Will the Real St. Matthew Please Stand Up?

Fr. Peter Gruber

“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Pope Francis remarked in his 2013 interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.

“It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.”

In Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew, Pope Francis found the perfect image to express his own surprise at being uniquely called by Christ to serve the Church as supreme pontiff.

But, we have a problem. Which figure in the painting is St. Matthew?

(If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to give the painting a good look and try to figure it out for yourself.)

Besides the faintest loop over Christ’s head, there are no halos in this painting. Nor should there be – St. Matthew was only Matthew the tax-collector at this point. Here he is, in the midst of his sin and in corrupt company. Matthew has just as much chance of being called out of this situation as any of the five guys in the tax office.

But which one is he?


Option 1: The Bearded Man

At first glance, Matthew appears to be the man with long beard. His eyes show surprise, his face is illuminated, his finger seems to point toward his breast. And, maybe just to help us out, he has a distinguishing coin in his hat and a right hand fingering money on the table. If there is anyone in this painting who is reacting as the one who is called, it’s this guy.

bearded-guy

There are two other reasons why the bearded man is the best candidate for Matthew.

First, Caravaggio did not paint The Calling by itself. With this painting in the Contarelli Chapel in the San Luigi dei Francesi Church in Rome, Caravaggio painted two other scenes from the life of St. Matthew: The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. MatthewIn both of these adjacent paintings, Matthew is depicted as a man with a sizable beard.

The second reason concerns some of the interesting history going on at that point. Before this was painted, there was a passing fear that France might go the way of the Church of England. This fear partially subsided when the Huguenot (Protestant) Henry IV converted back to Catholicism upon taking the French throne in 1593. Caravaggio was commissioned six years later to paint three works for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of the French). To flatter the now-Catholic king of France (and appease his patron), Caravaggio painted St. Matthew to resemble Henry IV. (You can see the bearded resemblance here.)

But that might not be the whole story.


Option 2: The Hunched-Over Man

People make a big deal about Christ’s pointing gesture just below the window in the painting. His hand is unusually relaxed for a definitive signaling of direction. The reason for this is very likely that Caravaggio is alluding to a more famous painting: The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.

finger-edited

fingers

Michelangelo’s Adam is depicted in the Sistine Chapel fresco in the moment just before his animation, with his finger less than an inch from that of God. Michelangelo, instead of showing an Adam already filled with life, depicts the precise moment prior to his ensoulment with all the drama of a limp wrist.

Like Michelangelo, Caravaggio may not be capturing the moment of the calling of Matthew; he might very well be capturing the precise moment before the calling of Matthew. The finger of Christ the New Adam has yet to be fully extended, the call is only just about to happen. The whole painting is in that dramatic tension of the moment before the call.

In that case, Matthew is not the bearded man whose face is fully illuminated; Matthew is the man whose face is about to be illuminated – the smooth-faced hunched-over man.

hunched-over-guy

And here, before the call reaches him – before the light reaches his face – Matthew is still a sinner, still a tax-collector, still fingering his coins and gripping his money bag. The bearded figure to his left anticipates the perceived direction of Christ’s soon-to-be-extended finger, pointing perhaps not to his own breast but to the hunched over man next to him. This man’s face, only half-illuminated by the light that comes from Christ’s entrance, still intently looks down to the table; he has but to lift his head an inch to make eye contact with Christ. Will his eyes meet the gaze that tests mortal men and will he remain the same? Will he respond to the call?

 

So, which one is Matthew?

It’s still not entirely clear. It can go either way.

But that’s probably how Caravaggio wants it to be. Caravaggio’s art was at the cutting edge of the subjective turn of modern thought. As a controversial artist of his time, he departed from the idea that art is exclusively at the service of the true, good, and beautiful, and turned instead toward an innovative realism. (See our earlier post on what makes art good.)

Part of Caravaggio’s goal is to pull the viewer into the painting. He wants this ambiguity; he wants you to be asking these questions. And he knows that things are not so cut and dry. Christ entered a world in chaos, a world engulfed in sin. He calls us out of that darkness and into His light.

Turning again to the painting, if we go to the source of Christ’s call and look above His not-yet-fully-outstretched right hand, we find ourselves at the base of a cross (the fourfold window pane forms a cross). Here we are meant to ponder Christ’s own cross. And at the cross, darkness appears to triumph over light, chaos over order, death over life. It is precisely at that moment when Christ conquers. It is from that cross that Christ calls His disciples, and it is to that cross that Christ calls His disciples. Like Matthew (whoever he is), we are drawn up while we are still sinners into the cross, into the central mystery of our faith.

Pope Francis (himself seeming to weigh in on Matthew as the bearded man) hits on what our response should be to Christ’s call: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Independent of who we decide Matthew to be in this painting, our response to Christ should be the same as that of Pope Francis. We are that sinner uniquely called by Christ.

How will we respond to His call?

 

Main image: “The Calling of St. Matthew,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1599-1600

Heterodox Does Not Mean Heretical

Eamonn Clark

Update: See Dr. Ed Peters take on this issue (in a better way, taking up the issue of “refraining from proclaiming truth”) here.

In an earlier post I examined the beleaguered (and yes, still deserving of charity) Fr. James Martin, SJ’s denunciation of the rash use of the label “heretic,” together with some extremely suspicious Christology.

I actually agree with him regarding his claim that he is not a heretic (at least according to law, which involves outward signs revealing what is within the soul). This is with respect to his Christology and even with his homosexualist agenda. Nor does his shocking (but not quite totally direct) endorsement of apostasy rise to the level of “heresy,” I suggest. Of course, I also think these things are awful and deserve serious attention from the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities. Until such a time as those offices give that attention, and as long as “Martin Mania” continues, may I offer some selected thoughts on how to navigate this alarming controversy and propose the wide-spread resurgence of the use of a timeless treasure of the Church – hopefully in an “official” way?

Theological censures.

A theological censure is a kind of warning – or judgment – about a teaching or a written work. A local bishop, a special commission, a Roman congregation, or the pope himself might issue a censure. A censure says that a teaching or work is heterodox (at odds with the truth in any of a variety of ways) and/or dangerous to the moral life of those who might encounter it. Works that receive bad enough censures might be put on an index of forbidden literature, and teachings might be condemned in the form of a syllabus. Theological censures are still used today but not nearly as much as they used to be. While there is some danger with them (such as descending into incessant hair-splitting or losing a sense of theology’s purpose, such as was happening with the overuse of manuals), it seems an opportune moment to begin at least talking about popularizing this tool once more.

Suppose a Jesuit writes a book with imbalanced emphases, a bold assertion about rewording the Catechism, and generally scandalous phrases which tend to affirm sinners in their sin. What censures might be relevant?

There are three broad classes of censures which could possibly be placed on any work, or even propositions within a work. The first regards the importance of the teaching’s object itself, the second regards the mode of expression of that teaching, and the third regards the moral character of the teaching itself and its foreseen practical consequences for morals. (There is another means of categorizing censures, viz., according to the relevant “theological note”, but this is the simpler method and allows an easier way to admit the third category mentioned here.)

The first category is where we find the term “hæretica,” meaning “heretical.” It is the highest censure that can be placed on a teaching or work. A heretical teaching is one which directly and immediately contradicts a doctrine “de fide” (or dogma), a truth revealed by God which must be believed (“credenda”) with divine and Catholic faith. To say, “God is four Persons,” or “Christ had only a human nature,” or “the Eucharist is not substantially Christ,” or “the Commandments are impossible even for one in grace,” would be heretical. It is very, very difficult to earn this stamp of disapproval. The too frequent use of the word “heresy” is a bit like the casual use of bad language – it empties it of its power, and it should be discouraged. It is quite difficult to commit the sin of heresy, and it is even more difficult to commit the outward crime which can be judged by the Church publicly as such. The latter requires outward, explicit, and obstinate confession of a proposition directly contrary to a de fide truth/dogma.

