen in a day; poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.

But there is one other important similarity between the schoolboy and ourselves. If he is an imaginative boy, he will, quite probably, be reveling in the English poets and romancers suitable to his age some time before he begins to suspect that Greek grammar is going to lead him to more and more enjoyments of this same sort. He may even be neglecting his Greek to read Shelley and Swinburne in secret. In other words, the desire which Greek is really going to gratify already exists in him and is attached to objects which seem to him quite unconnected with Xenophon and the verbs in μι. Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. And this, I think, is just what we find. No doubt there is one point in which my analogy of the schoolboy breaks down. The English poetry which he reads when he ought to be doing Greek exercises may be just as good as the Greek poetry to which the exercises are leading him, so that in fixing on Milton instead of journeying on to Aeschylus his desire is not embracing a false object. But our case is very different. If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy.

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now. Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever. Hence all the nonsense that Mr. Shaw puts into the final speech of Lilith, and Bergson’s remark that the élan vital is capable of surmounting all obstacles, perhaps even death—as if we could believe that any social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics.

Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.

Here, then, is the desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies. Our sacred books give us some account of the object. It is, of course, a symbolical account. Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience. The scriptural picture of heaven is therefore just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself; heaven is not really full of jewelry any more than it is really the beauty of Nature, or a fine piece of music. The difference is that the scriptural imagery has authority. It comes to us from writers who were closer to God than we, and it has stood the test of Christian experience down the centuries. The natural appeal of this authoritative imagery is to me, at first, very small. At first sight it chills, rather than awakes, my desire. And that is just what I ought to expect. If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I expect it to be less immediately attractive than “my own stuff.” Sophocles at first seems dull and cold to the boy who has only reached Shelley. If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.

The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised (1) that we shall be with Christ; (2) that we shall be like Him; (3) with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; (4) that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and (5) that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’s temple. The first question I ask about these promises is “Why any one of them except the first?” Can anything be added to the conception of being with Christ? For it must be true, as an old writer says, that he who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only. I think the answer turns again on the nature of symbols. For though it may escape our notice at first glance, yet it is true that any conception of being with Christ which most of us can now form will be not very much less symbolical than the other promises; for it will smuggle in ideas of proximity in space and loving conversation as we now understand conversation, and it will probably concentrate on the humanity of Christ to the exclusion of His deity. And, in fact, we find that those Christians who attend solely to this first promise always do fill it up with very earthly imagery indeed—in fact, with hymeneal or erotic imagery. I am not for a moment condemning such imagery. I heartily wish I could enter into it more deeply than I do, and pray that I yet shall. But my point is that this also is only a symbol, like the reality in some respects, but unlike it in others, and therefore needs correction from the different symbols in the other promises. The variation of the promises does not mean that anything other than God will be our ultimate bliss; but because God is more than a Person, and lest we should imagine the joy of His presence too exclusively in terms of our present poor experience of personal love, with all its narrowness and strain and monotony, a dozen changing images, correcting and relieving each other, are supplied.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendor like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

When I began to look into this matter I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson, and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation” by God. And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards. I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. Not only in a child, either, but even in a dog or a horse. Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this most innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment—a very, very short moment—before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure. And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex forever will also drown her pride deeper than Prospero’s book. Perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself; “it is not for her to bandy compliments with her Sovereign.” I can imagine someone saying that he dislikes my idea of heaven as a place where we are patted on the back. But proud misunderstanding is behind that dislike. In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

And now notice what is happening. If I had rejected the authoritative and scriptural image of glory and stuck obstinately to the vague desire which was, at the outset, my only pointer to heaven, I could have seen no connection at all between that desire and the Christian promise. But now, having followed up what seemed puzzling and repellent in the sacred books, I find, to my great surprise, looking back, that the connection is perfectly clear. Glory, as Christianity teaches me to hope for it, turns out to satisfy my original desire and indeed to reveal an element in that desire which I had not noticed. By ceasing for a moment to consider my own wants I have begun to learn better what I really wanted. When I attempted, a few minutes ago, to describe our spiritual longings, I was omitting one of their most curious characteristics. We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light. What we feel then has been well described by Keats as “the journey homeward to habitual self.” You know what I mean. For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can: “Nobody marks us.” A scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate, it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

Perhaps it seems rather crude to describe glory as the fact of being “noticed” by God. But this is almost the language of the New Testament. St. Paul promises to those who love God not, as we should expect, that they will know Him, but that they will be known by Him (1 Cor. 8:3). It is a strange promise. Does not God know all things at all times? But it is dreadfully reechoed in another passage of the New Testament. There we are warned that it may happen to anyone of us to appear at last before the face of God and hear only the appalling words, “I never knew you. Depart from Me.” In some sense, as dark to the intellect as it is unendurable to the feelings, we can be both banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other hand, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

And this brings me to the other sense of glory— glory as brightness, splendor, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more—something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch. For you must not think that I am putting forward any heathen fancy of being absorbed into Nature. Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life. At present, if we are reborn in Christ, the spirit in us lives directly on God; but the mind and, still more, the body receives life from Him at a thousand removes—through our ancestors, through our food, through the elements. The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus filtered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. As St. Augustine said, the rapture of the saved soul will “flow over” into the glorified body. In the light of our present specialized and depraved appetites, we cannot imagine this torrens voluptatis, and I warn everyone most seriously not to try. But it must be mentioned, to drive out thoughts even more misleading—thoughts that what is saved is a mere ghost, or that the risen body lives in numb insensibility. The body was made for the Lord, and these dismal fancies are wide of the mark.

Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden. 

Homily: Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday)

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3rd Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 35:1–6A, 10
Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-1

Every Mass has an Entrance Antiphon, like the refrain to the responsorial psalm, which we would say or sing it at the beginning of the Mass, which sets the theme for the Mass. For Sundays, the Entrance Antiphon is replaced by singing the Entrance chant or hymn, which often reflects the same theme. The Sunday half-way through Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, because the Entrance Antiphon begins “Gaudete in Domino semper” (which means, “Rejoice in the Lord always!”). It is one of only two days when the liturgical color of the Mass is rose, with rose vestments; also, the rose candle of the Advent wreath.

The other rose day is Laetare Sunday, which falls half-way through Lent. Laetare is from the beginning of the entrance antiphon of that day, “Lætare, Jerusalem” (which means, “Rejoice, Jerusalem”). Both of these rose-colored days of rejoicing fall in the middle violet-colored seasons of preparation and penitence… not necessarily as a break from the penitence, but to remind ourselves that our penitence itself ought to be joyful: we’re suffering our penitence to more fully experience the mercy and glory of God.

I could never remember which one was in Advent and which one was in Lent. But I finally figured out which antiphon is chanted in which season, because “Laetare” and “Lent” both begin with “L” … and in Advent we chant no “L”. 😊

I noticed that both words mean rejoice, so I looked up the difference. The Laetare joy of Lent is an outward joy, which fits the outward direction of Lent, toward external expressions of penitence (prayer, fasting, almsgiving), which prepare us for the joy bursting forth at the Resurrection of the Lord, and the message to go out to all the world and share the good news. The rejoicing of the Advent Gaudete Sunday is a more internal joy, which fits the inward progression of Advent from the universal day of judgment at the end of time, toward focusing into the intimate, silent night of Christ’s birth, and the message that we need to prepare the path for Christ to be born in our hearts, especially with so many holiday distractions.

