Finding the Church in a Bach Fugue

Many of you have likely read the classic description of the Church from the 1951 novel Dan England and the Noonday Devil, by Myles Connolly. It is a wonderful reminder that the Church is not an institution, but a Body, made up of members who, each in his own unique way, give witness to the one Body, which is Christ. Here is an excerpt from the book:

What is the Church?

The Church to me is all important things everywhere. It is authority and guidance. It is love and inspiration. It is hope and assurance. It is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is our Lady and St. Joseph. It is St. Peter and Pius XII. It is the bishop and the pastor. It is the catechism and it is our mother leaning over the crib teaching us our evening prayers. It is the cathedral at Chartres and the cross-tipped hut on Ulithi. It is the martyrs in the Colosseum and the martyrs in Uganda, the martyrs at Tyburn and the martyrs at Nagasaki. It is the wrinkled old nun and the eager-eyed postulant. It is the radiant face of the young priest saying his first Mass, and the sleepy boy acolyte with his soiled white sneakers showing under his black cassock….

It is the spire glimpsed from a train window and the cruciform miniature of a church seen far below on the earth from an airplane. It is six o’clock Mass with its handful of unknown saints at the communion rail in the gray dark and it is pontifical High Mass with its crowds and glowing grandeur in St. Peter’s….It is the Sistine Choir and it is the May procession of Chinese children singing the Regina Coeli in Peking.

It is the Carthusian at prime on Monte Allegro and the Jesuit teaching epistemology in Tokyo. It is the Scheutveld Father fighting sleeping sickness in the Congo and the Redemptorist fighting prejudice in Vermont. It is the Benedictine, the Augustinian, the Passionist, the Dominican, the Franciscan. It is all religious and especially the great unnamed Order of the Parish Priest.

It is the Carmelite Sister lighting the tapers for vespers in the drear cold of Iceland and the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur making veils for First Communion in Kwango. It is the Vincentian Sister nursing a Negro Baptist dying of cancer in Alabama and the Maryknoll Sister facing a Communist commissar in Manchuria. It is the White Sister teaching the Arabs carpetmaking in the Sahara and the Good Shepherd Sister in St. Louis giving sanctuary to a derelict child, a home to a lamb who was lost. It is the Little Sister of the Poor salving the sores of a forgotten old man in Marseilles, the Grey Sister serving the destitute in Haiti, the Blessed Sacrament Sister helping a young Negro write poetry in New Orleans. It is the Sister of Charity… It is all the Sisters everywhere.

It is the crippled woman who keeps fresh flowers before our Lady’s altar and the young woman catechist who teaches the barefooted neophytes in the distant hills. It is the girl who gives up her bridge game to drive the Sisters to the prisons and the homes of the poor, and it is the woman who goes from door to door begging for help for the orphanage. It is the proud mother of the priest and the heartbroken mother of the criminal. It is all mothers and sisters everywhere who weep and suffer and pray that sons and brothers may keep the Faith.

….It is the bad sermon and the good, the false vocation and the true. It is the tall young man who says the Stations of the Cross every evening and it is the father of ten who wheels the sick to Mass every Sunday morning at the County Hospital.

It is St. Martin and Martin de Porres, St. Augustine and St. Phocas, Gregory the Great and Gregory Thaumaturgus, St. Ambrose and Charles de Foucauld, St. Ignatius and Ignatius the Martyr, St. Thomas More and St. Barnabas. It is St. Teresa and St. Philomena, Joan of Arc and St. Winefride, St. Agnes and St. Mary Euphrasia. It is all the saints, ancient and new, named and unnamed, and all the sinners.

It is the bursting out of the Gloria on Holy Saturday and the dim crib at dawn Mass on Christmas. It is the rose vestments on Laetare Sunday and the blue overalls of the priest working with the laborers in a mine in the Ruhr.

It is the shiny, new shoes and reverent faces of the June bride and groom kneeling before the white-flowered altar at nuptial Mass, and it is the pale, troubled young mother at the baptismal font, her joy mingled with distress as she watches her first-born wail its protest against the sacramental water. It is the long, shadowy, uneven line of penitents waiting outside the confessional in the dusk of a wintry afternoon, each separate and solemnly alone with his sins, and it is the stooped figure of a priest, silhouetted against the headlights of a police car in the darkness of the highway as he says the last prayers over a broken body lying on the pavement beside a shattered automobile.

