When I saw the commercial below, I was somehow struck by a twinge of guilt. And the words of a poem by William Butler Yeats came to mind:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yes, something struck me. In the commercial, anarchy, destruction, injustice, violence, and pure chaos are shown. And yet, all the while our super hero, with the “Bat Phone” screeching in the background calling for help, is wholly distracted, flipping through the channels, unaware that the world around him is descending right into hell. He is turned inward, wholly focused on his own little world.

Is this us? Are we the super hero slouching on the couch as the world and western culture descended into a maelstrom: innocence lost, the blood-dimmed tide of the 20th Century, perhaps more 100 million put to death in war and for ideological purposes, moral anarchy swept in on the four horsemen of the apocalypse: relativism, secularism, individualism and the sexual revolution.

And all the while, with the wicked, marching with passionate intensity, the good were largely asleep, and lacking any intensity for the battle. All around us, divorce, abortion, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases skyrocketing, broken families, increasing lack of self control and discipline, school testing scores and graduation rates declining, the inability to live within our means, poverty rates for children climbing, drug and alcohol addiction rates on the rise, Church attendance plummeting, and the list could go on.

And where have we been as a Church, as Christians in a world gone mad? Where, for example was the Church in 1969, when the “no-fault divorce” laws began to be passed? It would seem we were inwardly focused, moving furniture in our sanctuaries, tuning up guitars, and having endless debates about liturgy, Church authority, why women can’t be ordained, etc. Not unimportant issues, but, being rather wholly focused on them and obsessed by them, we lost the culture.

Yes, it happened on our watch. I am now 50 and I cannot say it is all the fault of the previous generation. In my short span of a mere 50 years, the world as I knew it, has largely been swept away, especially in terms of family life. And now it is up to me to try and make a difference.

How about you? It will take courage, and an increasing conviction to live the Catholic faith, openly. No more of this undercover Catholic stuff, no more of the desire to fit in and be liked. It is long past midnight for our culture, for our families, for our children.

In the commercial, there is something very wrong with the picture, a superhero, ignoring the cries for help as the phone screeches.Time for our superhero to get off the couch, pick up the phone, re-engage, and get to work. It is interesting in that the movie he watches shows a wolf being set loose. Jesus says, Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves (Matt 7:15). Indeed many wolves talking (false) tolerance and other pleasantries have badly misled and spread error, calling sin good and misrepresenting the Biblical tradition.

Well, fellow superheroes, the last time I checked, we are supposed to be salt and light for this world. It’s time, long past time, to bring Christ’s power back to this world. Time to get off the couch, pick up the phone, re-engage and get to work.

Don’t just watch culture, direct culture.

noiseyI suppose it goes without saying that we live in a very fast-paced, hectic, and noisy world.  We’re often in a big hurry to get somewhere. Stress is the norm and noise is all around us in the form of radios, televisions, iPods, etc. We’re plugged in but often tuned out. Very few of us live at the pace or volume of normal life.

So overstimulated are we that many literally cannot relax when it is quiet; silence unnerves them. I recently took an informal poll in a class I was teaching and  found that 40% of the students said they cannot fall asleep without a television or radio playing in the background. Many phones and clock-radios have a “sleep” function to allow them to play for a certain amount of time and then turn off (presumably after we have fallen asleep). We used to set our clock-radios to wake us up; now we use them to “soothe” us to sleep with their background noise.

Wow, that’s really overstimulated.

Silence is precious and is a necessary ingredient for the spiritual life. We do well to build as much of it as possible into our lives. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, in his tome The Three Ages of the Interior Life, writes of the need to minimize distractions and noise:

We must create silence in our soul; we must quiet our more or less inordinate passions in order to hear the interior Master, who speaks in a low voice as a friend to his friend. If we are habitually preoccupied with ourselves, seek ourselves in our work, in our study and exterior activity, how shall we delight in the sublime harmonies of the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity present in us? … The disorder and clamor of our senses must truly cease for a life of prayer. … they [must]  eventually become silent and submit with docility to the mind or the superior part of the soul (Vol 1, p. 455, Tan Publications).

Ask yourself if silence is a significant part of your day. Do you cultivate it? Many today struggle with prayer and other quieter activities like spiritual reading because they are overstimulated. Overstimulation leads to being easily bored, having a short attention span, and becoming anxious about silence or inactivity. This is a poisonous brew when it comes to prayer, which requires a certain love for silence, listening, patience, stillness, and restful attentiveness. Having the radio, television, or iPod going all day does not help our soul to hear the still, quiet voice of God.

Some of my quietest moments are my daily holy hour and then later in the day when I write these articles. I have come to cherish these quiet times when I listen to God and ponder His teachings. And then, having listened, I sit quietly again and compose these posts. I really could not write without silence; noise distracts my thoughts too much.

One year during Lent I realized that I had the radio on almost all day long in the background. I decided to turn it off and since then I’ve never gone back. I listen only briefly now, to hear the headlines, and then return to the quiet. I do not own a television. I do make use of Netflix, YouTube, and podcasts for selective viewing/listening of necessary and helpful material. Music, too, remains a joy for me, but not all day long, just on walks or when cleaning.

I only offer this personal testimony to suggest that if I, a former news junkie, could wean myself away, maybe others can too.

Our lives are hurried and noisy. Consider well Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s exhortation and build in silence through a growing mortification of the senses. Be very selective as to what you view/listen to, and how often you do so. Find time for silence; it is golden and necessary. I have that God is waiting there for us.

Here’s a beautiful hymn. I put the words in the first comment below:



And here is a noisy and truthful description of the problem:

Last week, as we wrapped up the Easter season, we read the beautiful dialogue between Jesus and Peter: “Peter, do you love me?” Analyzing this beautiful text is one of the great indoor sports of New Testament Biblical Scholarship: how to interpret the subtleties in that dialogue between Jesus and Peter.

And thus Jesus asks, “Peter do you love me?” And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” This exchange occurs three times. But to us who read the passage in English, some of the subtle distinctions in vocabulary are lost. There is an interplay between two Greek words for love, agapas and philo. Jesus asks of Peter’s love using one word, but Peter responds with a different one. There is also a subtle shift in the Greek word used for the verb “know.” Peter moves using the word odias to ginoskeis. Both can be translated “you know,” but the question is, why the change of words and how should that shift be interpreted?