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song… they will see the glory of the LORD.” As the prophet Isaiah paints this image of green, flowery vegetative life, you might imagine that it was even more beautiful to a people living in a dry desert. In the eschatological (the end-time consummation of the world) sense, Isaiah is alluding to a new exodus to the new Promised Land, a restoration to Eden, with its lush growth and abundance of life. But in Isaiah’s direct sense, he’s not talking about vegetative growth. The “desert” and “parched land” weren’t the wilderness around Israel; it was the corrupted hearts of the people of Israel, that had turned away from God, the source of life and goodness. But to those who would be faithful, God himself would come to refresh his people with streams of living water, making their hearts fruitful and flowing with life.

Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God… he comes to save you.” We see through Isaiah a promise from God of healing, of restoration, of reassurance: hands that are feeble will be strengthened to do good works, knees that are weak will stand with confidence and assurance, and hearts that are frightened will be filled with the Holy Spirit, which casts out fear with the blessing of divine love.

God would come to save his people! “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.” That’s the key to the reading: God himself is coming to save and heal and restore his people.

Look at our responsorial psalm. First, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help.” Which is to say, nothing of this earth will save us; nothing will do all of what God has promised us He will do. To put our faith in things of this world is disordered and weak, and ultimately will fail. The whole psalm is about the coming of, not just God in a general way, but when you see the words LORD in all capital letters, that’s a textual substitution for the most holy personal name of the most holy God of Israel, the God who has revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, the God who is going to come in person to save his people. So if you look at that Psalm it begins by saying: Praise the LORD, O my soul! Not an abstract divine entity, but the personal God who cares for us, His people. It is the LORD, it says, who secures justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the captives free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down… The LORD upholds the widow and the fatherless. He defends and lifts up those who are vulnerable.

Last week, in our gospel reading, we had John active in his ministry, and near the beginning of Jesus’. Now we have Jesus active in his ministry, and near the end of John’s. And John “sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” This seems rather odd, if we remember that John baptized Jesus, and immediately acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. Perhaps John is no longer sure that Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps it was easier for John to believe before he was suffering in prison. Jesus hasn’t gone to Jerusalem to reign over Israel as king. He hasn’t set the captives (including John!) free, and he hasn’t baptized the repentant with the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t seem to be the Messiah that John was expecting.

But the better interpretation is that John not only knows that Jesus is the Messiah, but also knows that he himself is about to die in prison. The 16th century Jesuit priest and commentator Cornelius à Lapide says:

John then, a little before his martyrdom, sent these disciples to Christ that they might learn from Himself that He was the very Messiah, or Christ, that when John was dead they might go to Him. John sends his disciples, and asks Jesus whether He be the Coming One, i.e., the Messiah, not as doubting about Him, but because, being near death, he wished his hesitating disciples to be instructed concerning Him, that they might be led to Christ. He in his own name asks Jesus if He be the Christ, because his disciples would not, of themselves, have dared to propose such a question. John, when he had fulfilled his office and ministry, resign it to Christ. And, as the dayspring dies away into the rising sun, so did John pale before Christ. He was ambitious not of his own glory, but of God’s and Christ’s glory. Wherefore he said, “It behoveth Him to increase, but me to decrease.”

You’ll notice that the question isn’t, “Are you the Messiah?” but, Are you the one who is to come?That is an allusion to Old Testament prophecies of the coming one, the coming of God, prophesied by Isaiah, such as in our first reading. Also, from that heavenly vision of the prophet Daniel: “As I watched, Thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire… I saw coming with the clouds of heaven One like a son of man. When he reached the Ancient of Days and was presented before him, He received dominion, splendor, and kingship; all nations, peoples and tongues will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed.”

And in response to the question from John’s disciples, Jesus doesn’t say “I am the Messiah.” He asks the disciples, in a sense, “Do you have the eyes to see, and the heart to understand?” Then go tell John what you see. And he gives a list of criteria that should tell the disciples who he really is. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have good news preached to them.

We’ll come back to this in a moment, but Jesus then asks the crowds, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” In other words, John is not a reed, that blows this way and that with the wind. He had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, and continues in his conviction. “Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.” John was clearly not about compromises with this world, He was eating locusts and honey, wearing a hair shirt and leather belt. Much like the great prophet Elijah. John is not soft and delicate. “Then why did you go out?  To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.”  This is a reference to the book of the prophet Malachi. Malachi doesn’t say anything about the Messiah, but rather about Elijah returning to herald the coming of the God of Israel himself.

And to stress the point even more, Jesus adds that the lepers are going to be cleansed and that the dead will be raised. You might remember when we talked about the healing of the leper Naaman the Syrian. His king sent a letter about Naaman to the King of Israel, and I pointed out his response, which was, “Am I God that I could heal a man with leprosy?” So the assumption was that there are some miracles that only God himself could do. The same thing is true when he says “that the dead are raised up.” There he is alluding to Isaiah 26, one of the two places in the Old Testament that refers to the resurrection of the dead. And when is that? When God comes, the dead are going to be raised.

And then last, but not least, Jesus says “and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them”. That is a prophecy of the Messiah that alludes to Isaiah 61, which is the scroll that Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth: the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed (messiah) me to preach good news to the captives and to the poor.” So Jesus is combining these two prophecies of the coming of God and the coming Messiah, to tell John, and everyone, that he is more than the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of David. He is the God of Israel, the Good Shepherd himself, who has come to heal and save his people. This is whose birth, whose advent (“coming toward”), we are preparing ourselves to receive in his royal birth, the Newborn King, about whom the angel choirs sing.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will

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At the end of our gospel reading, Jesus, having affirmed who he is, then affirms who John is.Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Now especially as Catholics, we can struggle with this saying. Jesus is born of woman. Is John greater than he? The Blessed Mother is born of woman. Is John greater than she? I think the way to understand this is to point out that at the time Jesus was speaking, John would die in prison before Jesus manifested himself in his death and resurrection. He was the last of the Old Covenant prophets announcing the coming of the Messiah, and John was the greatest of them, because he announced not just the Messiah, but the divine Messiah. He was the precursor of the coming of God himself. Yet John was of the Old Covenant. The “least in the kingdom of God”, we who are of the New Covenant, are more than just born of women… we are born of water and the Holy Spirit…of the Holy Spirit and fire. We are reborn in grace. 

Perhaps this is also a reminder to us, reading this gospel, that the evangelists (gospel writers) wrote decades after Christ, even after Paul’s letters. So the evangelists are writing to their own Christian communities, enduring persecution, suffering, and martyrdom, and recording for their encouragement the origin story of their faith: the life, words, and actions of Christ. And so St. Matthew is writing to a community who has already lost members to martyrdom, that as great and holy as everyone acknowledges John the Baptist to have been, they, too, will be great and holy (even more so than John!) if they persevere in the faith in the face of their suffering and martyrdom. 

Jesus also tells the disciples, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Now why would he add that? Because there are going to be a lot of people who take offense. He’s revealing that he is both the Messiah and God himself. But he’s going to challenge long-held interpretations about the Law and the Temple; he’s going to lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty; he’s going to be simple, poor, suffering, and crucified. The phrase “take no offense” in the Greek is skandalon: the root of our word, “scandal.” It means a “stumbling block.” Someone who causes scandal introduces a stumbling block for others. The cross is going to be, and has been, a scandal, a stumbling block, for many.

There’s a certain importance to the reality that Jesus, or at least Jesus in the gospels, doesn’t explicitly answer “Yes” to the questions of “Are you the Messiah? Are you the one who is to come?” Instead, the reader is presented all the evidence, given the truth, and then the reader is asked, “Do you have the eyes to see, and the heart to understand?” The reader is required to be the one to make the declaration for themselves. The gospel isn’t about Matthew confessing his faith: it’s about him leading his reader to confessing that same true faith. We know Jesus healed the blind, and the deaf, and the lame, and healed lepers and raised the dead. We know these were given by the prophets as signs of the One who is to come, the Messiah, God himself. So can we do it? Will we do it? Will we make the profession that YES—I believe and confess JESUS CHRIST IS GOD, He IS the One who is to come. Matthew, and Jesus, don’t spoon feed it to us. They make us say it for ourselves.