It is the Magnificat and it is grace before meals. It is the worn missal and the chipped statue of St. Anthony, the poor box and the cracked church bell. It is peace and truth and salvation. It is the Door through which I entered into the Faith and the Door through which I shall leave, please God, for eternity.

So there it is: The Church. Somewhere in this picture is you, sharing your gift and serving in your role. The Church is Christ. And all of us who are baptized are baptized into Christ, members of His Body.

Somehow I sense the rhythm of a Bach fugue as I read the description above. You probably think I’m stretching things, but consider this:

In the video below, an organist plays Bach’s Fugue in C Major. As with any musical fugue, the organist begins by announcing the theme, playing it with his right hand. Soon enough the left hand answers and eventually the feet play the theme in the pedal. The fugue then takes the theme through a series of mathematical progressions. Eighth notes become 16th notes and then even 32nd notes, but the basic theme is always being developed.

Now think of the organist as Christ, the Head of the Body, and the organ as the Body of Christ. The organ, like any body, has many parts. Because the purpose of an organ is to make sounds, the different pipes are used to make different sounds. There are diapasons, the reeds, the flutes, and the string pipes. The reeds are made up of various sounds like the trumpet, oboe, and vox humana. The string pipes make different sounds as well, such as viola, salicional, and dulciana. The flutes also come in many varieties as do the diapasons. There are wonderful mixtures that give brightness. The deep, low notes of the pedal, sometimes as low as the 32′ contra Bombarde, make the whole building shake. This, too, is an image of the Church. Christ is able to make beautiful music with this wonderful variety.

How does Jesus make this music? Like an organist playing a fugue, Jesus announces the basic theme that underlies every other aspect of the song. This theme is the truth of the Gospel. Every voice of the Church takes up that theme and sings it out in its own sound, using its own gift—but it is Christ who plays. Jesus expands and enriches the theme in a kind of development of doctrine that He leads the Church to proclaim. Rich diverse sounds develop and build thematically, but there is always the basic theme, the fundamental truth.

Yes, here is an image of the Church in a Bach fugue and in a virtuoso organist making beautiful music through unity with a wondrous instrument.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Finding the Church in a Bach Fugue

Does Your Parish Church Remind You Of Heaven? It Should!

Many Catholics are unaware that our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God Himself. It goes all the way back to Mount Sinai, when God set forth the design for the sanctuary in the desert and for the tent of meeting. Many of the fundamental aspects of our layouts still follow that plan (and the stone version of it that became the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem). Traditional church buildings also have numerous references to the Book of Revelation and the Book of Hebrews, both of which describe the heavenly liturgy and Heaven itself.

The compelling effect of a traditional church is to say to the believer, you are in Heaven now.

In my own parish church (take a virtual tour here), the floors are the color of green jasper and the clerestory walls are red, symbolizing the fiery Love of the Holy Spirit. On the clerestory are painted the saints, gathered like a cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1; Rev. 7:9). In the apse is the throne-like altar with Jesus at the center (Rev 5:6); the seven lamp stands are surrounding Him with seven candles (Rev 4:5). In the stained glass of the transept are the 12 Apostles joined with the 12 patriarchs (symbolized by 12 wooden pillars). Together they form the 24 elders who surround the throne in Heaven (Rev 4:4). Above the high altar, in the clerestory windows, are the four living creatures also said to surround the throne (Rev 4:6-7). Additionally, on the floor of the sanctuary (see photo above) is a symbolic representation of the of the exterior of the ancient Jewish Temple. There is the flaming altar and, on either side, the eight tables where the animals were sacrificed. (I have written about these in more detail here: On The Biblical Roots of Church Design).

Sadly, in churches built after the 1950s, these biblical roots were often cast aside in favor of a “meeting house” design. No longer was the thinking that our churches should reflect heavenly realities, teach the faith, and follow biblical plans. Rather, it was that the church simply provided a space for people to meet and conduct various liturgies.

In some cases, the liturgical space came to be considered fungible in that it could be reconfigured to suit various needs: Mass today, concert tomorrow, spaghetti dinner next Wednesday. This idea began to appear as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs, which could easily be moved to suit various functions. Even in parishes that did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of the church as essentially a meeting space still prevailed.

