A Saint’s Prayer for a Good Death

Eamonn Clark, STL

At some point in the future, I will write a nice little book offering a semi-devotional, semi-historical take on the lives of four great contemporaries: Bl. Pope Pius IX, St. John Vianney, St. Anthony Claret, and St. Joseph Cafasso. It is a stretch, but not a huge one, to say that the western Church in the 19th century is summarized by the lives, ministries, and teachings of these men. Pius IX’s influence goes without saying – but the other three fill in the picture. In Vianney, we have a “normal parish priest” in France, who was a miracle-factory. In Claret, we have a Spanish religious bishop called to the missions of the Americas, also a miracle-factory (read his autobiography – it is excellent). In Cafasso, we have an “Italian” (Piemontese) priest who preoccupied himself with ministering to condemned men and teaching theology to Turin’s clergy.

It is the latter whose prayer for a good death I leave below, in a slightly amended form (original here). The paragraph relating to priesthood is marked with an asterisk.* It is a shame that the saint has been so forgotten – I can recommend everything Don Cafasso wrote (unfortunately there is little available in English), including especially his famous priests’ retreat, available in a book here (it could be a great gift for Father So-and-So!). We know that he is a good mentor for clergy, because his star pupil and most devoted disciple, Don Bosco, also became a saint and founded what is now the second largest religious order in the world. (Don Bosco has some funeral orations for Don Cafasso here, which also contain this prayer of his and others.)

The Saint would pray this prayer each first Friday of the month kneeling before a crucifix. The first time I went through the whole prayer, I actually had the great grace of being at Calvary. I now offer this beautiful and powerful prayer here on these pages for your use and profit. Please share liberally.

St. Joseph Cafasso – pray for us!

Prayer for a Good Death (Amended)
St. Joseph Cafasso

Great God, prostrate before Thee, I accept and adore that sentence of death which Thou hast pronounced over me. I stand awaiting the coming of my last hour and, knowing that it may come upon me at any moment, I carry myself in spirit to my deathbed to bid adieu to this world and to make now for that occasion a clear and solemn protestation of those sentiments and affections with which I intend to terminate my mortal career and enter into my eternity.

I have sinned. I confess it with all the bitterness of my soul. I detest with my whole heart all the faults that I have committed during my life. For each of them I would be ready to die in reparation for the offense to God, and I would wish to have died a thousand times rather than have offended Him. I ask pardon of God and of men for the evil that I have done, and I will ask it until the last moment of my life in order that I may find mercy on the day of judgment.

Since my wretched body has been the cause of my offending my dear God so much, with my whole heart I make a total sacrifice of it to my Lord as a just punishment for it. Not only do I resign myself to descend into the tomb, but I rejoice and thank God who has given me this means of paying my debt. Through these ashes which will remain from me in the sepulcher and by these bones which will speak for me, I will confess until the day of my resurrection that the Lord is just, and just also the sentence which has condemned me to death.

I thank my parents, companions and friends for the charity they have shown me in putting up with all my defects, and I thank them for all the favors and all the assistance which in their goodness they have given me. I ask pardon of them for having given such a poor return, and for the scandal I have given them. I ask them to continue to give me the charity of their prayers, and, when I am separated from them, I firmly hope that I will see them again one day in Paradise.

As God in His inscrutable Providence has wished that I should have the disposal of temporal interests, I ask pardon if I have not made the use of them that He expected of me. As He alone is Lord of all, I again place everything in His hands.

I intend that the disposition that I have made or that I shall hereafter make may be for His greater glory, and, in that portion of life that remains for me on earth, it is my firm will and determination to spend all that remains to me when my needs are satisfied, for the work of the Lord, being disposed and indeed desirous to strip myself of everything whenever God wishes it of me.

With regard to the most important point, which is the spiritual preparations for that day which will be my last, I render the most sincere thanks to God for having thus disposed of me and taken me out of the world. I salute and desire and bless that day that will put an end to my own sins, and take me away from the midst of so many sins that are committed on the earth. I now in advance thank that person who will give me the consoling message, and, until that day arrives, I shall regard it as so dear to my heart that I would not exchange it for the greatest day of this world.

I entrust my death to the love and care of my heavenly Mother. In her tender heart I place my last hour and my last sighs. It is in the arms of this Mother that I wish to leave this world and enter my eternity. I intend that every sigh which I shall give at that moment, every breath and every look, shall be voices which call her, which solicit her help for me from Heaven, so that I may soon see her, contemplate her, embrace her and may be able to die with her help. But if, by special favor of her tender heart, she wishes to call me on a day consecrated to her, it would be a still greater consolation for me to be able to present to her the offering of my life at a time when Heaven and earth celebrate a feast in honor of her name and of her great mercies.

I recommend in a special manner my passage to eternity to St. Joseph, the spouse of Mary, to my Guardian Angel, to my patron saints, to all the Angels and Saints of Heaven, and to those souls in Paradise who remember me. I salute them all from this valley of tears, and I appeal to each one of them to pray for me that the happy day will soon come when I shall meet them face to face and enjoy with them that feast that will have no end.

For everything concerned with the time and circumstances of my death, after the example of my Divine Redeemer, I resign myself fully to whatever the Heavenly Father has arranged for me, and I accept the death that God in His eternal decrees considers best for me. To fulfill His will, I accept all the pains that He wishes me to suffer at the time of death. In this hardest sacrifice and in my most painful agony, I wish and intend that His holy will be always done.

With my whole being I give thanks to the good God who, by His special mercy, has willed to call me to the Faith at my birth and place me, unworthy that I am, as a son in the arms of the Church. I today renew those promises that were made for me at the sacred font. I grieve for and detest whatever there has been in my life not in conformity with those promises. I condemn and regret anything that during my life may have been wanting in obedience and respect to the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Today and always I formally declare that I wish to live in the closest communion with that good Mother. To her I entrust my ashes that she may bless them and keep them in her custody until the day of judgment.

I desire and ask for all the Sacraments and comforts which our holy religion has reserved for her dying children at the hour of death; and when the Lord shall demand the sacrifice of my life, I intend to unite it to that which so many confessors of the Faith have made and to breathe forth my spirit in homage of and for the support of our holy Faith.

*As I am about to finish my mission on earth, I give back and consign to God that grand vocation with which He has willed to adorn me. I have no words here below to thank Him worthily for it, and I await eternity to do so. I thank with all my heart all those who have employed themselves to this end for me, and I recommend myself to each of them in order that I may obtain mercy at the great moment in which I shall be called upon to render an account of my earthly career. I shall die, and the thought consoles me that with my death there will be one less unworthy minister upon the earth, and that another more zealous and fervent priest will come to make up for my coldness and other defects.

As I am certain with the certainty of faith that God can, and that He wishes, to pardon all those who repent of their sins, relying on that firm confidence which cannot be deceived, and penetrated with the most lively sorrow for my past faults, I protest that I hope most firmly for pardon of all my failings and for the attainment of my eternal salvation. Whatever be the assaults that my enemy may launch against me in life or in death, I will repeat that I believe in my God, that I hope in Him and that He will save me.