Next Sunday evening (December 22) at 7:00 p.m. we have our parish Advent Penance Service. If you haven’t been to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a few months, or a few years, or a lot of years, we’re going to have a bunch of priests here, you can go anonymously, you can go face to face, but go. Going to the sacrament of Reconciliation is the best way to prepare yourself, your family, your children, for Christmas. It is the removal of the obstacles in your heart to experience Christ’s coming. It’s preparing the way for him in the wilderness of a heart disordered by sin, fear, guilt, and shame, that our God who comes to us to connect our humanity to his divinity may heal you, and renew you, and restore you to communion with himself.

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Be back soon…

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Sorry that it’s been a while, and thank you for your patience. We’ve had a succession of great things happening at the parish, with the Easter octave, then 2nd week of Easter with First Communion, a beautiful wedding, and our Divine Mercy Holy Hour, and a really big and sad funeral, school arts and music celebrations, and our annual parish budget preparation (late, of course), and this and that. And the homilies have had to deal not just with the readings, but with some in-house things that we needed to talk out as a parish family, and I didn’t think that it needed to be posted for all the world to see.

So I’ll start posting homilies again shortly. Pray for me and my little flock, and we will pray for you. God bless you!


Transcript: Peter Kreeft’s Lecture “The Culture War”

Image result for peter kreeftI absolutely love this talk. I found a recording of the lecture available for free on Dr. Kreeft’s webpage when I first learned about him. I listened to this recording so much that excerpts of it unceasingly came to mind. I wanted to have easier access to the parts that I wanted to quote, so I took the time to transcribe the recording. I put it here, partly for my own convenience, and partly to share it for others.

And the key to this, of course, is not that the Culture War is “left vs. right,” or “liberal vs. conservative,” but the spiritual war of good vs. evil. The left and right must stop seeing each other as the enemy, and rather see each other as partly their ally, and partly the victim of the enemy. Because we will need to fight together against the greater enemy that can destroy us all: evil. 

imagesDr. Kreeft has a few newer talks on YouTube with the title “Culture War” (including one modeled on “The Screwtape Letters”). But this first one is still my favorite. For those who want to hear the actual recorded lecture, I’ve included a link to it here. You can download it and have it in your own media library. God bless you! Enjoy!


To win any war, and any kind of war, the three most necessary things we must know are

  • First, that we are at war.
  • Second, who are enemy is, and
  • Third, what weapons or strategies can defeat him.

We cannot win a war

  • First, if we are blissfully sowing peace banners on a battle field, or
  • Second, if we are too busy fighting civil wars against our allies, or
  • Third, if we are using the wrong weapons. For instance, we must fight fire with water, not fire.

So this talk is a very basic elementary three-point check list to be sure we all know this minimum, at least.

  • First, that we are at war.

I assume you would not even be coming to a talk titled, “How to Win the Culture War” if you thought all was well. If you are surprised to be told that our entire civilization is in crisis, I welcome you back from your nice vacation on the moon.

Many minds do seem moonstruck, puttering happily around the Titanic, blandly arranging the deck chairs. Especially the intellectuals, who are supposed to have their eyes more open, not less. But in fact, they are often the bland leading the bland. I have verified over and over again that the principle that there is only one thing needed for you to believe any of the one hundred most absurd ideas possible for any human being to conceive— you must have a PhD.

For instance, take Time magazine—please do. Henry David Thoreau said, “Read not the Times, read the Eternities.” Two Aprils ago, their lead article was devoted to the question, “Why is everything getting better? Why is life so good in America today? Why does everyone feel so satisfied and optimistic about the quality of life and the future?” I read the article very carefully, and found that not once did they even question their assumption. They just wondered “Why?” And you thought enlightenment optimism and the dogma of progress was dead? It turned out, upon reading the article, that every single aspect of life they mentioned, every reason why everything was getting better and better, was economic. People have more money. Period. End of discussion. Except the poor, of course, who are poorer. But they don’t count, because they don’t write Time. They don’t even read it.

I suspect that Time is merely Playboy with clothes on. For one kind of playboy, the world is one great big whorehouse. For another, it’s one great big piggybank. For both kinds of playboy, things are getting better and better. Just ask the 75% of Americans who love Bill Clinton, the perfect synthesis of the two.

They love him for the same reason that the Germans loved Hitler at first, when they elected him. Economic efficiency. Autobahns and Volkswagens. Jobs and housing. Hitler wrought the greatest economic miracle of the century in the 30’s. What else matters, as long as the emperor gives you bread and circuses? People are pigs, not saints, after all. They love slops more than honor. I think sexual pigginess and economic pigginess are natural twins. For lust and greed are almost interchangeable. In fact, our society sometimes doesn’t seem to know the difference between sex and money. It treats sex like money, and treats money like sex. It treats sex like money because it treats it like a medium of exchange, and it treats money like sex because it expects its money to get pregnant and reproduce all the time. So we need some very elementary sex education.

There is however, an irrefutable refutation of the pig philosophy: the simple, statistical fact that suicide—the most in-your-face index of unhappiness—is directly—not indirectly—proportionate to wealth. The richer you are, and the richer your country is, the more likely it is that you will find life so good that you will choose to blow your brains out. Perhaps that is a culmination of open-mindedness.

Suicide among pre-adults has increased 5000% since the “happy days” of the ’50’s. If suicide, especially of the coming generation, is not an indication of crisis, I don’t know what is. Just about everybody, except the deep thinkers, know that we are in deep doo-doo. The students know it, but not the teachers—the mind-molders, especially in the media. Everybody in the hospitals except the doctors know that we are dying. Night is falling. Mother Theresa said, simply—

“When a mother can kill her baby, what is left of civilization to save?”

What Chuck Olsen has called “a new dark age” is looming. A darkness that christened itself “the Enlightenment” at its birth three centuries ago. And this “Brave New World” has proved to be only a cowardly old dream. We are able to see this now, as the century of genocides closes—the century that had been called “the Christian century” at its birth by the founders of a magazine devoutly devoted to false prophesy.

We’ve also have some true prophets who have warned us—

  • Kierkegaard, 150 years ago, in The Present Age.
  • Spengler, almost a hundred years ago, in The Decline of the West
  • G. K. Chesterton, who wrote 75 years ago, “the next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality. And especially on sexual morality. And the madness of tomorrow will come not from Moscow but from Manhattan.”
  • Aldous Huxley, 65 years ago, in Brave New World
  • C. S. Lewis, 55 years ago, in The Abolition of Man
  • David Riesman, 45 years ago, in The Lonely Crowd
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 25 years ago, in his Harvard Commencement Address.
  • And John Paul the Great—the greatest man in the worst century in history—who had even more chutzpah than Ronald Reagan, who called them the “evil empire,” by calling us, “the culture of death.” That’s our culture, and his—including Italy, which now has the lowest  birthrate in the entire world, and Poland, which now wants to share in the West’s great abortion holocaust.

If the God of Life does not respond to this culture of death with judgment, then God is not God. If God does not honor the blood of hundreds of millions of innocent victims of this Culture of Death, then the God of the bible, the God of Abraham, the God of Israel, the God of the Prophets, the God of orphans and widows, the defender of the defenseless, is a man-made myth. A fairytale. A comfortable idea as substantial as a dream.

