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.

A Brief Note on Politics

Eamonn Clark, STL

You have never heard of Esarhaddon. You might have heard of his father, but you have not heard of him.

I am watching the ongoing fiasco in the USA with a lot of interest – perhaps with more interest than is appropriate. (If you do not know that there is a fiasco, well, you are in for a surprise when the mainstream/legacy media is finally forced to cover what is actually about to happen in the courts.) The whole world is focused on American politics at the moment, and it seems that it is all so extremely consequential. For some people, surely it is consequential, in an individual existential sense, whether in terms of careers or direct effects from public policy that is actually at stake (which is not nearly as much as people tend to think, at least with respect to the U.S. presidency). Others think it is just about the end of the world if their candidate doesn’t win – and this sad phenomenon was quite famously on display in the aftermath of 2016. When people choose to define the meaning of their lives by the presence of a few people in Washington D.C., the individuality of one’s own life is forgotten, let alone the perspective of eternity.

Again, you have never heard of Esarhaddon. He was considered “Lord and King of the Universe.” And of all men, in terms of temporal, political power, he may indeed have the best claim of anyone in world history, or at least he is in the top 10 or so. (Mansa Musa would be another good contender, along with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and a few Roman Emperors.) But you have never even heard of him.

Esarhaddon was the Emperor of Assyria at its absolute apex, from 681-669 B.C. His career included most significantly successfully conquering Egypt. (He is mentioned indirectly in 2 Chronicles 33:11 when the extremely wicked King Manasseh of Judah was captured by him – who then prayed to God and was eventually freed – but be honest, you do not recall that verse!) However, we know from his private letters that he was a very depressed and disturbed man. He was especially distraught over the premature death of one of his children – not unlike Pharaoh (or later, ironically, King David). For all his immense power, he could not stop the death of his family or of himself, and he could barely function in his imperial duties, often withdrawing for months at a time from public life. (In a strange and rather unique practice, there would be a “substitute king” for 100 days – after which period, the unfortunate man taking the emperor’s place would be executed. In fact, Esarhaddon once used this to dispose of one of his great political rivals…) Assyrians would have surely been as attentive to the goings-on of the imperial court as Americans are to the White House. How relevant is Assyrian politics now, except for the sake of understanding world history and especially Scripture?

You know Esarhaddon’s father, Sennacherib, whose march on Jerusalem is addressed in Isaiah 10 and 2 Kings 18-19 – likely the only reason you would have heard of him. You also might have even heard of Esarhaddon’s son, Assurbanipal (whose rule led to the end of the Empire), although that’s not so likely. But you’ve never heard of Esarhaddon. That’s worth considering. He is dead, he is forgotten, and his empire is gone too. So much for Esarhaddon, “Lord and King of the Universe.”

Will normal people 2,600 years from now have ever even heard of Trump or Biden? Who knows. But they will have heard of Jesus of Nazareth. And all that time from now, Jesus of Nazareth will remember each of us, as well.

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.

Inaugural Speech of The Oratorio – Rome, October 21, 2020

A blessed Feast of St. John Paul II to all, in these strange days in the Church.

Please enjoy my speech at the opening of the lay men’s group I have just begun with several friends here in Rome. A reminder that we are still fundraising – more info here.

Eamonn Clark, STL, President of the Oratorio

Rome and the Spiritual Life

“Memories” and “opportunities.” Perhaps there are no two words which capture what Rome is better than these. It’s not “splendid architecture,” “fine wine,” or even “beautiful women” – I assure you, you can find all these things in Paris, and in other places too! No, Rome is a place of memories and a place of opportunities. In fact, in some way, for us they are one and the same.

First, some memories.

About 14,000 years ago, the Palatine Hill began to be host to a small village. How could these people have known what was to come of their small foundation? Certainly, they could not have dreamed of it.

As more settlements were built over the millennia, they slowly merged into one until a city was formed. By the time we reach the end of the reign of the mythical King Romulus near the close of the 8th century B.C., Moses had already left Egypt some 500 years ago, and Isaiah was then busy confronting King Ahaz about the sign to come of a Virgin with Child – evidently, God had been working more quickly than men.