Thus, churches began to look less like churches and more like meeting halls. The bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit, and very minimal statuary were still there, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure itself was to reflect Heaven or even remind us of it.

That is beginning to change as newer architects are returning more and more to sacred and biblical principles in church design. Further, many Catholics are becoming more educated on the function of church art to impart meaning rather than just to look pretty. They are coming to understand the rich symbolism of the art and architecture, which reveal the faith and express heavenly realities.

Take stained glass, for instance. Stained glass art is more than just pretty colors, pictures, and symbols. Stained glass was used for centuries to teach the faith through pictures and symbols. Until about 200 years ago, most people—even among the upper classes—could not read well if at all. How does the Church teach the faith in such a setting? Through preaching, art, passion plays, statues, and stained glass.

Stained glass in churches depicted biblical stories, saints, sacraments, and glimpses of Heaven. Over the centuries a rich shorthand of symbols also developed: crossed keys = St. Peter, a sword = St. Paul, a large boat = the Church, a shell = baptism, and so forth. Thus, the Church taught the faith through the exquisite art of stained glass.

Stained glass also served another purpose: to act as an image of the foundational walls of Heaven. Recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of Heaven. Hence a church’s design was based on the descriptions of Heaven found in the Scriptures. In the Book of Revelation, Heaven is described as having high walls with rows of jewels embedded in their foundations:

One of the seven angels … showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates … The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst ... (Revelation 21:varia).

Thus, because Heaven had great, high walls, older churches almost always had a lot of verticality. The lower foundational walls gave way to the higher clerestory and above the clerestory the vaults of the ceiling rose even higher. In the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalled the precious gemstones described in the lower walls of Heaven.

Yes, it is amazing! I stand in my church and hear its message: you are in Heaven when you enter here and celebrate the sacred mysteries. Sursum corda! (Hearts aloft!)

Here is a video I put together on stained glass. Enjoy these jewels of light that recall the lower walls of Heaven as you listen to the choir sing “Christe Lux mundi” (O Christ, you are the Light of the world).

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Does Your Parish Church Remind You Of Heaven? It Should!

On Restoring the Lost Emphasis on Pentecost by Restoring the Octave and the Numeration of the Sundays after Pentecost

There are certain feasts so important that the Church celebrates them with an Octave. Currently we only have two: Christmas and Easter. Strangely, in 1970, the Octave of Pentecost was dropped. Not only was it dropped, but the very way of enumerating the year was altered as well: the weeks were no longer expressed in relation to Pentecost (e.g., “The Third Sunday After Pentecost”).

To me this is a sad loss because the Church really began her public mission to the nations on Pentecost. This was the date of her commission, her sending forth by the Lord. Renaming the time after Pentecost as “Ordinary Time” comes across poorly in English. Even pointing out that in this usage the word “ordinary” comes from “ordinal” (relating to the position of an item in a series (e.g., first, second, third)) doesn’t fully counteract the notion of ordinary as “nothing special.”

Pentecost was a pivotal event. Indeed, the Church’s entire history pivots here. She goes from discipleship (student) status to apostolic status. Having been formed and quickened by the Spirit, she is sent forth to make disciples of the nations and to baptize them. It makes perfect sense to enumerate the Church year in reference to this critical moment.

As for the Octave, if Christmas and Easter are foundational, certainly Pentecost is no less so. Restoring the Octave will give us the time to reflect more deeply on the meaning of that profound event. It will also allow us to draw more deeply from the Acts of the Apostles; currently we end our study of Acts too abruptly, speaking too little of St. Paul’s journey to Rome, a profoundly symbolic journey for him, the Church, and the Gospel.

For priests celebrating the Ordinary Form, it is often an option to celebrate votive Masses of the Holy Spirit in the week after Pentecost, as long as there are no obligatory memorials. But Pope Francis last year limited the Pentecost options even further when he instituted a new obligatory memorial: Mary Mother of the Church on the Monday following Pentecost. I love this title of Mary and the Mass for her under that title is good. But it has completely removed the possibility that a priest in the Ordinary form could ever celebrate an uninterrupted octave of Pentecost and that is unfortunate.

The celebration of the Extraordinary Form still includes a formal celebration of the Octave. Further the Sundays of the year are enumerated as Sundays after Pentecost.

I encourage my brother priests to consider celebrating as many votive Masses to the Holy Spirit that the calendar will allow in the week after Pentecost. This might mean, for those who are able to do it, celebrating in the Extraordinary Form during the whole week. Pentecost is just too important to be relegated to a one-day observation. Pentecost is pivotal; it is the prime feast of the Church’s mission to the world. An Octave is called for and the Sundays of the year should be restored in reference to Pentecost IMHO.

Octave anyone?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On Restoring the Lost Emphasis on Pentecost by Restoring the Octave and the Numeration of the Sundays after Pentecost

Stages of Persecution

There are many ongoing attempts to erode religious liberty in the United States. In California, a bill has been introduced that would, in certain situations, compel priests to break the confessional seal (I would go to jail before I’d do that). The “Equality Act” (passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month and currently before the Senate) would add sexual orientation and the fanciful notion of “gender identity” to the set of characteristics currently protected by the Civil Rights Act (race, color, religion, sex, and national origin). In April, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the City of Philadelphia’s right to cease placing children into foster care through the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services because the agency will not place children with same-sex couples.

With these and other similar situations in mind, we do well to review the stages of persecution. The term “stages” is particularly important in the U.S. because it is rare for a previously respected segment of the population to become reviled overnight. The typical process is that the descent progresses in stages that grow in intensity. In this way, the Catholic Church, once an esteemed institution in America (along with other Christian denominations), has become increasingly marginalized and now even hated by many. It may help us to consider the five stages of persecution because it seems that things are going to get more difficult for the Church in the years ahead.

I. Stereotyping the targeted group – To stereotype means to apply an overly simplistic belief about a group of people to each individual person in that class.

As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, Christians were often caricatured as Bible-thumpers, simpletons, haters of science, and hypocrites; they were frequently labeled self-righteous, old-fashioned, and backwards.

Catholics in particular were also accused of having neurotic feelings of guilt and a hatred of or aversion to sexuality. We were denounced as a sexist institution and called authoritarian, stuck in the past, and hung up on restrictive rules.

According to the stereotype, Catholics and Bible-believing Christians are a sad, angry, boring, backward, repressed lot. To many who accept the stereotype, we are a laughable—even tragic—group caught in a superstitious past, incapable of throwing off the “shackles” of faith.

As with any large group, individual Christians and Catholics may manifest some negative traits, but indiscriminately presuming the characteristics of a few to be common to all is unjust.

To be sure, not everyone engages in this stereotyping, and even among those who do the degree varies, but the climate created by its presence sets the foundation for the next stage of persecution.

II. Vilifying the targeted group for alleged crimes or misconduct

As the stereotyping grew in intensity, Catholics and Christians who did not go along with the cultural revolution were described as closed-minded, harmful to human dignity and freedom, intolerant, hateful, bigoted, unfair, homophobic, and/or reactionary—basically, bad people.

The history of the Church is also described myopically as little more than a litany of bad and repressive behavior: going on crusades, conducting inquisitions, and hating Galileo and all science. Never mind that there might be a little more to our history: founding universities and hospitals, patronizing the arts, and preaching a gospel that brought order and civilization to the divided and barbaric times that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Our critics won’t hear any of that, or if they do will give the credit to anyone or anything except the Church and our faith.

All of this has the effect of creating a self-righteous indignation toward believers and of making anti-Catholic and anti-Christian attitudes a permissible bigotry.

III. Marginalizing the targeted group’s role in society

Having established the (false) premise that the Church and the faith are bad—even harmful to human dignity and freedom—the next stage is to relegate the role of the Church in society to the periphery.

To many in our secularized culture, religion is seen as something that must go. Perhaps we will be allowed to sing our hymns and preach our sermons within the four walls of our churches, but the faith must be banished from the public square.

It has become increasingly unacceptable and intolerable that anyone should mention God, pray in public, or in any way bring the Christian faith to bear on matters of public policy. Nativity sets must go; out with Christmas trees. There have even been some public schools that forbade the use of the colors red and green during the “Holiday Season”!

Do not even think about mentioning Jesus or thanking Him in your graduation speech; you may be forbidden to do so under penalty of law. You may talk about Madonna the singer but not the Madonna.

In contrast, the Gay-Straight Alliance club at the local high school is welcome to pass out rainbow-colored condoms to the students. Muslims strangely get a pass but not Christians. No Bibles or Christian-themed pamphlets had better see the light of day anywhere in the school building—separation of Church and State, you know.