But—you may object—is not the God of the bible forgiving? He is. But the unrepentant refuse forgiveness. Forgiveness, being a gift of grace, must be freely given and freely received. How can it be received by a moral relativist who denies that there is anything to forgive, except unforgivingness? Nothing to judge but judgmentalism? Nothing lacking but self-esteem? How can a Pharisee or a pop-psychologist be saved?

But—you may object—is not the God of the bible compassionate? He is. But he is not compassionate to Moloch, and Baal, and Asheroth. And to the Canaanites who do their work, who cause their children to pass through the fire. Perhaps your god is compassionate to the work of human sacrifice, the god of your demands, the god of your religious preference, but not the God of the bible. Read the book. Look at the data.

But—is not the God of the Bible revealed most fully and finally in the New Testament, rather than the Old? In sweet and gentle Jesus, rather than wrathful and warlike Jehovah? The opposition is heretical. It is the old Gnostic, Manichaean, Marcionist heresy, as immoral as the demons that inspired it. Our data refute it—our live data—which is divine data, and talking data, thus His name is the Word of God. This data refuted the heretical hypothesis in the question when he said, “I and the Father are one.”

The opposition between “nice Jesus” and “nasty Jehovah” denies the very essence of Christianity: Christ’s identity as the son of God. For, let us remember our biology as well as our theology: Like Father, like Son. That Christ is no more the son of that God than Barney is the son of Hitler.

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

He does so gladly. The gospels are pop-up books. Open their pages, and he leaps out. Let’s dare to open our data. Let’s see what sweet and gentle Jesus actually said about the sins of the Canaanites, about the Culture of Death.

Many centuries ago, those Canaanites used to perform their liturgies of human sacrifice, their infanticidal devotions to the devil in the valley of Gehenna, or Gehinnom, just outside Jerusalem. It was a vast abortuary, like our culture. When the people of God entered the promised land, the Prince of Peace [the Word of God] commanded them to kill the supernatural cancer of the Canaanites. Even after that was done, the Jews dared not to live in that valley, or even set foot there. They used it to burn their garbage. So the devil’s promised land became God’s garbage dump. And the fires never went out, day or night. No matches, remember.

Now, sweet and gentle Jesus chose this place, Gehenna, as his image for hell. And he told many of the leaders of his Chosen People that they were headed there, and that they were leading many others there with them. He said, to them, “Truly, truly I say to you: The IRS agents and White House interns will enter the kingdom of God before you.” That’s the modern dynamic equivalence translation.

He said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone was hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” That is our data. That is the real Jesus. And that is the Jesus who is the same yesterday, day, and forever. I do not think he has started manufacturing Styrofoam millstones.

But—is not God a lover, rather than a warrior? No, God is a lover who is a warrior. The question fails to understand what love is. What the love that God is, is. Love is at war with hate, and betrayal, and selfishness, and all love’s enemies. Love fights. Ask any parent. Yuppie-love, like puppy-love, may be merely compassion, the fashionable love today. But father-love and mother-love is war. God is love, indeed. But what kind of love? Back to our data! Does scripture call him “God the puppy” or God the yuppie”—or is it “God the Father”?

In fact, every page of this book bristles with spear-points, from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20. The road from Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained is soaked in blood. At the very center of the story is a cross—a symbol of conflict if there ever was one. The theme of spiritual warfare is never absent in scripture. And never absent in the life and writings of a single saint. But it is almost never present in the religious education of my students at BC ([Boston College]; BC, by the way, stands for “Barely Catholic”).

Whenever I speak of this they are stunned and silent as if they had suddenly entered another world. They have. They have gone through the wardrobe to meet the Lion and the Witch—past the warm-fuzzies, the fur coats of psychology disguised as religion, into the cold snows of Narnia, where the White Witch is the Lord of this world, and Aslan is not a tame lion, but a warrior. A world where they meet Christ the King, not Christ the kitten.

Welcome back from the moon, kids.

Who doesn’t know we’re at war? Who doesn’t know that the barbarians are at the gates? No—inside the gates, writing the scripts of the TV shows and movies and public-school textbooks and juridical decisions? Only the ones in the lunar-bubble of academia. Or the lunar bubble of establishment religion education programs, with their unprofitable prophets who cry, “Peace, Peace” when there is no peace, the ones who compose those dreary, drippy, little liberal lullabies we endure in contemporary hymns.

The drug dealers know we’re at war. The prostitutes know we’re at war. The beggars in Calcutta know we’re at war. The Polish grandmothers know we’re at war. The Cubans know we’re at war. The Native-Americans knew we were at war, until we gave them firewater and then gambling casinos to dull their dangerously awake minds.

Where is this Culture of Death coming from?

Here. America is the center of the Culture of Death. America is the world’s one and only cultural superpower. If I haven’t shocked you yet, I will now. Do you know what pious Muslims call us? “The Great Satan.” Impious Muslims call us that too, but that makes no difference, we are what we are. And do you know what I call them? I call them right.

But—America has the most just and most moral and most wise and most biblical historical constitution and foundation in the world. Yes, just like ancient Israel.

And America is one of the most religious countries in the world. Yes, just like ancient Israel.

And the Church is big and rich and free in America. Yes, just like ancient Israel.

And if God still loves his Church in America, he will soon make it small, and poor, and persecuted, just has he did to ancient Israel.

So that he can keep it alive, by pruning it. If he loves us, he will cut the dead wood away, and we will bleed, and blood of the martyrs will be the seed of the Church again, and a second spring will come, and new buds. But not without blood. It never happens without blood. Without sacrifice. Without suffering. Christ’s work—if it is really Christ’s work, and not a comfortable counterfeit—never happens without the cross. Whatever happens without the cross may be good work, but it is not Christ’s work. For Christ’s work is bloody. Christ’s work is a blood transfusion. That is how salvation happens.

And if we put gloves on our hands to avoid the splinters from this cross, if we practice safe spiritual sex, spiritual contraception, then his kingdom will not come, and his work will not be done, and our world will die.  I don’t mean merely that Western Civilization will die, that’s a piece of trivia. I mean eternal souls will die. Billions of Ramon’s and Vladimir’s and Tiffany’s and Bridget’s will go to hell. That’s what’s at stake in this war. Not just whether America will become a banana republic, or whether we’ll forget Shakespeare, or even whether some nuclear terrorist will incinerate half of humanity. But rather, whether our children and our children’s children will see God forever.  That’s what’s at stake in Hollywood vs. America. That’s why we must wake up and smell the corpses, the rotting souls, the dying children.

Knowing we are at war, at all times, but especially as such times as these, is the first prerequisite for winning it. The second prerequisite is knowing who is our enemy.

  • Second, who is our enemy?

For almost half a millennium, Protestants and Catholics have thought of the other as the enemy, the problem, and have addressed the problem by consigning their bodies to graves on battlefields and their souls to hell. Gradually, the light dawned. Protestants and Catholics are not enemies, they are separated brethren who are fighting together against the same enemy.

Who is that enemy?

For almost two millennia, many Christians thought it was the Jews, and did such Christ-less things to our fathers-in-the-faith that we made it almost impossible for the Jews to see their God—the true God—in us.

Today, many Christians think it is the Muslims. But they are often more loyal to their half-Christ than we are to our whole-Christ. And they live more godly lives following their fallible scriptures and their fallible prophet than we do in following our infallible scriptures and our infallible prophet. If you compare the stability of the family and the safety of children among Muslims and among Christians in today’s world, or if you compare the rate of abortion, divorce, adultery, and sodomy among Muslims and Christians in today’s world, and if you dare to apply to this data the principles announced by the prophets in our own scriptures, when they say repeatedly that God blesses those who obey his law, and punish those who do  not, then I think you will know why Islam is growing faster than Christianity today. Faithful Muslims serve under the same general God, though through a different and more primitive communications network. And the same I think is true of the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Quakers.