Now that my days are about to finish, and that time is about to vanish for me forever, I know and understand better than in the past my duty on earth, which is to know and serve my God. As long as life remains I will lament that time in which I have not loved Him, and I will repeat continually from now on, “Either to love or to die.” Whatever I shall have to do or suffer in this miserable life, I intend that it be a proof of love for my God, so that living, I shall live only to love, and dying, I may die in order to love still more.

The sorrow which I experience, O Lord, for not having loved Thee, the desire which I feel to love Thee ever more, renders this life burdensome and distasteful, and makes me pray Thee to shorten my days on earth, and to pardon me my Purgatory in the next life, so that I soon may arrive at loving Thee in Paradise. I ask of Thee this grace, O Lord, not through fear of punishment – which I confess that I deserve a thousand times more – but from the sincere desire to love Thee much, to love Thee soon, and to love Thee face to face in Paradise. Let the anguish which I feel, O God, for not having loved Thee, and the danger which I am running of offending Thee and not loving Thee more, serve as my Purgatory!

Finally, when I shall have departed to the grave, I desire and pray the Lord to make my memory perish on this earth so that no one shall any longer think of me except to pray for me – a favor which I ask from the charity of the faithful. I accept as penance for my sins all that shall be said against me after my death. I condemn and detest all the evil that may in the future be committed because of me. I wish that I could prevent all the sins of the world by my death and so I would be ready to die as many times as there are committed on the earth. Oh! May the Lord accept this poor sacrifice so that when dying, I may have that sweetest consolation of sparing one offense to my Lord on that day.

This is my firm will and testament with which I intend to live and die in each and every moment that God may wish to dispose of me.

I place the moment of my death in the hands of my dear Mother Mary, of my good Guardian Angel and of my patron saints, all of whom I expect to assist me at the hour of my death and in my voyage to eternity. Amen.

Come then, welcome death. Come, but conceal thy coming, so that the hour of my death may not give life back again.

It will be no longer death for thee, my soul, but a sweet sleep if, when thou art dying, Jesus assists thee, and if when thou art expiring, Mary embraces thee.

The CDF Declaration: A Meta-Reaction

Eamonn Clark, STL

For those who are outside of “Church-news world”, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (to oversimplify by some magnitudes – the “doctrine officials” for the Catholic Church) put out a statement not long ago stating that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions, which statement was approved by the Holy Father Pope Francis. This has triggered a number of reactions…

My favorite comment was from Orthodox Jew and conservative political commentator, Ben Shapiro, posting a reply to the AP’s headline on Twitter (March 15)… the line read: “In which we learn that the Catholic Church believes in Catholicism.” This is the most appropriate reaction – it is a “nothingburger,” insofar as there is nothing new here, as even pointed out by a certain archbishop of Chicago. What is newsworthy is that such a statement was made at all, precisely given the fact of its lack of novelty. The impetus, of course, was primarily the “Synodal Path” in Germany.

Other reactions, ranging from shock to anger to sadness to accusations of various types, I submit, should be understood in light of the foregoing. Unless one was truly unaware of the constant teaching of the Church on marriage, sexuality, and sacramentals, the problem likely lies elsewhere, probably deriving from a warped understanding of what the Church is.

The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. When the Church truly teaches something regarding faith or morals, those data are to be definitively held as true – by the authority of God Himself, in Christ, through His Mystical Body. Surely, many people do not know that this is what the Church sees Herself as – they therefore wonder why the pope doesn’t just “update” Catholicism to suit the tastes of today’s Western progressive elites (or any other group). Such people could use a healthy dose of study on the topics of apostolic succession, papal infallibility, and basic Catholic ecclesiology. This would at least remove some of the surprise when the Church doesn’t “get with the times.” (For what it’s worth, St. Augustine noted similar criticisms of the Church in his own era, some 1,600 years ago.)

The Church is also not a club, or an ethnicity, or a “cultural heritage.” This was much the attitude of many of the Jews whom Our Lord dealt with in the pages of the Gospels. Being a “son of Abraham” in the flesh does not save a person anymore than having went to Catholic school, having been an altar server, having some kind of relationship with the local parish, etc., and yet this is unfortunately what “Catholicism” means to many people who consider themselves to be Catholic. The high priest Caiphas was not really a Jew, you see, or else he would have recognized the coming of the Christ which Judaism is all about.

What is more interesting than the uncatechized and unchurched masses of millennials and Gen-Z’ers having such a negative reaction to a direct reiteration of basic Catholic moral-sacramental teaching is a similar response from clergy. The cloud of priests and bishops trying to do “damage control” on the CDF’s statement are, unfortunately, a great starting point for considering the entrance into Holy Week. Minimizing the necessity of the need to suffer and deny oneself in order to do God’s will is not an admirable impulse in clerics, but it is not a new one either.

We turn to a small group of men gathered around the Lord one day in Caesarea Philippi. In that area, there was a very large rock, under which there was a cave with a spring gushing forth a little stream. This place (close to the Temple of Pan) was considered an entrance into the underworld, where the demons – or pagan deities, especially fertility “gods” – would come up from sometimes, especially in winter. All kinds of sexual perversion took place there in “worship” of these demons. This was all quite well-known.

“Who do others say that I am?” The answers were given – John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the other prophets – a report of empirical observations which anyone could make about what is going on in the world. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gives his confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Flesh and blood did not reveal this, as with the answer to the former question; rather, it was God Who taught it to the blessed soul of Simon bar-Jonah, who is henceforth finally to be known to all as Cephas, Peter, the Rock. The Gates of Hell – as symbolized by the source of the little spring in Caesarea Philippi – will not prevail against the Church, which will rest upon Peter’s public teaching and public ministry, which will bind and loose in the power of the Holy Spirit, unlike the squabbles between the Jewish schools of Hillel and Shammai that were raging at the time, over how to wash one’s hands, how to pick grapes, etc…

Then it all goes south – first metaphorically, then literally, back down toward Jerusalem. Christ begins to speak about the Cross… and we know that Peter, the newly appointed public representative of the Twelve and of the whole Church, immediately fails in his new role, albeit in a semi-private conversation. Peter’s failures continue all the way until the triple-denial of the Lord while in the courtyard, when he finally completes the trajectory of his hope for a worldly messiah who would solve the problems of the day by natural means. Perhaps many are still following this part of Peter, the weak and private side of his life and ministry. It is a hope which will disappoint – there is no Resurrection without death.