Are there dogmas regarding morals? Yes. I contend it is dogmatically certain that murder is immoral, as it is expressly condemned in Scripture and denounced by the ordinary magisterium of the Church in an infallible way, that is, consistently and universally throughout the entire history of the Church. It would be heretical to support murder as such. On the other hand, it would be more difficult to say that the immorality of abortion is a dogma, as it is at least somewhat debatable that the ordinary magisterium has consistently and universally enough maintained that unborn life in all its stages is truly human and therefore inviolable. The naturally available truth of the humanity of the embryo, now completely evident, confirms that abortion does indeed constitute murder. But because we have to put these two truths together, one which is a dogma and one which is a natural truth related to it, to say abortion is immoral is not, in the strictest sense, heretical. One might put it in one of two categories: “erronea” (erroneous), supposing the humanity of the embryo is or was a sufficiently doubtfully applied natural truth, unlike an innocent adult (which, if taken away, would leave the 5th Commandment void of content altogether), or “hæresi proxima” (next to heresy or approaching heresy), if it is the case that one sees the humanity of the embryo as having been insufficiently doubtful to warrant the need for an additional truth on top of what is already implicitly contained in the Commandment. Either way, this is still a terrible label… To be in an error of faith, or to be next to heresy, should be frightening to the one putting forth the teaching, as it is still mortal sin. (Do take a look at the theological notes chart here, with more examples and explanations for all this.) Error regards things which still must be held (“tenenda”) by Catholics. The support of the legal recognition of same-sex unions as marriage would fall in one of these lower (but still binding) categories… It involves a dogma and a naturally available truth (called a “certa”), or it involves a truth immediately derived from the dogma which is “proxima fidei” (next to faith and commonly believed to be revealed, but without ever being the object of a formal enough definition). The dogma is that sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman, and the natural or derivative truth is that men are not women (and vice versa). Supporting homosexual marriage in law would be contradicting either a certa (mix of a truth from natural reason and a truth “de fide”) or to contradict the immediate derivative of the dogma itself. Heterodox? Yes. Heretical? No. (I tend to favor the label “erroneous,” but that’s too much to get into here.) And the vaguer the language becomes, the more difficult it is to levy a high censure rightly. To say something like, “There can be true love in a homosexual act,” is surely wrong in many ways, but it is vague enough to be far from deserving that worst of labels, “heresy.”

Returning to the example of abortion, the claim that so-called medical abortion or craniotomy (both of which destroy the child to save the mother) are licit procedures, given that such a condemnation is difficult to reconcile with the general affirmation of the morality of self-defense, could be called “errori proxima” (next to error): the contrary is able to be deduced from the right teaching on abortion. It would be “temeratia” (rash) to assert that the vast majority of abortions are only venial sins on the part of the mother due to the distress of the situation. In no way is this clear, as the natural truths involved are not at all available to the one who makes this claim (so one must wonder at the reasoning), and so this is also at odds with the common opinion of theologians.

Propositions which just seem like heresy or error but can’t quite be charged with the other offenses might be labeled “sapiens hæresi/errori” (smacking of heresy/error) or even “suspecta de hæresi/errori” (suspected of heresy/error).

There are other qualifying labels which might be added, according to what kind of truth is being contradicted (Scriptural, credal, moral, etc.), but this will do for our investigation of the first category.

The second regards the way a teaching is put forth. Even true teachings could be censured in this way. A proposition may be “ambigua” (ambiguous), for example, leaving itself wide open to bad interpretation. “Protestants should be welcomed into the Catholic Church,” might be an example… Surely, entrance into full communion should be done in a welcoming way, but we should not simply begin treating Protestants as part of the Catholic Church.

Statements might also be “captiosa” (captious), “male sonans” (evil-sounding), or, my favorite in this category, “piarum aurium offensiva” (offensive to pious ears). The first uses unobjectionable language to forward an objectionable agenda (“Priests might be allowed to marry one day.”) The second is when inappropriate words are used to express truths (use your imagination). The third simply shocks the sensibilities of Catholics, though it may well be true. (See my post on Jesus and the Aliens, which arguably comes under this category. I claim there that our sacramental economy could not incorporate extraterrestrial life because aliens are not descended from Adam. The short and “offensive” version is, “Jesus can’t save aliens.”)

The third category describes what a teaching does that is morally wrong or encourages that is morally wrong. They are rather self-explanatory. The category includes but is not limited to “subsannativa religionis” (derisive of religion), “decolorativa canodris ecclesiæ” (defacing the beauty of the Church), “subversia hierarchiæ” (subversive of the hierarchy), “arrogans” (arrogant), “scandelosa,” “perniciosa,” “periculosa in moribus” (scandalous, pernicious, dangerous to morals), which might include “blasphema” (leading to blasphemy), “magica” (leading to sorcery), “idolatra” (leading to idolatry), etc., etc.

Hopefully this will serve as a decent primer on this important and seemingly neglected area of Church governance and teaching.

What censures might some of Fr. James Martin, SJ’s countless articles, tweets, books, and speeches rightly be labeled with? Many, for sure, but that would be for the lawful authorities of the Church to determine and pronounce. Though I do not think that anything I have seen warrants that highest and worst label hæretica.

But that is surely nothing to brag about.

Comments are closed. See follow up here.

 

Main image: Detail of an icon of Nicaea I

In Defense of Bad Priests

Eamonn Clark

I recently prepared third graders for their First Holy Communion. Going through the story of the Last Supper several times, I noticed that they had a fascination with a certain Apostle… You guessed it – Judas. A fascination with such a character is understandable, as it seems rather out of place in a story which one would think is supposed to be exclusively upholding models of virtue. This is not unlike the very grown-up temptation to expect moral perfection from Catholic clergy. After all, they are supposed to be models of virtue, right?

Yes, they certainly are, and extra scrutiny is rightly deserved because we do indeed have the fullness of truth and grace available to us. But here are the facts. Our Lord chose losers, dummies, and wicked sinners as the foundation of His Church. Of the original Twelve, ten were ambitious cowards. One of those ten was also arrogant (Peter). The eleventh was just ambitious (John). And the twelfth one was a greedy traitor. (Later on He would also call a terrorist to this elite group.)

The place to start looking at the failure of any priesthood is a comparison with the first four failed priesthoods, and the first successful one: Adam, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and Melchizedek, respectively.

Adam was the high priest of nature, called to guard and serve the Garden of Eden and his wife Eve at his own expense. He ought to have put himself in front of her and the serpent, but he shrinks away from his duty. He stands next to her (as Eve “turned to her husband” to give him the fruit) and watches this calamity take place. The serpent goes after Eve first, because he knows that she is easier to trick and that she might be able to trick her husband. When confronted by God, Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve: there is no responsibility taken.

The Devil often seeks to harm God’s priests through the very people they are called to protect. In this case, Adam’s own fear and self-interest allow his beloved to fall, and then she takes him with her – for what husband would want to have a wife estranged from him, as Eve surely would have been without Adam following her into sin? And yet they become estranged from each other anyway, needing to hide themselves with the flesh of animals… The first time blood is shed in Scripture, it is to cover up the sins of our first parents. A sign of things to come, for sure.

The next failed priesthood is Aaron’s. While Moses is busy with spiritual matters on Mount Sinai, the people grumble against him. The patience required to receive the Covenant is too spiritual for them, and so they threaten to leave the mountain in protest. Aaron is concerned about such a loss of numbers – he is afraid of what Moses will think. He has the people give him their gold, and he makes for them an idol which provides them with the experience of God they wanted: an unchallenging, unspiritual, ungodly experience. But the people are happy, and they stay put for a while, high on their own erroneous ideas about the worship of God. Aaron saved the day. When Moses returns with righteous fury, Aaron explains, like Adam did before God, that it was not his fault – it was the people’s and the furnace’s. More shirking of responsibility. (Moses gives them the proper experience of the god Aaron made for them when he ground it down, threw it in the water, and made the people drink. Like a good priest, he teaches them that a dead god gives even less life than water: it cannot save.)

Unlike Adam, Aaron’s ambitions were totally worldly. Instead of trying to become like God as a direct opponent, he simply wants to be the hero of God’s chosen people. Aaron wants just a little bit too much of their attention… He is not really after the gold, but what lies behind the gold – the esteem of men. That is what gives gold its value, after all.

Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s sons. They violated the code of the Lord’s sanctuary by bringing unholy fire into the Tent of Meeting. This strange fire was deeply repugnant to the Lord, and so He slew them where they stood. Our Lord will only have sacred heat and light dwell within His holy place. Though profane fire may sustain bodily life, only sacred fire can sustain the life of grace.