No one disputes the following facts about the Greek text. Allow me to reproduce the well-known dialogue with the distinctions noted parenthetically:

Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?
Peter: Yes, Lord, You know (oidas) that I love (philo) You.
Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?
Peter: Yes, Lord, You know (oidas) that I love (philo) You.
Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love (phileis) me?
Peter: Lord, You know (oidas) everything; You know (ginoskeis) that I love (philo) You.

So those are the facts. But here is where the debate begins. The central questions are these:

  1. Is there any real distinction to be made between agapas and philo, or is it a distinction without a difference?
  2. Although modern Christians make a sharp distinction between agape love and filial (philo) love, was such a distinction operative in ancient Greek, or were these words interchangeable synonyms?
  3. If so, why does John (with the Holy Spirit) use different words for love in this passage? Is there really no purpose at all?
  4. And why does John shift from using the word odias to the word ginoskeis in order to say “you know”? The same questions arise.

There are many possible answers to these questions. If you put three Greek scholars (or three Scripture scholars) in a room together you’re going to get three different opinions. But for the sake of brevity let me set forth two basic opinions or interpretations:

1. The use of different Greek words for “love” and “know” is highly significant. Jesus is asking Peter for agape love. Agape love is the highest and most spiritual love; Peter is called to love Jesus above all things and all people, including himself. But Peter, being honest, replies to Jesus, in effect, “Lord you know that I love you (only) with brotherly love (philo se).” Apparently, Jesus is not disappointed, because He entrusts the role of chief shepherd to Peter anyway. Again, Jesus asks for agape love and Peter responds in the same way. A third time Jesus asks, but this time He comes down to Peter’s level and says, in effect, “OK, Peter, then do you love me with brotherly love (phileis me)?”

All this all makes Peter sad. He now becomes more emphatic and says to the Lord, “You know (oidas) everything; You know (ginoskeis) that I (only) love with brotherly love (philo).” Note here that Peter’s exasperation includes a shift in the verb used for “know.” He shifts from the oidas (meaning more literally “you have seen”) to ginoskeis (meaning a deeper sort of perception that includes understanding).

So perhaps the final sentence, translated with these distinctions in mind, would read, “Lord! You have seen everything; and you understand that I (only) love you with brotherly love.”

The Lord then goes on to tell Peter that one day he will die a martyr’s death. It’s almost as if He is saying, “Peter, I do understand that you only love me now with brotherly love. But there will come a day when you will finally be willing to die for me and you will give over your life. Then you will truly be able to say that you love me with agape love.”

This first opinion obviously takes the distinctions in the Greek text as very significant. It results in a beautifully pastoral scene in which Jesus and Peter have a very poignant and honest conversation.

2. There is no significance in the use of different Greek words for love. This opinion is rooted in the view that there is no evidence that Greek speakers of the first century used these words to mean significantly different things. It is claimed that agape was not understood in the early centuries of the Church as God-like, unconditional love. That meaning came only later on and even then only among Christians, not among pagans.

There does seem to be a scriptural basis for the view that the early Christians had not reserved apape and philo for the exclusive meanings they had later. For example, “agapao” is sometimes used in the New Testament for less God-like loves. Two examples of the use of “agapao” in this sense are the Pharisees “loving” the front seats in the synagogues (Luke 11:43) and Paul’s indication that Demas had deserted him because he “loved” this world (2 Tim 4:10). Further, God’s love is sometimes described using “phileo,” as when He is said to “love” humanity (John 16:27) or when the Father is said to “love” Jesus (John 5:20).

More evidence is also provided by the silence of the Greek-speaking Fathers of the Church, who make no mention of this distinction between the different words for love when commenting on this passage. One would think that had the subtle distinctions been significant they would surely have remarked upon it.

Hence, rooting itself in historical data, this second interpretation sees little if any significance in the fact that Jesus and Peter use different words for love.

So there it is, the great indoor sport of Scripture scholarship: understanding and interpreting the subtleties of John 21:15ff. I will admit that while the second interpretation seems a strong argument against the first, I cannot wholly reject the first view. I will boldly say that if the first interpretation isn’t correct, it ought to be. I find it untenable that, although different words are being used,  we are to conclude absolutely nothing from it.

The subtle details of John’s Gospel are almost never without purpose. Something is going on here that we ought not ignore. Peter and Jesus are subtly interacting here. There is a movement in their conversation that involves a give and take that is instructive for us.

It should be noted that not all Greek Scholars accept that agape and philo were synonymous in the first century.

However, the silence of the Greek-speaking Fathers is surely significant. But it also remains true that scriptural interpretation did not end with the death of the last Father. Further, I have found that I, who speak a little German, am sometimes better able to appreciate the clever subtleties of German vocabulary than those for whom it is their mother tongue. Sometimes we can become rather unreflective about the subtle distinctions of the words we use and it takes an outsider to call them to our attention. I never really appreciated the more subtle meanings of English words until I studied Latin.

For me it is still helpful to see the distinctions in this text even if some historical purists find no room for them. I simply cannot believe that there is not a key message in the subtle shifts in vocabulary here. As always, I value your comments and additions to this post. Do we have here a distinction without a difference, a distinction to die for, or something in between? Let me know what you think!

types-of-vocationThere are some today who think that the Church should give greater recognition to the “call” to the single life. And therefore when we pray for  vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and marriage in the Prayer of the Faithful (or at other times) some will say, “Why don’t you ever pray for those called to the single life or mention the vocation to the single life?” Here in the blog, too, when I write about vocations there are usually some who comment and ask why I do not mention the vocation to the single life.

The answer is that I don’t think there is a call (or vocation) to the single life per se. I can see how we might speak of a single person who commits to being a lay missionary as having a call, whether permanent or temporary. Perhaps, too, a person who stays single in order to be wholly dedicated to a work of charity or justice could be said to have a vocation, again either permanent or temporary. However, in these cases the vocation is the work itself, not the single state.

Simply being single does not seem to qualify for what we have traditionally termed vocations. Consider first some basic differences.

1. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood make promises and vows. What promises and vows do those who are single make? To whom? For what purpose? Unless they become consecrated virgins or hermits, do singles make such vows and promises? No.

2. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood commit to live the life they enter stably, i.e., consistently. They do not make their promises only until something better comes along, or until something changes. Can this be said of the single? Are they not single only until something better comes along? Until they meet someone whom they will marry? Are singles really bound to live their current status stably? No.

3. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood are not permitted to date others or enter into romantic and particular relationships with others. Priests and religious are celibate and the married are chaste and faithful to their spouse. Single people can date and enter into and out of romantic (though chaste) relationships at will. Are singles in a permanent and exclusive relationship? No.

4. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood enter into a communal relationship, whether in a religious community, a diocese, or a third order. The single may belong to a parish, live in a certain locale, or even belong to a group like Opus Dei. But they are free to move away or cease membership at a moment’s notice if an attractive job offer comes along or some family commitment or just preference intervenes. Are singles really tied by lasting bonds to a community? No.

5. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood (especially religious) live within a regula (rule), which lays out the required structure of their day, regulates relationships, and clarifies rights, duties, lines of authority, etc. What sort of “rule” do those in the single “vocation” follow? If they follow a structured life at all, is it given to them by others, or do they establish it for themselves? Are they perpetually bound or only for as long as they please? Even married people cannot date or relate to anyone they wish; they cannot simply decide to go on a tour of Europe without consulting their spouse and considering their family duties. Are the single really bound in these ways? No.

6. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood are either under the authority of or answer to others. Spouses must be accountable to each other; priests and religious are answerable to their superiors and cannot simply do as they please or go where they want. Is this the case with those who are single? Do they answer or report to anyone on this earth? No.

So there are a lot of practical differences that rather strongly distinguish being single from being in a promised (or vowed), permanent, regulated state under authority. It is true that some live today as consecrated virgins or hermits. But here, too, they are under the authority of the bishop and make permanent or semi-permanent promises of some sort in a way that single people do not.

Then there is the more theological reason called the nuptial meaning of the body. The nuptial meaning of the body is that within its physical structure is inscribed the truth that we are made for others. Our body says, “I was made for a spouse of the opposite sex to complete me and render me fertile.” Speaking of a human being as single, and certainly speaking of there being a call to be “single,” would tend to violate this understanding of the human person.

And thus, even for celibate priests and religious, we cannot consider ourselves “single.” While we do not express the nuptial meaning of our bodies through sexual intercourse, we do wed and maintain a spousal relationship with the Church. Religious women are Brides of Christ. Religious men and priests see the Church as our Bride. We do not live apart from our spouse, the Church (understood as the Bride of Christ or the Body of Christ). We live for the other (the Church) and are expected to remain faithful and fulfill our commitments and be accountable to her. This would also be true for some in the Church who are consecrated virgins or hermits.

There are some religious communities that do not take perpetual vows, but only yearly ones. However, this is more for canonical reasons; those who take yearly vows understand their vows to be ultimately perpetual and they maintain that notion spiritually if not juridically.

I do not see any of these structures or notions in the “single” life as such. It is true that some never marry, for a variety of reasons including same-sex attraction, not finding the “right person,” physical or mental health issues, etc. Perhaps in such cases single people of this sort who doubt they will ever marry can undertake some work or enter some relationship with the Church that is both regulated, of some extended duration, and involves work for others. But it would be the work or the consecrated virginity that would be honored as a vocation, not the single state itself.

Thus, for these reasons and tradition, I do not think we can or should speak of the single life as a vocation in the sense that we normally use that word with regard to the priesthood and the religious life.

Why is this request to include the single life as a vocation common today? First, there are a lot of people who are single today. While I do not think this bespeaks a healthy culture, it is a fact, and there is some legitimate concern as to how to include such a large group in our prayers and our pastoral concern.

Second, though, I wonder if this isn’t another example of the tendency today toward “identity politics.” Many today in our culture want their lived experience and views to receive recognition and approval from the wider culture. And if such recognition (and at least tacit approval) is found lacking, offense is taken and pressure is exerted for the “granting body” to give this recognition and approval.

This second aspect may explain why some (though not all) I have met get rather angry when I don’t simply agree that there is a call (vocation) to the single life.

Of course I am not the final word on this matter in the Church. But it seems to me that words have meaning and we ought not simply cede to the pressure to use words so widely that they no longer have their stricter—and I would argue proper—meaning.

So have at this topic. I would appreciate comments not being directed to me, but rather to the issue and the reasons I have put forth. Feel free to agree or disagree with the overall point or to particular points I have made. If you disagree, consider saying why and what principles you think should apply.

As these videos show, the single life presents many challenges and often summons many to heroic sacrifice as our culture becomes increasingly hostile. All of us, single, married, priest, or religious are summoned to the call of martyrdom, spiritual or physical.

There is a passage in the gospels that breaks conventions and cuts to the core of what has come to be called the “Social Gospel.”  Before looking at the passage we need to define “Social Gospel.” The phrase “Social Gospel” emerged in the Protestant denominations but has also come to be used in Catholic circles as well. The Social Gospel is an intellectual movement that was most prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement applied Christian ethics to societal problems, especially injustice, inequality, alcoholism, crime, racial tension, poverty, child labor, labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.  Basically stated, if faith was to be real it must address these issues and be relevant to those who suffer these maladies.

So far, all true. But then comes this very troubling gospel passage. It breaks the conventional wisdom that the service of the poor is the first priority of the Church. It obnoxiously states that there is something more important than serving the poor. To be sure, serving the poor is essential, but this gospel says that something else is even more important. How can this be so? Who said such a thing? And that brings us to the text:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”  (Matt 26:6-14)

The other gospels contain this account as well (Mark 1 and John 12). John attributes the objection only to Judas and reckons that it is on account of his greed. Mark and Matthew attribute the objection to all the disciples present. Even more interesting, all three gospels link this to Judas’ decision to hand Jesus over. It obviously shocked the disciples—especially Judas—to hear Jesus speak this way.

There is simply no other way to describe this gospel than “earthshaking.” The reader surely expects Jesus to agree that extravagance toward Him should be jettisoned in favor of serving the poor. Had He not said that judgment would be based on what we did for the “least of my brethren” (cf Matt 25:41ff)? Why does Jesus not rebuke the extravagance and demand the perfume be sold and the money given to the poor? It is a shocking gospel, an earthshaking declaration: “The poor you shall always have.”  But there it is, glaring at us like some sort of unexpected visitor.

What is the Lord saying? Many things to be sure, but let me suggest this essential teaching: Nothing, absolutely nothing, not even the service of the poor, takes precedence over the worship, honor, and obedience due to God. Nothing. If the service of the poor takes precedence over this, then it becomes an idol—an idol in sheep’s clothing—but an idol nonetheless.

A seminary professor of mine, now deceased, told me many years ago, “Beware the poverty of Judas.” What does this mean? Fundamentally it means that the care of the poor can sometimes be used in an attempt to water down Christian doctrine and the priority of worship. The Social Gospel, if we are not careful, can demand that we compromise Christian dogma and the priority of proclaiming the gospel.

Let me be clear, the Social Gospel is not wrong per se. But like anything else, it can be used by the world and the evil one to draw us into compromise and to the suppression of the truth. The reasons for this suppression are always presented as having a good effect, but in the end we are asked to suppress the truth in some way. Thus the Social Gospel is hijacked; it is used to compel us to suppress the truth of the gospel and to not mention Jesus.

Perhaps some examples will help. Let me state at the outset that I am supplying generic examples here. Although they are based on real-world examples, I am not mentioning names and places because it is not the purpose of this blog to engage in personal attacks of other people’s struggles to uphold the gospel. I cannot and will not supply specifics. This is about you and me, not merely other people. It is easy for us to condemn others for their faults and fail to look at ourselves. Hence I offer these examples in humility, realizing that I also struggle.

  1. A large diocese in the United States is offered the opportunity to serve drug addicts. The price of admission is that the diocese coordinate a “needle exchange program,” which helps addicts shoot up without contracting AIDS. The government funding is substantial and may enable treatment programs for poor addicts, which may lead to their sobriety. The only downside to such a program is that some other addicts may be enabled in their self-destructive behavior and encouraged by the clean needles to shoot up. Church teaching does not permit us to do wrong even if good may possibly come from it. Nevertheless, the diocese accepts the money, handing out clean needles to addicts, but using the money to serve others. The poor are being served! Shouldn’t we look the other way? Is serving the poor an absolute good or do we owe God obedience first? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even poor drug addicts? Or is He less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?
  2. A bishop from a moderately large diocese is confronted with the fact that he has not rebuked the local senator for his votes to fund abortion for the poor using federal money. The bishop responds, “But he is with us on important social legislation and we cannot afford to alienate him.” The senator in  question does surely support substantial funding of programs that the Church supports, programs such as housing for the poor, aid to families with dependent children, drug treatment programs, affordable housing initiatives, etc. The senator is a great advocate for these issues that the Church supports. The only problem is that he thinks it’s OK to fund the killing of babies in their mother’s womb. The bishop reasons that it is not good to alienate this senator, who “is with us on so many issues.” He fails to rebuke the Catholic senator and urge him to repent. “The Church would lose too much; the price is too high. We would not be able to serve the poor as well without his support. The senator might not vote for the bills that fund programs we support. We need to compromise here; the poor are depending on us. Surely Jesus will understand.” And thus Church teaching yields to the need to serve the poor. Surely it is good to serve the poor. But at what price? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the poor?  Or is He less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?
  3. In several large cities, Catholic Charities runs adoption programs. Lately, city and state governments have begun to demand that Catholic Charities treat “gay” couples on the same basis as heterosexual couples. In order to receive government funds that help Catholic Charities carry on its work of service to poor children looking for a stable family, Catholic Charities will have to agree to set aside Church and Scriptural doctrine that homosexual unions are not only less-than-ideal for children, but sinful as well. If Catholic Charities wants to continue to serve these poor children at all, it must deny the teachings of Christ and His Church. Is this too high a price to pay in order to be able to serve the poor? What do you think? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?
  4. Many Catholic hospitals receive government funds to treat the poor. But lately the government is demanding, in certain jurisdictions, that Catholic hospitals dispense contraceptives, provide abortion referrals, and cooperate in euthanasia. Remember now, the poor are served with these monies. Should the hospital compromise and take the money? Should it say that these are OK, thus enabling it to continue serving the poor? What is more important, the poor or Jesus and what He teaches? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the poor who come to hospitals for service? Or is He less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?
  5. Catholic Charities is offered the possibility of getting a large amount of money to serve the homeless. But there is a requirement that Jesus never be mentioned. Catholic Charities must remove all crucifixes, Bibles, and any references to Catholic teaching. Now remember, the poor will be served with this money! It’s a lot of  money to walk away from! What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the homeless? Or is He less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?

In the end, we are left with these questions:

  1. How far do we go in serving the poor?
  2. The service of the poor and addressing the issues they face are essential works of the Church, but do they trump worship and doctrine?
  3. Should Church teaching bend to the demands of the government in order to serve the poor?
  4. What does Jesus mean in the gospel above when He teaches that anointing Him is more important than serving the poor?
  5. What is the Church’s truest priority? Is it the truth of the gospel or is it serving the poor?
  6. What if these two things are in conflict? Which is chosen over the other?
  7. Given the gospel above, what would Jesus have us choose as our first priority?
  8. When large amounts of money are made available to the Church to serve the poor, but at the price of compromising or hiding the truth of gospel, what should the Church should do?
  9. Why?

The Social Gospel is essential. It cannot merely be set aside. But the Social Gospel cannot eclipse the Full Gospel. A part, even if essential, cannot demand full resources and full obedience—not at the expense of the whole or the more important!

Money and resources to serve the poor are essential, but they are still money and it remains stunningly true that we cannot serve both God and money. In the end, even serving the poor can become a kind of idol to which God has to yield. It is the strangest idol of all, for it comes in very soft sheep’s clothing, the finest wool!  But if God and His Revealed truth must yield to it, it is an idol—the strangest idol of all.

 While I do not agree with everything in this video from a few years back, it presents well the temptations that Catholic Charities faces:

DSC02143For many, Memorial Day means the beginning of summer. To others, it is a day off to go shopping. But as I am sure you know, Memorial Day is really a day to honor those who have died in the service of this country.  

The word “memorial” comes from the Latin “memorare,” which an  imperative meaning “Remember!” So Memorial Day is “Remember!” Day. To remember something is to allow it to be present in our minds and hearts such that we are grateful, sober, aware, and different.

This is a day to remember that there are men and women who have died so that you and I are able to live with greater security, justice, and peace. May these fallen soldiers rest in peace. We owe them both a debt of gratitude and our prayers.

As a focal instance of this day I recall that this past year, I celebrated one of the most remarkable funerals of my 25 years as a priest. With the body present, I sang a Requiem Mass for a man who died ten years before I was born.

On January 1, 1951, Private First Class Arthur Richardson of A Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division went north with his platoon into what is now North Korea. The platoon was overtaken by a much larger group of North Korean soldiers and he was taken prisoner. This was the last that was heard of Pfc. Arthur Richardson. It was reported to his wife later that month that he was missing in action. In 1954, he was declared Killed in Action, though his body was not recovered and no definitive word had been received about him. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

It now seems certain that he died in or near a prisoner-of-war camp in Suan, since his remains were returned by North Korea in 1994 along with those of as many as 800 other soldiers from that region. After years of painstaking work, the U.S. Army was recently able to definitively identify his remains using DNA evidence, and informed his family.

Last September his family asked me if I would offer the old Latin Requiem Mass for him, since that was the only form of the Mass he had ever known. And so I had the great privilege of celebrating a Missa Cantata Requiem Mass. (Pictures are online here: Requiem.)

CaissonsThe burial that followed at Arlington National Cemetery was with full military honors.

What is honor? The full etymology of the word is debated. But what seems most likely is that it comes from the Latin word honos, which, though translated as “honor,” also points to the word “onus,” which means “weight” or refers to something that is heavy. Hence, to “honor” someone is to appreciate the weight, significance, or burden of something he has done. It is to acknowledge that he carried a great burden well, that he withstood a heavy load, that what he did was weighty, significant.

Our soldiers, police officers, and first responders are deserving of our honor, for they put their lives on the line so that others can live, be more free, and experience abundance. None of us can fail to appreciate the burdensome weight that some carry so that we can live well, freely, and comfortably. Freedom is not free; it is costly.

War remains controversial (as it should). But soldiers do not create the politics they are sent to address. They are simply told that there is a danger to be addressed, an injustice to be ended, and so they go. Private First Class Arthur Richardson went north during the Korean War; he did not return to us. But he carried well the great weight of being a solider. He also carried the weight of collective human sinfulness (which is what brings war) and felt its burden keenly; he gave his life.

Honorable Private First Class Arthur Richardson (Bronze Star and Purple Heart awardee), and all who so died, rest in peace.

The Love of one’s country (patriotism) is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism teaches,

It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC # 2239).

The Lord Himself makes it plain: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

To fallen soldiers let us sing,
Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing,
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord

No more weeping,
No more fight,
No prayers pleading through the night,
Just Divine embrace,
Eternal light,
In the Mansions of the Lord

Where no mothers cry
And no children weep,
We shall stand and guard
Though the angels sleep,
Oh, through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord

DSC01138What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost! A feast like this challenges us because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus said to the Apostles and still says to us, “I have come to cast a fire on the earth!” (Luke 12:49) This is a feast about fire—about a transformative, refining, and purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us and in this world. It is about a necessary fire, for as the Lord first judged the world by fire, the present heavens and the earth are reserved for the fire. Since it is going to be the fire next time, we need the tongues of Pentecost fire to fall on us to set us on fire and bring us up to the temperature of glory.

The readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: the portraits of the Spirit, the proclamation of the Spirit, and the propagation by the Spirit. Let’s look at all three.

I. The Portraits of the Spirit – The First Reading today (Acts 2:1-11) speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50, which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest (Psalm 50:3).

Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.

This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” For “spirit” refers to “breath,” and we have preserved this meaning in our word “respiration,” which means breathing. So the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).

Genesis 1:2 speaks of this, saying, the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man, not for the animals: then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

So the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam! But as we know, Adam lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.

Thus we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person, as these first Christians (120 in all) experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does CPR and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the Feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.

Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.

The Bible often speaks of God as fire, or in fiery terms. Moses saw God as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says, The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Ps 97:1-6). Scriptures call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29), and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10, Jer 9:7, Zec 13:9, Mal 3:3).

And so it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. And as a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).

And He is also preparing us for judgment, for if God is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of our going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus we must be set afire by God’s love.

So in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him, who is a Holy Fire.

II. The Proclamation of the Spirit – You will notice that the Spirit came upon them like “tongues” of fire. The reference to tongues is no mere accident. For notice how the Holy Spirit moves them to speak and ultimately to witness. The text says, And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

So behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just within the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds who have gathered.

Notice the transformation! Moments ago these were frightened men who gathered only in secrecy, behind locked doors. They were huddled together in fear. But now they go forth to the crowds and proclaim Christ boldly. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!

And how about us? Too many Christians are silent, dominated by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names or not being popular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at, or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians are able to gather in the “upper room” of the parish and be active, even be leaders. But once outside the “upper room” they slip into “undercover mode.” They become “secret agent” Christians.

Well the Holy Spirit wants to change that, and to the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced His Holy Spirit, we are less “able” to keep silent. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me.” The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, and burn away our fear so that testifying and witnessing are natural to us.

Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the Apostles, for the crowd before them spoke different languages yet each heard Peter and the others in his own language. The Spirit, therefore, assists not only us but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent only on my own eloquence but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit, who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubtful encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit, who “translates” for us and overcomes many obstacles that we might think insurmountable.

III. The Propagation by the Spirit – In the Great Commission, the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).

But how is the Lord going to do this?

Perhaps a picture will help. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title Holy Comforter. Above the high altar is the Latin inscription Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See photo, above right, of our high altar.)

The walls of my parish Church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish Red and upon this great canvas are also painted depictions of the lives of 20 saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also the video below.) And above the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.

THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not “magic fairy dust”; it is in the fiery transformation of every Christian, going forth into the world to bring light and warmth to a dark and cold world. THIS is how the Lord casts fire on earth; THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth: in the lives of saints, and, if you are prepared to accept it, in YOU.

In the end, the Great Commission (Matt 28) is “standing order number one.” No matter what else we do, we are supposed to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. We as individual Christians are a disgrace, and not worthy of the name, if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth, but only through us. The spread of the Gospel has been placed in your hands—scary, isn’t it?

Beginning two years ago, my own parish, after a year of training, stepped out into our neighborhood and went from door to door as well as into the local park. We announced Jesus Christ and invited people to discover Him in our parish and in the Sacraments. We were in the local park and the market just last week doing “sidewalk evangelization.”

Before we count even a single convert, this is already a success, because we are obeying Jesus Christ, who said, simply, “Go! Go make disciples.” And, truth be told, we ARE seeing the results in my parish. Our Sunday attendance has grown from about 450 to 520, roughly a 15% increase. We are growing, and our attendance—while average for a downtown city parish—is going in the right direction. God never fails. God is faithful.

Spread the news: it works if you work it, so work it because God is worth it. Go make disciples. Ignore what the pollsters tell you about a declining Church and let the Lord cast a fire on the earth through you! Fires have a way of spreading! Why not start one today? The Spirit of God will not disappoint.

