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Lamentation

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young;
I will set up an everlasting covenant with you,
that you may remember and be covered with confusion,
and that you may be utterly silenced for shame
when I pardon you for all you have done, says the Lord GOD.
—Ezekiel 16:60–63

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Matthias Grünewald, Lamentation of Christ (detail) / PD-US

This reading from Ezekiel reminds me of a recent video from Fr. Robert Barron, which is definitely worth a watch: Bishop Barron on Ezekiel and the Sex Abuse Crisis. Ezekiel wrote of the corruption within the holy city of Jerusalem and its cleansing through avengers from the North. Today, the “holy city” of the Church has fallen into corruption, and it too needs to be cleansed, to endure the painful siege of repentance. God will not abandon His covenant with us. But if we are to be cleansed, we must allow Him to show us the weight of our sin; we must be willing to feel our shame and sorrow.

It has been sobering to read reports of the horrific abuse that has occurred within the Church and the deep corruption that kept it hidden for years. As American Catholics, we are mourning over these unthinkable crimes and trying to figure out how we can possibly move forward through this mess.

The Gospel reading prior to this spoke of forgiveness, which may seem untimely at the moment. The Gospel asks us to forgive, but often we don’t understand the meaning of true forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean making excuses for the person who wronged you or brushing it under the rug. That’s not forgiveness; it’s denial. True forgiveness must acknowledge the sin and yet refuse to feed it. A person who forgives renounces any claim toward revenge and resists the tendency to harbor resentment. It is a daily decision, and it is not an easy one. But it is the only way that we can stop the cycle of sin and open our hearts to mercy. A truly forgiving heart is not indifferent to injustice; it is all the more deeply hurt by it, since it refuses to dehumanize either the victim or the perpetrator. It sees the tragedy of an innocent life altered irrevocably; it sees those individuals who used their God-given will for evil. And it resolves to do better.

I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti and her murderer/attempted rapist, Alessandro Serenelli. Now, this is not a typical story—we should not go around assuming that all murderers and rapists will be reformed by our prayers and can be later welcomed into our families. But it is in fact what happened in the case of Alessandro Serenelli, incredible though it may seem. Though Alessandro was bitterly unrepentant for the first few years after Maria’s death, he experienced a profound conversion of heart after experiencing a vision of Maria in which she forgave him. He was moved to weep for his sins for the first time, and he began the process of true repentance. Due to Maria’s miraculous intercession (again, possible only through the grace of God and not by human means), he was completely reformed and eventually became an adopted son of Maria’s mother.

While Alessandro clung to his pride and callously denied his guilt, the seeds of sin and evil continued to fester within him. Only when he realized the depth of his sin and entered into a living purgatory of shame and regret was his heart opened to receive God’s mercy. This step was crucial: acknowledgment of wrongdoing, grief over what has been tainted and destroyed, ownership of one’s sinfulness. Unless we confront the realities of our sins and face our deepest wounds, we will never be able to receive healing. And Alessandro’s revelation of guilt—and thus his pathway to forgiveness—was made possible because of Maria’s purity and steadfast prayer.

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Alvar Cawén, Pietà / PD-US

As faithful Catholics who are shocked, saddened, and heartbroken over the recent scandals within the heart of our Church, we are called to step up and be the solution, to challenge the Church to rise up to her sacred calling. Now is the time for prayer and fasting. We will expect from the Church a higher standard, and we will start by being saints. The purification of the Church will begin with the purification of our own souls, by a deep desire for holiness and purity throughout every aspect of our lives. Jesus and Mary weep alongside us at these crimes. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion among young, faithful Catholics of the many ways in which we can carry this out, and I’ve compiled a list of resources here.

I stay with the Church because her teachings proclaim the dignity of the human person, even as some of those who represent her have trampled upon human dignity through objectification and abuse. I pray that we allow the light of truth to overcome the darkness, so that everything hidden will be exposed to the light. The truth of our own dignity and worth—and indeed that of our children—must prevail against the shadows.

Originally published at Frassati Reflections.

Thoughts on Catholicity & the Blessed Sacrament

During my retreat, I had the privilege to attend Daily Mass. Despite our different ethnic backgrounds, it was a big treat to witness all 8 ‘retreatants’ from Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, UK, and Australia all coming together to celebrate the same Mass and read the same readings as all other Catholics in the world. This is why the Catholic Church is one; united in doctrine, mind and worship.

There is a running joke that being a Catholic entitles you to a ‘global passport’. You can be overseas, but every mass celebrated around the world in a Catholic Church is the same. This is one of the main reasons why I am proud to be Catholic! Truly; the meaning of the name is fully embodied (Catholic means Universal); and as Christ Himself said — one flock, one shepherd (Jn 10:16, 17:21-22).

One of the other major moments for me during the retreat was spending dawn, noon and night in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus Christ Himself. Although being in nature had a sense of beauty, I personally felt that I could focus best when I was with Jesus, kneeling in front of my King and Savior.

In any Catholic Adoration chapel; one would find a small ‘cupboard’ which we humbly call the Tabernacle, acknowledging our Jewish roots. Every Catholic Tabernacle in the world contains consecrated bread and wine by an ordained priest. This Bread and Wine is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in its totality: physically and spiritually (c.f. Jn 6:51-54).

This is signified by a burning candle lit at the side of every tabernacle (see pics). As long as Jesus is inside, this candle must be lit to symbolize the Light of the World being truly present (Jn 8:12). This is an ancient and beautiful practice dated way back to the 4th Century!