The first successful priesthood is that of Melchizedek, whom Abraham meets after his battles. His is a totally spiritual and eternal priesthood, offering bread and wine and accepting the tithes owed to him for his work. He does not ask for money, he simply receives it. He is a priest not because of his family stock, like the Levites, but because of his charity. He gives to God first, then he receives what is rightfully his from men. He does not go looking for greatness: he simply is great.

Judas wraps up all of the failures of earlier priests in himself and makes them even worse. He is unwilling to do the work of a priest, putting himself in the place of Christ over and over again for the salvation of souls, standing in the way of the Devil’s reach of the weak, even though he would not have been alone in this task, unlike Adam. He trades the incarnate Lord not for the esteem of men, but for money itself. The purifying fires of the grace welling up in the Eucharistic Lord are traded for the fires of the foundry which purified the silver he would take as payment for his betrayal and would later throw into the Temple to try to buy back that grace. He takes into his body the blessed fruits of that very first celebration of Holy Mass which he was simultaneously endowed with the awesome power himself to perpetuate, as a recapitulation and elevation of Melchizedek’s priesthood, and then invites in the Devil to contradict it all. Though the accidents of bread and wine sustained Judas’ bodily life, the spirit within him died because of the rejection of the grace within the Lord’s Body and Blood – true food and true drink which preserve from everlasting death.

What greater human evil is there than the evil found in Judas on Holy Thursday? And yet that very night, Our Lord bowed before him to wash his feet, and He even personally called him “friend.” It is not unfair to say that, in a way, God loved Judas more than anyone else in human history, for there has never been a fouler human being to love. In the midst of this supreme wretchedness, Christ left us a memorial of His own greatness.

We know how the human story turns out. Judas despairs of the very mercy he was shortly supposed to be empowered to bring to others in the sacrament of confession. He attempts to slay himself (though perhaps did not succeed, and received even more time to repent), as if the death of the Lord had not been enough payment for his sin… No, Judas saw himself as so great that he believed his sin was unforgivable. “What a fool I have been,” he uttered. Yet this foolish failure brought about the culmination of our very redemption. Without Judas, there is no Passion, Death, or Resurrection. There is also not the greatest condescension of love ever shown by God. Deicide is not therefore justified, but God’s choice to allow a bad priest to exist in the Church is.

Meanwhile, Peter weeps in contrition and makes amends with “the man” he denied knowing, within earshot and within hours of having heard this prophesied. He left that “strange fire” in the courtyard, from where he watched the Lord shiver in the cold and dark of the prison cell, and he leaves the slave girl before whom he cowered in fear. Behold, the Prince of Apostles, who would eventually learn that taking up the sword is better left to those who persecute Christ than those who defend Him, and who would finally end his life as a willing victim upon a cross. The priesthood of Peter was in as sorry a state as the priesthood of Judas; the difference was repentance. Yet again, Our Lord shows his greatness through the failures of one of His hand-picked dispensers of grace.

The Church on Earth is institutional and hierarchical by nature, because human beings require such an order so as to avoid repeating the tragic error of the men of Babel who tried by their own powers to cooperate to reach up to Heaven. The Church on Earth is also sinful by nature, because it is populated by human beings – even in its hierarchy. It has been so from the moment of its inception, and this is by design. No, God does not want bad clergy in the same way He wants good clergy, but He does want to permit them to exist for now. He knew Judas would betray Him, and He knew all the clerical pedophiles, heretics, and antinomians of our own day would do the same. While they betray the Lord by selling Him for popularity or money, as they shrink from their duty to stand in front of Satan and then blame the weak or the natural insufficiency of their means, as they profane the Eucharist through indifference toward it, they repeatedly show the power of Christ in His Church: even through all this, there is victory waiting.

There has always been a crack in the foundation, there has always been chaff in the wheat, and yet there has always been grace available through these men nonetheless, as it is God’s own power which is the source of their priesthood and thus the source of their power to give grace – “ex opere operato.” God shows His majesty in the midst of this weakness and wretchedness. And sometimes He even brings these men out of their shameful disgrace and elevates them to the profoundest heights of sanctity, a feat which must be marveled at. There is true hope of Heaven for every bad priest in this world. Christ calls each of them “friend.”

Perspective is important. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Qoheleth reminds us. We would do well to recall more frequently the beginnings of the Church to understand Her challenges today. (A reading of the disturbing history of ancient Israel would help too.) Whatever cleric is the object of concern – parish priest, celebrity priest, local bishop, curial official, pope… If there really is sin there, realize that it is just business as usual. The Barque of Peter has always leaked in the storm while the inept crew runs about helplessly, and yet it continues to float safely toward the harbor. Our Lord can guide it even in His sleep.

Let’s pray and fast for all priests, especially those who need it most.

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!

 

Main image: Pope John XII, who was killed in the act of adultery by a vengeful husband

Sancti Obscuri – St. Porphyrius (September 15)

Jacob Gruber

​If you were asked off the top of your head to name five saints of the Catholic Church, who would come to mind? St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio, or St. Francis of Assisi? Perhaps St. John Paul II or Mother Teresa? But what about St. Euphemia or St Paphnutius? Surely St. Iphigenia made it somewhere on the list?

​If these latter names don’t ring any Church bells for you, this new column may be right for you. It’s no secret that we have “saint celebrities.” If you’ve lost an item, you think to pray to St. Anthony, not St. Abundantius. If you want help in discernment, you probably prefer St. Therese’s roses to St. Rosalia’s. But what about these other saints? Don’t they have something to teach us, to inspire us with, to remind us?

​This new column, “Sancti Obscuri,” will look at different saints who, for one reason or another, have become obscure to the modern Catholic imagination. The posts won’t be exhaustive, considering how historical obscurity tends to coincide with a paucity of source material. But if these forgotten men and women have received the crown of sainthood, then they have a story worth hearing. (They know something of Thomas Jefferson’s exasperation in this old “Simpsons” episode, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.”)

Our first “sanctus obscurus,” St. Porphyrius, shares a feast day with Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15. In his life, however, he would not have known what to do with a celebration of a “Lady of Sorrows.” By profession, he was a comedian, a mimic, a famous jester. He was a prevailing voice of the remnant of paganism in the post-Constantine Roman Empire, offering to those who hadn’t accepted Christianity a sufficient mockery of its tenets. People expected comedy and corruption from him, certainly not conversion. Yet, as we will see, he was a man who, within a day, went from mimicry to martyrdom, profanation to profession. Before we tell his story, some background is in line.

His story begins best with the story of Julian the Apostate, who, given the spoiler alert in his name, didn’t care for Christianity very much. In the years following the death of Constantine the Great in 337AD, a barrage of complicated politics had plagued the leadership of the vast Roman Empire. Fast forward a couple of decades, and in 361AD one “Flavius Claudius Julianus,” a nephew of Constantine, arose as sole emperor. His reign was to be short (only 20 months), but not without activity.

Although Christianity for almost 50 years had enjoyed political freedom and support from the emperor, the rule of Julian loomed as a serious threat. Though he was a Christian for the first 20 years of his life, he came to reject the Lord and choose instead the “way of Helios” (see his Letter 47). Julian the Apostate envisioned a return to the Roman paganism of old, a religious atmosphere marked by highly syncretistic polytheism, unified, as it were, under the banner of being ‘not Christian.’

When Julian heard of the fame of Porphyrius the Mimic whose specialty was mocking Christians, he had him brought in to entertain the royal court. Everything was set up for a successful show. The audience was eager to be entertained at Christianity’s expense, and Porphyrius had put together a special play; he was going to mock the Mystery of Baptism.

The show was a riot, eliciting raucous laughter to be sure. Things seemed to be lining up perfectly. The climax of the action involved a mock-baptism scene with fake clergy dressed in liturgical garb immersing the “catechumen,” Porphyrius, into some water.

He ceremoniously pronounced that he would now be a follower of Jesus Christ, “in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” before being immersed. But something happened when Porphyrius entered the water. Submerged in that moment, Porphyrius felt the summons of actual grace, a call to serious conversion. Coming out of the water, he announced his decision to all present that he wished to be a Christian and would no longer mock the Living God. But, while he had his metanoia, the emperor was simply annoyed. The Roman Martyrology sums up best what happened next:

“Forthwith, by order of the emperor, he was struck with an axe, and thus crowned with martyrdom.”