I know this: my parish has a future because we are obeying Jesus Christ; we are making disciples. How about you and yours? If parishes do not obey they do not deserve to exist, and they can expect to close one day no matter how big they may be today. I, in my short 50+ years on this planet, have seen it: parishes once big, booming, and (frankly) arrogant are now declining and some are even near closure. It happens to the best if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “job one.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become totally fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you. (I am not talking to the person next to you; I am talking to you.)

Happy Feast of Pentecost! But don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you and then you can’t help but spread light and heat to a cold and dark world.

Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.

This video features details from the clerestory (upper window level) of my parish of Holy Comforter here in D.C. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth (see photo above) through the lives of the saints (this means you, too). It is not magic; it is by grace working in your life, through your gifts and your relationships, that the Lord will reach each soul. The witnesses on the walls of my Church say, “You are the way He will fill the earth and set it on fire.” Let the blaze be ignited in you!

The song says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy, and be faithful to God’s call … We must not grow weary!”

Here is another video I put together that has scenes from the Pentecost Mass in the Extraordinary Form celebrated here last year. This year we will celebrate a Mass of the Octave Mass next  Saturday at 10:00 am. The video is set to the music of Palestrina’s Dum Complerentur which was sung at the Mass. I like this musical version since it is sung in dance time. The Latin text to the motet is below the video along with its English Translation.


Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes,
erant omnes pariter dicentes, alleluia,
et subito factus est sonus de coelo, alleluia,
tamquam spiritus vehementis,
et replevit totam domum, alleluia.

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come,
they were all with one accord in one place, saying, alleluia.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, alleluia,
as of a rushing mighty wind,
and it filled the whole house
where they were sitting, alleluia.

ouchSometimes when you’re having a bad day, troubles multiply. I’m not sure why. Perhaps one distraction leads to another, one trip leads to successive stumbles until we fall headlong. Trouble sometimes comes in threes or in longer sequences. The poor soul in the video below is having such a day. Some of the following psalms came to mind as I watched this painfully humorous video:

The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
bring me out of my distresses O Lord.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins.
Consider how many are my foes,
and with what violent hatred they hate me.
Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!
Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
for I wait for you.
Redeem Israel, O God,
out of all his troubles.
Psalm 25:17-22

Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
For troubles without number surround me;
my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails within me.
Be pleased to save me, Lord;
come quickly, Lord, to help me.
Psalm 40:11-13

Though you have made me see troubles,
many and bitter,
you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth
you will again bring me up.
You will increase my honor
and comfort me once more.
Psalm 71:20-21

On the other hand, I wonder if he could have avoided all of these troubles if he had been in Church on this Sunday morning instead of at home cooking breakfast?  😉

CHarles Pope with Mary Anne Pope ca 1965_editedAs a follow-up to the recent post on comforting the sorrowful, I was led to consider the grief of my parents and the difficulties they faced in raising a daughter with serious mental illness.

My father died eight years ago, and except for essential papers related to his estate, I simply boxed up most of his papers and stored them in the attic of my rectory for future attention. At long last I am sorting through those boxes. Among his effects were also many papers of my mother’s, who died about two years before he passed away.

I discovered many things that moved me. As I read through the various papers, I was reminded that many of us never really know the pain and grief that others bear. In particular, I was struck by the poignant file that was simply labeled, “Mary Anne.” (A photo of my father and sister is at right.)

My sister Mary Anne was tragically afflicted with mental illness from her earliest days. My parents knew there was trouble early on when she did not speak a word until she was well past two, and even then only at home. She had a pathological shyness that led her to shut down in the presence of others outside the home. The counselor at her elementary school spoke of Mary Anne as “disturbed” and insisted on psychiatric care for her by the time she was six.

Discretion and brevity limit what I intend to share here, but Mary Anne was deeply troubled. By age 13, she had to be hospitalized and spent the remainder of her life in 15 different mental hospitals and 6 different group homes. She was often able to visit with us and even stay over on weekend passes. She had stretches during which she was stable, but soon “the voices” would return, as would the dreams that afflicted her. Her psychotic episodes often led to running away, outbursts of violence, and attempts at suicide.

Through all of this, my parents fought very hard for her, and to be sure she got the care she needed. This often led them to various courts and generated much correspondence with insurance companies, state mental health officials, and private hospitals where she was confined. Indeed, during her lifetime my parents made many sacrifices for Mary Anne, both financial and personal, to ensure her care. At one point in the early 1970s, aware that Mary Anne felt isolated in the house with three brothers and desperately wanted a sister, my parents even went so far as to seek to adopt a baby girl.  They filed paperwork and came very close, but the plan ultimately fell through. The baby sister we never had …

Maryanne died in a fire in the winter of 1991 at the age of 30. She likely had a hand in that fire; she had set fires before when the “voices” told her to. I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket and I wept when I saw her. The funeral director explained that there was little he could do since her skin had been singed in the fire. She had clearly been crying when she died—a grief observed.

My father wrote this on the frontispiece of her file:

Mary Anne Pope was our first child.
She led a tortured existence during a short life
and fought hard against great odds.
We remember her for her courage
.

And as I read my own parents’ touching recollections of Mary Anne, I could not help but moved, too, by their own pain. Such a heavy grief punctuates each page. I give them great credit for the fact that they insulated the rest of us, their three sons, from the most of the dreadful details of poor Mary Anne’s struggle. They kept their pain largely to themselves and stayed available to us. It is true that there were episodes we had to know about, but as a young boy and teenager I saw in my parents only strength and stability when it came to this matter. I saw my father’s grief and pain for the first time as he wept, standing there at the funeral home looking at my sister—a grief observed.

After my sister’s death, my mother’s grief grew steadily worse, causing her struggle with alcohol to worsen as well; she became increasingly incapacitated. Her life ended tragically and suddenly on a cold February day. My father had looked away for only a brief moment, going into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and mom wandered out into a snowstorm. Incapacitated by alcohol and disoriented, she died of hypothermia. We found her body only after three days of searching, when the snow melted a bit. She had died almost a mile away, near the edge of the woods—a grief observed.

My father never quite forgave himself for letting her slip away. The open front door, a first sign of trouble; the searching on a dark, frigid, and stormy night; the steady awareness, “She’s gone.” Those memories haunted him. In the months that followed, he often wondered how he could go on when half of him was gone. He, too, was gone within two years. His congestive heart failure worsened and he died in 2007, literally and figuratively of a broken heart—a grief observed.

All these thoughts sweep over me as I look through this file labeled simply, “Mary Anne.” I pray, dear reader, that I have not lingered too long for you on these personal matters. But the truth is, all of us carry grief, and perhaps this story will help you with your own, which I pray is not too heavy.

There is an old spiritual that says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” And it is a mighty good thing that he does know. Sometimes the grief is too heavy even to share, even to put into words. But Jesus knows all about our troubles. There is a beautiful line in the Book of Revelation that refers to those who have died in the Lord: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21:4-5)

For my brave parents and courageous sister, who all died in the Lord but who died with grief, I pray that this text has already been fulfilled, and that they now enjoy that everything is new—a grief observed no longer.

Requiescant in pace


This second video I made on what would have been my parents 50th anniversary. I picked the song “Cold enough to snow,” since it spoke to my Father’s grief in losing mom on that snowy night.

mirror of prideIn polling friends as to what they think is the deepest root of all sin, I got three main answers. One was a shrug indicating no answer at all (i.e., “I dunno”). Another was to refer to Scripture: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils (1 Tim 6:10). I’ll discuss below why this is an inadequate answer. The third main response was that original sin (and the concupiscence that followed) is the source of all of our other sins. The only problem with that answer is that it doesn’t explain Adam and Eve’s (original) sin, nor does it explain the fall of the angels, who seem to have fallen in great numbers without original sin or concupiscence and are now demons. Therefore an even deeper root must be sought.

Referencing St. Thomas Aquinas and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, permit me to answer that the deepest root of all sin is inordinate self-love. From this root springs all sin, including the original sin of Adam and that of the angels. It is true that our fallen condition has intensified the problem of inordinate self-love, but the possible temptation to it was there before.

For to what else did Satan appeal when he said to Eve, and you will be like God (Gen 3:5)? And indeed, by what were Lucifer and all the other fallen angels tempted when they mysteriously rebelled and, in effect, declared their non serviam (I will not serve)? Adam and Eve as well as all the angels (though sinless and not fallen) chose to love themselves more than God. They would not love or trust God more than they loved themselves. For the angels it was a “one and you’re done” decision. For us, the drama continues, but will end with our definitive and lasting decision either to love God or to love our own self more.

The inordinate love of self is the most fundamental root of all sin. We all know its power and its pernicious quality. Even the most wonderful things we do are tainted when we do them more for personal praise and glory than for love of God and neighbor.

Let me summarize a few insights from Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange. He begins from Scripture.

From inordinate self-love, the root of every sin, spring the three concupiscences which St. John speaks of when he says: “For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but of the world” (1 John 2:16).

The concupiscence of the flesh is the inordinate desire of what is, or seems to be, useful to the preservation of the individual and of the species, [Gluttony and Lust] … Voluptuousness can thus become an idol …

The concupiscence of the eyes is the inordinate desire of all that can please the sight: of luxury, wealth, money … From this is born avarice [greed]. The avaricious man ends by making his treasure his god, adoring it and sacrificing everything to it: his time, his strength, his family, and sometimes, his eternity …

The pride of life is the inordinate love of our own excellence … [from this is born pride, anger, envy, and sloth]. [He who has pride of life] ends by becoming his own god, as Lucifer did.

Inordinate self-love leads us to death, according to the Savior’s words: “He that loveth his life (in an egotistical manner) shall lose it; and he that hateth (or sacrifices) his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal” (Jn 12:25). … Only a greater love, the love of God, can conquer self-love. (Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life (Tan Publications) Vol 1: 300-301, 368-370)

St. Thomas says, “All sinful acts spring from inordinate self-love, which hinders us from loving God above all else and tempts us to turn away from him” (Summa Theologica I, IIae, q. 77 a. 4; et 84, a. 4).

[E]very sinful act proceeds from inordinate desire for some temporal good. Now the fact that anyone desires a temporal good inordinately, is due to the fact that he loves himself inordinately; for to wish anyone some good is to love him. Therefore it is evident that inordinate love of self is the cause of every sin (Summa Theologica 77.4 respondeo).

To the objection that Scripture says, “For the love of money [literally covetousness] is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim 6:10),  St. Thomas responds, 

The desire of money is said to be the root of sins, not as though riches were sought for their own sake, as being the last end; but because they are much sought after as useful for any temporal end. And since a universal good is more desirable than a particular good, they move the appetite more than any individual goods, which along with many others can be procured by means of money (Summa Theologica I, IIae, 84, 1 ad 2).

In other words, “money” is desired as a means not an end, not for its own sake but as a means to indulge inordinate self-love. So, inordinate self-love is a deeper root than the love of money. Money is desired to facilitate and actualize the deeper problem.

St. Thomas goes on to show how the Capital Vices (sins) flow from inordinate self-love. What follows are my own reflections, based loosely on his.

  • Pride (sometimes called vainglory) – We love our own apparent excellence more than the certain and greater excellence of God, or the excellence that may exist in others.
  • Greed – We have an excessive and insatiable love of things due to our excessive love of ourselves and the perceived need to have these things for our sake.
  • Lust – Out of excessive love of self and desire to please ourselves, we desire others for the pleasure they can give us, rather than loving them for their own sake.
  • Anger – Our excessive self-love causes us to regard many things and people (including God) fearfully and then angrily, perceiving them as threatening. So we angrily and unrighteously resist them.
  • Gluttony – Our excessive love of self causes us to satisfy our passion for food and drink beyond what is healthy in the long run, what is respectful of God, or what is generous to others.
  • Envy – Our excessive self-love and egotism give us a sadness about the goodness or excellence of others because we perceive it as lessening our own share of praise or glory.
  • Sloth – Our excessive love of self makes God seem to be a usurper of our life, our time, our opinions, or our pleasure. So we are sad about or avoid His plan for our happiness.

This, then, is the deepest root of all of our sin. We cannot simply blame the world or the devil, though they are not to be excluded either. But inordinate self-love is what gives the world and the devil easy access to us. This is the “button” they push for easy results.

This source of sin is a lot closer and far more subtle than we imagine. Only a greater love—the love of God—can conquer self-love. And thus the greatest commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matt 22:37-40).

Indeed, and so does our healing hang on these two commandments. Ask for a greater love of God, a proper love of self, and the gift to love your neighbor with that same proper love.

comfort the sorrowfulThe fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy is to “comfort the sorrowful.” Sometimes it is listed as to “comfort the afflicted.” This description broadens the work just a bit and also fits more with the original notion of the word “comfort,” as we shall consider in a moment.

But of all the spiritual works of mercy, comforting the sorrowful requires the greatest patience, sensitivity, and also silence. This is because sorrow (or grief) often has a life and logic of its own; often it must be allowed to run its course. Sometimes there is not a lot a person can say or do when grief is present. Grief is something we can rarely get around; we must simply go through it. Thus, comforting or consoling the sorrowful and grieving people in our life often involves a kind of silent and understanding accompaniment more so than words or actions. To listen and give understanding attention often provides the greatest value.

St. Augustine once observed that sighs and tears in prayer often accomplish more than words. And so it is that when people are sorrowful, their grief and tears are their prayer and we do well to honor that, rather than to say, “Don’t be sad” or “Cheer up.” A largely silent and respectful silence can be a way of honoring grief and signaling a true camaraderie. St. Paul says, “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Strange though it may seem, a dog often presents a good model, teaching us that when someone is having a bad day, the best thing to do is to just sit close by and nuzzle them gently.

If one notices a person getting “stuck” in his grief, not making the progress of moving through it in stages, more will be needed—but not right away. People need time and room to grieve. Some take longer than others, and there is no single “right” way to grieve. To comfort and console requires a sensitivity on our part that seeks to discover what the person needs, on his terms, not ours.  If there are signs of true depression, or a serious lack of progress, this may be an indication that we should become more active in our comforting and consoling, perhaps getting the person out for activities or even recommending professional help.

In terms of caring for the sorrowful, we rightly think of giving comfort in the modern, English sense of the term. However, the word “comfort” in terms of its older, root meaning, involves something more vigorous than merely giving comfort.  The Latin roots are cum (with) + fortis (strong, or strength). Thus to comfort someone, in its older etymological roots, means to strengthen him.

In this sense, the word comfort is better paired with the other traditional rendering of this spiritual work of mercy: “comfort the afflicted.” Here, too, “afflicted” in its Latin roots means to be struck down, weakened, or injured. And thus the spiritual work, “comfort the afflicted,” becomes more vigorous. Here is a person who has been struck down, weakened, or ridiculed; to comfort him means in the more literal sense to restore him to strength, to enable him to persevere, to summon him to the courage that strongly resists those who would seek to render him weak or ineffective. This, then, is the vigorous understanding of the fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy, “comfort the sorrowful” or “comfort the afflicted.”

But in either sense, the tender comforting of those who are sorrowful and grief-stricken, or the more vigorous sense of strengthening the afflicted, this is a work of mercy that is restorative of a brother or sister to the normal Christian state of being joyful, confident, and strong.

This song says,

Since we are summoned to a silent place;
Struggling to find the words to fill the space.
Christ be beside us as we grieve;
Daring to doubt or to believe.

cremation-urn-2I have written off and on about some of the problems that are setting up around cremation. Of course there has been very little explicit teaching or information available to Catholics to help them to frame their thinking. To assist modestly in that refelction I wrote the following flyer for my own parish. What follows is the text of that flyer. In case you are interested, I provide it in PDF format here: Considering Cremation?

Some years ago, the Church gave wider permission for cremation and also lifted traditional restrictions on having cremated remains present in the church for funeral Masses.

A pastoral provision – Extending this permission is pastorally understandable, though traditional burial (interment) of the body is still preferred. Very few if any people these days choose cremation for the reasons it had traditionally been forbidden, namely as a denial of the resurrection of the body. Generally, the reasons cremation is chosen today are economic ones, due to the increasingly high cost of traditional burial. However, the cost savings are not as significant as they once were.

Certain recent trends that are problematic – Although the Church recognizes cremation as a fitting and understandable option for Christian Burial, certain recent trends related to cremation are inappropriate and should not be considered fitting. Among these trends is the failure to secure proper interment for the cremated remains by placing them on mantles or in closets, scattering them, dividing them among relatives, or even making jewelry and other keepsakes using them.

Therefore, please consider some of the basic norms from the Church regarding cremation:

The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching (Code of Canon Law No. 1176, 3).

Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites (Order of Christian Funerals no. 413).

The cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, and the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium (Ibid).

The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires (cf Order of Christian Funerals # 417).

Perhaps the quickest way to summarize these norms is to say that we should treat the cremated remains of a loved one in the same way we would treat his or her body. For, in fact, this is what remains of the body. And just as we would not think to scatter body parts about, or to have one relative take an arm home and another a leg, neither should we do this with the cremated remains. And surely we would not consider melting part of the body down into jewelry or retaining part of it (other than perhaps a lock of hair) as a keepsake. Neither would we fail to bury the body at all.

Basic requirements for reverent interment – The key point is to treat the cremated remains just as we would treat the full body. Reverent handling and proper disposition are essential.

Proper interment of the remains should be sought, meaning either in cemetery grounds or a mausoleum. Most cemeteries these days have special mausoleums (sometimes called columbariums) with small covered and secured niches where the cremated remains can rest. Proper interment should not be delayed. Ideally it should take place the day of the funeral, and if not that day then very shortly thereafter.

Cremated remains should not be scattered or strewn on open ground, in gardens, in forests, or any other place. Neither should they be scattered into the air from a plane or into the sea. The cremated remains should remain intact, in a properly-sealed container, and interred as a single unit.

What about financial hardship? For some families, the choice of cremation is based on financial hardship. This choice often also means that there is no plan or ability for committal or burial of the cremated remains. As a means of providing pastoral support and an acceptable respectful solution to the problem of uninterred cremated remains, Catholic cemeteries offer to inter these remains properly at little or no cost. Some of these offer a common vault in a mausoleum for the interment of cremated remains. The names of the deceased interred there are kept on file, though not usually inscribed on the vault. Other cemeteries maintain an area for the burial of both cremated remains and the bodies of those who cannot afford a gravesite with a personal marker. So the lack of money should not hinder the proper interment of cremated remains.

Conclusion – Cremation, though less ideal than the burial of the body, is permitted by the Church as a pastoral provision and is a needed solution today for increasing numbers of people. However, we ought to be aware of the need to handle cremated remains with the same reverence we have for the full human body. The cremated remains of a human person are not “ashes.” They are human remains and should be regarded as such. One of the last gifts we can give our loved ones is the proper and reverent interment of what remains of the body. This, along with our prayers for their souls, remains a duty and a work of mercy. It should be handled with devotion and all proper reverence.