IV. Criminalizing the targeted group or its works

Recent attempts to compel us to violate our teachings and consciences are noted above, but there have been many other times we have had to go to court to fight for our right to practice our faith openly. An increasing amount of litigation is being directed against the Church and other Christians for daring to live out our faith.

Some jurisdictions have sought to compel Catholic hospitals and pro-life clinics to provide information about and/or referrals to abortion clinics or to supply “emergency contraception” (i.e., the abortifacient known as the morning-after pill). In 2009, the State of Connecticut sought to regulate the structure, organization, and administration of Catholic parishes. A number of Christian students in various states have suffered legal injunctions when it was discovered that they planned to mention God and/or Jesus in their graduation addresses. (More details can be found here.)

A good number of those involved in these clashes feel quite righteous and justified in their efforts to remove the practice of the faith from the public square.

Many of these attempts to criminalize the faith have been successfully rebuffed in the courts, but the number and frequency of the lawsuits and the time and cost involved in fighting them impose a huge burden. It is clear that attempts to criminalize Christian behavior pose a growing threat to religious liberty.

V. Persecuting the targeted group outright

If current trends continue, Christians, especially religious leaders, may face fines and/or incarceration.

In Canada and in parts of Europe, Catholic clergy have been arrested and charged with “hate crimes” for preaching Catholic doctrine on homosexual activity.

In our country there are greater protections for free speech, but there has been a steady erosion of religious freedom; some have had to spend long periods in court defending basic religious liberty. The trajectory points to suffering, lawsuits, fines, and ultimately prison.

Unlikely, you say? Alarmist? Well, stages one through four seem to be firmly in place. One may wish to “whistle past the graveyard,” but it looks to me as if we’re headed for stage five.

Maybe a heavy post could use the accompaniment of a lighthearted video. This animated retelling of Acts 16 is so bad it’s good!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Stages of Persecution

A Brief Directive for Church Leaders

The first reading from Sunday Mass this week (5th Sunday of Easter) is very Catholic, and it’s too informative to just pass by. It presents a Church as rather highly organized and possessed of some the structures we know today in full form. Granted, some of these structures are in seminal (seed) form, but the are there.

One can detect qualities of the original kerygma that are at variance with what some modern thinkers declare should be the methodology of the Church. The soft Christianity of many today, who remove the cross and replace it with a pillow and who insist upon inclusion and affirmation to the exclusion of all else, is strangely absent in this early setting.

Let’s examine the reading (Acts 14:21-27) and see the true path of priests, teachers, and leaders in the Church. Four steps are prescribed for our consideration based on this reading. We note that they went forth announcing, admonishing, appointing and accounting.

I. AnnouncingAfter Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples …

Notice that the happiness is linked to the harvest. Proclaiming the Good News, they yield a great harvest. We are not, as Catholics, sent out to proclaim a mere list of duties. We are sent to proclaim the gospel: that God has loved the world and sent His Son, who by dying and rising from the dead has purchased for us a whole new life, free from sin and the rebellious obsessions of this world. He is victorious over all the death-directed drives of this present evil age. Simply put, He has triumphed over these forces and enabled us to walk in newness of life.

God save us from brands of the faith in which rules and the recitation of obligations are all that is heard by sour-faced saints, dead disciples, fussy pharisees, bored believers, and frozen chosen! Save us from Pharisaical philosophies who are obsessed with particulars that are not even commanded by God, who sneer at things they consider lower than their own preferences.

No, we are sent to announce a new life, set free from the bondage of sin, rebellion, sensuality, greed, lust, domination, and revenge. We are sent to announce a life of joy, confidence, purity, chastity, generosity, and devotion to the truth rooted in love.

Yes, here is a joyful announcement rooted in the cry Anastasis (Resurrection)! New life, the old order of sin is gone, a new life of freedom from sin is here!

Did everyone accept this as good news? No. Some—indeed many—were offended and sought to convict Christians as disturbers of the peace. Some people don’t like to have their sin and bondage called out as such. They prefer darkness to light, holiness, and freedom.

As Catholics, we announce what is intrinsically good news and we ought to start sounding like it by proclaiming it with joy! There should be no bitterness or anger, which would be more indicative of one trying to win an argument rather than joyfully announcing something wonderful, freeing, and true.

II. Admonishing They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Preaching and teaching are processes. You don’t just do it once and then move on; you return and reiterate. Note that they retrace their steps back through towns that they have already evangelized. They do not just come, have a tent revival, and then move on. They return, and as we shall see, they establish the Church.

Notice what they do:

        • Encourage – They strengthen the spirits of the disciples
        • Exhort – They exhort them to persevere in the faith
        • Explain – They say, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Let’s focus especially on the last the point. In effect, they announce and teach, “If you’re not willing to endure the cross, no crown will come your way. If you can’t stand a little disappointment, if you can’t stand being talked about sometimes, if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you: no cross, no crown.”

Yes, beware of cross-less Christianity. We do have good news to proclaim, but there is also the truth that we get to the resurrection and the glory through the cross. There is a test in every testimony, a trial in every triumph. There are demands of discipleship, requirements for renewal, laws of love, and sufferings set forth for saints.

Good preaching combines hardship and happiness in one message. It is a joy to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, who endured hostility, hardship, and the horrors of the cross yet triumphed and showed that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. Yes, He has caught the wise in their craftiness and shown that the thoughts of the wise of this world are futile (cf 1 Cor 3:20). He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them (paradoxically) by the cross (cf Col 2:15).

Saints Paul and Barnabas announce the cross, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (cf 1 Cor 1:23). Many today insist that the Church soft-pedal the cross, that we use “honey, not vinegar.” No can do. We joyfully announce and uphold the paradox of the cross and must be willing to be a sign of contradiction to this world, which sees only pleasure and the indulgence of sinful drives as the way forward, that exalts freedom without truth or obedience, and calls good what God calls sinful.

Too many so-called Christian denominations have adopted the pillow as their image and a “give the people what they want” mentality. It is 180 degrees out of phase with the cross.

The Catholic Church does not exist to reflect the views of her members but to reflect the views of her founder and head, Jesus Christ. Jesus announced the cross without ambiguity, saying, as he went out to die, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to me (John 12:31-32).

We announce the cross, not merely as suffering, but as life, power, and love. By the power of the cross, it is possible to live without sin and to overcome rebellion, pride, lust, and greed. It is possible by the power of the cross to learn to forgive and to live the truth in love.

The world will hate us for this, but such hardships, such crosses, are necessary preludes to the hallelujah of Heaven. The Church can do no less than to point to the cross. The center of our faith is a cross, not a pillow, and the cross is our only hope (Ave crux, spes unica nostra!). Yes, the Church announces the cross and admonishes a world obsessed with pleasure and with passing, fake happiness.

III. AppointingThey appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia.

Thus, we see the ordination of priest leaders in every place. “Priest” is just an English mispronunciation of “presbyter.” Paul and Barnabas did not simply go about vaguely preaching and then moving on. They established local churches with a structure of authority. The whole Pauline corpus of writings indicates a need to continue oversight of these local churches and to stay in touch with the priest leaders established to lead these local parishes.

Later, St. Paul spoke of the need for this structure in other places, when he wrote to Titus, This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).

This appointment was done through the laying on of hands and is called ordination today. It was a way of establishing order and office in the Church to make sure the work continued and that the Church was governed by order. This why we call the sacrament involved here the “Sacrament of Holy Orders.”

Note, too, that a critical task for leaders in the Church is developing and training new leaders. Too many parishes today depend on charismatic and gifted leaders, whose inevitable departure leaves a void rather than an ongoing ministry or organization. This should not be so. Good leaders train new leaders.

IV. Accounting From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

Note that Saints Paul and Barnabas are now returning to render an account for what they have done. Accountability is part of a healthy Church. Every priest should render an account to his bishop, every bishop to his metropolitan and to the Pope. Today’s ad limina visits of bishops to the Pope is the way this is done. Further, priests are accountable to their bishop through various mechanisms such as yearly reports and other meetings.

A further background to this text is that Paul and Barnabas are returning to Antioch because it was from there that they were sent forth by the local bishops and priests on this missionary task.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:2).

Thus, St. Paul was not the lone ranger some think him to be. He was sent and was accountable.

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days (Gal 1:15-18).

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain (Gal 2:1).

The preacher and teacher must be accountable: For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom 14:10-12).