​Struck with the extraordinary work of divine grace, he managed to get struck also by the work of human anger. Having given over his heart to Jesus, he gave his head to the emperor. Thus is the story of the great Martyr Porphyrius. Once a jester before secular courts, he was to become a martyr in the heavenly courts.

​As for Julian the Apostate, his hopes for a revival of Roman paganism would not find widespread success. In 363AD, following Julian’s military death, Emperor Jovian took the emperor’s throne and restored the faith of the Roman Empire to Christianity.

​Suppose St. Porphyrius hadn’t slipped into obscurity in modern spirituality. Comedians and performers would have a ready patron, and the whole Church would have a better sense of God’s poetic justice. As it is, let us at least take the lesson to have sincere reverence for the truth and all holy things even when it puts us in rather difficult situations. Don’t forget to invoke his intercession every September 15!

May St. Porphyrius pray for us, and teach us true reverence for the Lord!

The Very Bad Christology of Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Eamonn Clark

No doubt most readers will be aware of the furor surrounding Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s latest book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Since the issues with the book have been beaten to death – though not to a definitive conclusion – they will not be treated here. An item which has gone nearly undetected by comparison, though perhaps deserving much more treatment than his very bad book, is the very bad Christology which Fr. Martin has been publicly espousing recently.

This past Holy Week, Fr. Martin preached on the 7 Last Words of Christ prior to the Good Friday liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington D.C. The Archdiocese reported as follows:

The sixth phrase, “It has ended; it is finished,” is usually interpreted by scholars to be the fulfillment of God’s will, said Father Martin, but he suggested that it can also be interpreted as a resignation, with Jesus saying, “I have done all I can do.” He may have wondered whether the apostles would carry on His work after He died, and be unsure if the great project of His ministry was coming to an end, Father Martin explained. But even if Jesus didn’t yet know how His project would continue, “The Father had other plans,” Father Martin said.

Further on:

Lastly, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Father Martin said his favorite theological question to think about is whether Jesus knew what was going to happen on Easter Sunday before He died. While the answer to the question is a mystery, “the one thing we do know,” said Father Martin, is “He desires only to do the Father’s will,” and in the Garden of Gethsemane, He reached the “ultimate decision point.”

Anyone who has read the Gospels will at this point be reaching for an explanation. Doesn’t Christ speak many, many times about His Resurrection and what will happen after He leaves the Apostles? Doesn’t He show He has foreknowledge in other instances as well? Yes, but it is not for no reason that Fr. Martin has taken his position. He has seen a true difficulty and is attempting to resolve it.

LifeSiteNews ran an article which originally commented on the content of the Good Friday talk (although it has since been edited). Fr. Martin decided to attempt to defend himself in the combox.

He is fully human. With a fully human consciousness. (Which means he would have had knowledge only of what a human person could know.) And fully divine. With a fully divine consciousness. (Which means he would have had the knowledge of the Father.) It’s a great mystery of how those two natures participated together. But to imply that I was denying his divinity is absurd. Feel free to read “Jesus” and “Seven Last Words.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Fr. Martin’s comment, as it was only in a combox, but there is a lot to investigate here. Why does he say “consciousness” and not “nature,” or “intellect,” or “hypostasis”? “Consciousness” is very vague and could lend itself to various interpretations. Also, why does Fr. Martin use the phrase “human person” and then make a contradistinction with “the Father”? Surely, he would admit that Christ is not a human person, but a Divine Person (the Son, not the Father) with a human nature, yes?

Now let’s add one more piece to this puzzle.

Fr. Martin recently took to Twitter (on August 20th, 2017) to explain the interaction between Christ and the Canaanite woman (Mt. 15: 21-28, Mk. 7: 24-29), which was the Gospel reading of the day:

Gospel: Today we see Jesus’ human and divine natures: he learns from the woman that his ministry extends to all, and he heals her daughter.

And then later that day, after receiving numerous rebukes from people who did not agree that Jesus learned about the scope of His salvific mission – the very purpose of His existence – from a mere creature, Fr. Martin responded with:

The most popular heresy in the Catholic Twitterverse is Docetism. It betrays a fundamental fear of any indication that Jesus was fully human

Seeing as Fr. Martin here uses the “h-word” as a defense against people who disagreed with his exegesis, do we not have the right to examine what he is saying in as serious a way as he treats the matter of an accusation of heresy?

But it was an exchange with Massimo Faggioli, a well-respected church historian, during which Mr. Douthat randomly tweeted “Own your heresy,” which sent things over the edge…

Calling [a theologian] a “heretic” is like calling a journalist a plagiarist.  These aren’t funny punchlines to be taken lightly.  They are attacks on one’s faith, and for theologians possible career-enders…

I’m disgusted with the facile use of words like “heresy” and “schism” and “apostate,” passing itself off as defenses of the faith.

All this from the same piece – and these are just some highlights.

Seeing as Fr. Martin is not tolerant of the lax use of these words, even in Twitter fights, shall we investigate what is at stake in his recent comments?

The Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as “theotokos,” or “God-bearer” – the Mother of God. This was defined against the doctrine associated with Nestorius (whose relationship with the doctrine is actually quite complicated), which was that Christ was both a human person and a Divine Person loosely united together. This meant that there are really two separate beings or “whos” in Christ: Jesus the human person, and the Person of the Son. Nestorianism was condemned again 20 years later at the Council of Chalcedon. In short, Nestorianism is definitely a heresy, and no Catholic can argue otherwise.

A view which splits Christ into two persons – not merely two natures – could account for several puzzling items. (After all, heresy usually makes matters simpler than they really are.) How is it, for instance, that a woman could really be “the mother of God” if Christ is fully human and is being born according to His humanity by which He is her son? Are His divinity and humanity the same? Of course not (although Eutyches, condemned at Chalcedon, tried something like that solution to this problem). Nestorius could easily explain this – Jesus the human person was born, God the Son was not, even though He was united with Jesus. A similar solution might be given to the problem of the death of Christ. How can God the Son die? The Nestorian answer is that, in every sense, He did not. There is no need for the complex subtleties of the communicatio idiomatum on this account.

Some kind of Nestorian Christology could also explain a strange verse in Scripture which is, frankly, very confusing and frequently misunderstood. It is Mark 13: 32, where Christ speaks of His return: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of Heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24: 36 is identical, although many ancient Matthean manuscripts lack “nor the Son,” for what it’s worth.)

How to explain this? Certainly, we would not say that the Person of the Son does not know “the day nor the hour,” as He is God in the same sense the Father is God. Could the Gospel writers be suggesting that there are future contingent things that Jesus “the Son (of Man?)” just does not know as a human being and needs to learn, even if God the Son knows them as God? What else would account for this strange utterance of the Lord? Perhaps Fr. Martin’s comments are not so off-base…

Fortunately, this exact issue was settled a long, long time ago, in the year 600 A.D. to be precise. There had been folks – the “Agnoetae” – who picked up on exactly this verse and ran with it. They suggested that Jesus, in His humanity, did not possess the fullness of knowledge He possibly could, as if God the Son had held back some secrets. Pope St. Gregory the Great thought this to be problematic and weighed in on the matter (Denzinger 248). Shall we go through the text?

(But) concerning that which has been written: That neither the Son, nor the angels know the day and the hour [cf. Mark 13:32], indeed, your holiness has perceived rightly, that since it most certainly should be referred not to the same son according to that which is the head, but according to his body which we are . . . . He [Augustine] also says . . . that this can be understood of the same son, because omnipotent God sometimes speaks in a human way, as he said to Abraham: Now I know that thou fearest God [Gen. 22:12], not because God then knew that He was feared, but because at that time He caused Abraham to know that he feared God. For, just as we say a day is happy not because the day itself is happy, but because it makes us happy, so the omnipotent Son says He does not know the day which He causes not to be known, not because He himself is ignorant of it, but because He does not permit it to be known at all. Thus also the Father alone is said to know, because the Son (being) consubstantial with Him, on account of His nature, by which He is above the angels, has knowledge of that, of which the angels are unaware.