The City grew. Seven kings of Rome came and went, and the Republic began, initiating a period of non-stop conflicts and crises which somehow never seemed to destroy the City entirely – not unlike the Kings of Israel and Judah and their nemeses – but rather saw its incremental expansion of power and terrain, all over the Mediterranean. The Republic ended with an ironic catastrophe: the ambitious and extraordinarily popular Julius Caesar slowly secured himself a position as the “dictator pro vita” through various power-grabs, which alarmed the senate who feared the end of the Republic and a return to a kingdom. They killed him, of course, and accidentally paved the way for the inauguration not of a mere kingdom, but of an empire. Strange things are reported to have happened in the moments following the death of Caesar, here in the City, supernatural things, says Virgil: “Who dare say the Sun is false? He and no other warns us when dark uprising threaten, when treachery and hidden wars are gathering strength. He and no other was moved to pity Rome on the day that Caesar died, when he veiled his radiance in gloom and darkness, and a godless age feared everlasting night. Yet in this hour Earth also and the plains of Ocean, ill-boding dogs and birds that spell mischief, sent signs which heralded disaster. How oft before our eyes did Etna deluge the fields of the Cyclopes with a torrent from her burst furnaces, hurling thereon balls of fire and molten rocks. Germany heard the noise of battle sweep across the sky and, even without precedent, the Alps rocked with earthquakes. A voice boomed through the silent groves for all to hear, a deafening voice, and phantoms of unearthly pallor were seen in the falling darkness. Horror beyond words, beasts uttered human speech; rivers stood still, the earth gaped upon; in the temples ivory images wept for grief, and beads of sweat covered bronze statues. King of waterways, the Po swept forests along in the swirl of his frenzied current, carrying with him over the plain cattle and stalls alike. Nor in that same hour did sinister filaments cease to appear in ominous entrails or blood to flow from wells or our hillside towns to echo all night with the howl of wolves. Never fell more lightning from a cloudless sky; never was comet’s alarming glare so often seen.” It was at this moment in time that everything began to change. An imperial reign began with Caesar Augustus which he would oversee for some 40 years – a familiar number – and 27 years into that reign – 3 years short of 30 – a Child was born of a Virgin. No mere king had come into Judah, either. Interestingly, it is rumored that Augustus was inspired by a dream one night, around the year 1 AD, to build an altar to a ruler that had been born far away, and this altar supposedly now rests buried underneath the Ara Caeli, atop the Capitoline Hill.

Augustus’ adopted son Tiberius became his successor. He regarded Augustus as a god, we should remember, beginning the whole sad cult of the emperors. It was Tiberius who sent Pontius Pilate to the north to govern what they both must have thought of as the ancient version of “flyover country.” In fact, Tiberius signed the document giving Pilate authority to use capital punishment in a little room just on the slope of the Quirinal Hill, right near the Angelicum, which you can see preserved today. The governor of Judea would find himself caught up in a conflict eerily similar to what had been unfolding in far-away Italy just a generation ago and into his own time – a figure rising to an alarming degree of power and influence, claiming His Father to be God and maybe Himself as well, killed by those pleading their loyalty to Rome… and then the ironic catastrophe was followed by the ushering in of something even greater and more powerful than had been feared – not a kingdom, and not even an empire, but a Church, with a true “dictator pro vita,” One Who will never die, and truly supernatural things coming in the wake of His booming voice crying out from the Cross – the sun was darkened, the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, the Earth shook, and many of the dead were raised up and later appeared in Jerusalem. Just as well, prophetic and Divine words were spoken by mere men not too long after – like mere animals using human speech! The Roman guards who “became like dead men” (Matthew 28:4) and no doubt eventually ran away at the second earthquake which occurred when the Emperor of the Universe rose from the grave were a sign of things to come. Some weeks later, the fire of the Holy Spirit came down, at the “dedication” of the New Temple, so unlike to the Temple whose remnants now possibly sit as prizes in the Arch of Titus in the Forum after its final destruction, and the Good News was preached for the first time from the cenacle by the foremost representatives of Christ’s Mystical Body. As Acts 2:10 tells us, there were Romans there to hear the first apostolic preaching – this was certainly not by chance. The “death of Rome” was now the Holy Spirit’s special goal, in order to replace it with something much more glorious.

It was Rome, then, where Jesus Christ’s Church would have to go to be most firmly established, going out of Jerusalem, much as God had “escaped” from the old Temple whose veil He tore from top to bottom and went out into the Nations – out to the wicked Assyrians, Babylonians, and even the Romans who had crucified Him. And so it was that the very same fisherman from Galilee would find his way down here, to preach especially to the Jews who had already been dwelling in this place for quite a while. Peter stayed here until his brutal death, just around the corner, which he must have known would come, not only from common sense but also from the time that he walked on the shores of Galilee with the Risen Christ, Who told him of his coming martyrdom, and Who had turned him back along the Appian Way as he tried to move on from here, a site which is known and preserved as “Quo Vadis Domine.” When Peter was living on the Aventine at what is now S. Prisca, he would have looked over in this direction at night and seen the glowing embers of the bodies upon the pikes atop what was the Vatican Hill, a warning to would-be rebels that the cruelties of Nero’s wicked circus awaited them should they have a mind to oppose him. John also made a famous appearance, though the attempt at killing him did not go the way it was planned – he emerged from a pot of boiling oil unscathed, converting the crowd to the Faith, though the Emperor Domitian was unfortunately not persuaded. But of all the wonders Our Lord has worked in the hearts of men, perhaps none has been greater than what was done in Paul, who, lest we forget, was the one-time leader of the Jewish version of ISIS who became “the Apostle.” It is Paul, a Roman citizen, who most especially confirms the integrity and veracity of the witness of the original disciples – he came from outside the apostolic college of Jerusalem, though being no less appointed by Christ to preach, especially to the Gentiles. For about two years he ministered in this City alongside Peter unto his own all-too-predictable martyrdom, and his sacred bones are with us today, still crying out in testimony to the immense sanctity he received from the Lord – “I want to know Christ, and the power of His Resurrection and participation in His sufferings, so that I might somehow attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)

There is no need to describe the bitter persecutions of the wicked Emperors Nero, Domitian, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian and the ultimate heroism of the early martyrs – Clement, Agnes, Cecilia, Ignatius, Sebastian, Pancras, Lawrence – especially Lawrence, who, like Peter, had made it out of Rome but turned back to face his impending death, which came on the Viminal Hill by fire… Almost every stone it seems has been marked with the blood of a saint, who chose the distant joys of the Heavenly Jerusalem over the worldly glory of Rome.

I’ve already mentioned the Ara Caeli. Constantine’s mother St. Helen rests there, whose collection of relics from her Holy Land excursion are kept at her old palace in what is now Santa Croce in Gerusalemme – and if one stands beneath the Capitoline Hill in Piazza Venezia looking north down the Via del Corso, through Piazza del Popolo and basically straight up the Via Flaminia – a long way to look, but not so far to walk – there one finds the bridge where her son was converted, Ponte Milvio, where he fought 1,708 years ago one week from today. This event triggered the first Golden Age of Christendom, bringing us the great construction projects and politico-religious shifts that we still enjoy the fruits of today. Our brothers and sisters came up from obscurity and stopped their semi-clandestine worship in the farmlands and catacombs and emerged victorious through Christ’s Providence into the center of the City, with Pope St. Sylvester leading the charge. The conciliar Tradition began shortly thereafter, with First Nicaea, at the request of none other than Constantine himself. Soon after this, the canon of Sacred Scripture was being solidified, by Pope St. Damasus and St. Jerome, right here, just down the road.

The Empire slowly waned – the Church did not. As the Emperors became less relevant, the popes became more relevant, among them St. Innocent I, St. Hilarius, St. Zosimus, and so on, all here, each knowing the same hills and many of the same churches which we know.

With the Donation of Pepin in 756, the Papal States came into existence, and the Bishop of Rome became a sovereign king, as is right and just. Only 44 years later, the Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, on a round piece of porphyry which today sits near the entrance of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. The tables had turned; the Church, and the Bishop of Rome, were now the reference point in the “caput mundi,” the capital of the world.

While we certainly face a troubling period in the Church today, the centuries around the turn of the First Millennium were arguably much worse. The wicked Counts of Tusculum, the Theophylacti family, rose to power and brought a level of perversion to the papacy that is practically unthinkable, with so many clergy of the Church, including especially here in the City, falling into the most shameful of sins, as St. Peter Damian relates in his ever-relevant book on the topic. But this was not to last. From the Benedictine abbey at St. Paul’s tomb, the Abbot Hildebrand rose to the Throne of St. Peter as Gregory VII, initiating a reform that the saint would use to purge so many evils from the Earth. In the century and a half afterward came some of the most important moments in the world of religious life: the Cistercians were formed at Cîteaux, St. Norbert founded his Premonstratensians, and then came the two great mendicant orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. These two great men were both in the City, but Dominic had more of a personal impact here, not only by bringing so many of his own men to Rome to study, and working countless miracles in various locations, but also by reforming female religious life, bringing the women together from S. Maria in Trastevere to San Sisto Vecchio, which convent was eventually moved to Ss. Domenico e Sisto on the Quirinal Hill, before finally going on to Monte Mario, where the same community dwells today.

St. Dominic’s greatest spiritual daughter, St. Catherine, would help steady the Bark of Peter in the following unbelievably turbulent century full of plague and anti-popes, in part by dragging Gregory XI from France back to his true home here, and she rests now just down the road at S. Maria Sopra Minerva. Not too long after this tumultuous time came the terrible errors of the so-called “Reformation.” So many men and women in Rome met the challenge, including St. Ignatius of Loyola and our own special friend St. Philip Neri, who became active in the years around the great Council of Trent, at which point the level of religiosity in Rome was perhaps at an all-time low. Philip spent a long time in Rome as a layman, until finally he realized that God wanted Holy Orders for him. His little group of men, many of them laity, who gathered around him not long after his ordination sought to fix the problems of a lack of devotion and pious learning in the City, starting with themselves.

The Roman liturgy by now was proliferating all over the Earth, including in the New World, the missions of which were watched closely by the popes, into the 19th Century. Special mention must be made of Blessed Pope Pius IX of happy memory, whose epic reign included the unfortunate loss of the Papal States with the violent and anticlerical unification of Italy. He still had the guts to hold an Ecumenical Council in the Vatican, while the unifiers looked on with hunger at their desired capital before finally taking it in 1870. The First Vatican Council only officially closed 90 years later, in 1960.

At last, we emerge into the realm of living memory. The World Wars touched Rome but only barely – perhaps the confused and ambitious bully Napoleon had had a worse effect some 140 years earlier, to whom we owe the injustice of so many churches belonging to the State; though, it is true, this no doubt saved many sanctuaries from being “improved” in the 1970’s. The kindness, zeal, and prudence of the Venerable Pope Pius XII not only kept the Germans from flattening the City but it also converted the rabbi of Tempio Maggiore. Then came several saintly popes who would lead and implement the most recent Council, especially our dear friend John Paul II, who charged students to “learn Rome,” “imparare Roma,” and whose impact on this City was enormous, even approaching that of Pius IX. As we can see, there is plenty to learn, and it is worth learning – it is spiritual food, is it not? Of course, this is only an appetizer; the omissions of this summary are vast, as you well know.

All this brings us to today, to current joys and sorrows, and to our own personal memories. Just as the first settlers on the Palatine came here and lived together in a tight-knit group, so have we, and we too draw closer and closer to become a “little city” of our own. The same question is before us: how can we know what awaits us and our small foundation? Well, we have looked at the past, and that helps us to think of our future.

Now then, onto some opportunities.

We all know that we can go to Mass with the Holy Father, or visit the tombs of several apostles and other saints, both those well-known and those somewhat obscure to us, or climb to one of the great vistas of the City and marvel at its reality as a present testimony to its past, which is itself a testimony to the Faith. Likewise, we know of the ancient churches and the sprawling subterranean complexes which lie just beneath the visible City, both of which have such a special place in Christian history. All of these are indeed opportunities – like a spiritual playground, and I want to emphasize this; the City is a place to be used to elevate the heart and the mind to God. It is a spiritual tool. And its great instrumentality in the present is directly a function of its past which we have just examined, if only briefly. It is an immense treasure trove of material for deep reflection on what God did in the Incarnation, and on what it means to be a Christian. However, there is more to consider.

The fact is in front of us in this moment: Rome is international. After all, here we are. It’s not simply that we are some “stranieri” passing through, like the foreigners in Jerusalem at Pentecost who were brought there for Divine instruction through Providence alone. No, rather we have come here intentionally from afar to meet God and listen to Him by sitting around the feet of St. Peter. We are here to study, to teach, to work for the Lord in various ways. Rome remains the “caput mundi” for those of us who wish to know the Church from a global perspective, that is, to understand the “catholic” part of the Catholic Church. They say that Rome is a village – well, it is in some ways, but it can also be quite isolating, especially for us laymen, and above all for those among us who haven’t yet quite mastered Italian, or maybe still can’t even use the subjunctive correctly! So, the reality is that many of us are in need of intentional community, and by that community so many possibilities can manifest themselves. The whole world opens up through these friendships, let alone the City of Rome.

But not only can we not flourish here without a good social network; we also require support in the spiritual life. No matter how far we have advanced in the life of prayer, there is always further to go, and the diversity of experiences which we have in virtue of our different backgrounds makes us each have something to contribute, even if it is small. Each of us is an expert in our own life history, from which we can hopefully draw edifying spiritual lessons for the whole group. On top of this, we have the chance to plead the Lord on each other’s behalf. Praying together for one another, for our intentions, for our families, creates a bond of spiritual fraternity which goes to the heart of the purpose of our efforts. Transcending mere natural association helps us to orient our lives around our common destiny in eternity. In spiritual concord we find that the narrow gate becomes a little bit wider, so to speak. As the Psalm says, “How pleasant it is when brothers live in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” (Psalms 133:1) With a union of charity magnified by fervent prayer and mutual edification, we tap into the graces which God has already shared with each of us. “Without cost you have received. Without cost you are to give.” (Matthew 10:8) This verse speaks of the initial preaching of the Twelve, wherein they are instructed not only to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand but also to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out demons.”

We must indeed help each other in our spiritual journey here on Earth as brothers. But the whole world too stands in need of help. To be more specific, Europe needs to be evangelized – including Italy – and Rome is no exception. Just as St. Phillip Neri faced a Rome full of spiritual squalor, so too do we. The secular state of Italy has weakened the Catholic heart of the peninsula to the point of being overflowing with an anemic and grotesque kind of “cultural Catholicism” which poisons minds much like the culture of Judaism did the Pharisees, leaving those of us who insist on the plain truths and demands of the Gospel and of the Church as “unmerciful,” “unpastoral,” “unkind,” and so on. It is a mindset which chiefly afflicts the young, and also a certain type of clerical subculture. Yet let us be on our guard, for this attitude has a grip not only on those who seek to interpret the Gospel into a bizarre mix of feel-good storytelling and impossible moral ideals, but also on those who might be tempted to announce the truth in a corner and leave the rest of the works of mercy to others. It is just as easy to forget not to try to turn stones into bread in the desert as it is to forget that there are people stuck out in the desert who need food – both material and spiritual. Such “country club Catholicism” is a species of “cafeteria Catholicism”: taking only a part instead of taking the whole. Granted, we are not pastors, designated missionaries, or any such thing, yet there are indeed works of mercy which we can undertake, and there are indeed pastors and missionaries and others whom we can encourage and aid in their important ministries. Rome is full of clergy and religious who would more than appreciate having a little help with their work. Why not assist where we can? And why not take other initiatives that are appropriate for us as laymen?

The last opportunity to note is the one which pulls these other opportunities into itself, and it is what draws us here today: the Oratorio. It is my sincere prayer that our diverse backgrounds, connections, and talents will allow our common faith and zeal to bring forth wonderful fruit in this, our little village, and in the City of Rome for years to come.

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.

Do you have an Admiral Ackbar in your spiritual journey?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Those “in the know” who also have a grip on spiritual theology already know what this post is about. For those who don’t, please allow me to introduce you to Admiral Ackbar, Commander of the Naval fleet of the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire, most notably in the Battle of Endor, as seen in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Read all about it on Wookieepedia. Well, here is his most famous line, with nearly 7 million views to date:

The evil Galactic Empire and yes, even the Sith, are wily and clever… They set traps, and we need someone to yell at us to let us know, as we’re so busy with everything else in our ship. We need an Admiral Ackbar… We need a spiritual director.

“Oh there’s not enough time for Father to do that for me.” Well, if everyone in the parish wanted spiritual direction, that would be the case, but if you bother to read Catholic blogs like this one then you’re probably in a small minority in your parish environment. So I don’t think that’s plausible in your case.

“Well, maybe Father would be able to make the time, but it’s me who’s too busy.” Oh. Okay. That Netflix binge/afternoon tea/yogalates class/whatever it is must be very important to you not to be able to have a serious conversation about your soul for an hour a month. Come on. You can do it, if you prioritize it.

“Okay. Fine. But isn’t spiritual direction really only for priests, seminarians, candidates for religious life, etc.?” No, though they form the bulk of those who are interested (and are normally required to have such a discipline). But if you are really seeking to grow in the spiritual life, you will need help from someone who knows the path before you, who can keep you accountable, and who will tell you bluntly when necessary: it’s a trap! It’s a huge advantage…

So, what are you waiting for? Why not ask someone to be your spiritual Admiral Ackbar today?

“I no longer call you servants…”

Eamonn Clark, STL

Here’s a one-minute Gospel reflection for you today.

We read the Parable of the Wedding Feast at Mass…

The one who shows up without a wedding garment is rejected in the following way:

“How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.

The Last Supper Discourses in John give us the great “turn” from servile fear to filial or reverential fear, acknowledged by Christ in the words (John 15:15), “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

We know that Judas is among them. Now watch (Matthew 26: 48-50):

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Friend. Where is your wedding garment? How did you get in here? I can no longer even call you a servant. You do not know the gift of the Eucharist, you do not know my love, you do not know the Church. You have no virtue, no love for me. You have no wedding garment, you bring the world in with you instead of purity. Friend… The darkness and pain which you lead me to this terrible night, you yourself will experience forever. If only you had loved me… You have not learned what my Father has given me to teach. Friend… You will indeed taste the Eucharist, as your lips touch my sacred Blood pouring already from my face. But it is to your shame. You are not prepared for the Banquet… Friend… Friend…

Just as David wept for Absalom, so does Christ sorrow over every soul that is lost, even the most wicked. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

He is always a Friend to us… Even if we are far from Him, He is always close to us.

Some Quick Thoughts on “Vocation”

Eamonn Clark, STL

The fullest I have ever seen a very large church, other than the papal basilicas for a major event, was this past autumn in Naples. I had intended to pay a visit to this particular church, but I did not know it was the feast of a saint entombed there. The church was the Gesù Nuovo, and the saint was Giuseppe Moscati.

It was more than standing room only. Packed to the walls.

The Gesù Nuovo is a perplexing structure. On the outside, it looks a bit like a Communist library. But on the inside, as you can see, it reminds one of the Lateran or some similarly impressive church. One might be somewhat inclined to say the same of Giuseppe Moscati – a man who “on the outside” did not “look” the way saints normally appear, but who nonetheless was burning with charity. For those who aren’t aware, Giuseppe Moscati was not a priest or a religious. He was not a hermit, and he was not even particularly involved in ecclesiastical affairs. He was a medical doctor and researcher. And here was his path to sanctification… While he was a miracle worker, he was holy because of his love of God and of souls, which love was made manifest by running hospitals, conducting medical research, and so forth.

The impetus for sharing this example and the following thoughts is a recent article in Crux on the alleged non-existence of the “vocation to the single life.” I found the analysis good in the sense of pointing out the issues with the idea of being “called to remain as one is” and the problems one might find therein (ranging from self-deprecating despair at “being left out” to presumptive self-indulgence in “not committing”), but lacking in the way of distinctions and context. I think we want to say that St. Giuseppe Moscati had a vocation, but we also want to make it clear what that actually means.

I would like then to offer a paradigm, based on Thomistic principles, for understanding what a “vocation” is, and also opine briefly how one can “discern” that vocation.

What is a vocation? It seems we can distinguish between two genera of vocations: to be something, and to do something. I’ve asked many kids what they want to be when they grow up – and the standard answers follow. Never has one of them said, “a spouse,” or “a parent,” until after I ask about that. Then they all agree, if they are old enough, “Yes, well of course, but I wasn’t thinking about that.” Leaving aside the troubling fact that family life is just presumed without a thought by so many youth, it is also unfortunate that there is no training in kids (or even adults) to think of what to be rather than what to do. As the old adage goes, agere sequitur esse – doing follows being. Until a thing exists in such-and-such a way, it will not be able to do such-and-such an action. Fish cannot ride bicycles, orchids cannot play the violin, and something that does not exist cannot do anything at all. (As obvious as this may seem, its relevance cannot be overstated today – think especially about what men and women can and cannot do because of what they are respectively.)

A “vocation of being” is a call from God to enter a certain state of life, such as marriage or priesthood. In the strict sense, one who enters into a state of life has then fulfilled that vocation – the call is answered, and the vocation ceases insofar as the movement towards “being” is complete. One now is a spouse, or a priest, or a religious… So such a person only “has a vocation” in the sense that he or she was called to become what he or she now is.

The question is now before us. What about “single life”? Well, using the word in the strict sense, a person who is already single cannot be “called” to remain single, insofar as there is no invitation to change from being one thing to being another; rather, if God simply wants such a person to stay as he or she is, that’s that. In some cases, God may indeed want a single person to take certain vows and enter a consecrated state, but maybe not all. It is true that Giuseppe Moscati did take a vow of chastity, and this does change what one is in a certain sense (making one “sacred” in a way) but he was not thereby enrolled in any special order or society. The Saint simply already was otherwise in the right state of life.

There are people who do not have a vocation to religious life, or to marriage, or to Holy Orders, or to the Orders of Virgins, Widows, or any other special kind of consecrated single life. And there are even people who should not take a private vow of chastity, despite all that, unlike Giuseppe Moscati. Sometimes, such a person has a very good reason not to “commit” to such a state, whether spiritual or natural. Other times, one might have tried to enter consecrated single life and been turned away by the local bishop or by one’s spiritual director, whether for good reasons or not. So it is very important not to assume that such individuals are just being selfish, lazy, or inconstant, even if some are. They have no vocation of being, except to keep being what they already are – but this is like inviting someone to a table he is already sitting at… It doesn’t really make sense to speak in such a way.

The “vocation of doing” is the work which one’s vocation of being (or state of life once attained) is ordered towards that God wants one to do. The priest is a pastor, or a hospital chaplain, or a professor in a seminary. The husband and father is an electrician, a grocer, a banker. Etc. Giuseppe Moscati’s vocation of doing was clearly that of medicine. In this sense, he had a vocation, full stop. And so does everyone who has the capacity for any kind of work have a vocation of this sort; we must at least invest in the profit of our own souls with our time and energy, even if we do not multiply what we have been given in great quantities through much prayer and preaching; or at least that is one plausible way to read the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

Well then, now that we have clarified a bit what we mean by “vocation,” how does one “figure it out”? I would suggest that “figuring it out” is actually the fundamental problem with the mindset that often surrounds this topic, with men and women both. If one scans the vast literature on the subject, one will encounter two realities: first, this literature is all very recent. Second, this literature typically urges one to “go do stuff” in order to “discern” one’s vocation. I propose that the latter is a function of the former. And, to be clear, I do not mean to suggest that one should not read such books, or that they are “bad,” but I do want to say that they should be seen in the context of the broader history of the treatment of this subject. (In fact, I profited myself quite a bit from one very popular “discernment” book, and then the author became my spiritual director for a year – it was great!)

We are in a hyper-informed society. You are reading this blog post because you were on some other website and saw a link, or someone emailed this to you, or you were scrolling through tags on WordPress and saw it; despite what I would like to imagine, not many people are checking my website directly. You might go on from here to check the daily news, watch a DIY video on YouTube, scroll through some other social media, then maybe look at some product reviews on Amazon… etc. Until recently in human history, that would be considered a pretty extraordinary amount of “non-human” information to collect and process. 100 years ago, to read the daily newspaper was sufficient. 1,000 years ago, only the most highly educated were really reading books at all, and to own more than a few volumes would have been rare indeed… one’s personal reading schedule would have been extremely minimal by today’s standards.

But the medievals had time to think about what they were reading. There was no pressure to hurry up and get on to the next thing. After all, you might only get this one chance to read St. Augustine’s Confessions – as there is only one copy in the university (unless you are up for copying it by hand, which was regularly done by students) – so you had better make it count, and the pace of work would have reflected this reality.

What does any of this have to do with vocational discernment? Well, of the few books that people were reading in the “good old days,” manuals on “how to discern your vocation” were not among them, at least to my knowledge. Sure, there are some lines in the Fathers and some nice quotations from various saints that have been around a long time, but I would suppose that there were no dedicated manuscripts until somewhat recently, at least after St. Ignatius of Loyola, and then things only really seem to have started moving along in the last 100 years or so. Maybe I am wrong – let me know in the comments – but it seems that if there is some substantial text that I am unaware of, it is probably somewhat obscure.

Anyway, the point is that the idea that to “discern” one needs to go visit this or that place, have this or that experience, pray in such-and-such a way, talk with these people and those people, then even try out the life for a while and see if it’s a good fit… Maybe this is not always the best approach. Sure, it is necessary to know at least something about what the options are, what one is getting into, and to make sure it is realistic, but here’s the center of the problem – someone who is actively living the Faith usually already has a lot of information. What is typically needed more is a moment to process that information, not add to it! The question simply should be, does x make sense in my life right now, or could it make sense in the foreseeable future? For example, a man who is visiting a seminary already has a “sign” that he should enter formation – of all the things he could be doing today, somehow his life has led him here. Does it make sense that he should turn around and go in some other direction? Maybe… but there should be a very good reason.

This brings me to a final consideration. It concerns the question of celibacy. (See my post on practical ways to improve in chastity here.) The young person – and sometimes even someone a bit older – will have this question in some version or other: “Can I really do that?”

Not unlike the foregoing, the basic way to “figure it out” is to ask what one’s life already consists of and what it realistically could consist of in the foreseeable future. Basically, an unmarried person who somewhat easily overcomes temptations against the 6th Commandment and lives chastity with pleasure should assume that he or she has the gift to remain unmarried; if this state is “within reach,” then work should be done to achieve it. This is simply the principle underlying the admonition of Christ, reiterated by St. Paul, that those who can remain unmarried should do so… The celibate state, if lived rightly, is an aid both to contemplation and to active ministry – but especially to contemplation. (More on that in an upcoming post.) If one can begin to live Heaven on Earth, without driving Himself into Hell through pride or despair (which can come on their own or as reactions to opposite ways of dealing with neuroses rooted in going “too far” in perfection) then he or she should. Why throw away the gift if you have it? Don’t bury the talent.

The future glory of our bodies

Eamonn Clark, STL

In my License thesis (on socialism and how it is so very unlike Christian charity), I had a small section on the gifts of the resurrection. Why? Well, in the context of my essay I wanted to show how the various socialist action-items are not only fulfilled but surpassed in Heaven… instead of merely recovering Eden and its preternatural gifts, which we cannot do, we get something even better. I would suppose that not many people even know that there are such gifts in the resurrection; and I know for a fact that many people struggle with this seemingly strange doctrine in the first place, namely, that after we die, our flesh will in fact be reanimated when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. So, in this post, I will go through a few points: first, the basic doctrine and its metaphysical fittingness; second, why this doctrine is so important and is actually much easier to believe than it appears; and third, a very short description of and reflection on the gifts of the resurrection.

The Article of Faith – gravely binding upon the conscience, to be believed by anyone taking the name of Christian – is stated in the Creed: “I believe . . . in the resurrection of the body.” This doctrine has extremely sound Scriptural foundations, in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and in the Epistles, especially in the preaching of Paul (including in Acts). We will limit ourselves to mentioning only a few passages. First, the Vision of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. Second, the dialogue of Christ with the Sadducees in Matthew 22. Third, Paul’s preaching in 1 Corinthians 15. This list could be multiplied… It is a clear doctrine of Sacred Scripture. This eschatological hope was implanted too in those true believing Jews from of old – as we see from the words of Martha in John 11:24 before her brother Lazarus is raised – and the doctrine was taught very firmly in the early Church by the Fathers. The doctrine means that when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the souls of the dead will receive their flesh again and have biological life, just like Jesus did – and just like those who rose with Him and appeared to people in the Holy City of Jerusalem. (We forget about that incident – we shouldn’t. Nobody would make this stuff up. See Matthew 27:52-53.)

The general resurrection makes sense of the reality of the human being. The immortality of the soul is demonstrable from natural reason; in short, the immaterial powers of the soul (the intellect and will) cannot come from the body and therefore cannot be destroyed by the body’s corruption. But we are more than souls, we are a body-soul composite. We are not souls trapped in bodies, ghosts condemned to dwell in a puppet-like mechanism until we finally escape… We most certainly do not become angels, which are beings who never had flesh and never will. No, we are really made from the dust of the Earth, as Genesis 2 teaches, and so the body is a good thing made by a Good God which is integral to what we are. The Manichaeans, the Albigensians, and the Buddhists are wrong. So, it seems appropriate that God would want to give us our bodies for eternity, seeing as He bothered to give them to us in the first place. Finally, we are what we eat – and if we are receiving the Lord in the Eucharist, which is Him in the Resurrection, well, we are united already with Him in this way. It is the “pledge of future glory” which the prayer “O Sacrum Convivium” speaks of…

So much for the doctrine. Why is it so easy to believe? First, God never lies and is never confused. Fair enough – to believe God is the fundamental aspect of faith – but what is there to help us “grip onto” this teaching? Well, the same God Who teaches it gave us the reassurance of it by His own Resurrection. He also raised up His dear Mother – who makes appearances, sometimes to large crowds, such as at Pontmain or Fatima.

On a theoretical level, it is “easier” to raise the dead than to create a new human. We have grown so familiar with the latter that it seems utterly boring, but the truth is that it is an utterly “strange” thing: the soul is made from nothing by an act of pure power, while blind matter is organized by a complex process into a body with the disposition to receive that soul. In short, God makes the new human when there was no human. At the resurrection, God makes something from something only; He takes the parts and puts them back together. He did it the first time without you existing at all, so why is it so hard for Him to do it when you already exist? It’s not. It’s “easier,” even, though all things are easy for God.

Finally, a short description and reflection on the gifts of the resurrection, which are derived from what we know of Christ’s glorified and risen Body. If God is going to raise up our bodies, certainly these strange and wonderful things are no difficulty at all for Him. First, immortality (or impassibility). This speaks for itself… We will no longer be subject to death or bodily corruption of any kind. Second, subtlety (or subtility). Just like Christ, Who appeared in the Upper Room when the doors were locked, our bodies will no longer be bound by physical barriers. Third, agility. Again, like Christ, we can appear here and there quickly. Fourth, clarity. Like the “pre-vision” of the Risen Christ in the Transfiguration, our bodies will be filled with light (like Moses’ face, which needed to be veiled – or like other saints who had such luminescence, which phenomenon makes sense of the “halo”).

We will be less like dust from which our bodies were made, more like air; closer to God, further from the ground from which we will rise. We will be powerful and glorious, not only in spirit but in body. Nothing will hold us back… nothing will contain the joy of our soul, not even the natural limitations of “normal” bodily life. Having surpassed mere “bios,” the life of the body, we will be living in full “zoe,” the life of the spirit, fully subjecting the body to that happiness and conformity with the Will of God in which we will find our constant delight and peace. We will be completely free in our total selves.