Here we see some paths for priests, preachers, teachers, and leaders. We must announce the gospel as good news, with joy and confidence. We must admonish a world obsessed with pleasures (and Church members affected by this mentality) to embrace the cross as our only hope. We must continue to develop, train, and appoint leaders to follow after us. Finally, we must be accountable to one another.

Here is a nice, quick portrait of some healthy traits for the Church.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Brief Directive for Church Leaders

On the Sufferings of St. Paul and the Price of the Gospel

As we turn in this week of Easter to the Acts of Paul section of the Acts of the Apostles, we do well to ponder the kinds of sufferings the apostles endured to announce the gospel and win souls for Christ. In the “softer” Church of the declining West, it is hard for us even to imagine such suffering. How many Catholics today can even bear to rouse themselves to get to an hour-long Mass on Sunday? How many of us clergy will not speak the truth because we’re afraid of getting a raised eyebrow?

All but one of the first apostles suffered martyrdom as well as countless other sufferings before their lives were brutally ended. It is argued that 30 of the first 33 popes died as martyrs, two others died in exile, and only one died in his bed.

We should never fail to thank God for the heroic ministry of the early Christians, clergy and laity alike, who risked everything to believe and to announce the gospel. Having encountered Christ, they were so transfixed by His truth and His very person that they could not remain silent. Even in the face of persecution and death, the apostles declared, simply and forcefully, we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).

As a tribute to them and to the early Church, I present here a catalogue of sorts of St. Paul’s sufferings. We know the most about Paul’s trials, but surely many others also suffered. As you read through what he endured, remember the many others as well. When discomfited by a mere inconvenience or a minor persecution, consider the price that others paid so that we could know Christ and be saved.

In this first passage, God announced Paul’s sufferings to Ananias:

For he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake (Acts 9:15-16).

Here are some of Paul’s own descriptions of what he endured:

  • We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always manifesting the death of Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you (2 Corinthians 4:8-12).
  • in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
  • in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fasting; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:3-20).
  • Why do I still suffer persecution? [For, if not,] the offense of the cross has ceased (Galatians 5:11).
  • Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
  • my doctrine, my manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me (2 Timothy 3:10-11).
  • And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour? I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily …. [Indeed] I have fought with beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:30-32).
  • And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
  • You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first … (Galatians 4:13).
  • From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:7).
  • I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart (Romans 9:1-2).
  • Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me …. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus …. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense [in Jerusalem] no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed, and all the Gentiles might hear it. So, I was rescued from the lion’s mouth (2 Timothy 4:10-17).
  • For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have longed for His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Lest you think that St. Paul exaggerated in his descriptions, consider the following occurrences documented by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles:

  • Fellow Jews plot to kill Paul in Damascus and he must be lowered in a basket from city walls to escape (Acts 9:23).
  • Hellenists seek to kill him in Jerusalem, so he must flee to Caesarea (Acts 9:29).
  • Paul is persecuted and run out of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15).
  • Facing likely arrest and stoning at Iconium, Paul flees to Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:5).
  • He is stoned, dragged out of Lystra, and left for dead (Acts 14:19).
  • Paul is opposed by elders and others in Jerusalem (Acts 15:11).
  • He is arrested as a disturber of the peace, beaten with rods, and imprisoned at Philippi (Acts 16:23).
  • Paul is ordered by Roman officials to leave Philippi (Acts 16:39).
  • Attacked where he lodged in Thessalonica, Paul must be secreted away to Beroea (Acts 17:5-7, 10).
  • Paul is forced out of Beroea and must flee to Athens (Acts 17:13-15).
  • He is mocked in Athens for teaching about the resurrection (Acts 17:32).
  • Paul is apprehended by fellow Jews and taken before the judgment seat of Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12).
  • He is opposed by the silversmiths in Ephesus, who riot against him (Acts 19:23-41).
  • Paul is plotted against by the Jews in Greece (Acts 20:3).
  • He is apprehended by the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-30).
  • Paul is arrested and detained by the Romans (Acts 22:24).
  • He barely escapes being scourged (Acts 22:24-29).
  • Paul is rescued from the Sanhedrin and Pharisees during their violent uprising in Jerusalem (Acts 23:1-10).
  • Assassination plots are made against him by fellow Jews, who swear an oath to find and kill him (Acts 23:12-22).
  • