When the Temple in Jerusalem degenerated from reverent “house of prayer” (cf. Mt 21;13) into raucous public market, Jesus cleaned house! Since Lent is the perfect time to get our own house—our own soul—in order, I’d like to address one of the most insidious impediments to our respect for God and our charity toward others during Mass:
Have you ever noticed how the words “cell phone,” sounds remarkably like “self phone”? Besides obliterating manners and destroying common courtesy, a cell phone seems to possess the power to make other people completely disappear from its user’s consciousness or concern. A prominent Catholic blogger observed insightfully in an Internet article on device addition last September:
“When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in [his or] her private zone, you don’t.”
As a priest who celebrates an average of eight to twelve Masses per week, I invite you to consider the epidemic of cell phone disruption during Mass—from a priest’s perspective. In my experience, we priests hear an average of three or more phone intrusions per Mass—whether the device is ringing, or beeping/chiming to indicate the arrival of an email or “Tweet”. Multiply that number by eight to twelve Masses per week, and a priest must endure this devilish distraction somewhere in the neighborhood of 24 to 36…or MORE…times per week! And most often, it’s not just one ring…or one beep. Sometimes the phone’s owner lets it ring—and RING—and RING—all through the Scripture readings…and even during the Consecration!
At a televised Mass some time ago, someone let their phone ring through its entire cycle during the homily…not once…not twice…but three times! It takes extremely inappropriate behavior to force me to interrupt the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but by that point—live TV or not—I had reached the limit of my patience, as had all the people who kept looking in the general direction of the noise. I stopped the homily, looked toward the anonymous perpetrator and asked the person to turn the phone, “all…the…way…off!” It was extremely unsettling to have to confront this rudeness during a live broadcast of the Mass—especially with thousands of viewers tuning in—but when the prayers of the Mass are drowned out by electronic noise pollution, even a priest with heroic patience can only take so much.
After that particular Mass, a well-meaning parishioner approached me and said, “Father, don’t get so upset. Be patient.”
With all due respect to that parishioner, he only noticed that one phone during that one Mass—though, immediately after the first offending phone was finally silenced, another person’s phone rang. No joke! By that point in the week, I had probably already endured dozens of rings and chimes during the many Masses I celebrated. Since I had confronted that incident on live TV, I expected a backlash. Instead many parishioners, phone callers, emailers—and even the TV crew—offered enthusiastic expressions of encouragement and gratitude.
Anyone with a modicum of social awareness recognizes how modern “communications devices” are actually destroying genuinely human interaction between individuals. A growing number of scientific studies also catalog the damaging effects on brain development—not to mention the common symptoms of addiction and withdrawal—from device misuse and overuse.
But it’s when our phones disrupt our relationship with God—and distract others from God—that it’s time for priests to “cleanse the temple” of this modern scourge that turns the Father’s house of prayer into the Devil’s den of distraction.
For all the rationalizations people make for bringing their phone into church—and I’ve probably heard them all—we would better serve our souls, better respect our neighbors, and better honor the Lord…if we checked our excuses at the door…and left our phones in the car!
I recently had the opportunity – for the first time in my 8.5 years as a priest – to do a “Blessing after Miscarriage”. I wanted to post about it, because I suspect that it is simply not widely known that it is even a possibility.
Nowadays, I ordinarily use the 1962 Roman Ritual for blessings, as I generally find the prayers contained therein to be more meaningful and efficacious. However, in this case, there is no such blessing found in the older rites! It is the newer Book of Blessings that has this ritual/blessing, in both a longer and a shorter form.
You can see a somewhat simplified form HERE. (In the actual Book of Blessings, there are some additional options given, as well as a short form – so I recommend to any priest who may want to offer this blessing to use the deadtree version and not the online edition.)
If you know anyone who has recently suffered a miscarriage, you might suggest that she approach her priest to receive this blessing.
The Lent reminds us of the simple truth that we are going to die and subsequently face judgment. Hence we need to repent and come to believe the good news that only Jesus can save us.
Deuteronomy features Moses laying out the basic reality that all of us have a choice to make:
Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom …
I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse (Dt 30:15, 20).
So there is our choice: life or death, prosperity or doom. There is a Latin expression, Tertium non datur (No third way is given). We often like to think that we can take some middle path, but in the matter of the last things, there is no middle path, no third way. Either we choose God and His kingdom, and then reflect that choice in all of our smaller decisions, or we do not.
To those who think that a middle path is possible, I would say that it is the way of compromise, ambivalence, and tepidity. Walking such a path demonstrates a lack of commitment and a refusal to witness to Christ. These are not virtues that belong to God’s Kingdom; they pertain more to the kingdom of darkness. Jesus says, Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (Matt 5:37). He also says, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24).
So we are back to a choice: for the Kingdom of Light or for the kingdom of darkness; for the world and its ways, or for God and His ways. Do we choose to gratify the flesh or nourish the spirit, to serve Satan and his agenda or to serve Christ and follow His will and plan?
You are free to choose, but you’re not free not to choose. That is to say, you must choose. If you think that you can go on simply not choosing one or the other, I’ve got news for you: not choosing is choosing the kingdom of darkness.
Many do not directly choose Satan, but rather indirectly choose him by following his ways. We are asked to choose God directly, by accepting the gift of faith and basing our life on what the He commands. Faith is not some sort of “default position” we can have by accident. Faith is the supernaturally-assisted and transformed human decision for God and all that that choice implies. Faith is a gift freely offered and one that we must freely accept; it is a choice that will not be forced on us. Through our many daily choices, we are called to reaffirm, by grace, the choice we have made for God.
So again, life is about choices: the fundamental choice of faith and all the daily choices that either affirm or deny the reality of our faith.
We live in times in which people like to demand free choice, but also like to evade the responsibilities that come with making choices. Moses goes on in the reading today to describe the fact that the choice we make for or against God will have consequences:
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin on you today, loving him, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy. If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen, but are led astray and adore and serve other gods, I tell you now that you will certainly perish; you will not have a long life on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy (Dt 30).
Yes, choices have consequences. Even small daily choices have the cumulative effect of moving us in one direction or the other, toward God or away.
Many small choices also have a way of forming our hearts. Deeds become habits; habits become character; character becomes destiny. These choices form our hearts, establish our character, and move us into one future or another.
While sudden and dramatic conversions are possible as long as we are still living, it is more common that our hearts become more fixed over time and our fundamental character becomes less and less likely to change. As we get older, it’s harder to change because that’s what choices do to us: they move us in a certain direction, down a certain path; and the further along that path we go, the less likely we are to turn back.
Therefore, daily choices are important. It is essential to examine our conscience regularly and make frequent use of the Sacrament of Confession. Each day we ought to ask the question, “Where am I going with my life?” If we go on for too long living an unreflective life, it is easy to find ourselves deeply locked in sinful habits that become harder and harder to break. Frequent reflection is necessary and we ought not to make light of small daily decisions.
We live in times in which it is often easy to insulate ourselves from the immediate consequences of the choices we make. Medicine, technology, and social safety nets are all good things in and of themselves, but they do tend to shield us from immediate consequences, and help to cultivate the illusion that consequences can be forever evaded. They cannot.
We also live in times in which, perhaps more than ever before, the community is willing to bear the burden of poor individual choices. Again, this is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it does become an enabler of bad behavior, and fosters the illusion that consequences can be avoided forever. They cannot.
Our own culture is currently struggling under the weight of a colossal number of poor individual choices, ones that have added up to a financial, spiritual, moral, and emotional debt that we cannot pay. Sexual misconduct, divorce, cohabitation, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, the use of hallucinogenic and addictive drugs, the casting off of discipline and parental responsibility, the rejection of faith and ancient and tested wisdom, rebellion, silence in the face of sin and injustice, greed, consumerism, factions, envy, discord, and on and on … all of this is taking a tremendous toll. The consequences are mounting and it is becoming clear that even the most basic functions of society such as raising the next generation, preserving order and stability, and ensuring the common good are gravely threatened.