Luke gives us the following speech from Christ after Peter’s declaration of faith at Caesarea Philippi. “And He said to all: ‘If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.'” (Luke 9:23-26)

The Cross awaited the Lord down in Jerusalem, and so too do crosses await for anyone who wishes to follow Him. He said this Himself: “Anyone who does not pick up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” (Luke 14:27; Matthew 10:38) And those who counsel the would-be followers of the Lord to avoid their crosses do no better than Peter at Caesarea Philippi. It was the Devil speaking through Peter that day. We know this not only from the words of Christ’s rebuke (“Get behind Me, Satan!”), but also from the experience already had by the Lord in the desert… He was tempted by Satan to jump from the Temple and fly around Jerusalem to coerce belief in His power by an open miracle, as opposed to the signs He worked in hidden ways (in the chaos of a crowd, in the obscurity of a storm, etc.), before dying and rising. No – the Cross must be endured… no short cuts, no softening of the blows, and no way out. Those who climb over the fence instead of going through the gate are robbers and thieves. (John 10:1) Here, on the Cross, the desires of the body must be denied, even the desire for biological life itself. And yet in giving up biological life, a higher life is obtained. With this consideration we can begin to enter into the heart of the Paschal Mystery… This is what Holy Week is the platform for.

The rebukes that the disciples will receive after the Resurrection are accusations of not having understood the teaching of the Scriptures that “the Son of Man must suffer and so enter into His glory.” The disciples were not stupid – but something blocked their minds nonetheless. There is some kind of willful blindness, both in reading the Scriptures and even listening to the Lord directly. One is inclined to make a connection between the darkness of the minds of the Apostles before the Resurrection and the failure of “academically sophisticated” clergy who either cannot understand that unnatural sexual acts are horrible offenses against the Creator, cannot make the clear distinction between blessing a person and blessing a relationship which constitutes and is even centered upon a near occasion of sin (a distinction which the CDF document went out of its way to stress), or both.

All who wish to explain away or even merely compromise the clear teaching of the Church on any number of moral imperatives often take up where the Devil left off in the desert and where Peter left off at Caesarea Philippi. The Devil gave good arguments for taking an easier way – “Use your power to eat and to feed many forever, to appear openly without suffering, to make a compromise to gain everything in the world…” The Devil used argumentation based on Scripture. He was quite sophisticated and apparently reasonable. And yet he was and is a liar.

A road that is wide and easy is rarely the way through the Cross, even if that road is “synodal” or claims to be “merciful,” “accompanying,” “pastoral,” and so on. The gate to life is narrow and the road to life is hard. (Matthew 7:14) Christ alone is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. (John 14:6) Those who wish to be saved from everlasting death must enter into the Lord through His Cross, the new “doorpost and lintel,” marked with the Blood of the Lamb, the Blood of the New Covenant. (Exodus 12:7) It is a gate that is narrow – our many sins and attachments cannot fit through but must be left behind… and yet it is a wide gate as well, ready to welcome all, Jew and Gentile both. And the “burden” of virtuous living is an easy one to carry for those who love the Lord as a true friend. (Matthew 11:30) True pastors encourage souls to carry their crosses and help them to do so – one gets the idea today that the opposite is the case: that the role of the priest is to convince souls they do not need to carry crosses, at least not “moral crosses,” and to help them put those crosses down.

We must not be ashamed of our Friend, or His Word, or His Cross, even if we gain the whole world thereby. We must follow Him all the way to Golgotha – a place where the Lord alone satisfies and where Divine Love was shown even more than on Mount Tabor, in the Transfiguration which directly followed the failure of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. To be deprived of Tabor is frustrating… but to be deprived of Golgotha is the ultimate tragedy.

The time for protests, petitions, and pressers will soon be at an end. Eternity will not allow for “nuanced” debates, and all souls will be utterly helpless before their destinies, then sealed forever. In the end, the Church and Her Faith will prevail. She will identify the demons that have crept up from the underworld and roam the Earth, and She will confess the Deity and Lordship of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Who will have all subjected to Himself. (1 Corinthians 15:28) Today, then, is the day – “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” You can carry the cross which the Lord Himself has handed to you – and it is the only way to true happiness in this life, and it is the only way to everlasting glory in the next.

A blessed Holy Week to all my readers, near and far.

A Short Introduction to Canon 915

Eamonn Clark, STL

“Weaponizing the Eucharist” is a phrase I have now unfortunately heard from several clergy, most recently the Bishop of San Diego (1:18:00) attempting to persuade people that the President of the United States (and others), despite perfectly clear, consistent, and efficacious support for abortion, should not be denied Holy Communion. Of course, this relates to the meaning and application of the ever-relevant Canon 915, which describes the conditions for the public reception of the Eucharist.

In this post, I want to give a very brief primer on this severely misunderstood law. (In this task, I rely largely on the great work of Dr. Ed Peters, whose trove of resources on this point can be accessed here, along with other items of interest.) For what it is worth, I am not a trained canonist but have done a good deal of study of this area of the law.

The text of the Canon 915 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law is as follows: “915. Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

For this post, we leave aside the first part of the canon, which is more or less straightforward and is rarely at issue. (Whether such mechanisms should be used with more frequency is a different question, but it is one worth asking.)

So, we shall go through each of the parts of the second part of the canon (“obstinate perseverance/persistence,” “manifest,” “grave,” and “sin”), but first we will look at two other things: first, what the canon does NOT say, and second, what is the relevant proximate context of the canon which is required for understanding its meaning.

What does the canon NOT say? Well, to cut to the point, obviously the canon does not add qualifiers beyond what it actually contains. The word “dialogue” is missing, one can note immediately, though dialogue in the right sense is important indeed. And while the “judgment of a proper authority” can sometimes be quite important and relevant, this relates to a specific phrase already included in the canon (“obstinately persist”) and so the more general judgment of the pastor, the bishop, etc. is actually not very relevant. Perhaps a wealthy “pro-choice” donor to the diocese will cease his donations if he is denied Holy Communion, and the bishop does not like that consequence and judges it would be better not to make this person upset. Well, this is quite unfortunate, and the judgment is wrong. It is not the purpose of the canon to preserve the financial (or political/diplomatic) integrity of a diocese, a parish, etc. These things, while important, sit beneath what the canon obliges, not above it, as is clear from the common sense effects that any sort of public humiliation could possibly have – as if we are only now first discovering “mercy” and “dialogue” and realizing that politicians and wealthy people (and others with influence) can bully or help the Church in various ways, and that this might depend on how such people are treated by the Church, including in the public administration of the sacraments… Of course we are not only first learning about all this. This is very old news. In the most proper sense, the “proper authority” is whoever is functioning in the moment as the minister of Holy Communion, and other judgments are secondary – the canon especially obliges bishops and pastors, but it directly obliges anyone administering the Eucharist in public. As Newman put it, “A toast to the Pope, but first to the conscience.” I certainly understand the squeeze that this puts many people in. But those taking up the grave task of assisting in the distribution of Holy Communion – most of all, clergy – need to gird their loins and be prepared for contradictions. (Coincidentally, this is one more reason to diminish the prolific use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, especially “on the fly.”)

Note that the word “conscience” is missing, as is “sacrilege.” More on that in a bit, as clearly they do somehow play a role, but they are not the direct concern of the canon.

The two pieces of context which I wish to present here are the following: first, Canon 855 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the current Code’s predecessor, which helps us to understand the legal framework out of which the current Code was developed and must be interpreted within to a significant degree. Second, Canon 916, which, as one might expect, immediately follows Canon 915.

Canon 855 of the 1917 CIC reads as follows, with its two sections: “855 §1. All those publicly unworthy are to be barred from the Eucharist, such as excommunicates, those interdicted, and those manifestly infamous, unless their penitence and emendation are shown and they have satisfied beforehand the public scandal [they have caused]. §2. But occult sinners, if they ask secretly and the minister knows they are unrepentant, should be refused; but not, however, if they ask publicly and they cannot be passed over without scandal.”

From this text, we begin to get an idea of what Canon 915 is up to. Let’s look at Canon 916 before drawing our conclusions here: “916. A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.”

From Canon 916, we see by inference that Canon 915 is not a law binding the would-be communicant, it is a law binding the minister of Holy Communion. The language of Canon 915 is already talking about “admittance,” but 916 helps us to see with precision that the one bound by this law is the minister, not the would-be communicant. Canon 916, on the other hand, binds the would-be communicant.

From these two texts together, we can conclude that there is a distinction between the reception of Holy Communion in private and reception in public. The difference relates to what the 1917 Code refers to explicitly, and the 1983 Code refers to implicitly, which is scandal. Thus, the law is concerned with two things – the soul of the would-be communicant, and scandalizing others looking on at his reception (and even scandalizing the recipient himself). In public reception, in fact, it is the primary concern of the law, as demonstrated by the fact that the 1917 Code requires ministers to cooperate with what he knows with good certitude to be a sacrilegious reception of Holy Communion.

There are two types of scandal to consider here: “imitatio” and “admiratio”… The former is connected with known sins, the latter with secret sins. The scandal of “imitatio” (imitation) is to teach others that a sin is not a sin – or at least not grave sin, in this case – and thus to imitate it, while the scandal of “admiratio” (wonder) comes after a denial of Holy Communion which encourages others to inquire into the motive for that denial, thus creating untold gossip, prying, and possibly the complete ruin of a person’s good name. And, after all, who knows, maybe the person who did some very terrible thing in secret which the minister happens to know about has actually already made confession or at least a good act of contrition (with a grave reason for receiving Holy Communion and no prior opportunity to confess), or was even for some reason not gravely culpable for his sin. However, if his action was public, people already presumably know about it and will not go hunting for information. Thus, the known sin is also typically presumed to be known by the minister as well… thus possibly putting the minister into the role of a teacher of morals.

Now we are ready to look at the individual conditions laid out in Canon 915. Remember, this canon relates to the public reception of Holy Communion only (whereas Canon 916 and its roots in Canon 855 §2 would correspond to private reception), and ALL of the conditions need to be present for the canon to be justly applied. (This is where many well-meaning and “conservative” people can go astray – it is actually quite difficult, outside of a few textbook cases, to meet ALL of the criteria.) We will start with the end and work our way back.

Sin

In morals, “sin” is a voluntary deed, word, or thought against the preceptive will of God. Some might be surprised to know that there is a category outside of morals which “sin” relates to – well, there is, and it is canon law, our present concern. “Sin” in canon law does not actually always mean the same thing as it does in morals, though of course it is connected. Rather, sin in the canonical sense, as used in Canon 915 in particular, corresponds to an outward reality which is able to be judged by onlookers, not a reality of the soul of the individual. More specifically, “canonical sin” is a “moral sin” as judged by people with well-formed consciences that might observe the act. For example, a man takes some hostages in a bank robbery and begins to murder them one by one. A person with a well-formed conscience who sees this act would reasonably assume that this man is committing sin in the moral sense. However, if we suppose that the robber is actually a schizophrenic or has some other serious mental disability, he may actually bear no moral guilt at all. And yet, until his mental condition is made known publicly, thus clarifying his lack of guilt, he would be guilty of the kind of sin which Canon 915 speaks about.

Grave

The sin must be grave. It cannot be venial sin, which is an unfortunate part of everyone’s daily life. It must be sin of the sort which, according to its matter, separates a soul from the love of God. (Recall the immediately preceding point – it is not the concern of Canon 915 whether one is gravely culpable for the sin or not. In the bank robbery example, the act is pretty clearly grave matter, despite the schizophrenic robber’s lack of guilt.)

Manifest

This is where Canon 855 of the 1917 Code is helpful, as it makes this distinction very explicit. In public administration of the Eucharist (and other sacraments by extension), the immediately invisible disposition of the soul of the individual is irrelevant for whether or not they have a claim on the minister of the sacrament to receive it. If we reimagine our bank robbery to have been a heist, in which the pastor of the local parish was involved as a conspirator, the successful heist is a grave sin indeed but one which is unknown as being connected to any given individuals. If Father decides to celebrate the parish’s daily mass the next morning (which is its own problem, as the canon also notes,) and his co-conspirator presents himself for Holy Communion, Father cannot deny him Holy Communion based on their secret crime. It matters not one bit whether there is any realistic chance of there having been confession, contrition, reparation, or even regret. The grave sin is not manifest, it is secret. However, if his co-conspirator arrived at the rectory and asked to receive Holy Communion privately outside of the normal parish mass, there would indeed be grounds for denial – it is a clear sacrilege, unless he has made confession or has some grave reason to receive after a perfect act of contrition (which is not particularly realistic, of course).

Obstinate Perseverance

The manifest grave sin must be intentionally habitual, not a “one off” or some occasional act. Sometimes this comes by implication of the person himself – such as the public contraction of an obviously illicit “marital” union. In the standard sort of case, a person’s manifest grave sin is rightly judged to be obstinately perseverant after an explicit warning given to that same person by the proper authority, such as the pastor or the bishop. (This is where the judgment of the pastor or bishop would be relevant. He may have given a warning with the condition to make public amends by such-and-such a time. So in these cases, those assisting the pastor and bishop in distributing Holy Communion are “off the hook.”) However, some cases are so clearly grave that one or two acts without public reparation or apology would suffice of themselves to constitute obstinate perseverance, without the need for any special decision or declaration from the bishop or pastor. This would seem very much to be the case with voting in favor of intrinsically and egregiously immoral acts, such as abortion, euthanasia, etc. (While such a person perhaps might have some special and secret strategic reason for such voting behavior which would justify his outwardly horrific action, this is truly abnormal and would still exclude the individual from publicly receiving Holy Communion, though not privately. I will explore this strange kind of case in an upcoming book on the topic of voting… Stay tuned.) It could also apply to political symbols being used during the reception of Holy Communion itself (i.e. a “rainbow sash” – and one can even imagine the wearer of such a thing being ignorant of its actual meaning, thus removing subjective guilt but still meeting all of the conditions of the canon).

Practical Conclusions

The claim that merely enforcing the legislation of the Church which sits upon apostolic roots and is primarily aimed at protecting weak souls from being led astray is “weaponizing the Eucharist” is simply absurd. The law is there in part to protect the individual would-be communicant from committing sacrilege (normally), but it is primarily to prevent people from being taught that grave sin is not so bad (including the would-be communicant himself). In the case of pro-abortion politicians, clergy who support “mercy” and “dialogue” over enforcing a rather low bar in the Church’s law actively teach Catholics and non-Catholics alike that the Church does not consider abortion to be particularly sinful, such that one who tries to expand legal rights to abortion by a public vote can still carry on a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, which is the whole center of the reception of the Eucharist. This is false. (Alternatively, the lesson could be that the Eucharist is not that important, or that a good reception does not require the state of grace, etc. – also false.) A clear-thinking adult who deliberately supports the direct killing of the unborn or even deliberately tolerates it as acceptable, cannot be a friend of God and thus cannot receive Holy Communion, at least under Canon 916 by committing sacrilege, even if not barred under Canon 915. We are gravely bound to understand the basic requirements of the 5th Commandment, which includes understanding what a human being is in a basic way. And those who are bound to know well both ecclesiastical and moral law who neglect their duty as shepherds of souls in this respect, as in others, will have to answer for their actions and inactions on the Last Day. It is indeed a terrifying thought to think of what that “dialogue” will look like.

We do not need more “dialogue” here, we need more good instruction and more good examples. We need to focus on saving those who are hovering in the middle of the divide – not on trying to pretend that despite the angry mob’s commitment to egregious sins, we can still find enough common ground to have a healthy ecclesial relationship in the bonds of mutual charity. This was more or less the thinking of St. Paul, for example, when he counsels the excommunication of heretics from even the social life of the Church after one or two warnings. (See Titus 3:10 and especially 1 Corinthians 5 – where is the call for dialogue!?)

There is more to talk about, including but not limited to the extension of the logic of this law to other acts of sacramental administration, but for now I give the last word to Cardinal Arinze… Let us pray for our bishops and our governors, and for the protection of the most vulnerable in our world.

The Real Reason for Priestly Celibacy

Eamonn Clark, STL

Do you remember the Amazon Synod? Well, it seems it failed to give certain people what they wanted: widespread married priests in the Latin Church. Of all the many arguments made in both directions, one consideration in favor of the discipline deserves our full attention today.

It is not that of economics, though the problems of time and energy and money are real. “But the East does it, so why can’t we?” Well, never mind that they have been doing this a long time and have gotten used to it, but the real question is: why are there so few Eastern Catholics? It’s because their priests are typically not very free for mission work, for frequent mobility, for constant preaching and teaching… due to marriage. They cannot nearly as easily embrace the faithful as fathers, because they have a biological family. They are not as available in their ministries as celibates, even though they are certainly valuable ministries nonetheless.

It is not that of the eschatological sign of celibacy. Though this is certainly powerful – one knows that the Catholic priest is different, in part because of this. He is a counter-cultural symbol. And to “cave” on this is to give up a massive moral authority over a world which the Church seeks to convert, a world which, to reiterate, stands in need of missionaries who are not tied down by the demands of domestic life.

The reason of reasons is neither of these important things. Rather, it is contemplation.

I was reading up a bit just the other day on the Carthusians. You may have heard of them because of a famous documentary which took 21 years to make. Well, they do exist, and they are a nice starting point for the discussion. What exactly is the point of Carthusian life? What do they do all day? Why don’t they go preach and hear confessions or even at least allow for retreats in their monasteries? They walk into the mountains, live practically alone in a room for their entire lives, and don’t hardly even communicate with the outside world at all except when absolutely necessary.

The Order explains it bluntly: the only goal of Carthusian life is the contemplation of God.

After all, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:42) Apostolic activity is good, and it is even necessary in a way, but it is not the best thing to do absolutely speaking, and it is not, ultimately, the most necessary thing to do either. The higher thing is to meet God face to face – the real “one thing necessary.”

We bracket here the question of apostolic life that comes from an “overflow” of contemplation… In fact, from my reading of Thomas, it seems the objectively highest vocation for him is to be a bishop freed from administration, living in a hermitage under religious vows, who occasionally comes into public to preach and administer the sacraments out of an abundance of mystical illumination from the depths of his prayer. Not exactly the norm – but the argument is strong. And its strength comes in part from his doctrine on the contemplative life, a doctrine which beautifully matches his teaching on the ascetical (“penitential”) life. Let’s dive in with Thomas on fasting. (And no – St. Thomas Aquinas was not “fat,” or at least not large from overeating. Stay tuned for a post on that in a few weeks.)

There are three purposes for fasting, and by extension, other ascetical practices. First, to do penance in reparation for sin. By taking on some small pains, we atone for what wrong we have done, thus alleviating some of our due punishment (greatly aided by the Church’s generosity in granting indulgences). Second, fasting is for cooling the passions. It is really difficult to be pining after a beautiful woman if you are really hungry. (And this is not the only good trick to help with chastity, as I’ve explored elsewhere.) Third, we fast to elevate our minds to God. The passions being cooled allows for the mind to be freed of preoccupation with the lower things and to move instead to higher things, such as meditation on the Passion, or a consideration of the meaning of our lives in the light of eternity, to examine our consciences clearly, to think on the love of God and the Mysteries of the Life of Christ… and simply to be attentive to God with an habitual, loving gaze, longing for Him and His Will, no matter how distasteful it may be to our lower appetites. This is the Wisdom which comes from the Cross, which is where perfect freedom was and is still. Christ, though physically tormented – and even physically trapped – manifested the highest degree of personal freedom on the Cross. By draining Himself of all earthly desires, He fully and completely accomplished an act of superabundant charity in accord with the Will of the Father Who had sent Him for this precise purpose. And, though physically trapped, we must remember that every moment was nonetheless chosen deliberately and without constraint; indeed, He could have come down if He had willed to. This is the pattern for growth in discipleship – to deny the lower self in favor of uniting the higher self with God, to do His Will for its own sake, and for its own sake alone. Contemplation is the highest part of our mind dwelling on the Almighty God, a quiet foretaste of the exhilarating enthrallment of Heaven.

Astute readers will notice an opening for the teaching of St. John of the Cross to sneak in. While John certainly is valuable in many ways, I would suggest that his specific teaching on the active purgation (“doing penance/fasting/deprivations,” especially in order to initiate the first passive purgation or “dark night of the senses”) is a bit too narrow or strict, even if rhetorically helpful when set alongside the more moderate approach of Thomas. In fact, Thomas seems to say precisely this, in a roundabout way, both in his teaching on the usefulness of marriage (which John seems to have been rather suspicious of, given his comment in Ascent of Mount Carmel that the married ought to be “perplexed” by the lack of a higher vocation) and in his critique of the Stoics, the Greek philosophical sect that disdained the enjoyment of any physical pleasures. We should recall that this was a very hot topic for Thomas, as the Albigensian heresy was not yet dead… This made it all the more necessary to stress the goodness of the physical world and its proper use, yes, even of physical pleasures.

However, despite his mockery of the Stoic doctrine – which he says nobody follows anyway, including the teachers of such things – Thomas insists on the usefulness of asceticism for the sake of better contemplation. This is a function not of physical pleasures being “bad,” nor of suffering or deprivation being “good” on their own, but because of the brokenness of human nature in the context of the body-soul composite. Physical pleasures drag the mind toward the things from which they derive, thus tending to drag the mind away from God, unless, as John rightly points out in Book I of Dark Night of the Soul, they are enjoyed precisely on account of elevating the mind to God, a point which St. Paul himself indicates should come through the mode of thanksgiving, in 1 Timothy 4:1-5: “We are expressly told by inspiration that, in later days, there will be some who abandon the faith, listening to false inspirations, and doctrines taught by the devils. They will be deceived by the pretensions of impostors, whose conscience is hardened as if by a searing-iron. Such teachers bid them abstain from marriage, and from certain kinds of food, although God has made these for the grateful enjoyment of those whom faith has enabled to recognize the truth. All is good that God has made, nothing is to be rejected; only we must be thankful to him when we partake of it, then it is hallowed for our use by God’s blessing and the prayer which brings it.”

But that much gratitude is difficult to keep up. In many cases, it is better to forego the pleasures entirely rather than count on having a perpetual habit of thanksgiving, which is certainly as laudable of a goal as it is an unreachable one, especially over a long period of time, wherein one becomes habituated to the use of pleasures, especially in marriage, and may even grow a bit entitled in spirit. Even barring this, one’s mind will nevertheless still be pulled down by the mere fact of the energy of the intellect and will being drained in the use of intense pleasures with any kind of frequency. It is not immoral, it is simply not ideal.

However, the flip side is that many do not have the gifts to give up certain pleasures in favor of contemplation – a point running somewhat contrary to the spirit of John’s teaching – and this attempt can even become the sin of presumption (against magnanimity by excess, not against hope by excess). The one whose mind is dragged down even more by the lack of certain licit pleasures, such as in marriage, after some attempt at getting above this struggle, is in fact better off resigning to weakness, at least for the time being. By a moderate use of these pleasures, he will free his mind more than he was able to without their use. The fixation will disappear, and he can move on with life, including in prayer, and perhaps later on he can go higher up if there is occasion, for instance, by a mutual agreement to live in perpetual continence with his spouse.

This brings us almost all the way to the point. It belongs to the priest especially to know God, and the things of God, and to judge well as an administrator and spiritual father. This requires the sharpest and freest of minds. This means, first of all, that priests should be doing a lot of fasting and other penances. It also means that they should be free of the weight of the pleasures of marriage, ideally freed from the married state altogether (which perhaps relates more to availability than to contemplation, though it still does free the mind of the activities proper to domestic concerns).

The capital vices (the “seven deadly sins”) each have “daughters” – these are other vices or sins which tend to flow from the capital vices. The capital vice of gluttony, opposed by abstinence (moderation in food and normal drink) and especially by fasting (which is an act of infused temperance properly speaking), has five daughters: unseemly joy, scurrility or foolish manners, loquaciousness, uncleanness/pollution, and dullness of mind as regards the understanding. This doesn’t mean that enjoying food is sinful, but even a lot of licit enjoyment of food will tend towards these unfortunate actions… The last one is especially pertinent, namely, dullness of mind as regards the understanding. The daughters of lust, we should note, are eight: blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, narcissism, hatred of God, love of this world, and hatred or despair of the world to come. Again, several of these relate directly to the well-functioning of the rational part of the soul with respect to contemplation… especially blindness of mind.

The dull and blind in mind have a hard time understanding spiritual things without a lot of help. Their attention is too focused on worldly pleasures – even licit ones – to be easily elevated to the world of the spirit.

Where are all the discussions about this, I wonder?

The great Carthusian dictum is true: “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.” The Cross is still, while the world turns. If we want spiritual fathers who are “alter Christi,” “other Christs,” then conformity with the unchanging dynamic of the Cross, at least in a basic way, is of the utmost importance. As we see, the availability for ministry is only a part of the equation. What does one bring into his ministry without easy access to the deeper kind of contemplation which is generally only available to the celibate? The flesh must be brought into subjection – crucified, as it were – so that spiritual strength and power may lead the priest into the wisdom proper to his office as a teacher, judge, intercessor, and administrator. For, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25) Let the world have its misguided opinions about clerical celibacy – for they have such opinions about the Cross, too. And let the Church stand as still as the Cross, while the world continues to turn.

Blessing the Hour

Eamonn Clark, STL

There are a few Marian devotions which have become extremely popular over the centuries. The rosary of course, but also the Angelus (at 6:00 AM, 12:00 PM, and 6:00 PM), and the ubiquitous May Crowning devotions. All beautiful and worthy exercises of piety. However, there is another devotion which is shorter, simpler, and practiced by several saints, including St. John Vianney and St. Anthony Claret, two of my personal favorites. It is called “blessing the hour.”

It goes like this. Every waking hour, on the hour, one prays a “Hail Mary,” dedicating the following 60 minutes to Our Lady. 8:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 9:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 10:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” Etc.

That’s it.

By doing this, one reminds oneself to sanctify the whole day. It’s a great opportunity to pause, for just 10 seconds, and consider whether one is living up to the standards of the Gospel given the activities of the preceding hour, and then to make a resolution to do better in the next hour, asking the Blessed Virgin Mary for her help. She certainly likes to be asked for such favors, and she certainly likes to grant them – so why deny her the pleasure, meanwhile denying ourselves of her powerful help?

Over time, this practice will help one to keep up a constant kind of awareness and familiarity with the Lord and His Mother, in accord with St. Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) If we are intent on one day making our eternity to be with such Friends, we ought to get in the happy habit of conversing with them at least every 60 minutes, no? And so, at the hour of our death, we are ready to spend every minute like those ten seconds each hour, but with so much more pleasure, peace, and love:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Main image: A statue of the Virgin with Child, outside Santa Sabina, in Rome

St. Thomas Aquinas on how to ensure your prayer is answered – in 4 easy steps!

Eamonn Clark, STL

It’s a shocking claim, but it’s eminently sensible… if you want a guaranteed answer to your prayer, you must only do four things. And note that I mean the kind of answer that you are actually looking for, rather than getting something different which God wants for you instead (which would be better for you than your own idea anyway).

St. Thomas Aquinas lays out the four steps, or aspects, in the Summa Theologica, II-II q. 83, a. 15. They are:

To pray piously – If we are asking God for something rudely, as if we are entitled to it, we are not praying very well. A pious prayer is humble, respectful, and sincere.

To pray perseveringly – When we really want something, we will typically keep asking until we obtain it. So it is that when we pray for a favor in a fleeting way, we are not desiring that favor very seriously. Why then should we expect Providence to match our desires? We might fall into presumption if such prayers were answered and end up not even praying piously for favors the next time around.

To pray for what is useful for salvation – Despite what it may seem, God does not actually particularly care about the score of the big football game coming up. (In fact, it can be sinful to pray for certain outcomes in such things, unless one has some extraordinary vested interest in them.) While God will grant little favors sometimes that make our lives more pleasant or convenient, normally by the natural order of things, these are small potatoes. Even miraculous physical healings are low on the list of God’s priorities – just look at how Christ did not open up a miraculous hospital in Galilee to heal every single sick person, though He could have done so. What God really wants is our everlasting friendship.

To pray for oneself – People have free will. They can accept grace or resist it. It is not possible to merit another human being’s salvation, although we can assist in a way. However, when we desire our own salvation we have immediately put ourselves on the right path by that very act of the will. Our free will is moving in the right direction already.

That’s it! It may sound underwhelming, but it’s surely not. With this formula, we can obtain Heaven, thus fulfilling the purpose of our existence. God will never deny a soul that earnestly seeks its own salvation through humble and frequent prayer for favors that relate to growth in charity and avoiding falling into Hell. Do you want to obtain the courage needed to go to Confession? You will have it. Do you want to become more temperate? It will be given to you. Do you want to enjoy a deeper friendship with the Lord and be a great saint? He wants to give it to you. All you must do is ask in the right way, and it is sure to come to you.

Haggai and the Woman with the Hemorrhage

Eamonn Clark, STL

Today, a short meditation on the fulfillment of the Old Law and the Prophet Haggai… First, the text of the Gospel of Mark 5:25-34 (also found in Matthew and Luke):

25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

It is a familiar passage, but there is more going on here than meets the eye; in this incident the Prophet Haggai has been “overcome,” or rather, the law which Haggai refers to has been usurped by a superior Legislator. Haggai was sent to encourage the Jews to rebuild the Temple, after they had returned from their exile in Babylon; there was reluctance to do the work out of a kind of spiritual lethargy. He has a short dialogue with the priests about sacrifice and law. Let’s see the text of Haggai 2:10-14

10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai: 11 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says: 12 If someone carries consecrated meat in the fold of their garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, olive oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’” The priests answered, “No.” 13 Then Haggai said, “If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?” “Yes,” the priests replied, “it becomes defiled.” 14 Then Haggai said, “‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight,’ declares the Lord. ‘Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.’”

Clearly, the Flesh of Christ is more sacred than “sacred flesh.” Some flesh is sacred by ritual – His Flesh is sacred by nature, and the “order of purity” is reversed.

When faith in Him is offered, and His clothing is touched from that motive, spiritual healing, or forgiveness, comes. What is it to touch His clothing now? It is that which “covers” His Sacred Flesh – that which mediates His Presence, namely, the Sacraments, which lead to the Eucharist, especially Confession. On the Cross, Christ’s side poured forth water and Blood – Baptism and the Eucharist – but He also had His cloak taken from Him. Unlike the veil of the Temple, torn from top to bottom, Christ’s cloak was woven from top to bottom: the one was destroyed by God, the other represents the Sacramental order which one must pass through to reach the Flesh of Christ aside from the waters of Baptism, an order disrespected by those concerned with possessions, with amusement, with going along with what the crowd is doing, despite being right next to the Crucified One – just like the soldiers who gambled for the garment, or even like the masses that pressed up against Christ for motives out of curiosity rather than faith. Simply touching the cloak is not enough, as the crowds and soldiers did; nor even does touching the Flesh suffice, as those who crucified Him did. It must be done in the right way to receive the cleansing power which comes from Him.

To make a good Eucharistic sacrifice, the priest must be clean – so too must we be clean to receive that Flesh, not only washed with Baptism, but also having touched the cloak of Christ in faith to be healed of our spiritual impurity. By entering “through” that “veil” into the New Temple, namely, into the Risen Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ, we can live with the same God Who once dwelt behind the curtain of the Temple, without going all the way to Jerusalem. Power flows forth from Him openly now, for all the nations. Unlike the impure inhabitants of Jerusalem, those who approach the Lord in faith and humility through the Sacraments will be living stones, built up into a spiritual temple, ready to offer sacrifices acceptable to the Father (1 Peter 2:5) – and others will even in a way be made pure through us, especially priests, by the very power of the One Whom we have encountered and share.

A First-Class Encounter with the Devil?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Hollywood is fascinated with the Devil. Every year it seems there’s a new film about possession, the occult, or demonic infestation. The public – i.e. normal people – eat it up: clearly, we are fascinated too. And that’s just what the Devil wants.

I have never dealt with anything like demonic possession or infestation directly, though I have priest friends who have. If you had any doubt, let me assure you, all that stuff is plenty real. And yet somehow, so many of the people who flock in droves to see blockbuster hits about these things might also believe they are real – and they don’t do anything to change their lives in response to the terrifying world of Hell and its inhabitants. There is one simple reason: they have mistaken these second-class encounters with the Devil for first-class ones.

The Devil, when most successful, stays most hidden. It is hard for him, as he loves to show off – and ultimately, there is always some tell-tale sign of his wicked presence, even if we can’t quite notice it. Eventually, like Odysseus sailing away from the cyclops, he will simply have to tell you that it was him – he wants all the credit, you see, all the glory. He can’t have a quiet victory, not in the end. He has to taunt his opponent.

But he is willing to wait, at least sometimes, staying quite hidden. Ironically, things like possessions and infestations and apparitions are part of this overall strategy. By making so many people aware of his activity in these extraordinary phenomena, he deceives a great number: they think that this is the point of the Devil’s work, namely, to make things float around a room, to take control of someone’s body and mind, to make himself appear in fantastical shapes. Well, it isn’t. While we look at the “bright and shiny things,” our attention is diverted as the real goal is accomplished, slowly but surely – temptation leading to sin: a first-class encounter with the Devil. When one is really distracted, thinking not only that extraordinary manifestations of the Devil are first-class encounters, but that they are in fact the only encounters, one will likely not even recognize temptations to be temptations, thus not seeing sins to be sins. Game, set, match.

Finally, the one who does not believe in the Devil at all is likely to be quite firmly grasped in his wicked clutches – and one day, he will let that person know definitively who won his soul from God. And then they will be miserable together forever.

The truth is that the Devil is boring. Sin is boring too. God, and virtue which leads to God, are interesting when rightly seen, as their “horizon” is infinite love, while the Devil is just a creature, and sin leads only to creatures, all finite, many quite unloving. Friendship with the Infinite One – a first-class encounter with God, the life of charity – now that is worth more than a few hours at the cinema to sit back and enjoy… it is worth an eternity of fixation, and a life of self-sacrifice.

A “Spitting Image” of Obedience

Eamonn Clark

“The next time you see her, spit in her face.”

An extremely instructive story for those who are tempted to trust their own judgment in the spiritual life is related in Gerard de Frachet O.P.’s Lives of the Brethren (available online here). Over a 5 year period (about 1255-1260), De Frachet (d. 1271) collected stories from the earliest life of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), which stories were well-founded on eyewitness testimony, with many of the brothers who are in the stories still being alive at the time of composition. It contains some of the earliest biographical information of St. Dominic, Bl. Jordan of Saxony, and many other stories of miracles, extraordinary piety, and heroic virtue. The episode we are considering goes like this – from page 209 (Imperium Christi Press, trans. Conway), in Chapter 22 of Part V, titled “Impatience and Phantasms”:

“One of the brethren in the convent in Paris gave himself up entirely to prayer to the detriment of his studies and teaching. The devil was also in the habit of coming to him, feigning to be the blessed Virgin, at one time praising his state of soul, and at another revealing future events. The brother happened to mention this fact to Brother Peter of Rheims, who was prior at the time, and was advised to spit in the face of the phantom if it appeared again: ‘For if it be the blessed Virgin,’ said he, ‘she will not be vexed, being always most humble of heart, nay, she will excuse you on account of your obedience; while if it be the father of lies he will make off in confusion.’ The brother simply did what he was told and spat accordingly, upon which the devil roared in anger: ‘Curse upon you, where did you learn such gross manners!’ He went off ashamed of himself, and never ventured to come again.”

Let those taken in by interior assurances of piety and holiness beware… they are blind guides. Even exterior affirmations should be distrusted, and they should be rejected entirely when there is an objective problem (such as neglecting one’s duties, even for an outwardly pious motive). The most famous example of such radical self-distrust is perhaps that of St. Teresa of Avila, who would regularly see Christ in apparitions but would essentially ignore their content without approval from her director – she knew her director would not deceive her, while she was less sure if she was really encountering the Lord in her visions.

And should there ever be an experience – psychological, physical, mystical – which suggests that one go against the lawful and reasonable demands of one’s superiors (natural or ecclesiastical, including one’s spiritual director), let alone that one go against the teaching or demands of the Church, one can be assured that such a thing is not from God. (Cf. Gal. 1:8 – “But even if we or an angel from Heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”) Such illusions should be rejected – they should be spat upon. Let’s have terrible manners with the demons… Maybe that sometimes means spitting on apparitions, but it always means being obedient to God, to His Church, and to all our legitimate superiors who represent them both.

Main image: Paris – the old convent church (Couvent St. Jacques) in which this incident occurred was destroyed in the first half of the 19th century.

Seven False Messiahs – Which one do you believe in too much?

Eamonn Clark

The little writing I have been able to do outside of normal work has recently been quite fruitful. Allow me to share a schema which identifies seven false messianic paradigms (or expectations of what the Christ is supposed to be or do)… We all gravitate toward one or more of these, and it is the task of the Gift of Understanding to correct these errors (crushing our little mental idols of God), leading us toward the truth rather than imitations of it.

The Messiah is not primarily about any of the following things: politics, rubrics, therapeutics, economics, theatrics, academics, or aesthetics. He is concerned with each, but only halfheartedly, as it were. One can easily identify an “antichristic” figure who would fulfill each of the seven the way we are inclined to desire… But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Politics – This is the paradigm which dominates the Gospels, and its zenith is found in Peter. The Messiah will throw off Roman rule and usher in an age of peace in Israel, and there will be a big Jewish party in Jerusalem. When Peter tells Jesus he is ready to die for Him, he really means it: he will die for this cause which he has fallaciously projected onto Jesus. When he discovers in the Garden of Gethsemane that the political Messiah is not Jesus, his whole world of hopes and dreams collapses – this is not the Messiah Peter signed up for. It is also not a Messiah which can be legitimately invoked to sanction any prudential legislation which a state might have to produce. The things that are God’s are God’s, the things that are Caesar’s are Caesar’s. The Christ does not deign to sanction public policy which exceeds the boundaries of the Ten Commandments – it is beneath Him.

Rubrics – The Pharisees will immediately come to mind with this word, “rubrics.” This is correct, but it is not sufficient… The thought that the Messiah is supposed to keep everyone in line extends beyond the Torah, written and oral, and into normal human behavior as well. Why does God allow people to do evil things? How can grace come through wicked ministers? Isn’t this what the Messiah is supposed to fix? No, no it is not. The Messiah is not these people, after all, and His glory is behind the cloud.

Therapeutics – The encounter with the rich young man is one example of a search for a Therapist-Messiah. Those who merely want the Christ to affirm them rather than challenge them are falling prey to this trap. The Messiah has not come to bring peace, but a sword. The world of discipleship is not a “safe space,” it is a continual high-stakes battle against sin and self-confrontation for the sake of deeper conversion of heart. “Spiritual but not religious” is the apex of this calamitous paradigm.

Economics – The crowds are like the Devil… They want the Messiah to turn stones into bread. The feeding of the 5,000 prompted the crowd to try to take Jesus away to make Him their king (John 6: 15). They are hoping for an endless Divine buffet, not of the Bread from Heaven, but of literal bread. It turns out that the Divine medical clinic was not in the cards either, though such arrangements would certainly have improved the temporal quality of life of, well, everyone. But civic works, as nice as they are, are not what the Christ has come for.

Theatrics – We’ve had the bread, so what about the circuses? Again like the Devil, the crowds always want a show. They want signs… meaning spectacular outward manifestations of Divine power. But this didn’t work for their forefathers in the Desert, and it will not work for them either, for miracles not only aren’t the point of the Messiah, they do not even of themselves suffice to create faith.

Academics – Those who regularly pray the Office of Readings might recall St. Francis Xavier’s scathing critique of the scholars in Paris… Surely, to turn the Christ into a mere object of study and intrigue is a deadly error. We might think of Herod as a prototype, who loved to listen to John the Baptist, but would not repent, and who longed to see Jesus for some time out of curiosity (which plugs into theatrics as well). The Messiah has not come simply to be an interesting point of debate, He has come for something greater. To reduce faith to study and learning is, therefore, a colossal error. Faith is the result of grace.

Aesthetics – Finally, we have a kind of catch-all error. In general, the Messiah has not come to create a certain kind of experience of God. “Stop holding on to me,” the Risen Lord tells the Magdalene… The Kingdom is not of this world, it is of eternity and consists in grace – it is a silent and invisible reality, at least for now. No fire or storm or earthquake is necessary. While we might point to some ancient errors and movements as examples of aesthetic errors, surely we can acknowledge some in our own day, such as certain attitudes which can surround the liturgy (with both libs and trads) or spiritual growth in general, such as I have discussed elsewhere. The Messiah is not about creating certain feelings or experiences, nice as those may be.

More false paradigms could possibly be added, though these will suffice for today. It is also a worthy endeavor to explore various combinations of these errors to see what kind of behavior and mindset they cause when working in tandem, such as with so-called “moralistic therapeutic deism“… But I will leave that to you the reader to do for yourself.

What, then, is the Messiah really about? In what does “messianics” really consist? Well, it is partially concerned with the 7 things above… But only indirectly. Christ is concerned with economics, for example, but it is not the primary mission. He is really concerned with how people relate with laws and protocol, but again, that is not the fundamental point.

The Messiah is Revelator and Redeemer. He gives us doctrine ordered to salvation, and then He actually offers us that salvation through Himself. All other activities of the Christ center around and are ordered to revelation and redemption – showing the way to God, or helping us to walk it. That road is narrow, but its gatekeeper is the real Christ… The wide road has a different gatekeeper, who also is concerned with politics, economics, and so on, albeit in a direct and fundamental way – it is the Devil, or the antichrist, wherein we see fine temporal “leadership,” but a terrible eternal friend.