Gregory suggests that perhaps Christ is speaking figuratively, just as we figuratively attribute some characteristic to a thing on account of that thing causing that characteristic in us. His non-Scriptural example is a “happy day,” which is happy because it makes us happy. On this account, Christ “does not know” because he does not make us know. Christ attributes the knowledge to the Father, since God the Father does have the knowledge, but since God the Son is consubstantial with the Father, this would also mean God the Son has the knowledge. Basically, Christ is condescending to the disciples’ poor understanding of His nature – they don’t know him as God the Son, consubstantial with the Father. (cf. Mark 10: 18, Luke 18: 19 – “Why do you call me good? None is good but God alone.”)

 Thus, also, this can be the more precisely understood because the Only-begotten having been incarnate, and made perfect man for us, in His human nature indeed did know the day and the hour of judgment, but nevertheless He did not know this from His human nature. Therefore, that which in (nature) itself He knew, He did not know from that very (nature), because God-made-man knew the day and hour of the judgment through the power of His Godhead. . . . Thus, the knowledge which He did not have on account of the nature of His humanity – by reason of which, like the angels, He was a creature – this He denied that He, like the angels, who are creatures, had. Therefore (as) God and man He knows the day and the hour of judgment; but on this account, because God is man.

Here, Gregory gives a better explanation. He says that Christ knew “the day and the hour” in both His human and Divine natures, but He did not know from His human nature. This account would lead a reader (or listener) to understand that “the day and the hour” are not able to be known by natural inference. In other words, “flesh and blood will not reveal this to you” (cf. Mt. 16: 17). Also, as with the first explanation, Christ is speaking to the disciples according to their present understanding of His nature (and in this case His knowledge specifically) – they think He has a human knowledge derived from human learning, sometimes supplemented by Divine inspiration such as the prophets had. They do not yet have a full Christology – that must wait until Pentecost. Of course, we must be careful to avoid an implication of dishonesty in Christ’s words. Rather, He uses a rhetorical device which simply allows the truth to remain obscure.

Finally, we have a startlingly aggressive condemnation of Agnoetism from Gregory:

But the fact is certainly manifest that whoever is not a Nestorian, can in no wise be an Agnoeta. For with what purpose can he, who confesses that the Wisdom itself of God is incarnate say that there is anything which the Wisdom of God does not know? It is written: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made by him [John 1:13]. If all, without doubt also the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so foolish as to presume to assert that the Word of the Father made that which He does not know? It is written also: Jesus knowing that the Father gave him all things into his hands [John 13:3]. If all things, surely both the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so stupid as to say that the Son has received in His hands that of which He is unaware?

Gregory draws out an implicit Nestorianism in the Agnoetist doctrine. If there is really one being and Person, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Person of the Son, with two distinct natures united in that one subsistent being, then the knowledge of the Son must overflow into the knowledge of the human intellect due to the unity of subsistence which obtains. That knowledge would of course be gradually bestowed according to the natural capacity of the human faculties of Christ, which is why Luke can say, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2: 52) As an infant, the human Jesus really did not know “the day and the hour,” but once His natural capacity to receive this knowledge grew, it immediately accessed that knowledge (cf. CCC #472).

The Catechism also has something to say about Agnoetism, though it does not condemn it by name (#473-474)… The letter from Pope St. Gregory the Great is also cited in the footnotes:

But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God’s Son expressed the divine life of his person. “The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God.” Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father. The Son in his human knowledge also showed the divine penetration he had into the secret thoughts of human hearts. By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal.

Here we have a fine summary of everything wrong with Fr. Martin’s Christology. There is clarity of language, first of all, and there is also an affirmation of the fullness of Christ’s human knowledge due to His human nature’s union to the Person of the Son. This human knowledge consists, then, not only in what a human being could know from experience and study. It also contains, as far as is possible for Christ’s human nature, all that God the Son knows, including the secrets of human hearts, the meaning and extent of His own visible mission (contra Fr. Martin’s exegesis of the interaction with the Canaanite woman), all that pertains to the truth of God and His laws and His Scriptures, the “day and the hour” (contra the original application of Agnoetism), that He would rise from the dead and successfully send out the Apostles (contra Fr. Martin’s Good Friday sermon), and all other future contingent events. While a Jesus who walks by faith and not by sight is more relatable, that is not the Christ of reality.

What can we say of our Jesuit? I too, like Fr. Martin, am concerned with the rash use of words like “heresy.” (I suggest that a general resurgence in the use of the classical terminology of theological censures is appropriate, and I will apply some of that language here.) In the strictest sense, Agnoetism seems not to be heretical (hæretica), as it does not immediately contradict a divinely revealed and defined dogma (like Nestorianism itself does), but it is erroneous (erronea) or next to error (errori proxima), as the truth it contradicts is immediately or at least eventually deduced from a defined dogma (contra Nestorius) and a certainly known natural truth (that Christ’s unglorified human nature was capable of knowing “the day and the hour,” and such like particular things). An Agnoetist must either deny what is clear from the dogma defined against Nestorius, or he must deny the natural truth about the possibility of Christ’s human knowledge. For this reason, it is not strictly appropriate to call an Agnoetist a heretic, even though it is difficult to conceive that what is being denied is the naturally certain truth. (Gregory of course thought Nestorianism was much more likely to be the root.)

I do think, however, that Fr. Martin has made it clear that he is indeed an Agnoetist.

I would certainly welcome a response from him denying this accusation and explaining his position with more clarity than he has done in the texts I have quoted.

We need to pray for our high-profile priests. Clerics who gain fame live a constant high-wire act even more than the average parish priest. If the downfall of Fr. Corapi has any lesson for celebrity priests, of whom Fr. Martin is the contemporary paradigmatic example, it is this: a priestly ministry which is more about conferences, books, and special events than it is about the sacraments and other characteristically priestly acts is in big trouble. Recall then-Father Corapi’s very sad words when he announced he would be leaving priestly ministry…

I didn’t do very much of that [sacramental work] quite honestly in the twenty years that I did minister . . . 90 percent of what I did in the past did not require ordination. Speaking through social communication—radio, TV, so forth—that’s not ministry, strictly speaking. My particular mission was speaking, writing, and teaching—not so much in the sacraments, but outside of them, in conjunction with them. So what I’m going to be doing in the future is pretty much the same thing.

I do not know if these words ring true with Fr. Martin, but I do sincerely hope he goes “back to basics” to avoid a similarly disastrous end. That might mean sacrificing some of the limelight – or all of it.

Comments are closed.

 

Main image: a fresco in Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome), a papal basilica built in honor of the Council of Ephesus (source: https://www.touritalynow.com/italy-travel-guide/rome/basilica-di-santa-maria-maggiore)

“Shallow Entry Point” – The Youth Dilemma

I recall quite clearly an encounter I had shortly after having been accepted as a diocesan seminarian at the tender age of 18. One of the older brethren was describing to me our upcoming annual retreat and convocation. He noted it would be pretty laid back, not too intense, and that there would be “more serious retreats” in seminary. “Okay,” I thought, “that should be no problem. I’ve been on plenty of retreats before.”

What I experienced was something quite at odds with what I was expecting… Sure, there was plenty of recreation, but every day also had Morning Prayer, Mass, Day Prayer, Holy Hour, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer, conferences, private meditation, and sometimes a rosary or extra Holy Hour… All that was a bit overwhelming at the time, as the retreats I’d been on in high school contained very little prayer by comparison, and yet this was “not too intense,” etc. “What then,” I wondered, “will the serious retreats be like? And do priests really have to pray this whole breviary thing every day? Oh my goodness!”

Well, I survived, and looking back I can definitely agree with the older seminarian’s description. For the average man in formation or clerical ministry, basically all those disciplines should constitute a normal day. Mass, rosary, the breviary, maybe some study, Holy Hour… In fact, it is not realistic to expect oneself to persist in celibacy or to be effective as a physician of souls without such a regimen. A “serious retreat” then, should consist of mostly silence, prayer, and possibly some extra mortification. It should be a time to focus exclusively on fellowship with God and the improvement of one’s spiritual life, not strengthening your volleyball serve, learning to play the guitar, or finally making a move on your crush, as good as these goals might be.