As a lover of history, I find it fascinating that just as the ancient Israelites in the OT believed the Holy of Holies resided within their Holy Tabernacle, Catholics today also believe that Jesus Christ Himself is present inside each modern Tabernacle in the form of consecrated bread and wine!

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Originally posted on Instagram.

The Laity’s Response to the Clergy Sex Scandals

After one sex scandal after another involving clergy has broken out, it has been proposed that since the hierarchy cannot be trusted to weed out corruption from their own ranks, the task of saving the Catholic Church must fall on the laity.

There have been exhortations to the laity to demand accountability – and even resignations – from their bishops, to divert their contributions to the Church from their bishops to more trustworthy channels, and to speak out against misdeeds committed by clergymen.  There have even been calls to include laypersons in committees that will investigate erring priests and bishops.

At the outset, I must clarify that I have nothing against these proposals, lest I be misunderstood because of the inherent limitations of online discourse and the intense justified outrage that the recent scandals have provoked.  However, a lot has been written about the said proposals already, and it is important to discuss other options for the laity helping the Church recover from the clergy sex scandals.

While the laity can indeed play an important role in saving the Church, this idea can be a temptation to hubris if misunderstood, which would in turn result in sterility or worse.  While the proposals mentioned in the first paragraph of this article are good, they can only do so much.

Since the problem of clergy sex scandals is inherently spiritual, the solution to it is spiritual. The clergy sex scandals are, essentially, the failure of the clergy to live consistently with their vocations.

Thus, to respond to these scandals, the laity should examine themselves if they are living unity of life, that is, whether their words, actions, and choices are consistent with their own vocations as lay Christians.  Like, choices of entertainment, for example.

The point is not that the laity’s own failures take erring clergymen off the hook.  Rather, like good soldiers of Christ, the laity should, as good battle strategy, reinforce the Church’s ranks where there are breaches.

Or rather, the laity – like all Christians – must, as Christ said, be the salt of the earth and preserve the world and the Church from corruption.  To do this, they must themselves stay salty and never become insipid.

Furthermore, any reaction of the laity to the clergy sex scandals, to be meaningful and effective, must be realistic. It must take into account the limitations of the laity, as well as the laity’s specific vocation.

While there is room for more participation of the laity in the affairs of the Church, the extent to which the laity can exercise government functions is limited. The laity can never replace the hierarchy in fulfilling the functions of the ministerial priesthood.  Nevertheless, there are things that the laity can do which capitalize on their specific strengths and opportunities.

The clergy sex scandals are merely consequences – disastrous, to be sure – of the world’s inability to understand, appreciate, and practice chastity.  A big part of solving the problem is to preach chastity through word and example.  As St. Josemaria Escriva put it, “There is need for a crusade of manliness and purity to counteract and undo the savage work of those who think that man is a beast.  And that crusade is a matter for you.” (The Way, 121).

It is true that the clergy are primarily responsible for propagating the Church’s teachings on human sexuality from the pulpit. But there are areas where the laity can do it more effectively.

For example, most, if not all, who work in the arts, in the mass media, in fashion, in advertising, and other similar fields, are laity. By raising their professional standards and challenging the dubious mantra that “sex sells”, they can create a moral environment conducive to the practice of virtue for everyone, including priests.

Some of the laity have more opportunities than others to wage the “crusade of manliness and purity” that St. Josemaria Escriva wrote of.  But all of them can wage this crusade.  By the way they speak, act, work, deal with others, and entertain themselves, they can raise the spiritual temperature around them wherever they are.  They can exert a positive influence on those who come in touch with them, and “undo the savage work of those who think that man is a beast.”

To emphasize, this is not to say that more direct actions and reactions to address the clergy sex scandals are unnecessary. Indeed, tough measures must be taken, the truth must be told, justice must be served.

But all Catholics should remember that the clergy sex scandals are also, like other crises in the Church, calls to be holy.  The Church is no stranger to difficult times, and difficult times for the Church have, in the past, raised great saints. There is no reason the current crisis cannot raise great saints, including laity living and working in the middle of the world, sanctifying temporal realities by doing so.

___

Image: François Brunery, An Eminent Gathering /PD-US

Falling Away and Coming Home

There has been no shortage of critiques levied at the Catholic Church in recent decades. Plenty to attack, after all.

I grew up with neighbors who discovered the local Calvary Chapel and became “born again.” They had always sneered at my Catholic faith, but this “rebirth” brought with it an eagerness to challenge this ignorant little kid about why we were cannibals and engaged in “idol-worship” — i.e. Mary, the Saints — you know the drill.

Later, as the Church was rocked by scandal, Catholic-bashing reached new heights in the media; I mean, what else could they do with such low-hanging fruit?

I kept wondering, won’t the Church have to dial back its rules just to survive all this? Won’t it need to ease up a bit if it’s going to emerge from these trials intact? Maybe relax the rules a little regarding pre-marital and extra-marital sex, divorce and annulments? Abortion, even? To convey how far at sea I was, I really believed it would . . . and part of me thought it should.

How absolutely adrift I was.

Like many of those raised Catholic, I had indeed drifted. But unlike many, my falling away had nothing to do with the sex abuse scandals that would soon impact the Church. Instead, I rationalized my passivity and absence by pointing at the failings of priests and what I interpreted as the Church’s preoccupation with wealth. My distaste fixated on priests who seemed to have missed the lessons on humility — who appeared to make the mass about themselves, who aggrandized themselves by selling cassettes of their every homily and smiled like unctuous salesmen — in short, who seemed more show than substance.

Suffice it to say, if you want a reason to stop attending Catholic mass, you tend to find it. I had watched several older siblings pull this off already, citing “phony” priests, “Puritanism,” and the ever-popular critique, “hypocrisy.” Oh yeah, I found plenty of that, too. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I could find hypocrisy everywhere — in every human institution or organization, and because I am human, in myself too — though that was the last realization in the chain. It always seems to be.

When we’re young, we want so much for the world to be the idyllic place we thought it was, and we hold fiercely to that ideal. As a result, we also hold our elders — parents, teachers, older siblings, adults around us or in the larger world — to an impossibly high standard of righteousness. And if they happen to be representatives of a religion, an even higher standard of perfection. As we move into our teenage years, we begin to sense the inevitable disillusionment, and we hone our critical blade to a razor’s edge. But why?

It starts with the fact that teenagers feel everything more acutely, including hurt. We see weakness, sin or foible, and it hurts us beyond repair. It shatters our illusions — our world — the one we previously thought was perfect. Disillusionment causes hurt, and as teenagers, our natural defense mechanism to ward off that hurt is to allow religious folks no room for flaws and failings — and we shield ourselves with scorn. It’s a loss like any death, and even at that age we experience the entire cycle — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but acceptance usually just becomes cynicism. And later, apathy.

The critical step for me was not merely a religious maturation, but an evolving understanding of myself — my motivations and attitudes — and an understanding of our universal human nature. More simply, I got more honest with myself about why I was doing what I was doing, and what I wasn’t doing. Eventually, this led to exploring a number of other faith congregations because I wasn’t yet ready to absolve Catholicism. It wasn’t until I felt something lacking in every other faith, which I would come to realize as the sacraments, that I knew I had to find my way back.

In time, I understood what I was doing and why — that I had been applying an impossible standard of righteousness to a human institution. Which isn’t to say I was letting off the hook sexual abusers or those who had allowed them to thrive. That was a different matter to me, outside of my experience, although it may have added to my detachment. But through what I can only assume was Grace, I grew to separate the human failings from the actual tenets and doctrines of the Faith.

As a result, I stopped blaming the Catholic Faith for the behaviors and attitudes of its representatives. Mostly, I realized that failings like hypocrisy are part of the universal human experience, failings we can’t avoid no matter how hard we try. I realized how easy it is to find flaws in representatives of any institution, organization, political or religious group — and therefore how easy it is to attribute those faults to the whole.

Partly what helped me was my experience as a public high school English teacher: I could hold up many teachers as arguments against public education, completely ignoring the system and its attributes distinct from its human elements. Same goes for law enforcement, the medical establishment, environmental groups, and even civil rights causes. Anywhere you have humans involved, you have flawed institutions. That’s just part of this messy existence we have — at least within any social group. Perhaps this is what drives certain individuals completely off the grid and away from all society. And even then, do they escape their human failings? I doubt it.

When we get past the charges of hypocrisy, most critiques express that the Catholic Church demands too much, and that these demands put it out of touch with people today: premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, practicing the sacraments regularly, and so on. The tenets are simply too hard to follow, we complain.

And to some extent, I empathized with these frustrations. Like many people, I looked at the Church’s doctrines and thought they were too rigid, too unrealistic and impractical in today’s world, harboring the belief that some day there would become an “American Catholic Church” — one that is more forgiving or tolerant — of sexual laxity, of sacramental laziness and so on. I began to see priests who seemed more liberal in their interpretation of doctrine, who seemed less offended by divorce and pre-marital sex. I thought it almost inevitable that they would rise up; I pictured scores of priests standing up to the Vatican and saying, “We go this way instead!” Clearly, I had a ways yet to go toward wisdom and maturity.

But then something happened. Over the years, as society continued toward greater laxity and moral relativism — more accepting of gay marriage, LBGTQ openness in general across the board, more accepting of divorce and abortion — the Church, under the leadership of the Pope, stood tall and unyielding in its stance against these trends. And I thought — wow — this just might be the only moral constant in the world. I had to respect that . . . and I also had to wonder why.

But to pursue that question, I flipped it on its head, asking, why not? Is there a chance that what we might be confused about what we actually want? — which led to other questions: What would it mean if this actually happened? Would we really wish our faith to be any less than what the Church has proscribed? Would we really want a Church that changes with society’s whims and vacillating moral standards? Would we want the Pope to come out and say, “Young people will not remain celibate, and so we are revising our moral teaching to say that it’s o.k. to live together, to have sex with multiple partners before marrying”? Would we then want to go about the practice of our faith the next day with this new understanding of what morality means? Really? I sort of doubt it.

No, in this way we are like children: we want clear boundaries and standards to strive toward, even if we know they are nearly impossible to meet. We want to know someone or something cares about our striving to become the very best and purest versions of ourselves — even if we aren’t strong enough to fully achieve that version. We want to know someone believes we have the potential, at least.

We don’t really want a Pope, a Church and a God who say to us, “It’s o.k. that you are weak and needy – I understand that you are less than capable of spiritual greatness; don’t worry — you have no hope of being moral, so don’t beat yourself up over it. We’ll be waiting here for you no matter how mediocre and flaccid your efforts are to be decent.” And perhaps that is the essence of Free Will as taught by the Catholic Church — that our God and our Church believe in our potential for spiritual perfection and respect our ability to strive toward it.

In short, I stopped criticizing the Faith when I realized the Church was setting a standard we should aspire to. And following quickly on the heels of this understanding was the realization that this is precisely what a church should do; it’s just that most do not.

As teachers and parents, my wife and I have unfortunately seen that few parents lay down expectations for civil behavior and then hold their children accountable for those standards. Likewise, few religions parent their faithful with expectations and accountability. Instead, they temper their message and go with the flow, gauging the mood of their congregation and keeping an eye toward membership. They seem to focus entirely on the compassion and love, without the expectation to become a better, more Christ-like version of ourselves.

So then, is the Catholic Church expecting us to meet these exceedingly high standards? Well, it’s a bit like parenting, isn’t it? The standards are set, knowing there will be failings, but also that forgiveness will be granted with compassion and love so that we might rise and try again . . . and again.

There’s an honesty in that, and that’s what brought me home.

Suffering Servant

Mark 10:32-45

The Apostles heard Jesus preach about the kingdom many times and they believed this kingdom was to come before His death. It is in this context that James and John, two beloved Apostles in the inner circle of Jesus, asked to be seated at His left and right hand (Mk 10:37).

Jesus’s reply was not so much an answer but a statement that

“His kingdom will not be of this world, and that to sit by His side is something so great it surpasses the angelic orders — which they did not yet merit.” (St. Theophylact)

Influenced by human feelings, the remaining Apostles became ridden with envy and felt indignant at James and John (Mk 10:41). Jesus however, intervenes and ‘called them to Him’ (Mk 10:42), teaching that the greatest amongst them must be their servant (Mk 10:43). Jesus substantiates His statement with living proof of Himself, since He came down from Heaven to give His life for the world (Mk 10:45).

Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco (1577–87)

This consistent theme of the “Suffering Servant” throughout the entirety of Mark’s Gospel is something beautiful and rich with wisdom. Jesus, like Christianity today, continues to challenge worldly norms even though the Church has always been in the minority. Catholics have been the only ones consistently speaking out against the world on intrinsic evils like Abortion, Euthanasia and Contraception. An inevitable blooming Culture of Death.

Yet, while the Church continues to guard and promulgate the Truth, she will always do so from the perspective of a Suffering Servant, not a demanding tyrant. The world will always mock and hate us, but as a wise man once told me — being hated by the world is a sign that you’re in the right Church. As the Saints have echoed through the centuries, “The Truth which subsists in the Church will always be rejected by the world.”

If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hated. My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh.

If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church that is accused of being behind the times, as our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned. Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior, as they sneered at Our Lord because He came from Nazareth.

Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil, as Our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils. Look for the Church which, in seasons of bigotry, men say must be destroyed in the name of God as men crucified Christ and thought they had done a service to God.

Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because He called Himself the Truth. Look for the Church which is rejected by the world as Our Lord was rejected by men.

Look for the Church which amid the confusions of conflicting opinions, its members love as they love Christ, and respect its Voice as the very voice of its Founder, and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly it is other worldly. since it is other-worldly, it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself. But only that which is Divine can be infinitely hated and infinitely loved. Therefore the Church is Divine.”

— Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

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Originally posted on Instagram.

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Deuteronomy 4:32-40, Psalm 33, Romans 8:14-17, Matthew 28:16-20

CCC 234: “The Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the MYSTERY OF GOD in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith.”

The Trinity, Andrei Rublev (1425)

Just let that sink in – the Holy Trinity is the MYSTERY OF GOD Himself.

In Matthew’s Gospel, he beautifully opens up with the Emmanuel Prophecy when the Angel told Mary that her son would be called Emmanuel (God is with us). At the end of the Gospel, Jesus fulfills this by literally telling us that He (God) WILL be with us, forever till the end of time! Many people miss this, but Matthew’s Gospel concludes on Jesus’s Divinity.

It is in this context that Jesus reveals His Triune Divinic nature when He commands all His followers to Baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. For Catholics, we do this every day when we make the sign of the cross. We must not forget this Great Commission whenever we call upon the Holy Trinity.

I’d like to close with a fun fact: the word ‘Trinity’ is NOT found in the Bible. Instead, the Doctrine of the Trinity was written and declared infallibly by Pope Dionysius:

“The most sacred proclamation of the Church of God, making of it the Trinity, as it were, three powers and three distinct substances subsisting in one being… [Some heretics] proclaim that there are in some way three gods, when they divide the sacred unity into three substances foreign to each other and completely separate.” (A.D. 262)

Today, (thank God for this) all Christians accept this Sacred Tradition, which was hard fought for. The Doctrine of the Trinity is a prime example of why we need to recognize the Church as an infallible interpreter and why we can’t just rely on the Bible alone. After all, Jesus did leave us a Church, not a book!

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Originally posted on Instagram.

Two Charcoal Fires

Peter’s Denial, Carl Heinrich Bloch (1873)

There are only two charcoal fires (Greek: anthrakia) mentioned in the whole Bible, and they are both in the Gospel of John. The first anthrakia mentioned was in the high priest’s courtyard, where the gatekeeper said to Peter, “You are not one of this man’s disciples are you?” and Peter says, “I am not.” Questioned like that two more times, Peter, now warming himself at the same fire, DENIES being a disciple of Jesus two more times (c.f. Jn 18:18, 25-27).

The second anthrakia mentioned was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, apparently prepared by the Risen Christ (Jn 21:9). Here, the very same Peter was questioned; “Do you love me?” and the disciple now affirms his ALLEGIANCE three times.

Christ’s Charge to Peter, Raphael (1515-1516)

So one anthrakia sets the threefold denial of discipleship, while the other anthrakia sets the threefold affirmation of discipleship. Coincidence? Knowing John’s Gospel, such symbology is likely not by chance. And who is to say that the association does not go back to Jesus himself, helping Peter to realize that the denier is being given a fresh start in his relationship to the Lord. This beach scenario is not only a matter of astounding forgiveness; it is also of commissioning: “Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.”

I’ve once asked a bunch of friends before – “Why did Jesus mention feeding his Lambs and then his Sheep? Like, what’s the difference?” This verse is deeply theological and the Church has the best answer: Jesus is commissioning Peter here to become not just leader of the laity (lambs); but also leader of the clergymen (sheep); symbolized through the young and mature in the flock.

Peter is given an opportunity to demonstrate the love he professed by sharing in the mission of the risen Lord. Ultimately, it is going to be a matter of being led where he does not want to go. Loving the head shepherd means obeying his commandments – even if it means becoming the first Pope, which would ultimately lead to his martyrdom.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Cult of Numbers

About Gregory

Gregory the Theologian, (1408), Dormition Cathedral, Vladimir, Wikimedia Commons.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 326/330 – 390), nicknamed since antiquity as ‘The Theologian’, was a fourth-century bishop, born in the rural setting of modern-day central Turkey. He is venerated as a Father of the Church, and is one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with Ss. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory fought strenuously for spiritual orthodoxy, particular in relation to a doctrinal understanding of the Trinity, championing the Nicene perspective, and developing a unique Trinitarian language. He viewed the Nicene stance as a midday between the heretical extremes of Sabellianism and Arianism.[i]

Classically trained in rhetoric and philosophy, he is responsible for transposing Hellenism into the Early Church. In fact, “Gregory’s literary ability was regarded so highly by the learned connoisseurs of Byzantium that they ranked him with the great stylists of classical poetry and prose.” [ii] For example, Psellos (c. 1017 – 1028) describes Gregory’s style in glowing terms as embodying the gifts of figures such as Demosthenes, Pericles, Lysias and Herodotus, whilst outranking them, in wit, persuasive power, beauty and skill.[iii] He was even well regarded by Renaissance humanists for his literary prowess.[iv]

Gregory has left the Church with a large corpus of written works: letters, poems and orations. It is through his orations—speeches delivered in homilies and sermons, and polished and edited in his later life—that he has extended his greatest influence, both theologically and literarily.

Oration 42

Among his 44 orations is Oration 42—a Farewell Address; a kind of apologia directed at his flock at Constantinople upon his resignation. A resignation made for the purpose of quelling the dissensions and controversy surrounding his Canonically awry position in Constantinople. He thus stepped aside, to keep the peace.

The audience included the 150 bishops of the Eastern Church gathered for the First Council of Constantinople (381), and various rivals low and high. It is also addressed to the Nicaean faction in general. He is defending accusations against his style of ministry in Constantinople, whilst raising the banner of his Trinitarian faith. He says his farewells with a mix of sadness, joy, and satire, and leaves by throwing a few preacher-punches at the “great and Christ-loving city!” a descriptive term he calls unenlightened, while at the same time it is expressive of his hope of what could be.[v] Still, the tenderness of his delivery is undeniable—in Gregory is a pastor who loved his people.

The Cult of Numbers

The portion of this Oration I’d like to draw attention to is section 7, where Gregory alludes to a worldly, economic kind of religious way of thinking, that can be described as the cult of numbers. This can simply be understood to be a measuring of spiritual success and fruitfulness in Christian communities, based solely on numbers—on the population of a group in the Church or the Church as a whole. It is an outlook that focuses on the external of quantity, to the exclusion and neglect of the quality of such members. A quality defined by sound spirituality and doctrine, manifesting in holiness and love.

The Context of His Farewell

In the context of his Farewell Oration, he speaks to a church where the Nicene community has recently regained power from the Anti-Nicene’s; finally having the support of imperial policy on its side. It is “a people now grown from small to great, from scattered to well-knit, from a pitiable even to an enviable state”—and Gregory testifies to this increase as the work of God, the rich harvest won through his ministry with the support of his companions.[vi] Yet he does not praise the increase in numbers as the real reason to rejoice, but the increase in this people’s quality: a people who soundly “worship the Trinity”.[vii]

Gregory—God and Numbers

In the following extract Gregory shares what he thought he “heard God saying” (Or 42:8) in those days when the faithful adherents of the Trinity in Constantinople were a mere remnant, “tiny and poor” (Or 42:4), vastly outweighed by those who “wickedly divided” the Godhead in their false doctrines: many of whom, brought from darkness to light, falsehood to truth, now stand before Gregory as he speaks.

“But you build walls around me, and marble slabs and mosaic floors, long colonnades and porticoes; you glitter and shine with gold, spending it like water and gathering it up like sand, forgetting that faith camping in the open is worth more than the richest impiety, and that three-people gathered in the name of the Lord are worth more to God than tens of thousands who deny the divinity. Do you value the Canaanites more than Abraham, all by himself? Or the Sodomites more than Lot on his own? Or the Midianites more than Moses—though all of these were aliens and strangers? What of the three hundred of Gideon, who manfully lapped up the water, while thousands were rejected? What of Abraham’s household slaves, a few more than these in number, who pursued and defeated many kings and their armies of thousands of men, few though they were? And how do you understand this passage: ‘If the number of the children of Israel should become as the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved?’ Or this: ‘I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bent their knees to Baal.’ No this is not the solution—God does not delight in numbers![viii]

The Approach of a Spiritual Man

Gregory understood this Scripturally-derived lesson of God so very clearly. His understanding was applied in the way he went about his ministry. Faced with a tiny remnant Gregory did not conjure up systematic methods to increase his flock, with the mind of an accountant and tact of an administrator. Nor did he subject himself to human standards at the compromise of the Gospel message to gain sympathizers (Or 42:19). Nor did he play politics, to win members to his flock—siding with one faction against another, but he simply delineated between truth and falsehood, paying no regard to human groupings. And nor did he lord his authority over the Anti-Nicene’s in order to crush them, and consolidate the numbers of his Nicene-flock, when the tables turned in his camps’ favor, but rather he acted mercifully, to the point of being blamed for leniency by his very own.

For St. Gregory was a spiritual man, who saw things with a spiritual eye. Seeing success in the quality of his people, not in their numbers; to the point he even lost favor with much of his own due to his steadfastness to the Gospel of mercy. He knew what was at stake — “the salvation of the soul”— and saw his pastoral responsibility with a sharpness of vision: “to guard and protect his flock” but above all “by distributing the word” in teaching, example and the sacraments, which he calls “the first of our tasks” (Or 2:35).[ix]

In one of his poems he defends his Word-focused approach as a Bishop; an approach carried out from the motive of saving souls, not to increasing numbers for the sake of numbers:

You’ve been considering a bishop as you would an accountant, laying stress on mere rubbish, where I’ve been concerned with important issues. A priest should have one function and one only, the sanctification of souls by his life and teaching… Other matters he should relinquish to those skilled in them.[x]

Learning from Gregory

There is so much we can learn from St. Gregory on the cult of numbers. The lesson he understood so well, is perennially relevant to the Church in all its spheres: on the universal scale, the local parish scale, on the level of the religious community, and even to the microcosm of every youth, bible study or prayer group. The value of all of these is not weighed by the numbers of attendants or alleged adherents, but on the quality of the interior fruits of sound spirituality and doctrine, brought forth as the harvest of the Word; nourishing the real spiritual growth of its members, shown to be authentic by a visible and practical love.

It is easy for groups to become ‘accountant-minded’ and focus on numbers as the measure of spiritual success. Acting in ministry from the motive to “increase numbers,” and investing efforts to win “bums in seats.” Yet by focusing on numbers, we lose our focus of love—depersonalising the face of ‘the other’ into a mere number, thus losing sight of the face of Christ in our neighbour; and this is all a consequence of chasing after numbers instead of a deepened relationship with the Word and the lived proclamation of His Truth—a proclamation that reaches out to ‘the other’ as the image of God, not as the means to bump up a statistic.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus shows us that we need not focus on numbers, for “God does not delight in numbers!” but we need only focus on God the Trinity, seeking to increase the quality of the “tiny and poor” remnant in our midst—above all by seeking the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ourselves (in prayer, instruction and the sacraments); and this labour will be blessed by God who in time, will bring forth an increase far greater in quality and quantity, than we could ever achieve by our quest for greater numbers.

God did so in Constantinople in the fourth-century A.D., and He can do so again in our day; so long as we see like Gregory that our strength lies not in numbers, but in our God, and the unconditional Love He has for us (Ps 28:7). That Love of the Father for the Son, the Love who is the Holy Spirit—and increasing in this Love, which always reaches out, and not in numbers, must be our sole and only focus.

 

[i] Brian E. Daley, S.J., Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2006), Oration 42:16, pp. 147-148.

[ii] Ibid., p.1.

[iii] Ibid., p.27. Direct source, see Michael Psellos, “The Characteristic of Gregory the Theologian, the Great Basil, Chrystostom, and Gregiry of Nyssa.”

[iv] Ibid. pp. 26-28.

[v] Ibid. Oration 42:27, p.154.

[vi] Ibid. Oration 42:9, p.144.

[vii] Ibid. Oration 42:7, p.143.

[viii] Ibid., pp.143-144.

[ix] Ibid. Introduction, 53.

[x] On Himself and the Bishops, as it appears in Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers p. 52.

Catholicism is Impossible

“Baby Jesus” by Jennifer Hickey

Earlier this week a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by Melinda Selmys of Catholic Authenticity on Patheos. In the blog she describes some of the challenges surrounding the use of NFP, particularly the issues that arise when the risk of an unintended pregnancy are so high as to be unacceptable, but abstaining from sexual intercourse is not conducive to mental and emotional health. A priest told her in essence to try her best, and if she failed to know that she really was trying and to leave it in God’s hands. She describes the mind games encouraged by this situation, saying:

“What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life… but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure it wasn’t really my fault.”

I recognize this mind game in my own life. To pick one example, let’s say I have composed a particularly biting and sarcastic email, deliberately not giving myself time to think, stifling that nagging feeling that maybe I should reconsider or at least wait a few hours, and pushed the send button before I could come to my senses. Later on in the throes of regret I told myself it was “in the heat of anger.” It wasn’t. I wanted to be cruel, and I encouraged and hid behind a feeling of anger to make that cruelty possible, and now I allow myself enough regret to make me feel I am not so uncharitable after all.