And what is true collectively is also true for us as individuals. Many poor choices in small matters quickly draw us into self-destructive patterns that get more and more deeply entrenched. Without regular reflection and the reminder of penitential seasons like Lent, it is easy to lose our way. St. Augustine noted this in his Confessions, in which he described himself as being bound,
“not by another’s irons, but by my own iron will. … For in truth, lust is made out of a perverse will, and when lust is served, it becomes habit, and when habit is not resisted, it becomes necessity” (Confessions 8.5.10).
Moses’ warnings are before us as never before.
In 1917, a beautiful and holy woman (Our Lady) appeared to three little children. She explained that the horrifying war (World War I) was finally coming to an end, but also warned that if people did not turn back to her Son Jesus and start praying, an even more devastating war would ensue; Russia would spread her errors and great disaster would befall the world. Do I need to tell you what happened? Any even casual assessment of the 20th century would find it hard to conclude that it was anything but satanic in terms of its wars, death rates through violence and abortion, and in its persecution of the Church.
Life or death, prosperity or doom; what will you choose?
From time to time it is a good idea to be reminded of the proper postures we should have when we celebrate Holy Mass.
During one of the Penitential Rites at the beginning of Mass (“I confess to Almighty God . . .”) we are supposed to strike our breast three times when we say: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” Simply follow the example of the celebrant.
There are a couple of times when we should bow from the waist and not just a nod of the head. One is during the Profession of Faith, as indicated in the missalette, at the words “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” There are two times in the year when we genuflect instead of bow – Christmas & Annunciation March 25. The other bow is before we receive Holy Communion either on the tongue or in the hand before we respond “Amen.” Some try to say “Amen” when the Host is already in their mouths.
Receiving the Eucharist Correctly
If you receive Holy Communion in the hand, the hand you use to put the Host into your mouth is the hand underneath. You are not supposed to switch the Host from one hand to the other. Nor are we to receive Holy Communion with only one hand. We are not supposed to palm the Holy Eucharist.
I have been following the practice of giving Holy Communion on the tongue when someone is holding a baby, using a cane or walker, or has an arm in a sling since it is more dignified that way and keeps a person from having to make twists and gyrations in order to hold the hands properly.
Some Catholics have adopted the practice of the “orans” position of the hands during the Our Father, holding the arms outstretched with palms upward, similar to the priest celebrant. Also, some like to hold hands with those around them during the Lord’s Prayer. These practices have probably developed at the encouragement of some priests or religious educators in the past, but they are not prescribed postures in the liturgy for congregations. (Learn more here and here.) As far as I know, they are not forbidden either. I do not promote these postures myself because the Church’s liturgy does not promote them, but I do not say anything one way or the other if people have been assuming those postures and like to do it. However, when I am asked, I do tell people that they should not feel obligated to hold hands or to hold their hands up like the priest if they choose not to do so.
By Bishop Robert Finn: In August of 2009, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, of Kansas City, Kansas, and I co-authored a joint pastoral statement, “Principles of Catholic Social Teaching and Health Care Reform.” The full text can be found on the Catholic Key Blog, and other places.
A Catholic Solution to Replacing Obamacare
The United States Bishops had issued several statements about what would eventually become “Obama Care,” or the Affordable Care Act. As neighbor bishops serving Missouri and Kansas, we took a slightly different approach, appealing, first, to the Catholic understanding of subsidiarity. I cite a section of the Letter:
“This notion that health care ought to be determined at the lowest level rather than at the higher strata of society, has been promoted by the Church as “subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity is that principle by which we respect the inherent dignity and freedom of the individual by never doing for others what they can do for themselves and thus enabling individuals to have the most possible discretion in the affairs of their lives. (See: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ## 185ff.; Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1883) The writings of recent Popes have warned that the neglect of subsidiarity can lead to an excessive centralization of human services, which in turn leads to excessive costs, and loss of personal responsibility and quality of care.
Pope John Paul II wrote, “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” (Centesimus Annus #48)
And Pope Benedict XVI, “The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. … In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.” (Deus Caritas Est #28)
The Federal Government is clearly required to lead in areas such as national defense, international diplomacy and trade. Initiatives such as health care, education, business and commerce, the distribution of charitable assistance, and some other areas, are most meaningfully executed at appropriate lower levels of responsibility.
As the New Administration and Congress proceeds, necessarily, with the repeal and replacement of this program of national health care, the study of time tested Catholic social principles such as subsidiarity, solidarity, and the inviolable value of human life, will be worthy guides to the formulation of a meaningful model.
The public policy issue of defunding Planned Parenthood was the subject of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations across the country this weekend, including here in the Capital Region. Without question, Planned Parenthood provides some morally unobjectionable health services to women. However, this statement is not unlike saying that a man who beats his wife sometimes gives her flowers. Planned Parenthood is the unquestioned number one provider of abortions in our country. This is the primary “product” for which it is known. Abortion is not health care; it is the intentional killing of a unique human person in his or her mother’s womb. This is a scientific fact that has nothing at all to do with religion or religious belief.
Consistent with this scientific fact, the Catholic Church clearly teaches the objective truth that abortion is a grave moral evil, and that material cooperation in abortion is a mortal sin.
Politicians: Let This Be Your Warning
When individuals, particularly those in political office, gloss over or ignore the core issue of whether or not taxpayers should be funding the world’s largest abortion business by citing Planned Parenthood’s other services, they are engaging in obfuscation that is, at best, confused and, at worst, dishonest. And when such individuals publicly hold themselves out to be Catholic, their local bishop has a responsibility to offer correction, both for the well-being of the individuals’ souls and to avoid scandal among the Catholic faithful.
Catholic Politicians: Renounce Their Public Support for Planned Parenthood
Such is the unfortunate case that I, as the Bishop of Albany, find myself in today. In a local protest over the weekend advocating for the continued public funding of Planned Parenthood, three Catholic politicians – one federal, one state, and one local – not only participated but spoke passionately on behalf of maintaining such funding. And while any judgment of these individuals’ hearts or souls is left only to God, I am entrusted with the solemn duty of reminding them of the unambiguous teaching of our faith on the matter of abortion, informing them that it is inappropriate and confusing to the faithful to hold yourself out publicly as a Catholic while also promoting abortion, and challenging them to embrace the Gospel of Life and to renounce their public support for Planned Parenthood.
My prayer is that these and other elected officials will come to see the truth that abortion harms women and babies, and that they courageously fight to defend the right to life of every human person from the moment of conception until natural death.
There is much confusion today about the obligations of Catholics towards positions on political matters taken by individual bishops or conference of bishops or even the pope himself.
Such positions are often referred to as part of the Church’s social teaching, which can be very misleading. Some confessors, myself included, increasingly encounter devout Catholics who ask if they are guilty of sin because they disagree with bishops or the pope on issues such as U.S. immigration policy, Obamacare, the death penalty, etc. My response is to assure them that they are not guilty of sin for such disagreements. But they have a duty to be informed on such issues and to respect the opinions and persons of those with whom they disagree, including Church leaders.
In Catholic social teaching, fundamental moral and social principles are binding. They then have to be applied to complex practical problems. In concrete cases, the principles are more remote than the first principles of the natural law. And when it comes to their application, we are generally not dealing with the same kind of certitude that we find when primary moral principles are applied to personal moral acts.
To suggest that political positions taken by a bishops’ conference – based upon their reading of practical situations related to economic policies, the environment, immigration policies and such things – are equivalent to doctrinal pronouncements binding on Catholic conscience is quite misleading.
For instance, if a Bishops’ Conference says that building a wall is a bad idea, or – as a couple of individual bishops have written – is an irrational or useless policy, these are political positions plain and simple. They are not doctrinal pronouncements, and they definitely do not bind in conscience. They simply represent the political opinion of this or that bishop or this or that conference on a particular social, political, or economic issue. Catholics are totally free to reject them if, after careful consideration, they find them lacking.
John L. Allen Jr., a respected journalist who generally writes for a couple of liberal Catholic publications, wrote about Judge Neil Gorsuch, newly nominated by President Trump for the Supreme Court: “Considered a reliable conservative on most issues, Gorsuch seems likely to align with the Catholic Church’s positions [my italics] on many matters but create possible heartburn on others.” Allen is referring here to what he calls social teaching issues, and he lumps together abortion and religious freedom on the positive side, and the death penalty and immigration on the “heartburn” side. The assumption here, unfortunately, is that all these positions are morally grounded in ways that have the same moral weight and degree of certitude in their application. That’s a mistaken assumption.
Allen would probably not say that the bishops’ positions on matters like immigration, healthcare, and the death penalty are as equally grounded in magisterial teachings as are the bishops’ positions on abortion and religious freedom. The latter positions are clearly based upon magisterial teaching that is irreformable and exceptionless in application. The former are, at most, based on their specific understanding of how certain social principle should be applied in a particular and very complex situation. In short, these are political positions, like being for or against some criminal sentencing policy, or for or against government control over heath care.
When Allen says that Judge Gorsuch’s previous immigration and death penalty decisions disagree “with both the Vatican’s and the U.S. bishops’” views, and identifies these positions as “the Catholic Church’s positions,” what can he possibly mean? These positions are not magisterial positions as such, and do not claim to be doctrinal or necessary applications of Catholic social teaching – that is, positions of the whole Catholic Church, which is what is implied.
The fact is that Allen can only be speaking about the political positions of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference (and not even of each and every bishop), and the political position of Pope Francis and some of his Curia, but hardly the position of the universal Church. To speak of “the Catholic Church’s positions,” then, is totally misleading since it excludes from “the Catholic Church” all those Catholics who have their own political position on an issue where they are not bound in conscience.
You can, for instance, support the death penalty, if you judge that there is no effectively practical way of safeguarding the common good. Even St. John Paul II’s proposed development in the Magisterium – that the death penalty be used as rarely as possible – allows for such prudential judgments.
Moreover, the moral duty of judges, including Catholic judges, assuming they are not dealing with an issue that is governed by an absolute, exceptionless moral principle, is to interpret and apply the law accurately and fairly according to the intention of the legislature that created the law. Their job is not to agree with some political positions, not even their own, but to be faithful to the law itself. If the law cannot be faithfully applied without violating the judge’s conscience, then the only moral recourse is resignation.
So the “positions” of the loosely defined “Catholic Church,” which really amount to some leaders in the Catholic Church, are not necessarily relevant and are non-binding on the Catholic faithful. Such positions should be considered – as should other positions and a broad range of factors – in forming our consciences. But to suggest that they are in fact binding on Catholics who have come to informed disagreement is not theologically sustainable.
“This column first appeared on the website The Catholic Thing (www.thecatholicthing.org). Copyright 2017. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.”
Marriage radiates the grandeur of the cosmos and the whole of salvation history because it reflects the wondrous purpose of all God’s works: our eternal union with him in Christ. Jesus himself revealed the divine beauty of marriage when he declared himself to be the Bridegroom who embraces us by drawing us to himself and by giving himself to us and for us on the Cross and in the Eucharist.
In this light, Paul was able to declare that the creation of the human race as male and female, husband and wife, was patterned on the union of Christ and the Church. The reality of marriage thus inseparably joins the distinct divine works of creation and salvation. Because God created humanity both in the image of the Trinity and in the image of Christ and the Church, the meaning of the cosmos can be found only in the transformation of the children of Adam and Eve into the adopted children of God, united forever with him in that new creation which is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb and his bride, the Church.
This exalted vision of marriage is the exact opposite of a mere “ideal.” It is the nitty-gritty reality and foundation of our existence as human beings. Our physical bodies, differentiated as male and female and united in the procreative union of husband and wife have been fashioned to reflect the fruitful union of Christ and the Church. Our emotional life and its coordination with our spiritual capacities for knowledge and love are the very basis by which we are enabled to give ourselves and receive one another in the totality of our person, body and soul, within the relations of family, friendship, and marriage.
We would not have this particular physical, emotional, and spiritual structure unless God created us to be capable of personal union with others and, by grace, of union with himself. For this reason, every person is a living witness to the mystery hidden in our body-soul existence, and in the conjugal union of marriage. As individuals and married couples we are embodiments of God’s nuptial plan revealed in Jesus. It is encoded in our DNA.
In Genesis, the union of Adam and Eve is ordered to their sharing of life and labor as cooperators in God’s works of creation and salvation. Similarly, in the New Testament the union of Christ and the Church makes his disciples sharers in his life and saving work as members of his body and bride. When Jesus returns, this participation in the divine life will unite redeemed humanity to the Trinity in eternal joy.
The beauty of this nuptial plan would be shattered were God to be unfaithful to his purpose declared in creation and in Christ. Having fashioned us for union with himself, were God now to alter his will, our existence and that of the whole cosmos would be frustrated to an unimaginable degree. It would, quite simply, make existence Hell because we would never be united to him who is our origin and our goal, our love and our hope, our life and our all.
These marital realities form the foundation of covenant theology in the Scriptures. God is unfailingly faithful in his generous, wise, and loving work of drawing humanity to himself. Neither Israel nor the Church has any claim on him rooted in their own actions, certainly not in the face of sin. He is the faithful spouse; we are the adulterers.
Yet his fidelity expresses an infinite mercy that calls us to conversion and to sharing his life through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by which he comes to dwell in us and we in him. For that purpose, the Word took flesh and returned to the Father by way of the Cross. He is the faithful spouse who purifies his bride and brings her home. This unwavering fidelity led Paul to assert: “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Tim 2:13)
Only on the basis of Christ’s fidelity, poured into our heart by the indwelling of the Trinity, can we hope to remain faithful. Humanly speaking this is impossible, but “with God all things are possible.” (Mt 19:26)
In the present crisis regarding marriage, those who say it is sometimes impossible for Christians to remain faithful to the vow made to a spouse and to God (such as when the marriage is irreparably broken or has been replaced by a second union) have forgotten the meaning of Christ, the human person, marriage, and the cosmos, which all declare the glory of God and his fidelity. This is no development of doctrine or relaxing of Church discipline. It is the complete overthrow of the Christian vision of God and human existence.
Were there a single case in which fidelity to a spouse or to God was impossible for a Christian, this would mean that God’s fidelity had failed. Perversely, infidelity in that instance would be rooted in God’s infidelity of withdrawing his grace and/or misleading us through Jesus and the Church’s false teaching regarding the obligations of the Gospel.
Far from being realistic and merciful, the suggestions being made are heartless and cruel abstractions that imply that Jesus’ fidelity is not always available to us. This makes a mockery of those who have lived chastely, after a broken marriage, in fidelity to their earthly and heavenly spouses. The proponents of these theories must name a case in which God and Christ are unfaithful before they presume to permit a Christian to be unfaithful in the slightest matter. That is the concrete, real, personal truth of the Gospel.
Mercy will not be found in exchanging the beauty of marriage for a lifeless illusion. It will be found, as it ever has been, by allowing Jesus to draw us to himself on the Cross and learning that with him we can be faithful even unto death.
“This column first appeared on the website The Catholic Thing (www.thecatholicthing.org). Copyright 2017. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.”