So who are our enemies?

Many of us think our enemies are the “liberals.” But for one thing that word is almost meaninglessly flexible, and for another thing, it’s a political term, not a religious one. Whatever is good or bad about any of the forms of political liberalism, it is neither the cause nor the cure of the spiritual cancer that makes this cultural war a spiritual one, a matter of life or death—eternal life or death, not political or economic life or death. Whether Jack and Jill go up the hill to heaven, or down the hill to hell will not be decided by whether government welfare checks increase or decrease.

Our enemies are not even the anti-Christian bigots who want to kill us, whether they are communist Chinese totalitarians who imprison and persecute Christians, or Sudanese Muslim terrorists who enslave and murder Christians. They are not our enemies, they are our patients. They are the ones we are trying to save. We are Christ’s nurses. Some of the patients think the nurses are their enemies, but the nurses must know better. Our word for them is, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Our enemies are not even the cankerworm within our own culture—the media of the Culture of Death—the Larry Flints and Ted Turners and Howard Sterns and Time-Warners and Disneys. They, too, are victims, and they, too, are our patients, though they hate the hospital, and go running around poisoning other patients. But the poisoners are our patients, too, for whoever poisons, was first poisoned himself.

This is true also of gay and lesbian activists, and feminist witches and abortionists. If we are the cells in Christ’s body, we do what he did to these people: we go into their gutters, and pick up the spiritually dying, and kiss those who spit at us, and even shed our blood for them if necessary. If we do not all physically go into the gutters, as Mother Teresa did, we go into the spiritual gutters. For we go where the need is. If we do not physically give our blood, yet we give our life in giving our time, for life is time—life-time. Our time is our life blood. Please don’t have children unless you understand that.

Our enemies are not the heretics within the Church—the cafeteria Christians, the à la carte Christians, the “I did it my way” Christians. They are also our patients, though they are quislings. They are the deceived. They are the victims of our enemy, not our enemy.

Our enemies are not the theologians in some so-called Christian Theology Departments that have sold their souls for thirty pieces of scholarship, and prefer the applause of their peers to the praise of their God. Not even the Christo-phobes who wear spiritual condoms for fear that Christ will make their souls and the souls of their students pregnant with his alarmingly active life. Not even the liars who deny their students elementary truth in labeling. The robber-teachers who rob their students of the living Christ. They, too, are our patients, and we, too, do what they do, though unwillingly, in each of our sins.

Our enemy is not even the few really wicked ministers and pastors and priests and bishops and rabbis, the abusive babysitters who corrupt Christ’s little ones whom they swore to protect, and merit Christ’s “millstone of the month” award. They, too, are victims in need of healing.

Who, then, is our enemy?

Surely, you must know the two answers.

All the saints throughout the Church’s history have given the same two answers. For these answers come from the same two sources—from the Word of God on paper and the Word of God on wood; from every page of the New Testament, and from Christ. They are the reasons he went to the cross. Yet they are not well known. In fact the first answer is almost never mentioned today, outside so-called fundamentalist circles. Not once in my life can I recall ever hearing a sermon on it from a Protestant or a Catholic pulpit.

Our enemies are demons—fallen angels, evil spirits. Our secular culture believes that anyone who believes this is at least an uneducated, narrow-minded bigot, and probably mentally deranged. It follows logically, therefore, that Jesus Christ is an uneducated, narrow-minded bigot, and mentally deranged. Most of our religious culture is simply embarrassed at this idea. Therefore, it is embarrassed at Christ. For he is the one who gave us this answer: “Do not fear those who can kill the body and then have no power over you. I will tell you whom to fear: Fear him who has power to destroy both body and soul in hell.” That is Satan, of course, not God, whose work is to save souls, not to destroy them.

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat.” And Peter learned the lesson, and has passed it onto us, in his first epistle: “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking him whom he might devour. Resist, steadfast in the faith.”

Paul, too, knew that we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness against the heavenly places.

Pope Leo XIII saw this truth. He received a vision of a coming 20th century, a vision that history has proved terrifyingly true. He saw Satan at the beginning of time, allowed one century to do his worst work in. And Satan chose the 20th. This pope, Leo—with the name and the heart of a lion—was so overcome by the terror of this vision that he fell into a swoon like a Victorian lady. When he revived, he composed a prayer for the whole Church to use for this whole century of spiritual warfare:

Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host –
by the Divine Power of God –
cast into hell, Satan and all the evil spirits,
who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.

This prayer was known by every Catholic and prayed after every Mass until the 60’s—exactly when Leo’s Church was struck by the incomparably swift disaster which we have not yet named, but which future historians must—the disaster which has taken away half of our priests, three quarters of our nuns, and nine tenths of our children’s theological knowledge, by turning the faith of our fathers into the doubts of our dissenters, in a miraculous reversal of Christ’s first miracle at Cana—turning the wine of the gospel into the water of psychobabble. An anti-miracle by the anti-Christ.

The restoration of the Church and thus the world might well begin with the restoration of the Lion’s prayer and the Lion’s vision. Because this is the vision of all the saints, all the apostles, and the Lord himself. The vision of a real Satan, a real hell, and a real spiritual warfare.

I said there were two enemies. The second is even more horrible than the first.

There is one nightmare more terrifying than being chased by the devil, even caught by the devil, even tortured by the devil. That is, the nightmare of becoming the devil. The horror outside your soul is terrible enough, but not as terrible as the horror inside your soul.

The horror inside the soul, of course, is sin. Another word, which—if any were to dare to speak it today—elicits embarrassment from the Christian and condemnation from the secularist, who condemns only condemnation, judges only judgmentalism, and believes the only sin is believing in sin. All sin is the devil’s work, though he usually uses the flesh and the world as his instruments. Sin means doing the devil’s work. Tearing and damaging God’s work. And we do this. That’s the only reason that the devil can do his awful work in our world. God won’t allow him to do it without our free consent. And that’s the deepest reason why the Church is weak, and why the world is dying. Because we are not saints.

And that gives us our third necessary thing to know.

  • The weapon that will win the war and defeat our enemy.

All it takes is saints. Can you imagine what twelve more Mother Teresa’s, or twelve more John Wesley’s would do for this poor old world? Can you imagine what would happen if just twelve people in this room did it? Gave Christ 100% of their hearts, with 100% of their hearts, 100% of the time, and held back nothing—absolutely nothing? No, you can’t imagine it, anymore than anyone could have imagined how twelve nice Jewish boys could conquer the Roman empire. You can’t imagine it.

But you can do it. You can become a saint. Absolutely no one and nothing can stop you. It’s your free choice. Here is one of the most wonderful and terrifying sentences I have ever read. From William Law’s Serious Call.

“If you will look into your own heart, in utter honesty, you must admit, that there is one and only one reason why you are not even now a saint. You do not wholly want to be.”

That insight is terrifying because it is an indictment. But it is wonderful, and hopeful, because it is also an offer. An open door. Each of us can become a saint. We really can. We really can. I say it three times because I think we do not really believe that, deep down. For if we did, how could we endure being anything less?

What holds us back? Fear of paying the price. What is the price? The answer is simple. T. S. Eliot gave it when he defined Christianity as, “the condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” The price is everything. 100%. Martyrdom, if required, and probably a worse martyrdom than the quick noose or stake—the martyrdom of dying daily. Dying every minute for the rest of your life. Dying to all your desires, and all your plans, including your plans on how to become a saint.

Or rather, not desiring to your desires, but dying to the you in your desires. I think this this sounds much more mystical than it is. It is simply giving God a blank check. It is simply Islam—complete submission. Fiat—Mary’s thing. Look at what it did two thousand years ago when she did it: it brought God down from heaven, and thus saved the world. It was meant to continue. If we do that Mary thing, that Islam, and only if we do that, then all our apostolates will work. Our preaching and teaching and writing and catechizing and missioning and fathering and mothering and studying and nursing and businessing and pastoring and priesting, everything.

Last year, an American Catholic bishop had asked one of the priests of the diocese for recommendations for ways to increase vocations to the priesthood. The priest replied in his report, “the best way to attract men in this diocese to the priesthood, your Excellency, would be your canonization.”

Why not yours? But how? We always want to know “how.” Give me a method, a technology, a means to this end. What does that question mean? How can I become a saint? Or give me a means to the end of sanctity. It means, “Give me something that is easier than sanctity, which will cause sanctity, so that if I do this something, or attain this something, than this something will be the middle term, the link, between me and sanctity.”

No. There is none. No prayers, no meditations, no 12-step programs, no yogas, no psychological techniques, no techniques at all. There can be no button to push for sanctity, any more than for love. For sanctity simply is love. Loving God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. How do you love? You just do it. A cause cannot produce an effect greater than itself. And nothing in the world is greater than sanctity. Nothing greater than love. Therefore no cause, no human cause, can produce sanctity. There can never be any technology for sanctity.

Of course, God is its cause, grace is its cause. The Holy Spirit is its cause. Oh, well, why doesn’t God cause it then? If sanctity isn’t a do-it-yourself thing, but an only-God-can-do-it thing, then why doesn’t God make me a saint? If only grace can do it, why doesn’t he give me that grace? Because you don’t want it. If you wanted it, he’d give it. He promised that—all that seek find. It’s back to “Just say ‘yes’.”

It’s infinitely simpler than we think, and that’s why it’s hard. The hard word in the formula, “Just say ‘yes'” is the word “just.” We are comfortable with Christ-and-theology, or Christ-and-psychology, or Christ-and-America, or Christ-and-the-Republican/Democratic-party, or Christ-and-phonics, or Christ-and-dieting— But just plain Christ, all Christ, Christ drunk straight, not mixed, we find far too dangerous for our tastes. Aslan is not a tame lion. Just say yes to him? You never know what he’d do with you.

I conclude with a claim to infallibility. I give you two infallible prognoses.

  1. If we do not use this weapon, we will not win this war.
  2. If we do use this weapon, we will win this war.

Or more subtly—

  1. Insofar as we use this weapon, we will this war, and
  2. Insofar as we do not, we will not.


We can win, because we wield here the world’s most unconquerable weapon, the strongest force in the universe. To translate it from the abstract to the concrete, the weapon is Christ’s blood. Not Christ without blood—not merely a beautiful ideal, and not blood without Christ—not a merely human sacrifice and martyrdom. But Christ’s blood.

Back when there were more communists in Russia than in American universities, Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say that the difference between Russia and America was that Russia was the cross without Christ, and America was Christ without the cross. Neither will win. Neither will work. Neither sacrifice without love, nor love without sacrifice. But the blood of Christ will work. For that blood flows from his sacred heart. And the heart of that heart is agape—divine love. That is why it will work. Because love never gives up. And that is why we will never give up, and why we will win. Why we, whose food is this blood, are invincible.

The hard-nosed, successful secularist lawyer Jerry Spence writes, “a small boy and a bully meet. When the small boy is knocked down, he gets up and attacks again. Over and over. Until at last, he will win. For nothing in the world is as fearsome as a bloody battered opponent who will never surrender.” Never.

Winston Churchill delivered the shortest and most memorable commencement speech of all time at his Alma Mater during World War II:

“Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up.”

That’s all. We will win the war because no matter how many times we fall down, no matter how many times we fail at being saints, no matter how many times we fail at love, we will never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up.




My Exit from the Gun Arguments

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I recently read the book, Amish Grace, the response of the Amish Community in Lancaster County to the 2006 school shooting in the West Nickel Mines Amish school. As soon as the event became known, in which several of the children of the community were shot by a mentally ill gunman who was not Amish, who then killed himself, the community went to the family of the gunman and offered support and forgiveness for the shame and difficulty they must feel, and for losing their husband, and father, and main source of family income.

The Amish struggled with living out that forgiveness perfectly in their feelings, but their will, their chosen response, was to offer forgiveness, and did so automatically, as part of their cultural identity. They were amazed, they said, that we were amazed, at their immediate response to show forgiveness. To them, that was what it meant to be  Christian. Many who lost children, or whose children were permanently scarred or disabled from the event, continue to will forgiveness against their occasional feelings of anger, but they also have the support of their families and community in their struggles. There continues to be a healthy, joy-filled, and love-filled relationship between the Amish community and the family of the gunman.

Many critics in the media (because that’s what they do) said that forgiveness came easier because the gunman was killed, and they didn’t have to deal with his fate. But in other crimes against the Amish community, they took great pains to go to court to plead for mercy for the perpetrators, especially when the death penalty was a consideration.

Forgiveness does not mean that the wrong-doer escapes any and all consequences for their actions; that itself would be injustice, and would not help to reform the wrong-doer. But it does mean that those who have been wounded refuse to nurture their anger and right to vengeance, in favor of seeking the reform of the wrong-doer, and a restoration, or even increase, of peace in the community.

We could learn something from the Amish in their response to wrong-doing, even egregious wrong-doing like a school shooting. We can offer forgiveness to Nikolas Cruze. We can seek his healing and salvation. We can choose not to nurture and expand our emotional response of wrath and vengeance, but ask God to heal our unforgiveness, and heal Cruze of the mental illness and wounds of his childhood that brought him to this situation. Yes, he chose to do this act, and he is accountable to the just and fair consequences of the act. But it is not just and fair to bring down on him our anger for being part of a larger rash of school shootings, and the failure of our society to serve and protect our children, and our mentally ill among us. (There is also the question about whether true justice, which includes mercy, ought to rightfully include killing the guilty, but that’s a separate discussion.) This forgiveness is not to suppress and sublimate our negative feelings, but to let them die of starvation, to let go of them, and turn our hearts back to the response we have chosen, instead of the feelings. I disagree with the Amish on many issues, but I think they have a lot to teach us about grace and forgiveness.

This is my last post and comment on the guns and school shooting topic. I don’t have the solution, except for the long-term solution of righting the host of deprivations and depravities which our society has tolerated and even celebrated. The ultimate solution is the conversion of hearts and minds to love and truth. But that will not stop those whose hearts and minds are deformed. And that—the concrete, short-term, urgent (before our next school shooting attempt) aspect of the solution—is where I bow out of the conversation. My expertise is neither guns nor law. My expertise is forgiveness, and the call to holiness, to divine truth and love, and that’s the long hard, narrow, uphill way, to ultimately solving this (and everything else). But to come up with the urgently needed solution that will protect our kids from the *next* shooter? I humbly defer to those with more wisdom in this matter. God bless you and protect you, and your families.

On Thoughts and Prayers

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I’m writing this (ok, starting this) on February 15, the day after Ash Wednesday, as marked by the poignant picture of this woman, waiting in the parents’ and students’ area outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, still with her ashen cross emblazoned on her forehead. Social Media is, not unexpectedly, aflame with frustration over expressions of “thoughts and prayers for the victims” while, cynically and probably not incorrectly, another mass shooting fails to inspire any legislative response. This post isn’t about what political or legislative response we should hope for. It’s about the thoughts and prayers. And why people are frustrated with the expression.

We believe in the God who is Love, the God of Compassion, and of infinite Might and Power. But also a God who did not prevent His Son from being executed for political and religious motives, by those who should have rushed to worship Him rather than kill Him. He loved His Son perfectly, divinely, and with all the fullness of his own infinite nature. Sure, His Son was going to be resurrected after three days. But God isn’t three days ahead, He’s fully present to the reality of the present moment. And we cannot fathom or understand His experience at the agony and suffering and death of His Son incarnate.

We humans, whose love is hampered by our sinfulness and limitedness, still love others, most especially our children, with incredibly profound depths of love, self-sacrificing love. Which tells you something about God’s love, the perfect source of our imperfect love. As members of the Body of Christ, we share one another’s grief and pain, their joy and hope. When one member suffers, the other members of the Body share in that suffering. Even beyond the Body of Christ, our shared human identity connects us together in a natural bond. Our imagination tries to simulate what it must feel like to experience what they are experiencing. It allows us to empathize. And we can imagine what it might be like for those people whose children were killed or injured yesterday in Florida. Those who have children can empathize better than those who do not. Those who have lost children can perhaps empathize even better, but not perfectly.

Most of us “ordinary people,” meaning those without any significant and immediate capacity to directly respond to the events and people personally affected by this tragedy, we have this sense of sorrow for them, our empathy for them, our compassion for (suffering+with) them, and seemingly nothing productive to do with it. So we post on social media, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this tragedy.” And it is right and good to do so. We do believe in the power of prayer, and of the unity of all of us as beloved creatures (or Sons and Daughters) of the Most High God, made in His image (of Love) and likeness (of Holiness).

Fr. Mike Schmitz over at Ascension Press has an awesome video on the Power of Prayer and why we are called to pray, even though God’s already going to do what is best. We are called by our faith (and nature) to participate in the will of God the Father, and thus learn better the heart of the Father, and conform our hearts to His. God is with the brokenhearted, with the suffering and those who mourn, and so in prayer, we are, too. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims. Jesus did not come to end suffering, but to be with us through every suffering of ours, to let us know we are never abandoned or alone, especially when we most feel like we are. To post to social media our identifying with the pain and suffering of the victims is (at least remotely) to have the chance that we are among the many who are surrounding them as a cloud of support and encouragement in their dealing with their suffering. For the most of us, the “ordinary people” without any significant and immediate capacity to directly respond to the events and people personally affected by this tragedy, that is noble and compassionate.

Prayer is a gesture of solidarity by those who can do little more than such a gesture. It’s an expression of mercy. But mercy is more than compassion. It’s also a desire to end the suffering of the other, if that is within the person’s power. Ah, there’s the rub. “Thoughts and prayers” are good and holy, if that’s all the person can offer to the victim of a man-made tragedy, like a school shooting. But they are perhaps not quite so good and holy if they are an empty offering by those in a position to address the situation, both for the victim of this tragedy, and to prevent future similar tragedies with future victims. Political and social leaders of faith are certainly entitled to extend gestures of thoughts and prayers. But they are not entitled to hide behind that gesture when they do have the power, and therefore the duty, to do more.

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“Thoughts and prayers” have been offered to the victims of tragedies for many, many years. And again, rightly so. But as it became clear that these were code words by politicians for “but although we’re responsible for fixing this problem, we’re going to use these words to avoid fixing this problem,” then the phrase “thoughts and prayers” took on a very negative connotation. As cynicism, distrust, and frustration with politicians has grown, and especially as the political divide in our culture has widened, “thoughts and prayers” has come to embody the willful ineffectiveness of government to pass legislation our country needs (besides immigration reform, healthcare reform….). Of course, rushing to pass policy riding on the wave of national outrage is not likely to be the right path, either, even though it satisfies the sentiment that at least something was done, even if it was the wrong thing.

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Thoughts and prayers are not a substitute for doing one’s duty in pursuing the right and true solution to the gun-violence problem we have, particularly as it manifests in school shootings. Yes, politicians of faith should offer their thoughts and prayers, but the point is that (if they mean it, and want to avoid an accusation of religious hypocrisy) they cannot stop there. Again, this post isn’t about what politicians should do. It’s about why politicians offering their “thoughts and prayers” elicits such bitter response.

However, for you and me, we offer our thoughts and prayers. We’re not politicians, we’re not local Floridians. Sure, we might send a card or online message. But while we send our thoughts and prayers to the victims of yesterday’s school shooting, and the victims of all the past mass shootings, it would perhaps be more noble to actually offer prayers rather than just a vague promise to do so.

“May God heal the broken-hearted and comfort the sorrowing as we once again face as a nation another act of senseless violence and horrifying evil.” – Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let the perpetual light shine upon them.

And perhaps it would be more noble to actually think of what we might do. Certainly many parents hugged their children tighter last night. Hopefully they also told them to play with the lonely kid at school, and to be kind to the classmate that everyone picks on. Hopefully teachers and classmates and even other parents know what kids are having difficulties at home, and venture to offer support and love, and reminding them of their dignity and gifts. And hopefully school staff are also vigilant of students displaying signs of emotional and psychological illness, signs of destructive, violent, and angry impulses, and aggressively seeking for them the help and attention that they need. Perhaps they can be rescued in all the ways in which past shooters have been failed in getting them the care and concern that their dignity deserved, before the unthinkable happened.

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Perhaps also this will be the catalyst to begin concrete initiatives to do what can be done, not just to get the mentally ill the help they need, but to prevent them from having the opportunity to repeat what happened yesterday in Florida. What can we do before the next potential school shooting? We don’t need more children victims, or mourning and grieving parents. My thoughts and prayers are with them. May the Lord Jesus, who wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, and the Mother of Jesus, who stood at the foot of the cross of her son, bring consolation to the parents, families, and friends of those who died, and ease the suffering as they prepare to lay their children to rest. May God guide us in truth, wisdom, and grace to prevent future tragedies like this one.

On Communion and Happiness

engagement-1718244_1920Last week I was going to share an article on ecumenism and the resentment some (many?) people have toward the Catholic Church’s traditional practice of “closed communion” (meaning the Church restricts licit reception of communion to only Catholics, and only those Catholics that are not conscious of any mortal sin on their soul). The comment I was typing to share the article was approaching the length of the article itself, and I deleted the whole thing and moved on, without sharing either comment or article (which is how I spend a lot of time on Facebook, to be honest).

It was the Plan, apparently, because this morning I was about to type a new post about happiness, and in my mind it immediately connected with that prior post I didn’t post.

What’s the connection? It’s about what we seek, and that much of what we seek is not what we should seek, but should be the fruit of what we should seek.

First, I’ll go back to that prior post about the Catholic Church’s teaching on closed communion. To begin with, we have to remember the early beginnings of the Church. There were the Apostles and close, faithful followers of Christ, who stayed with Him despite His difficult messages and despite the persecution and fear. They “were of one mind and one heart,” truly in communion with one another–and most importantly–with God through the grace of the sacrament of communion and the witness of how they lived their lives. There was truly an integrity and communion between their lives, their faith, their community, and their Lord. When there was a rupture in this communion, it was obviously a point of distress. It created a scandal (“stumbling block”), both within the community, and in the witness of the community to outsiders, to have such a rupture. St. Paul is very direct in addressing such a scandal:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

And then came others who wanted to be part of this little community of “the Way.” Well, to do that, they needed a sponsor in good standing in the community to vouch for them, and to help them learn about how to live, what to believe, what communion is between the believer and the community and the believer and God (hence, sacramental sponsors have to be more than just “Catholic,” they have to live the faith with integrity). This became even more important when persecutions meant that infiltrators might betray the members of the group to the public authorities. And then splinter groups started forming who had theological opinions different than the sense of the faithful of the apostolically-formed communities (who, though they were geographically separate, were united in a single faith, as attested to, for example, by the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons). Of course, one of the key beliefs of the Church was the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Although the formulation of just *how* Christ was present in the Eucharist wasn’t pursued as a question at the time, the belief that he *is* present was essential. Even St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, made it clear:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.

The Church through her holy Tradition maintains this early disposition about receiving communion: that only those in full communion of FAITH and WITNESS–of believing all that the Church teaches as true (especially about the Eucharist), and having nothing scandalous on their conscience that would separate them from the community–are admitted to the celebration of communion.

That’s the background for my point. As I often lament, “God has blessed me with many gifts, but being succinct is not one of them.”

I would propose (I think without much disagreement) that there is much more “unworthy” (or in technical terms, “illicit”) reception of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church than any previous time; “unworthy reception” meaning that communion is sought and received by those who are not in full communion with the Church, either by a break in faith, or a break in witness (mortal sin). And my point of all this is that this is why: the general pulling apart of the internal and external of everything.

The most commonly encountered example of this is our relativist modern society:
it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re a basically good person. (see: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). Of course, what a “basically good person” is, we don’t completely agree on, but for the most part, it’s that you leave everyone else to believe and live however they wish, and keep what you believe to yourself. If what you believe infringes on anyone else believing and living however they wish, then there is a problem with what you believe. You can go to what church (or synagogue, or mosque, or temple, or whatever) you want, and have in your heart whatever you want, and whatever you believe ends with you. Outside you, it’s not your church or beliefs that matter, it’s social and government policy that matters. That’s how we all get along (unless your beliefs try to get out into society). On this topic I HIGHLY recommend Matthew Leonard’s podcast with Andrew West on “Church and State.” (You can ignore his over-hyped title, just listen to the interview).

So you would reasonably think that at least within the Church–within the Church building itself, within the liturgy itself–that this would be a “safe space” where the Catholic Church has the authority to say to her own children (and guests): this is the truth of what we believe, and this is what we should do with it. That at least here in church, among our own people, we would honor the Church’s own teaching, that if you are not in full communion with the Church (community) in what the Church believes and teaches, and/or if you are not in full communion with the Church (community) because of mortal sin, do not approach to receive and celebrate the sacrament of communion (because you are not *in* communion).

Instead of people taking the integrity of inward reality and outward sign (that is at the heart of what a sacrament is) and bringing an increase of integrity to their life, they bring the dis-integrity of the separation of inward and outward, from life in our society, and apply it to receiving communion. What do I mean? I mean that we bring into our liturgical celebration the worldly mentality that our interior life is irrelevant to our exterior life. As long as we are a “basically good person,” we’re good enough (to be allowed to do what we want, including receiving communion); and that whatever interferes with that (especially if it makes us feel bad) is bad.

But here’s where it ties into the beginning, on the potential post on happiness. Why do people *want* to receive communion? Because it feels awkward and vulnerable (and judged) to *not* receive communion. What will people think of me? (“me” should be a rare thought during the liturgy anyway.) It just makes everything more difficult with people having to pass by me in these narrow pews, and my reason for not receiving communion is not that bad anyway. I’ll just go. (Noooo!)

My Spanish teacher told me it was quite a culture shock when he went to church in the US, compared to Mexico. In Mexico, most people do not receive communion, because they know they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, there is no burning desire for communion that drives them to repent of their sins and come into communion with the Church. In the US most people receive communion, worthy or not. This teacher said when his mother first went to church in the US, she was amazed at how holy everyone must be to all be receiving communion. He had to give her the bad news. Maybe it’s because in Mexico, there’s a strong cultural aspect of Catholic guilt, and in the US, there’s an even stronger cultural aspect of self-esteem (if you want it, go get it).

So we want the outward appearance, the fruit, of communion (approaching and receiving the sacrament of communion), without the inward reality of in fact being in communion. The outward appearance of the Church is as a hierarchical social organization of people who come together to hear bible readings and share in the distribution of bread and wine. But the inward reality of the Church is the Body (and Bride) of Christ; an organic whole, of which all the baptized are sacramental body parts, each with a divinely-appointed and provided-for role in the life of the Body. And the appearance of bread and wine are in (sacramental) reality the nourishing and healing of the spiritual life we received at baptism–He whose life we have received and live nourishes us repeatedly with his Body and Blood to become ever more (because we live in material and passing time, we need continually renewed and returned to the source) in communion with Him and with the other members of His mystical body, as an organic communion of a whole, of which He is the Head. (In the Catholic faith, it’s SO MUCH MORE than just a symbol! But if you’ve detached yourself from the communion of the Body, by a break of faith or a break of witness, it’s a fatal break, as you’ve detached yourself from HIM who is the source of life!)

We go after the shiny wrapper and throw away the valuable contents. We want the wrong thing. Our want is too superficial, and God calls us to the deep reality of which we only want the outward sign. We shouldn’t want just the sacrament of communion (although it is itself no small thing: it is the source and summit of the Christian life); we should want *communion itself*, profound unity in self-giving (kenotic) love with our community (the Church in this world, and in purgatory, and in heaven, all members of one Body!) and with our Lord, and even within ourselves: intra-personal and interpersonal divine peace, which we can only truly have through the divine gift of the sacramental grace and living according to (and outward from) that grace.

And therein lies the rub.

We want to receive communion, and we want it on our terms, defiant that it has its own nature which does not submit to our terms. We want to receive communion and ignore the invitation to the deeper reality that the outward fruit of communion truly means and relies on.

We want happiness, and we want it on our terms, defiant that it (and the human person) has its own nature which does not submit to our terms. Happiness is actually the fruit of holiness, which is a participation in the divine life. When we experience friendship, love, joy, pleasure, peace, comfort, in any measure, we seek these as happiness; and they are: they are “passing participations” in what God is. But happiness is not the goal: holiness is the goal, an *abiding* and profound (and ultimately, eternal) participation in the divine, the “happiness of the saints.” These things make us happy because they are what we are made for. But when we seek happiness itself, we miss, or worse: we seek happiness in anti-divine ways that ultimately bring us (and often others with us, since we are all connected) profound unhappiness. At worst, our grasping at some improper way of pursuing happiness costs us (and perhaps others) the eternal happiness for which we were made. But if we seek holiness, we get happiness thrown in, because happiness is the fruit of holiness.

Ultimately, we as human beings are called to participate in God’s divine life. He didn’t make us because he needed worshipers for his frail ego. He didn’t make us to spend eternity in this passing world. He didn’t make us to lose ourselves by merging into Him. He made us to be in enduring, intimate (“nuptial”) relationship with Him, as He is in Himself: to be drawn in, through His Son, into the very exchange of divine love that is the Holy Spirit: the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Unity, the Spirit of Divine Love. The Holy Spirit is a Person of the Trinitarian God, and we are called into the fullness of that Spirit. That fullness is the fullness of happiness, the fullness of love, the fullness of communion, the fullness of friendship, joy, pleasure, peace, comfort (and all the rest) which truly satisfies the longing of the human heart, because it was for this that we were made: perfect communion, perfect happiness–the image and likeness of God.

Let us not prefer the wrappers to the reality. Let us not prefer the illusion (or lie, or redefinition) of communion for the authentic reality of divine communion. Let us not prefer the appearance of goodness for the authentic reality of divine goodness. Let us not prefer the consequence of happiness for the cause, which is the authentic reality of divine holiness. We want the wrong thing, and we were made for more. “Be holy, for the Lord your God is holy.” And you will be happy.