Discover the 6 Principles of Discerning God’s Will in Your Life

By Msgr. Charles Pope, Community in Mission:

As a priest and pastor I am often called to spend time with people as they discern the voice and the will of God in their life. I have about twenty lay people for whom I provide spiritual direction. In addition, I am sometimes approached by people who are facing a critical time in their life (e.g., a family crisis, an important career decision, discerning a vocation) and would like careful guidance as they discern the best course of action or the best decision.

Thank God that many of the faithful are actually trying to learn what He would have them do. Too many people run off and make big decisions about things such as marriage or a major career move without asking God. It is always refreshing when someone says, “What would God have me do?”

How to discern in moments like these? Are there any rules? Is there at least a structure to follow to be reasonably certain of the right course of action? Are there any ways to learn how to recognize the voice of God and distinguish it from our own voice, the voices of others, or even the voice of the devil? There are, of course.

While many great spiritual masters have written far more eloquently than I about the art of discernment, I would like to offer a few things I have learned in my own discernment and in walking with others on their journey. The list of principles I offer here is by no means complete, but I have compiled it based on my study and experience as a parish priest dealing with ordinary members of the lay faithful. For a far richer treatment of the topic of discernment I recommend Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment.

Let’s begin with a definition of the word discernment. Many people use discernment as a synonym for “deciding,” but it is a richer and deeper concept that, while related and antecedent to it, is distinct from it. The goal of discernment is to see beyond the external manifestations of something and to probe its deeper significance.

The word discern comes from the Latin dis (“off, or away”) + cernere (“to distinguish, separate, sift, set apart, or divide. Thus, to discern is to sort out what is of God and what is of the flesh, the world, or even the devil. Discernment is something that ought to precede a decision and aid in making it.

As we discern, either a course of action or simply whether what we think or “hear” is of God or not, we must often admit that while some things are purely from God others are admixed with things not of God, things which must be sifted or separated out.

And so we come to some basic norms or principles that I humbly offer, not as a spiritual master but as a simple parish priest. These principles are most often applicable when discerning a course of action, but many can also be applied in determining whether the promptings and urges we sense in our walk with God are truly from Him or just from us.

1.  State in life – There are many different states in life, some temporary, some long-lasting, and some permanent. We may be single, married, a priest, or a religious. We may be young or old, healthy or frail. We may be a student, a parent, a worker, a boss. We may be rich or poor. Being clear about our state in life can help us discern if a call is from God or not.

For example, a woman might sense a call to spend extended hours before the Blessed Sacrament. Of itself this is surely a fine thing, but what if she is the mother of four young children? Would God ask this of her? Probably not. Perhaps one hour would be more in keeping with her state in life. On the other hand, a single woman might be free to do this; it might even be part of her understanding her vocation to the religious life. Other things being equal, it is more likely that this call is of God in the latter case.

State in life helps to do a lot of sorting out. A priest is not going to hear from God that he should leave the priesthood and marry the woman in the front pew. A feeble, elderly man is not going to hear a call from God to walk the 500 mile El Camino de Santiago in Spain. We can be fairly certain that such notions are not of God. Calls that seem to be in keeping with one’s state in life are something to remain open to.

2.  Gifts and talents  People have different combinations of virtues, talents, gifts, and skills. In discerning the will of God regarding a course of action or accepting an offer/opportunity, we ought to carefully ponder whether it makes good sense based on our skills and talents.

God has equipped each of us better for some things than for others. I am a reasonably good teacher of adults, but I am not at all good with young children. Thus, when offered opportunities to teach or preach, I am much more open to the possibility that it is God’s will if it involves presenting to adults. If I am asked to address young children for more than a few minutes, I am quite certain that God is not asking.

In this stage of discernment, we should ask, “Is what I am being asked to do, am considering doing, or want to do, a good match for the gifts and talents God has given me? Does it make sense based on what I am equipped to do?” God doessometimes want us to try new things and discover new abilities, but it is more typical that He will ask of us things that are at least somewhat in the range of the possible based on our individual gifts.

Age can be a factor as well. Young people are often still in the process of discovering their gifts and talents and should be more open to trying new and challenging things. Older adults are more likely to discern God’s will a little closer to their current, well-known skill set.

3.  Desire – That desire can be a principle of discernment is a surprise to some people. We are often suspicious of our desires—and not without reason. When it comes to most things in the realm of moral law and doctrine, our desires and feelings are largely irrelevant and should not be used to discern God’s will. For example, that we should not commit adultery remains the clear will of God no matter how much we might desire it. That Jesus is God is true no matter how we feel.

But when it comes to deciding among various courses of action that are each good (e.g., marriage and the priesthood), feelings and desires do matter and may help to indicate God’s will. When God wants us to move in a particular direction, He often inspires in us some level of desire for it. He leads us to appreciate that what He wants for us is good, attractive, and desirable.

Therefore, learning to listen to our heart is an important method of discernment. For example, a good activity might be proposed for us to do but we feel no joy or desire to do it. Such feelings should not necessarily be dismissed as mere selfishness or laziness. It is possible that our lack of desire is a sign that it is not God’s will. On the other hand, we might experience a joy and zeal to do even things that are challenging; such desires can help us to discern that God has prepared us and wills for us to do that very thing. Hence desire is an important indicator in deciding between courses of action that are good. Ultimately God’s will for us gives joy.

4.  Organic development – This principle simply articulates that God most often moves us in stages rather than in sudden, dramatic ways. Although there are times of dramatic change, loss, and gain in the life of most people, it is more typical for God to lead us gently and in stages toward what He wills for us.

In discernment it is valuable to ask, “Does this seem to build on what God has generally been doing in my life? Is there some continuity at work if I move in this direction? Does progressing into the future in this particular way make sense based on how and where God has led me thus far?”

It is generally a good idea to exercise caution about “biggie-wow” projects and “out-of-the-blue” rapid changes. It is better to ask, “What is the best “next step” in my life?”

While sometimes “life comes at you fast,” God more often works through slow, steady, incremental growth, and asks us to be open to changes that make sense for us as the best “next step.”

5.  Serenity – When God leads us, the usual result is serenity and joy. In my own priestly life, I have at times been asked to move from one assignment to another. At such times there was great sadness, because I had to say goodbye to people I greatly loved. Yet when it was God’s will that the time had come for moving on, in spite of my sadness I also felt a deep inner peace, a serenity.

Serenity should not be underestimated as a tool for discernment, because pondering change is stressful, even frightening. Beneath the turmoil of weighing difficult decisions, we must listen carefully for a deeper serenity that signals God’s will.

If serenity is wholly lacking, if there are no consolations but only desolation, we should carefully consider the possibility that the proposed course of action is not God’s will. Amid the stress that often surrounds making important decisions, being able to sense serenity is more difficult; hence, we ought not to jump to the conclusion that serenity is lacking. Sometimes we must wait a while to sense serenity’s still, small voice. When it is present we have an important indicator that this is God’s will.

6.  Conformity to Scripture and Tradition – Some may think that this principle should be at the top of the list and you are free to put it there, but I prefer to say that the Word of God and the teachings of the Church have the last word in any decision.

One may go through the first five principles and feel quite certain of a particular course of action, but the final and most important step is to be sure that our insight or conclusion squares with the Lord’s stated revelation in Scripture and Church Teaching.

If a person were to think that God was telling him of a fourth person in the Godhead and that he should build an altar and spread devotion to this fourth person, we would rightly conclude that she was dead wrong.

God’s revelation trumps every other principle of discernment. Were a wayward priest to think that God had summoned him to found a new Church featuring more “up-to-date” teachings, it would not matter that he thought he desired it, it comported with his state in life, it matched his skills, it was an organic development for him, and it gave him serenity. Sorry, Father; you’re overruled. God is saying no such thing.

On the other hand, one might hear a call from God to be more faithful in prayer or more generous to the poor, and in response go through the five principles of discernment above before arriving at this last one. While Scripture and Church Teaching may have little to say on the method of prayer or the amount of money to be given, surely such notions are in keeping with God’s revelation and would not be overruled by it. One could confidently proceed to discerning when/how to pray or how much to give and to whom alms should best be directed.

Disclaimer – These principles should not be read as absolutes (except perhaps for the last one). They admit of limits and distinctions. They are merely principles to guide further reflection. In a brief post such as this, not everything can be fully said. You may wish to use the comment section to add some of your own thoughts and distinctions. Second, while not every principle applies to every situation, as a general rule these principles ought to be used together. It would be wrong to apply just one principle and think discernment complete. In general, they are all part of a process and their evidence should be considered collectively.

7 Questions on Hell

Msgr. Charles Pope, Community in Mission:

This is the thirteenth and final installment in a series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. The most difficult questions that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy. As a closing reflection on Hell and on the Four Last Things, let us ponder a series of questions.

1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.

How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.

The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.

God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.

2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.

While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).

This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.

This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.

In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.

3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.

After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,

A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.

Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas teaches,

[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).

5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.

St. Thomas teaches,

The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.

On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).

6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?

Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out(Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:

The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”

After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).

St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).

Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.

Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!

Honestly, Have You Considered the Fruits of Contraception?

Written in Charity,  with the Goal of Dialogue.  Please Share and Discuss! 

By Community in Mission:

In our culture’s current self-examination on sexual harassment and sexual abuse, we would also do well to ponder how the “contraceptive mentality” has contributed to the many sexually related problems of the day. This view insists that there is no necessary connection between sex and having children; it separates what God has joined. This has led to a whirlwind of confusion about the nature and purpose of sexual intimacy as well as about marriage and family. Many treat sex lightly and frivolously; they falsely think that sex can be without consequences. As we have seen played out in the recent news, many men no longer see women as wives, mothers, and persons to be respected, but as sexual objects to be exploited.

Two generations have passed since the publication of the boldly pastoral and prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld the ancient ban on the use of artificial contraception. Perhaps no teaching of the Church causes more scoffing (even from Catholics) than our teaching against artificial contraception: Unrealistic! Out of touch! Uncompassionate! Silly! You’ve got to be kidding!

The Lord Jesus had an answer to those who ridiculed Him in a similar way:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But time will prove where wisdom lies (Matt 11:16-18).

Indeed, times does prove where wisdom lies. Some fifty years after acceptance of contraception set in, how are we doing? Perhaps it is best to review some of the “promises” that advocates of contraception made and then review the prophecies of Pope Paul VI. Then let’s review the record and note the “fruits” of contraception.

The Promises of the Contraception Advocates:

  • Happier marriages and a lower divorce rates, because couples will be able to have all the sex they wanted without the “fear” of pregnancy.
  • Lower abortion rates because there will be far fewer “unwanted” children.
  • Greater dignity for women because they will no longer be “bound” by their reproductive system.
  • A more recent promise: reduction in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and AIDS.

The concerns and predictions of Pope Paul VI (in Humanae Vitae):

  1. Consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity (HV # 17)
  2. A general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. (HV # 17)
  3. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection. (HV # 17)
  4. Who will prevent public authorities from…impos[ing] their use on everyone. (HV # 17)

So who had the wisdom to see? Was it the world or the Church? Let’s consider some of the data:

  1. The divorce rate did not decline; it skyrocketed. Divorce rates soared through the 1970s and beyond until nearly 50 percent of marriages were failing. In recent years the divorce rate has dropped slightly, but this may be due more to the fact that far fewer people get married in the first place, preferring instead to cohabitate and engage in a kind of serial monogamy, drifting from one relationship to the next. The overall divorce rate currently hovers in the low 40 percent range. Advocates of contraception today claim that divorce is a complicated matter, which is certainly true, but they cannot have it both ways: at first claiming that contraception will be a “simple” fix to make marriages happier and then, when they are proved so horrifyingly wrong, claiming that divorce is “complicated.” Pope Paul VI, on the other hand, predicted rough sailing for marriage with the advent of contraception; it looks as if he was right.
  2. Abortion rates did not decline; they skyrocketed as well. Within a few years, the pressure to make abortion more available led to its “legalization” in 1973. It has been well argued that far from decreasing the abortion rate, contraception actually increased it. Because contraception routinely fails, abortion has become the contraception of last resort. Further, just as the Pope predicted, sexual immorality has become widespread; this also has led to higher rates of abortion. It is hard to compare promiscuity rates between periods because people don’t tend to tell the truth when asked about such things. But one would have to be very myopic not to notice the huge increase in open promiscuity, cohabitation, pornography, and the like. All of this bad behavior, made more possible by contraceptives, also fuels abortion rates. Chalk up another one for the Pope’s and the Church’s foresight.
  3. Women’s dignity is a difficult thing to measure, and different people have different yardsticks by which to measure it. Women do have greater career choices today, but is that the true source of a person’s dignity? Dignity certainly involves more than one’s economic and utilitarian capacity. Sadly, motherhood has taken a back seat in popular culture. And, as the Pope predicted, women have been hypersexualized as well. Their dignity as wives and mothers has been set aside in favor of the sexual pleasure they offer to men. Many modern men, no longer bound by marriage for sexual satisfaction, use women and discard them on a regular basis. Men “get what they want” and it seems that many women are willing to supply it rather freely. In this scenario, men win. Women are often left with STDs. They are often left with children they must support and raise alone. And as they get older and “less attractive” to men, they are often alone. I am not sure that this is dignity. Have women really benefited under this new morality, which contraception helped to usher in? I think the Pope wins this point as well.
  4. As for preventing/reducing STDs and AIDS: again, big failure. STDs were not prevented, nor did they decrease. Infection rates skyrocketed through the 1970s and 1980s. AIDS, which appeared on the scene in the 1980s continues to show terribly high rates. Where is the promised deliverance? It seems that contraceptives do not prevent anything. Rather, they encourage the spread of these diseases by encouraging the bad behavior that causes them. Here, too, it looks as if the Church was right and the world was wrong.
  5. Add to this list of effects the high rate of teenage pregnancy, the devastation experienced by single parent families, and even increasing poverty. The link to poverty may seem a stretch, but the bottom line is that single motherhood is the chief cause of poverty in this country. Contraception encourages promiscuity. Promiscuity often leads to pregnancy at a young age. Youthful pregnancy often leads to single motherhood (absent fathers). Single motherhood often leads to welfare dependence and poverty. In our inner cities today, over 80 percent of homes are headed by single mothers. It is the single best predictor of poverty.
  6. Declining birth rates, fueled by contraception, are devastating cultures. Europe as we have known it is simply going out of existence. (I have written on that before here: Contraception is Cultural Suicide!). Europe’s future is as a Muslim continent; Muslims typically have much larger families. Likewise, here in the United State, the birth rate in white and African-American communities is below replacement level. Thankfully, our immigrants are largely Christian and share our American vision. For the Church, the declining birthrates are resulting in the closing of parishes and schools, and a reduction in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. We cannot sustain what we have on a population that is no longer replacing itself. Immigration has insulated the Church from this to some extent, but the decline in Mass attendance has eclipsed the growth from immigration and we are starting to shut down a lot of our operations.

Conclusion: Time will prove where wisdom lies. What have we learned over these decades of contraception? First, we have learned that it is a huge failure in meeting its promises; it has backfired, making things worse rather than better. Marriage, families, and children have all taken a huge hit. Bad behavior has been encouraged and all the bad consequences that flow from it are flourishing. Most people seem largely uninterested in this data. Hearts have become numb and minds have gone to sleep. I hope that you will consider this information thoughtfully and share it with others. Time has proven where wisdom lies. It is time to admit the obvious.

 

Breaking News, The Wrath of God is Being Revealed

The Revelation of the Wrath, Romans 1 – Is It a Prophetic Interpretation of Reality for Our Times?

By Msgr. Charles Pope, Community in Mission:

Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. That is, it tells us what is really going on from the perspective of the Lord of History. An inspired text, it traces out not only the current time, but also the trajectory, the end to which things tend. It is of course important for us to read Scripture with the Church, and exercising care, to submit our understanding to the rule of faith and the context of Sacred Tradition.

With those parameters in mind, I would like to consider Romans 1, wherein St. Paul describes the grave condition of the Greco-Roman culture of his day. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he prophetically interpreted the times of the first century A.D. Although the text speaks specifically to those times, it is clear that our modern times are becoming nearly identical to what was described.

St. Paul saw a once-noble culture in grave crisis; it was in the process of being plowed under by God for its willful suppression of the truth.

Let’s take a look at the details of this prophetic interpretation of those days and apply it to our own. The text opens without any niceties and the words rain down on us almost like lead pellets.

I. The Root of the Ruin  The text says, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

As the curtain draws back, we not eased into the scene at all. We are confronted at once with the glaring lights of judgment and the fearsome word “wrath.” Note that the wrath of God is called a revelation. That is to say, it is a word of truth that reveals and prophetically interprets reality for us. The wrath is the revelation!

It’s quite astonishing, really. It directly contradicts to our modern tendency to see God only as the “affirmer in chief,” whose love for us is understood only in sentimental terms, never in terms of a strong love that insists on what is right and true, on what we need rather than what we want.

What is the wrath of God? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God. The unrepentant sinner cannot endure His presence, His holiness. For such a one, there is wailing and grinding of teeth, anger, and even rage when confronted by the existence of God and the demands of His justice and holiness. God’s wrath does not mean that He is in some simplistic sense angry, emotionally worked up. God is not moody or unstable. He is not subject to temper tantrums as we are. Rather, it is that God is holy and the unrepentant sinner cannot endure His holiness; the sinner experiences it as wrath.

To the degree that God’s wrath is in Him, it is His passion to set things right. God is patient and will wait and work to draw us to repentance, but his justice and truth cannot forever tarry. When judgment sets in on a person, culture, civilization, or epoch, His holiness and justice are revealed as wrath to the unrepentant.

What was the central sin of St. Paul’s (and our own) time? They suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1:18). It is the sin that leads to every other problem.

Note this well: those who seek to remain in their wickedness suppress the truth. On account of wickedness and a desire to persist in sin, many suppress the truth. The catechism of the Catholic Church warns,

The human mind … is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 37).

St. Paul wrote this to St. Timothy:

For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).

Isaiah described this:

They say to the seers, “See no more visions”; to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right; tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions” (Isaiah 30:10).

Yes, on account of a desire to cling to their sin and to justify themselves, people suppress the truth. While this human tendency has always existed, there is a widespread tendency for people of our own time in the decadent West to go on calling good, or “no big deal,” what God calls sinful.

When we do this, we suppress the truth. Now, as then, the wrath of God is being revealed. On account of the sin of repeated, collective, obstinate suppression of the truth, God’s wrath is being revealed on the culture of the decadent West.

II. The Revelation that is Refused  The text goes on to say, … and since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20).

Note that God the Holy Spirit and St. Paul attest that the suppression of the truth is willful; it is not merely ignorance. While the pagans of St. Paul’s day did not have the Scriptures, they are still “without excuse.” Why? Because they had the revelation of creation. Creation reveals God and speaks not only to His existence, but also to his attributes, to His justice and power, to His will and the good order He instills in us and thus expects of us.

All of this means that even those raised outside the context of faith, whether in the first century or today, are “without excuse.”

The Catechism also couches our responsibility to discover and live the truth in the existence of something called the conscience:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. … Moral conscience … bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. …. [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (CCC #1776-1778).

Because of the witness and revelation of the Created order, and on account of the conscience present and operative in all who have attained the use of reason, those who suppress the truth are without excuse. They are suppressing what they know to be true.

It has been my experience in my many years as a pastor working with sinners (and as a sinner myself) that those I must confront about sin know full well what they are doing. They may have suppressed the still, small voice of God; they may have sought to keep His voice at bay with layers of rationalization; they may have also collect false teachers to confirm them in their sin and permitted many deceivers to tickle their ears. Deep down, though, they know that what they do is wrong. At the end of the day they are without excuse.

Some lack of due discretion may ameliorate the severity of their culpability, but ultimately they are without excuse for suppressing the truth.

So there is also the revelation of creation, the Word of God (which has been heard by most people today), and the conscience. Many people today, as in St. Paul’s time, refuse revelation. They do so willfully in order to justify wickedness; they are without excuse.

III. The Result in the Ranks – The text says, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1:21-23).

This should seem very familiar. In St. Paul’s day, and even more so in ours, a prideful culture has set aside God, whether through explicit atheism and militant secularism or through neglect and willful tepidity. Today, God has been pushed to the margins of our proud, anthropocentric culture. His wisdom has been forcibly removed from our schools and from the public square. His image and any reminders of Him are increasingly being removed by force of law. Many people even mock His Holy Name, mentioning His truth only to scorn it as a vestige of the “dark ages.”

Faith and the magnificent deposit of knowledge and culture that has come with it has been scoffed at as a relic from times less scientific than our own much more “enlightened” age.

Our disdainful culture has become a sort of iconoclastic “anti-culture,” which has systematically put into the shredder every bit of Godly wisdom it can. The traditional family, human sexuality, chastity, self-control, moderation, and nearly all other virtues have been scorned and willfully smashed by the iconoclasts of our time. To them, everything of this sort must go.

As a prophetic interpretation of reality, the Scripture from Romans describes the result of suppressing the truth and refusing to acknowledge and glorify God: … they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:21).

Yes, there is a powerful darkening effect that comes from suppressing the truth and refusing the wisdom and revelation of God. While claiming to be so wise, smart, advanced, we have collectively speaking become foolish and vain; our intellects grow darker by the day. Our concern for vain, foolish, passing things knows little bounds today. Yet the things that really do matter: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell, are almost never attended to. We run after foolish things but cannot seem to exercise the least bit of self-control. Our debts continue to grow but we cannot curb our spending. We cannot make or keep commitments. Addiction is increasingly widespread. All of the most basic indicators indicate that we have grave problems: graduation rates, SAT scores, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion rates, divorce rates, cohabitation rates. The numbers that should be going up are down and the numbers that should be going down are up.

Although we claim to be so wise and smart today, we have become collectively foolish. Even our ability to think of solutions and to have intelligent conversations has decreased, since we cannot seem to agree on even the most basic points. We simply talk past one other, living in our own smaller and increasingly self-defined worlds.

If you think that the line about idolatry doesn’t apply today, you’re kidding yourself.People are fascinated by stones and rocks, and by all sorts of syncretistic combinations of religions, including the occult. This is the age of the “designer God,” when people no longer tolerate the revealed God of the Scriptures, but believe instead in a reinvented one—who just so happens to agree with everything they think. Yes, idolatry is alive and well in this age of the personal sort of hand-carved idol that can be invoked over and against the true God of the Scriptures.

And people today congratulate themselves for being tolerant, open-minded, and non-judgmental! It is hard not see that our senseless minds have become dark, our thoughts vain, and our behavior foolish.

Our culture is in the very grave condition that this Scripture, this prophetic interpretation of reality, describes. There is much for which we should be rightfully concerned.

IV. The Revelation of the Wrath – The text says, Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1:24-27).

In this passage the “wrath” is revealed. The text simply says, God gave them over to their sinful desires. This is the wrath; this is the revelation of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God and the holiness to which we are summoned.

In effect, God is saying, if you want sin and rebellion, you can have it. It’s all yours. You’ll experience the full consequences of your sinful rebellion, the full fury of your own sinful choices. Yes, God gave them over to their sinful desires.

It seems that God has also given us over in a similar way to our sinful desires today.

Note that the first and most prominent effect is sexual confusion. The text describes sexual impurity, the degradation of their bodies, shameful lusts, and the shameful acts of homosexual relations. The text also speaks of “due” penalty for such actions, probably disease and other deleterious effects that result from using the body for purposes for which it is not designed.

Welcome to the 21st century decaying West.

Many misunderstand what Romans 1 is saying. They point to this text as a warning that God will punish us for condoning and celebrating homosexual acts. But Romans 1 does not say that God will punish us for this; it says that the widespread condoning and celebrating of homosexual acts is God’s punishment; it is the revelation of wrath. It is the first and chief indication that God has given us over to our stubborn sinfulness and to our lusts.

Let us be careful to make a distinction here. The text does not say that homosexuals are being punished; some may mysteriously have this orientation but live chastely. Rather, it is saying that we are all being punished.

Why? For over 60 years now the decadent West has celebrated promiscuity,pornography, fornication, cohabitation, contraception, and even to some extent adultery. The resulting carnage of abortion, STDs, AIDs, single motherhood, absent fathers, poverty, and emotionally damaged children does not seem to have been enough to bring us to our senses. Our lusts have only become wilder and more debased.

Through the use of contraception, we severed the connection between sex, procreation, and marriage. Sex has been reduced to two adults doing what they please in order to have fun or share love (really, lust). This has opened the door to increasingly debased sexual expression and to irresponsibility.

Enter the homosexual community and its demands for acceptance. The wider culture, now debased, darkened, and deeply confused, cannot comprehend the obvious: that homosexual acts are contrary to nature. The very design of the body shouts against it. But the wider culture, already deeply immersed in its own confusion about sex and now an increasing diet of ever-baser pornography that celebrates both oral and anal sex among heterosexuals, has had no answer to the challenge.

We have gone out of our minds. Our senseless minds are darkened, confused, foolish, and debased. This is wrath. This is what it means to be given over to our sinful desires. This is what happens when God finally has to say to a culture, if you want sin you can have it—until it comes out of your ears!

How many tens of millions of babies have been aborted, sacrificed to our wild lusts?How deep has been the pain caused by rampant divorce, cohabitation, adultery, and STDs? Yet none of this has caused us to repent.

In all of this, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice again, homosexuals are not being singled out; The wrath is against all the godlessness and wickedness of those who suppress the truth. When even the carnage has not been enough to bring us to our senses, God finally says, enough, and gives us over to our own sinful desires to feel their full effects. We have become so collectively foolish and vain in our thinking and darkened in our intellect that as a culture we now “celebrate” homosexual acts, which Scripture rightly calls disordered. (The word St. Paul uses in this passage to describe homosexual acts is paraphysin, meaning “contrary to nature.”) Elsewhere, Scripture speaks of these as acts of grave depravity that cry to Heaven for vengeance.

But as the text says, Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32). This is darkness; this is wrath.

This is the result of being given over to our sins: a deeply darkened mind. The celebration of homosexual acts is God’s punishment and it demonstrates that He has given us over.

V. The Revolution that Results – The text says, Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (Romans 1:28-31).

The text states clearly and in very familiar terms the truth that when sex, marriage, and family go into the shredder, an enormous number of social ills are set loose.

This is because children are no longer properly formed. The word “bastard” in its common informal usage refers to a despicable person, but its more “technical” definition is an illegitimate child. Both senses are related. This text says, in effect, that when God gives us over to our sinful desires, we start to act like bastards.

Large numbers of children raised outside the best setting of a father and a mother in a stable traditional family is a recipe for the social disaster described in these verses. I will not comment on them any further; they speak for themselves.

VI. The Refusal to Repent – Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32).

Here, too, is the mystery of our iniquity, of our stubborn refusal to repent no matter how high the cost, how clear the evidence. Let us pray we will come to our senses. God has a record of allowing civilizations to come and go, nations to rise and fall. If we do not love life, we do not have to have it. If we want lies rather than truth, we can have them and we will feel their full effects.

Somewhere God is saying,

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place (2 Chron 7:14-15).

Oremus!

Why Can Demons Roam the Earth?

By Msgr. Charles Pope, Community in Mission:

One of the more puzzling aspects of demonology is the freedom that Satan and demons appear to have in roaming the earth, causing trouble. If the condemned are consigned to Hell for all eternity, why is Satan allowed to wander about outside of Hell? Isn’t he supposed to be suffering in Hell along with his minions and the other condemned? Further, it doesn’t seem that he is suffering one bit, but rather having a grand time wreaking havoc on the earth. How do we answer such questions?

Some texts in Scripture do speak of Satan and the fallen angels as being cast into Hell:

  • God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment (2 Peter 2:4).
  • And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day (Jude 1:6).
  • Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, [likely a reference to the age of the Church and the going forth of the Gospel to all the nations] and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. (Rev 20:1-3).

Yet other texts speak of the fallen angels (demons) as being cast down to the earth:

  • But the dragon was not strong enough, and no longer was any place found in heaven for him and his angels. And the great dragon was hurled down—the ancient serpent called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him (Rev 12:8-9).
  • The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it” (Job 1:7).

Thus, though consigned to Hell, it would seem that some or all of the demons have the ability to roam the earth as well. Demons, however, do not have bodies and thus do not “roam the earth” the way we do. Their “roaming” is more an indication of their capacity to influence than their ability to move from one place to another. Further, Satan and demons are described as being “chained,” “in prison,” or “in darkness.” This is likely a way of indicating that their power to influence or “roam” is limited in some way. This does not say that they do not wield considerable power, just that it is not unbounded. If you think it is bad now, just imagine what it will be like when their power is unchained!

Near the end of the world, Scripture says that Satan will be wholly loosed and will come forth to deceive the nations for a while; after this brief period, he and the other fallen angels will be definitively cast into the lake of fire and their influence forever ended.

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, … their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev 20:7-10).

So for now, demons do have influence, but it is limited. At the end, their full fury will be unleashed, but this is only to bring about their final, complete defeat, after which they will be forever sequestered in the lake of fire.

Why God permits some demons the freedom to wander about the earth is mysterious. We know that God permits evil as a “necessary” condition of freedom for the rational creatures He has created. Angels and humans have free, rational souls; if our freedom is to mean anything, God must allow that some abuse it, even becoming sources of evil and temptation to others.

For us, this life amounts to a kind of test: God permits some degree of evil to flourish yet at the same time offers us the grace to overcome it. Further, there is the tradition implied in Scripture that for every angel that fell there were two who did not (Rev 12:4). Thus, we live not merely under the influence of demons, but also under the influence and care of angels.

On account of temptations and trials, our “yes” to God has greater dignity and merit than it would if we lived in a sin-free paradise.

As to Satan having “a good time” wreaking havoc, it would be too strong say that demons and Satan do not suffer at all. Demons, like human beings, suffer both victories and defeats; there are outcomes that delight them and those that disappoint and anger them.

Anyone who has ever attended an exorcism can attest that demons do suffer great deal, especially when the faithful pray and make pious use of sacraments and sacramentals (e.g., holy water, relics, blessed medals, rosaries). Faith and love are deeply disturbing to demons.

We all do well in the current dispensation to remember St. John Vianney’s teaching that Satan is like a chained dog: He may bark loudly and froth menacingly, but he can only bite us if we get too close. Keep your distance!

Understanding Suffering in 3 Easy Steps

By Community in Mission:

My yoke is easy.

My yoke is easy.

A familiar Gospel gives us a short theological teaching on suffering and the cross:

Jesus said to the crowds:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light”
(Matt 11:28-30).

On reading a passage like this, two problematic reactions are possible. One is to react resentfully, thinking, “There’s nothing light or easy about the burdens I have to carry!” Another is to simplistically conclude that if one just follows Jesus, all one’s troubles will vanish. This is a recipe for future disappointment and resentment.

Both of these reactions should be avoided. Jesus gives us here a balanced teaching on the role of suffering and the cross that is best understood in its subtleties.

I. There is a yoke and there is a burden in following Jesus

Jesus uses these very images; He does not exclude them. A burden is a weight that must be carried. We do not grow or gain in strength by reclining on a couch. We grow and gain in strength by carrying the weight of our duties. Burdens, though unpleasant, are necessary for growth.

A yoke is a device that helps us to carry our burdens. Consider an ox pulling a wagon. A rope around its neck would kill it, and so a wooden truss is built to distribute the weight across the front of its body. Some yokes permit two oxen to pull a load together. Horses sometimes wear a leather yoke that goes around their midsection. People who transport water from wells seldom carry pails with their hands as it is too painful for any extended period of time. Instead, they use a wooden beam, carved to fit their shoulders, with pails hanging from it.

A yoke does not lighten the load; it just makes it easier to carry. Jesus indicates that we who would follow Him will not have a life that is free of burdens; there areburdens and thus there is the need for a yoke.

II. His yoke is “easy”

The common English translation of “easy” fails to capture the subtlety of what the Lord is conveying. The Greek word use is χρηστὸς (chrestos), and it refers to what is suitable, useful, well-fitted, or beneficial—not merely “easy.”

Consider how old shoes can be a blessing because they fit us perfectly; new shoes sometimes cause blisters until they (and our feet) adjust to each another. A good carpenter would work carefully to craft the yoke to the contours of the animal or to the shoulders of a human being. Only after these adjustments would the yoke be said to be chrestos (well-fitting).

One can almost picture Jesus, as a carpenter, doing this sort of work quite frequently. One can also whimsically imagine a sign hanging outside Jesus’ shop: “Well-Fitting Yokes Sold Here!”

Spiritually, Jesus is indicating in this text that while He does have a yoke (or cross) for us; it is suitable for us and will bring benefit. The burdens and yokes He has for us are not suffering merely for the sake of suffering. If carried and accepted with faith, they will benefit us. Each of us needs certain yokes and burdens, crosses and sufferings, in order to grow, be humbled, and gain wisdom. The Lord has crafted these yokes and burdens for us carefully. They are for good, not ill; for growth, not diminishment.

III. My yoke, my burden

Jesus is careful to refer to “my yoke” and “my burden.” For indeed, not every suffering we endure is from Him.

Frankly, we pile a lot of extra burdens on ourselves that He neither wills for us nor wants for us. Surely our sins bring us extra burdens, but beyond this there are many things that are good in and of themselves but which are not what God asked us to do.

Some of us undertake projects and efforts that are good and beneficial to others, but we do not ask God if it is His will that we do them. Perhaps God would tell us that He has other things for us to do, that He doesn’t want us to spend time doing things He has reserved for others and then end up not being able to do what He has designed for us.

And thus we must discern carefully what the true yokes and burdens are for us. God gives us the strength for those yokes and burdens, not for the yokes and burdens of our own design.

Was Jesus Mean? Discover The 4 Keys to Understand Jesus’ Shocking Words

The Meanest Thing Jesus Ever Said

The Gospel from Wednesday’s Mass (Wed. of the 33rd Week – Luke 19:11-27) is known as the “Parable of the Ten Gold Coins.” It has an ending so shocking that, when I read it at Mass some years ago, a young child said audibly to her mother, “Wow, that’s mean!”

I’d like to look at it and ponder its shocking ending.

Today’s parable is like Matthew’s “Parable of the Talents,” but with some significant differences. In today’s parable, ten people each receive one gold coin. We only hear the reports of three of them (as in the Matthean account): two who show a profit and one who shows none.

Another difference is the interweaving of another parable (let’s call it the “Parable of the Rejected King”) within the story. Here is a shortened version, including the shocking ending:

A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. His fellow citizens, however, despised him and sent a delegation after him to announce, “We do not want this man to be our king.” But when he returned after obtaining the kingship … [he said] “Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me” (Luke 19:12,14, 27-28).

10-coinsIn analyzing a text like this I must say that I was disappointed at the silence of most commentaries with respect to this ending. The shocking phrase “slay them before me” goes largely unremarked.

The Church Fathers seem to say little about it. I was, however, able to find two references in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea. St. Augustine said of this verse, Whereby He describes the ungodliness of the Jews who refused to be converted to Him. Theophilus wrote, Whom he will deliver to death, casting them into the outer fire. But even in this world they were most miserably slain by the Roman army.

Hence both Fathers take the verse at face value, even declaring it historically fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Josephus indicated in his work that 1.2 million Jews were killed in that dreadful war.

Historically fulfilled or not, Jesus’s triumphal and vengeful tone still puzzles me. If this verse does refer to the destruction of 70 A.D., then how do we account for Jesus’s tone here when just a few verses later He wept over Jerusalem?

As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).

Certainly a variety of emotions can sweep over even the God-man Jesus, but let me also suggest some other contextual and cultural considerations that frame Jesus’s startling and “mean” words (Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me).

1. Jesus was speaking in the prophetic tradition – Prophets often spoke this way, using startling and often biting imagery and characterizations. Though many today try to “tame” Jesus, the real Jesus spoke vividly, in the prophetic tradition. He often used shocking and paradoxical images. He spoke bluntly, as prophets do, calling his hostile interlocutors hypocrites, vipers, children of the devil, whitewashed tombs, evil, foolish, blind guides, and sons of those who murdered the prophets. He warned them that they would be sentenced to Hell unless they repented; He laid them out for their inconsistency and hardness of heart. This is the way prophets speak.

In speaking in this “mean” way, Jesus was firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who spoke similarly. Thus, in understanding these harsh words of Jesus’s, we cannot overlook the prophetic context. His words, which seem to us to be angry and even vengeful, were expected in the prophetic tradition from which He spoke; they were intentionally shocking. Their purpose was to provoke a response.

Prophets used hyperbole and shock to convey and frame their call to repentance.And while we ought not to simply dismiss Jesus’s words as exaggeration, we should not fail to see them in the traditional context of prophetic speech.

Hence Jesus’s words were not evidence of vengeance in His heart, but rather a prophecy directed at those who refused to repent: they will die in their sins. Indeed, their refusal to reconcile with God and their neighbors (in this case the Romans) led to a terrible war during which they were slain.

2. The Jewish culture and language often used hyperbole – Even beyond the prophetic tradition, the ancient Jews often used all-or-nothing language in their speech. Although I am no Hebrew scholar, I have been taught that the Hebrew language contains far fewer comparative words (e.g., more, less, greatest, fewest) than does English (and many other languages). If an ancient Jew were asked if he liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream more, he might reply, “I like chocolate and I hate vanilla.” By this he really meant “I like chocolate more than I like vanilla.” When Jesus said elsewhere that we must love Him and hate our parents, spouse, and children (e.g., Lk 14:26), He did not mean that we should hate them vengefully. Rather, this was a Jewish way of saying that we must love Him more.

This background explains the ancient Jewish tendency to use hyperbole. It is not that they did not comprehend nuances; they just did not speak in that manner, instead allowing the context to supply that “hate” did not mean literal hate.

This linguistic background helps to explain how the more extremist elements of prophetic language take shape.

We ought to be careful, however, not to simply dismiss things as hyperbole. We who speak English may love that our language allows for greater nuance, but sometimes we are so nuanced in our speech that we say very little. At some point we must say either yes or no; we must be with God or against Him. In the end (even if Purgatory intervenes) there is only Heaven or Hell.

The ancient Jewish way of speaking in a rather all-or-nothing manner was not primitive per se. It has a refreshing and honest way of insisting that we decide for or against God, that we decide what is right and just.

Thus, though Jesus’s words were harsh they did make an important point. For either we choose God and live, or we choose sin and die spiritually. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

3. Jesus was speaking to hardened sinners – The audience here is important as well. As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, He was entering hostile territory. The sinners and unbelievers He encountered were very rigid and had hardened their hearts against Him. Hence, Jesus’s words must be understood as strong medicine.

One can imagine a doctor saying to a stubborn patient, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll die soon and I’ll see you at your funeral.” While some may consider this to be poor “bedside manner,” there are some patients for whom such language is both necessary and appropriate.

Because Jesus was dealing with hardened sinners, He spoke bluntly. They were headed for death and Hell and He told them so.

Perhaps we, who live in these “dainty” times, who are so easily offended and so afraid of giving offense, could learn from such an approach. There are some who need to hear from priests, parents, and others, “If you do not change your ways, I do not see how you can avoid being sentenced to Hell.”

4. A final thought—a theory really—that some have advanced – According to this theory, Jesus was referring to an actual historical incident and using it to disabuse His listeners of their fond thoughts of a new king. After the death of Herod the Great, his son Archelaus went to Rome to request the title of king. A group of Jews also appeared before Caesar Augustus, opposing Archelaus’s request. Although not given the title of king, Archelaus was made ruler over Judea and Samaria; he later had those Jews who opposed him killed.

Kings are often despots – Because many Jews thought that the Messiah (when he came) would be a king, some were hoping that Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem in order to take up the role of an earthly king. According to this theory, because the people were pining for a king, Jesus used this fearsome parable as a reminder that earthly kings are usually despotic. Jesus was thus trying to disabuse them of the idea that He or anyone else should be their earthly king.

While this theory has a lot to recommend it, especially historical precedent, it seems unlikely that the Gospel text would use such an historically localized event to make the point. Jesus was not just speaking to the people of that time and place; He is also speaking to us. Even if this explanation has partial historical context, the meaning needs to be extended beyond one ancient incident.

Well, there you have it. I am interested in your thoughts. Because the commentaries I consulted seemed rather silent on this, I am hoping that some of you have read commentaries worth sharing. Likewise, perhaps you know of some other quotes of the Fathers that I was unable to find.

Is Jesus being mean here? No. Is He being blunt and painfully clear? Yes. And frankly, some of us need it. In these thin-skinned times we may bristle at such talk, but that’s our problem. Honesty and a clear diagnosis are far more important than our precious feelings.

Comfort Catholicism Has to Go; It is Time to Prepare for Persecution

We are at war for our own souls and the souls of people we love. We are at war for the soul of this culture and nation. And like any soldier, we must train to fight well.

By Msgr. Charles Pope, Catholic Register:

There is a growing consternation among some Catholics that the Church, at least in her leadership, is living in the past. It seems there is no awareness that we are at war and that Catholics need to be summoned to sobriety, increasing separation from the wider culture, courageous witness and increasing martyrdom.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, “The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer” (c. 1863-1873)

It is long past dark in our culture, but in most parishes and dioceses it is business as usual and there is anything but the sober alarm that is really necessary in times like these.

Scripture says, Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle (Psalm 144:1). Preparing people for war — a moral and spiritual war, not a shooting war — should include a clear setting forth of the errors of our time, and a clear and loving application of the truth to error and light to darkness.

But there is little such training evident in Catholic circles today where, in the average parish, there exists a sort of shy and quiet atmosphere — a fear of addressing “controversial” issues lest someone be offended, or the parish be perceived as “unwelcoming.”

But, if there ever was a time to wear soft garments, it is not now.

The Church of the 1970s-1990s was surely well described as the era of “beige Catholicism” (a term coined by Bishop Robert Barron, and not by way of flattery either). Those of us who lived through that era, especially in the 1970s, remember it as a time when many parish signs beckoned people to “come and experience our welcoming and warm Catholic community.” Our most evident desire was to fit in and be thought of as “normal.” Yes, Catholics were just like everyone else; and we had been working very hard to do that, at least since the early 1960s when John F. Kennedy was elected. Catholics had finally “made it” into the mainstream; we had been accepted by the culture.

Church architecture and interiors became minimalist and non-descript. Music and language in the liturgy became folksy. Marian processions, Corpus Christi processions, many things of distinctive and colorful Catholicism all but disappeared. Even our crucifixes disappeared, to be replaced by floating “resurrection Jesus” images. The emphasis was on blending in, speaking to things that made people feel comfortable, and affirming rather than challenging. If there was to be any challenge at all it would be on “safe” exhortations such as not abusing the environment or polluting, not judging or being intolerant, and so forth.

Again, if there ever was a time to wear soft garments, it is not now. It is zero-dark-thirty in our post-Christian culture. And while we may wish to blame any number of factors for the collapse, we cannot exclude ourselves. We who are supposed to be the light of the world, with Christ shining in us, have preferred to hide our light under a basket and lay low. The ruins of our families and culture are testimony to the triumph of error and the suppression of the truth.

More than ever we need to shift toward being distinctive from the culture we have refused to critique and call to reform. More than ever our faith needs to shine brightly and clearly in our churches and communities.

And if a world now accustomed to great darkness calls our light harsh, so be it. If our light does not shine, there is no light at all. Our Catholic faith is the sole and last hope for this world. It has always been so.

Simply put, it is time for clergy to prepare themselves and God’s people for sacrifice.Seeking to compromise with this culture is now unthinkable. Our only recourse is to seek to lance the boils. And the culture will cry foul. And we who do the lancing will be made increasingly to suffer. But we have to be willing to embrace and endure such suffering in increasing ways in the months and years ahead.

We are at war for our own souls and the souls of people we love. We are at war for the soul of this culture and nation. And like any soldier, we must train to fight well. We must study our faith and be more committed than ever. We must also know our enemy and his tactics, and we must be prepared to suffer — and even to lose our life.

We have to retool and provide every opportunity to get clear about our faith. Sermons and other teachable moments must sound a clear call to personal conversion and to battle for souls and to stop treating lightly the sinful disregard for God’s law in our families and communities.

Our bishops especially need to shift into another mode entirely. Collectively and currently they seem more interested in protecting what little we have left, than summoning the Catholic people to battle. Priests too seem loath to summon people to anything challenging or uncomfortable. The image of Peter trying to keep Christ from the Cross comes to mind. Peter said, “This shall never be for you!” And the Lord severely rebuked him saying that he was thinking as man, not God, and was in the service of Satan.

And what of us? The Church cannot even seem to ask people to attend Mass on a Holy Day if it is on a Monday or a Saturday. It is apparently too much to ask people to come to Mass two days in a row. If that be the case, who will summon them to withstand and vigorously protest unjust and evil laws, even if it means financial penalties or even jail? And blood martyrdom? It hardly seems likely that most clergy today would counsel readiness for such a thing or even be close to being ready ourselves. Bishops or priests who do so can expect to be called reckless and imprudent in shy and soft times like these. The cry will surely go up, “It is not yet the time for such things!”

But if not now, when?

Scripture says, If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? (1 Cor. 14:8). It cannot simply be priests who must make this call. Parents and other leaders need to sound it as well. Yes, parents need to prepare their children for more than a career. They need now to prepare them for difficult days ahead — days that will include persecution and even martyrdom if they decide to follow Christ unambiguously.

Am I wrong? I sure hope so. But we can no longer, as a Church, sit idly by and hope things just magically get better. As a culture, and even in segments of the Church, we have sown the wind, and now we are reaping the whirlwind.

Many, these days, like to criticize the Church of the past for any number of failings. But I wonder how the future members of the Church will remember the Church in our times. Columnist Joseph Sobran, writing over 15 years ago, wondered the same thing and wrote:

[Catholics of the future] certainly won’t accuse us of excessive zeal. They might be shocked by our lukewarmness, our cowardice masquerading as tolerance, our laxity, our willingness to countenance heresy, sacrilege, blasphemy, and immorality, even within the Church itself, our eagerness to ingratiate ourselves with the secular world …(Subtracting Christianity, p. 268)

Yes, I too wonder. From St. Peter to Constantine there were 33 Popes. Thirty of them were martyred and two died in exile. Countless clergy and lay people too were martyred. It is hard to imagine the Church in the decadent West being willing to suffer so. Surely our brethren in many less affluent parts of the world are dying in large numbers. But I wonder: After all these years of “comfort Catholicism”, would the average American parishioner or clergyman be willing or able to endure such loss?

It is time, past time, to retool. It is time to prepare for persecutions that will get bolder by the month and year. The dark movements that marched in under the banners of tolerance never meant it. And having increasingly gained power, they are seeking to criminalize anyone who resists their vision. No tolerance for us. Religious liberty is eroding, and compulsory compliance is already here. The federal courts increasingly shift to militantly secular and activist judges who legislate from the bench.

When will we as a Church finally say to the bureaucrats who demand we comply with evil laws: “We will not comply. If you fine us we will not pay. If you seek to confiscate our buildings, we will turn maximum publicity against you, but we still will not comply. If you arrest us, off to jail we go! But we will simply not comply with evil laws or cooperate with evil.”

Right now, most of us can barely imagine our clergy standing so firm. Quiet compromises and jargon-filled “solutions” will be a grave temptation to a Church ill-prepared for persecution.

Call me alarmist or call me idealist, but I hope we find our spine before it is too late. It is usually a faithful remnant that saves the day in the Biblical narrative. I pray only for the strength to be in that faithful remnant.  Will you join me too? Let’s pray and start retooling now. Only our unambiguous faith can save us or anyone we love. Pray for strong and courageous faith.

© 2015 EWTN News, Inc. Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register.  Published on 08/21/2016