This brings me to the issue at hand: the amount of prayer and silence at many, or even most, youth retreats and conferences, or even regular events at the parish. Some are so incredibly noisy and chaotic one must wonder if the point is to traumatize kids into practicing the Faith, as if the louder the keynote speaker says something, the more the Holy Spirit is there. This is not really what is going on, of course; the point is to make the Gospel and prayer accessible by providing a “shallow entry point” to largely unchurched kids coming from a noisy and hostile culture, and “breaking in” can be done effectively with such means.

Okay. There is merit to this. But how shallow is too shallow? And how do you gently push the “big kids” into the deep end?

I suppose I am, to some extent, a product of “shallow entry-point” praxis, and I have known it to reap lasting fruit in others as well. On the other hand, I have also seen the growth spring up and wither away with the sun. (Matthew 13:6, 20-21)

It might be helpful to take a look at St. John of the Cross for a moment.  A few tidbits from the beginning pages of Dark Night will be enough to get a clear sense of the problems which inevitably come with a one-size-fits-all shallow entry-point praxis.

“Sometimes they are anxious that others shall realize how spiritual and devout they are, to which end they occasionally give outward evidence thereof in movements, sighs and other ceremonies; and at times they are apt to fall into certain ecstasies, in public rather than in secret, wherein the devil aids them, and they are pleased that this should be noticed, and are often eager that it should be noticed more.”

“Furthermore, they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are very curious; now they put down one, now take up another; now they change about, now change back again; now they want this kind of thing, now that, preferring one kind of cross to another, because it is more curious.”

“These persons, in [receiving Holy Communion], strive with every nerve to obtain some kind of sensible sweetness and pleasure, instead of humbly doing reverence and giving praise within themselves to God. And in such wise do they devote themselves to this that, when they have received no pleasure or sweetness in the senses, they think that they have accomplished nothing at all. This is to judge God very unworthily; they have not realized that the least of the benefits which come from this Most Holy Sacrament is that which concerns the senses; and that the invisible part of the grace that it bestows is much greater; for, in order that they may look at it with the eyes of faith, God oftentimes withholds from them these other consolations and sweetnesses of sense. And thus they desire to feel and taste God as though He were comprehensible by them and accessible to them, not only in this, but likewise in other spiritual practices.”

One can only imagine what this great Doctor of the Church would say about the average American youth conference – surely, his tongue would be as a whip. In fact, John would argue that the violent noise and flashy lights are exactly the opposite of the way out of the beginning stages of spirituality for someone already accustomed to such things. What the beginner needs is a calm introduction and encouragement into small mortifications and deprivations of the senses which their charity is already prompting them to make. Staying up all night in Adoration is certainly a good thing – on a retreat. But such an experience might prove rather fruitless without some firm resolution to grow in a reasonable way in the practice of daily prayer, mortification, detachment from some creature or even from some sin. So-called “retreat highs” constitute a serious obstacle to such discipline, as they soothe one’s senses and trick the soul into thinking itself to have grown on account of feeling consoled, while there has often been no earnest commitment made to rise higher in the spiritual life. In fact, a person who allows himself to be satisfied with feeling holy and therefore does not seek to purge himself of sin and vice is actually likely to be regressing. In other words:

Sincere and interested kids might be allowing themselves to be fooled by their own emotions. (Would it really be a surprise that this happens in the spiritual life as well as in natural affairs?) Teens (and adults, by the way,) who are already intrigued and present a modicum of commitment ought to be led away from self-serving spirituality into a more disciplined and moderate spirituality ordered toward a careful generosity. (I say the generosity should be “careful” because all too often a person moving out of the early stages of the spiritual life will want to make big commitments which are often the product of an earnest explicit desire to be generous with the Lord but which rest upon a secret pride or simple ignorance of what the sacrifice they are making actually entails. This sets the person up for bitterness, despair, or, worst of all, hubristic pride in their spiritual disciplines. Unlike a normal, merely human relationship, we must never give the Lord more than what He wants.)

On the other hand, many kids showing up for retreats or youth group are not being prompted by charity to move forward because, tragically, they do not have charity: they are in mortal sin and are often attached to it. They are there because their parents made them go, and they want to leave as soon as possible. They have not even really begun the spiritual life in earnest. Trying to lead them into silence, solitude, and mortification would likely be a total overload and utterly repel them. Even kids who have made a break with grave sin are often still so overwhelmed by the frantic quest of the senses for satiation that the thought of a whole day without human communication or any entertainment would be enough to crush their spirit to the point of making the whole exercise a waste or even a damaging experience. This reality shows the sense of Paul’s approach with the Corinthians: “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not ready for it…” (1 Cor. 3:2) It seems that the quickest way to “hook” such kids might be to use the pleasant things they are already familiar with – loud noise, novelty, emotion, etc. There are, however, plenty of kids who will be even more repelled by such an attempt, especially if some imitation of the world is a bad imitation. They sense the lack of authenticity and figure that there couldn’t be something so great behind the mask, otherwise whatever it really is wouldn’t be pretending to be something it’s not. And these kids are on to something, aren’t they…

What to do? Here are some options which present themselves, arranged (in my opinion) from the most challenging to the least, though they are not mutually exclusive.

  1. Separate the kids who are more advanced, and give them more “solid food.” But how to go about this… What criteria would be used? Where are the human and economic resources for this? What social tension could be caused? What temptation would there be to “get into the holy group?” Etc. Perhaps something like this could be done informally and/or discreetly.
  2. Provide more variety at retreats and conferences. This is often difficult because of resources… Time, money, space, chaperones (!), etc. However, it might sometimes also be a function of a lack of expressed interest. Might there be some designated “quiet areas” at some larger youth conferences? Options for talks on more “difficult” subjects, like mortification? Perhaps…
  3. Provide different voluntary opportunities for more serious spiritual experiences throughout the year. Some high school kids really could benefit, for example, from an 8 day silent retreat, doing the Ignatian Exercises. Perhaps this number is small, and these things can be expensive, but the option ought to be there periodically. A lot of kids don’t even know that such opportunities exist – why are they not being informed? Even something communal could be done in a more seriously contemplative mode.
  4. Teach more about the spiritual life throughout the course of the year. This is practical, but those responsible for youth would have to put in the effort to learn and teach the basics of ascetical theology (in addition to other relevant things, like Scripture, fundamental morals, Sacraments, and so on). For the fringe kids who are only showing up to check the box to make Confirmation, this education would need to be extremely tactful but also assertive and frequent. Having a teen a grade higher give a talk before everyone goes on a Confirmation retreat is good; a series of letters to parents and those preparing for Confirmation which then are followed up with a one-on-one meeting with the pastor about their understanding of those letters and the spiritual life both in general and as it relates to their preparation for Confirmation might be better.
  5. Actively and tirelessly encourage kids to go to confession on a regular basis. Get Father to come by youth group once a month just for this reason. Seeing as not every kid could have a real spiritual director, as there are not enough clergy for the task (at least in America), this is the next best thing. Oh and they will have their sins forgiven too, making sure they are in grace and ready to make the most of whatever else is going on in youth group that day.
  6. Increase the use of neutral methods of attracting kids which lend themselves more easily to showing and providing the depth of the spiritual treasures of the Church, and decrease the use of other methods. For example, take the youth group hiking… This is basically what Our Lord did for three years with the Twelve. Get the kids involved with service to their own community (maybe not some far off land where their perceived use will far exceed their actual use)… Feed the homeless, visit the sick, etc. Have them step up to help with the parish’s broader life, especially liturgy. And so on. These are all activities that would satisfy a Borromeo or a Vianney but would also not be too much for the average 9th grader. In the meantime, try to strip away some of the kitsch and imitation of secular life that tend to deter (in the short term and in the long term) more than they attract.

Shepherding teenagers from various backgrounds and with differing levels of interest, maturity, and sensibility is undoubtedly a massive challenge which only grows with the numbers, and youth ministers are often under appreciated for all the work they do. But we ought to be able to admit that a monolithic (and therefore less work-intensive) “no child left behind” policy, where the lowest common spiritual denominators are always catered to, tends to stunt the growth of kids who are looking to go further but find no exterior means to do so; and this can sometimes result in their own eventual drifting away, as they see nothing beyond what they have already experienced and realize one day that what they have experienced is not as great as they once thought. Who wants to stay in the shallows forever? People will eventually look for a deep end to swim in, whether those waters are safe or not. There need not be a “youth dilemma” – we are a both/and kind of Church, after all. The pool should have a shallow end, but it can and should have a deep end too.