She goes on to say:

“–the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture… external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that you are going to succumb to passion, that “frequent recourse to the confessional” will be necessary. That if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well,  probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that.”
I do not know if the author actually believes this statement of the “dirty little secret” of NFP, i.e. that no one actually practices it strictly. The comment boxes, both on the particular Facebook thread I read, and on the article itself, contained both rebuttals and affirmations of it. In any event, I don’t want to turn this into an NFP blog. For what its worth, my wife and I practice NFP, it doesn’t seem to cause us too much stress (Deo Gratias), and I don’t think I have ever come across this “Catholic chastity culture” she references, so my two cents on the topic would likely be neither here nor there.

Rather, I want to address the unspoken assumption at the heart of some of the comments, and of much of the debate around (insert hot button topic of sexual ethics in the Church today). NFP is one such arena, but I have personally heard this argument used more frequently in regards to debates around homosexual behaviors and lifestyles, and reception of sacraments by divorced and cohabitating couples. Very few are even talking about what I consider to be the real epidemic, that of pornography within the Church. The argument goes something like this:

“Sure the Church teaches X, Y and Z. But that is not what people actually do. Lots of great Catholics do exactly the opposite and they are still good people, and it’s just a shame that they can’t be more open about it until the oppressive, backwards Church changes her teaching to reflect how people actually practice.”
The problem is that this thinking is 100% wrong-headed. It is exactly backwards.

Whenever I hear this argument used, i.e. that the Church should adjust her teaching to practice, because her ethic is just too hard for people to live up to, I can’t help but think they have understated their case. God’s commandments are not too hard.

They are impossible.

Of course NFP is hard (for a lot of people, not for everyone). Chastity in general is hard. And, as Dorothy Sayers would remind us, lust is not the only deadly sin. There are, in fact, six more, though we often tend to ignore them. Temperance is hard, industry and frugality are hard, generosity is hard, honesty and patience are hard, mercy and justice are hard, and of course, don’t even get me started about humility and charity.

Let me repeat the title of this blog: “Catholicism is impossible.” We get hung up on pelvic issues, (NFP, contraception, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, but always on the one that other people are committing) possibly because these are so noticeable, possibly because we are just obsessed with sex as a race. We talk about everyone else’s sleeping arrangements and never notice our own sins of gossip and slander. We neglect to mention the extortion, usury, greed and envy that are the backbone of our nation’s economy. We don’t bat an eye over the gluttony and sloth wreaking havoc on our health and happiness.

Have you read the Sermon on the Mount recently?
Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

Or to pick another example:

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:22-27
Since when has ease or convenience ever been one of the Gospel’s selling points? This is the standard we are called to live up to.

Everyone has a secret failing. For some, NFP is hard. Probably for most. Those for whom it is easy do others a disservice when they act or speak as if it should therefore be easy for everyone, or as if it was easy because of their own merits or strength. Continence, which means perfect control over the appetites, is a gift of God, given to all eventually if they struggle long enough (everyone is continent in Heaven) but very few seem to receive it right away.

Likewise, those for whom patience comes naturally should no go around telling everyone else that patience is easy. The same for every other virtue/vice.
But those who think that the Church should change her teaching to reflect practice have mistaken what the Church’s teaching is. It is not an arbitrary decision that some actions are okay and others are not. When the CDC tells us not to smoke tobacco it is not because a bunch of old white men in D.C. decided that they hate tobacco and are choosing to punish those who like it with cancer. The Church makes statements about what she believes to be fact: e.g. homosexual activity is not in keeping with the best nature of man; usury is not in keeping with love of neighbor; contraception is harmful to marriages and societies; gossip is harmful to communities and souls, and so on and so forth. We may agree or disagree, but let us not have any muddled thinking that these teachings ought to be based upon what people actually do. If people actually were chaste, just, temperate, merciful, humble and charitable, we would not need teachings. We need these teaching because we are, in fact, unchaste, unjust, intemperate, vengeful, proud and selfish. We need to teachings to tell us when we have fallen short, and to warn us to try harder.
I will share with you my own discovery from that process of trying harder, that if you try to battle a besetting sin long enough you will find that two things are true:
  1. You are not really trying as hard as you think you are. You have not resisted to the point of shedding blood, you have not quit your job, moved towns, smashed your computer, engaged an accountability partner, changed your route to and from work, sold your car, cut off your hand or gouged out your eye. Until you have done those things, you aren’t really trying.
  2. Even when you do really try with every fiber of your being (that in itself is a gift) you will find it is impossible. Sure, you may rope yourself off from the sinful act itself but the desire is still there. Part of you still wants it. It is not a sin in itself, but it is not perfect continence either.
We must strive for perfection, not in the hopes that our striving will accomplish it, but so that our striving and failing may reveal our weakness and frailty to ourselves. Then we will pray as we ought, “Lord, I can do nothing on my own. Have Mercy on me, a Sinner, and save me by your power.”
 
When the humility, weakness and vulnerability of the Infant Jesus enters our souls and shapes them into His helpless image, (swaddled in a feeding trough, or nailed spread-eagled to a wooden beam, both show the same vulnerability) then His power will be made perfect in our weakness.
Merry Christmas! God Bless us All!

Hundreds form a Human Prayer Chain against Café Plans for Villa Maria Chapel

By guest writer Catherine Toomey.

Circa 200 people of all ages and races formed a human chain down the wall of Brisbane’s Villa Maria heritage property on Wednesday evening.

“We are here to prayerfully rally against plans to put a café in one part of our Villa Maria chapel,” said event spokesperson, Peter Bond.

In addressing the large gathering, Bond said he “felt very blessed to see so many our Lord has called to protect His holy church.”

Along with their rosary beads and lanterns, the gathering held corflutes with the hashtag the campaign has managed to have trending over the last day – #NoChurchCafe.

Bond said that this measure was being taken at the eleventh hour, although ‘Construction’ signs are already in place at the site, because the community had not yet been heard.

“We have signed petitions, written to the authorities and tonight we are here in prayer and reparation for what is going on,” he clarified.  “It is outrageous to imagine this sacred space being desecrated in such a way as is being proposed.”

A handwritten petition has already attracted almost 1000 signatures in a matter of days.

The land is owned by the Archdiocese of Brisbane but leased by Catholic Healthcare Australia (CHC.)

Both parties have experienced significant social media outcry in the last 24 hours as people across the Brisbane community have become aware of the situation.

“Although CHC are claiming to have had communication with all ‘relevant parties,’ we are frankly disappointed with the lack of dialogue and have not been listened to,” said Bond after CHC released statements to The Catholic Leader and on their Facebook and Twitter pages Wednesday.

“That changes tonight,” he added.  “For wherever two or three are gathered in my name, say the Lord, I am in the midst. May hearts be moved tonight as we pray together (Matt 18:20.)”

_____

Photos by Liam Nally.

Sign the online petition here.

Community Rallies against Café Plans for Heritage Catholic Church

By guest writer Catherine Toomey.

An organic uprising is occurring across Brisbane upon the discovery of otherwise clandestine plans to repurpose part of Brisbane’s heritage Villa Maria Chapel into a café.

Villa Maria
photo by Liam Nally

A prayer vigil has been organized for this Wednesday evening (6th December at 6:15pm) in protest and reparation outside the venue. Additionally, a handwritten petition has already attracted almost 1000 signatures in a matter of days.

Event spokesperson, Mr. Peter Bond, stipulated that the event is non-political and will be attended by not only concerned Catholics but many in the broader community who have concerns with the heritage impact of the proposal to put a café inside.

“It’s outrageous to imagine this sacred space being desecrated in such a way,” he said.

“Can you imagine one side of the chapel watching a Mass being presided over while on the other side of the glass divider, others are nonchalantly sipping on their lattes?”

photo by Catherine Toomey

The stately Spring Hill building is owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane but leased by Catholic Healthcare Australia and is attached to an aged care facility they manage. It operates alongside the original convent for the still-active Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, founded there in 1874 by Fr. Julian Tenison Woods of Mary Mackillop fame.

Bond said that the lack of dialogue with the community is highly disappointing and that he couldn’t understand why a good, alternative proposal for the site had been knocked back.

“This is one of THE most utilised heritage sites for Catholics in Brisbane,” he said. “Imagine if big business made such a decision to desecrate indigenous land or a Muslim mosque at this juncture?”

The decision to desecrate this sacred space comes after a similar scenario at St. Patrick’s Church in Fortitude Valley which has now been bravely reconsecrated by Fr. Peter Brannelly.

“We simply cannot be silent anymore and we hope our stand encourages our bishops, whom we dearly love, to gain the fortitude to stand alongside us in defense of our key sacred spaces,” said Peter. “There have been enough attacks on the Church and religious liberty of late.”

Sign the online petition here.

Confession: Growing in Relationship with God

"The confession" by Pietro Longhi, ca. 1750
The confession by Pietro Longhi, ca. 1750

As we sat in the confession queue one Saturday afternoon at the Cathedral, my (newly-minted Catholic) boyfriend remarked to a friend: “I’ve never seen a church with a section where everyone’s sitting together and we all know we’ve screwed up in one way or another.”

Indeed, the sacrament of Confession is an incredible gift. As Catholics, we understand conversion to be the work of a lifetime, not just a one-off event. We are not in Heaven yet, and we are not perfect. Just as we make mistakes and hurt one another in our human relationships, so do we make mistakes and wound the Body of Christ when we sin. Baptism brings us into communion with God, but we still have to grapple with the consequences of the Fall: “a darkened intellect, a weakened will, and an inclination towards evil” (concupiscence). The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak. (Matthew 26:41)

As a human body requires medicine to facilitate its recovery from disease, so does the Body of Christ require reparation to cleanse and reunite its sinful earthly members. Confession is an injection of sacramental grace, a booster shot to strengthen us and repair the bonds we break when we act selfishly, sinning against Love.

If you stand in need of the Divine Physician, do not delay – He is waiting to revive your soul today!

Jesus hearing this, saith to them: They that are well have no need of a physician, but they that are sick. For I came not to call the just, but sinners.
Mark 2:17

We are all earthen vessels – imperfect, shaped too much by the world around us, easily cracked, not very beautiful – but nonetheless holding a heavenly treasure. That treasure is God’s love.

As earthen vessels tended by God’s loving hands, our cracks are healed through the Sacraments of Confession, Eucharist, and the Anointing of the Sick. Eventually, we will become golden chalices, perfected by the refining fires of Purgatory where demons and temptations can no longer interfere with our purification.
Good News Reflections