These are my thoughts and suggestions from my limited perspective. Please add your own in the comments!

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image source: http://www.sparhawk.info

The Grotesqueness of the Mass and the Problem of Evil

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I would like you to imagine the classic love story. You know the one: The daring knight rescues the damsel in distress from the fiery dragon. The details really don’t matter. All the story needs, seemingly, is a knight, a dragon, and a princess. However, it seems that there is one other element needed in the story, and that is the element of danger. For the story to work, the knight must triumph in the end, but only after a battle in which he might have lost. And this seems to be true, not just from our perspective, but from the perspective of the princess as well.

I mean, if the story is to be believed, the princess loves her knight, and love seems to include a desire for the beloved to be safe from harm. Yet, imagine how the princess would feel if the daring knight, instead of facing the dragon in hand to hand combat, camped a mile away from the castle with a sniper rifle, killed the dragon from a safe distance, and then waltzed in to pick up the princess. A bit anticlimactic isn’t it? Don’t we all feel, as much as we might not like to admit it, that if we were the princess, we’d prefer our beloved risking it all to save us? Don’t we, in a secret place in our heart, want our knight to be scarred?

Now, I’m not going to try to understand the motivation for this desire. I don’t know where it comes from, I only know that it seems true that we have it. But, I do think it has to do with what comes after the knight’s daring rescue. While the knight and princess gallop away on a snow white stallion, isn’t there already a natural bond forged by their shared experience of the dragon? If the knight had faced no danger and suffered no injury in his battle with the dragon, wouldn’t the princess, as much as she loves her knight, feel estranged from him? Wouldn’t she ask herself, “Does he understand what the dragon did to me?”

I have often had that question about my relationship with God. Knowing how much my sin has hurt me and made me despicable to myself, and reflecting on the glory and perfection of God, I sometimes have asked myself, “Does He understand what sin did to me?” The answer God gave me at the cross, and continues to give me every day in the Mass is, “Yes, because sin has done it to me too.” There seems to be a deep psychological reason that the bread and wine are consecrated separately in the mass: We want a God who knows what it feels like to have his blood separated from his body, in the same way that we have spilled our blood living in a broken world. Of course, we want a God who is all-powerful, who triumphs over sin and death, no denying that, but we also want a God who bleeds in the process. We want our God to carry the same scars we do.

That is “the grotesqueness of the mass.” In the mass, as a continuation of the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God makes himself vulnerable to us, so that He can share in our weakness. Our suffering becomes the point of encounter with God. In the mass, God enters our brokenness, our loneliness, our anger, our numbness. That is the horrible beauty of the Mass and the cross: that the hour of good’s triumph over evil is when good is weakest. It is when God looks most like a man. God suffers with us, in order to make Himself capable of being understood by His creatures who have so long suffered under sin, that they are unable to comprehend a life of love without suffering.

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And yet, we know that this is not the end. God chose to suffer not just to meet us in our suffering, but to bring us out of it. We have hope that there is a love that transcends suffering, and though, in our broken human condition, we can’t experience it now, (or at least, our experience of it is limited,) our hope in God is that some day we will. That is why the problem of evil (Why does a good God allow suffering in the world) is not so much a problem as it is a recognition of our broken selves. As fallen men and women, our experience of our own brokenness makes us want others to have experienced our suffering. This is not because we are evil and sadistically want others to suffer, but because we want to know we are not alone. The cross not only gives us that reality, but also the hope for something more: something we cannot fully comprehend now, but something we know we’ve been missing. Evil exists because in our broken state, we need evil to help us recognize the good. In the evil of the cross, we see the ultimate good, and that ultimate good gives us hope for a good without evil, a love without pain, a final victory over sin.

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Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Bl. Francis Angelico, 1434

Adventures in Liturgy: Funeral, or Celebration of Life?

Recently, I was distributing Holy Communion during a Mass of Christian Burial. The coffin was to my immediate right, and the family of the deceased to my immediate left. The Communion Procession was moving in an orderly fashion, when suddenly there was a bottleneck. When I looked up to see what was happening, I couldn’t believe my eyes: having just received Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, people were greeting members of the immediate family who were sitting in the front row. I was stunned! I whispered quietly, “Please keep moving, you are blocking the other communicants.”

How did we get here? Answering this question is simultaneously simple, and equally complex. While one may say people no longer know how to act properly in public, I propose that there are other realities at work as well.

The General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals states, Christians celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just.[1] Our worship, whether at a funeral or many regular parish Masses, has become so anthropocentric, that we have lost a grip on the reality that we gather to worship, praise, and thank God; instead we often make ourselves the source, center, and end of our liturgical celebration. At a funeral, we gather not for a celebration of life, but to encounter the mercy of God and the promise of eternal life found only in Christ.

Secondly, we live in a world without sin. To admit that there is sin in the world and that we are sinners does not mean that we are bad people. To admit that we are sinners and that there are acts that are objectively right or wrong, proclaims that we are human beings who need to be redeemed through the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Death is a consequence of sin. The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sin.[2] To admit that we are sinners is to acknowledge that the deceased, and all those present, is truly human, and that God alone is the healer of our pain, and the source of forgiveness.

Death is very hard, and the reality of separation from those we love most dearly is heart wrenching. At the rite of final commendation and farewell, the community acknowledges the reality of separation and commends the deceased to God. In this way it recognizes the spiritual bond that still exists between the living and the dead and proclaims its belief that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited in the new heavens and a new earth, where death will be no more. [3]We have come from God and we are returning to God: our origin is a reality, and to return to God our goal. Is this basic reality present to the minds and hearts of believers today? While life is to be lived and lived to the fullest of the potential God has given us, do we keep before us that our time on earth is not what gives us meaning, but rather that we are destined for God? The preaching, life, liturgy, and catechesis of the Church needs to proclaim loudly that our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.[4] A celebration of life fails to lead us to embrace our true citizenship.

If the Liturgy truly forms our faith and shapes our living, our approach to death and the Rites of Christian burial may reflect more accurately that we believe that all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us one throughout our lives do not unravel in death.[5]

Post by: Fr. Jordan Kelly, O.P.

Main image: A Funeral at Ornans, Gustave Courbet, 1850

[1] Order of Christian Funerals, hereafter OCF, #5.

[2] OCF, #6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Philippians, 3:20.

[5] OCF, # 71.

A Forgotten Sin

There is a strange and subtle fault that plagues human hearts. It is strange because it is committed only with other sins, and it is subtle because one already has forgiveness on his mind when he commits it and so is likely not to think it needs repenting from. What is this sin?

Presumption.

Presumption is opposed to the virtue of hope, whereby we desire and expect God’s forgiveness and help in obtaining Heaven. It is the contrary of despair… The presumptuous person throws aside the moral law on account of the excessive character of his hope. He expects too much from God: he expects a thing not promised. Salvation has not been promised to those who merely fulfill a formula (viz., announcing one’s sins in sacramental confession, for example) but rather to those who exhibit perfect contrition, which is the rejection of all to do with sin – its evil effects, its evil content, and its evil motivation – out of love for God (with the assumption of making confession soon, if not presently making one), and to those who at least have true “attrition” (fear of punishment) within the sacrament of confession itself. Presumption is a special kind of motivation… a “meta-sin” if you will. One is in danger of not having adequate repentance for the sacrament of confession to receive absolution if he fails to mention presumption, as he brings his lack of the fear of God into the confessional with him. For a valid confession, one must at least have true attrition – fear of punishment. The presumptuous person does not have this fear with regard to himself. (If you have just become aware of this sin in your life, you should assume that your prior confessions were valid unless you have a clear certainty that you were not really trying that hard to examine your conscience. Simply mention presumption in your next confession.)

To help understand this sin, here’s a natural, human form of presumption. Imagine a child who stays out well past his curfew. When he comes home, his parents are upset, but he apologizes for his lateness and they forgive him. Then, on their way to bed, they hear their son talking on the phone to a friend – “Yeah they were mad but they forgave me. I knew they would, that’s why I did it.”

Ouch. What parent wouldn’t then proceed with an even more severe punishment than what mere lateness merited?

Unlike an unsuspecting parent, God is wise to this game. A person has “too much hope” if he thinks that “God will forgive me” is an excuse for doing whatever he wants and then only confessing the faults he commits because of his expectation of forgiveness. He must also confess his motivation – presuming upon God’s mercy. In this sense, presumption is “an inordinate conversion to God,” as St. Thomas puts it. This is strange to our ears, but it is indeed what this sin is; a person hopes so much for forgiveness that his servile fear is entirely demolished and replaced not by filial fear but by disobedience.

Presumption is a daughter of pride. One who thinks he is so great as to deserve Heaven is likely to fall into halfhearted repentance, or even into no repentance at all. What a calamity! Pride can also lead to another kind of presumption, namely, the rash assumption that God has blessed one’s endeavors in such a way that failure will be impossible or at least improbable in the project one has undertaken. For example, a man decides to become a missionary in China. He prayed, but he did not seek the approval of any ecclesial authority nor take counsel with a prudent spiritual director. How does he know that this is really God’s will? He does not. He would be guilty of this secondary kind of presumption. So too would a person who thinks himself to have “the gift of healing” and so goes about laying hands on people without authentic discretion. This is presumptuous of God’s grace and also exposes the Gospel to ridicule.

Knowing you have committed this sin is not always so easy. There is a difference between the hope of forgiveness motivating a sin and the hope of forgiveness occasioning a sin… I have given an example of the former in the context of human relationships. An example of the latter would be something more like a child who has become used to his parents forgiving him and so loses some respect and fear of punishment. He does not consciously choose to violate their legitimate demands on him because he knows they will forgive him, but a kind of vicious habit has been ingrained nonetheless. Where is the line between these two cases? It might not always be so clear. What we can say is that a person who consciously makes forgiveness a condition of his sinful action has certainly committed this sin, and a person who has lost respect and fear of punishment is in serious danger of committing this sin.

To reiterate, presumption requires its own mention in confession, as it is its own distinct sin. Often a person will know he has done something seriously wrong by using “God will forgive me” as a motivation for sin but will not have the vocabulary to explain himself in confession. The word is “presumption.”

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Pope Francis goes to confession – via Catholic News Agency

Lord, It Is Good That We Are Here

“Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4)

I’ve seen people give Peter a hard time for not “getting” what was happening in front of him at the Transfiguration. Mark’s Gospel says parenthetically “he hardly knew what to say – they were so frightened.” But I think we need to give our first pope some credit where credit is due.

Peter was thinking quickly on his feet. So he intrudes into the conversation and asks whether he should build three tents. For us, this sounds odd, but for Peter, he must have thought he had solved the problem: this had to be the beginning of the end times. He might have picked up on how Jesus is fulfilling the Old Testament festivals. He knew of the Jewish tradition that Moses and Elijah would come again before the end of the world. Now, since they’ve come, he was hoping Christ was finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel and reap the much-anticipated harvest of souls. It was the Christological fulfillment of the Jewish Festival of Booths.

They needed tents.

The Festival of Booths (Feast of Tabernacles / Sukkoth) is one of the three major feasts in the Jewish calendar (Leviticus 23:39). For a week, they would dwell outside in tents (“booths”) for seven days, reminiscent of their time dwelling in tents during their exodus sojourn. The timing of the Festival of Booths corresponded with a yearly grain harvest, wherein whole communities would work day and night (with the aid of a full moon) to gather in the harvest and do the work of threshing the grain. Removed from its initial agricultural context, the Festival Booths still looked forward to the harvest that was to come at the end of time. Although Peter’s exclamation of “Lord, it is good that we are here” is a fitting expression of eschatological rest, the tent-building suggestion might have been a little too much.

Peter figured out pretty well what was going on. However, Peter still did not know what he was saying. Where Peter erred was not his analysis – the event of the Transfiguration is the fulfillment of the Jewish Festival of Booths – but his approach.

Peter approached the Transfiguration as a problem to be solved, not as a mystery to be entered into.

The Meaning of Mystery

So when Christians use the word “mystery,” we do not mean a problem without an answer. No, for Christians, a mystery is something that is so intensely knowable that it exceeds the powers of human comprehension. A mystery is so great that it encompasses the subject.

With a little help from the French personalist philosopher Gabriel Marcel, we should distinguish between “mystery” and its misused synonym “problem.” For Marcel, something is a mystery when the self is implicated in it. A mystery cannot be studied from a distance, but is experienced by entering further into it. Openness to mystery is openness to the whole of a reality.

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Gabriel Marcel, French Catholic Philosopher, 1889-1973

A “problem,” on the other hand, is something that “is placed in front of me, blocking my way.” To treat something as a problem is to purposely exclude yourself from it. It is a purely notional engaging of a situation, wherein one can find objective and finite answers with universal implications.

Problems are the stuff of scientists. Mysteries are the stuff of mystics.

Let me give you an example.

Once, my five-year old niece told me, “Did you know that, when I’m in the car, the moon follows me? It really does!”

Infected as I was by the spirit of abstraction, I told her, “It only looks like it is following you because it’s so far away.” I thought I could maybe explain to her how perspective works at such distances. To prove this, I thought I could set up an experiment, putting her in one car and her sister in another car. They would go separate directions and observe how the moon follows both of them. Then I could prove to my niece that, since the moon cannot possibly be following both of them, there must be another explanation. That explanation would be in the reality of the great distance between the earth and the moon, a distance that can be observed and measured. Science would win out over childish naïveté.

But before I could get anywhere to disprove her childish notion, she interrupted, “NO. The moon really follows me.”

In the face of such opposition, I thus abandoned my attempt to scientifically disprove her childish perception.

For my five-year old niece, the moon was a mystery; it really did follow her. The moon was so beyond her that, rather than disconnecting her, it implicated her in its path. However mistaken her understanding of perspective, she approached it with wonder. And she rightly would not let that wonder be extinguished.

To me, the moon was a problem that needed to be solved; it could be measured and placed conceptually at a distance. I knew that its movements and phases are configured to a different pattern than my sporadic movements. Instead of encountering the moon with her, I abstracted. Although technically correct (the moon does not follow you), my approach prevented me from being gripped by the mystery of the moon and sharing in my niece’s wonder.

Like my niece with the moon, a mystery is so beyond us, that we cannot help but be pulled into it. A mystery is so large that it necessarily involves the viewer.

In this way, God Himself is a mystery, being so far beyond us that, at the same time, He embraces us and loves us in our very being.

The Mystery of the Transfiguration

It is in this way that the event of the Transfiguration is a mystery.

Since mysteries overwhelm us, they implicate us – they require our response. Our response, then, to the mystery of the Transfiguration is not to solve the puzzle of Moses and Elijah’s appearance, but to enter deeply into the reality of what is before us.

Although technically correct, Peter’s approach prevented him from being gripped by the mystery. So while Peter was still speaking, a higher voice interrupts him: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

Through the mystery of the Transfiguration, we are meant to share in Jesus’ own prayer with the Father. By beholding the glory of Christ transfigured and listening to him, we become sons and daughters in the Son. By entering in to the mystery of the Transfiguration – by listening to God’s beloved Son – we become what we contemplate.

How do we enter in to the mystery of the Transfiguration? For us Christians, we go to the source and the summit of the Christian life – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we can look at the Mass just as a problem to be solved, a ritual to be analyzed, a puzzle to be deciphered. Or we can enter into the mystery of the Mass.

In every celebration of the Mass, we ascend the mountain with Christ, and we encounter something that overwhelms our understanding: God incarnate – the second Person of the Holy Trinity – comes to us as bread and wine. So great is the glory of Christ in the Eucharist, so utterly beyond us, that we are pulled into the mystery. The altar is our Mount Tabor, where we see His glory, not with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of faith. Over the altar the Father’s voice mystically resounds, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” We who enter into this mystery by receiving the Body of Christ in Holy Communion are enveloped by the cloud of the Holy Spirit. At Mass, we enter in to the mystery of God’s glory. He gazes on us, and we gaze on Him, and we become what we contemplate.

It is good that we are here.

 

Post by: Fr. Peter Gruber

Main Image: The Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor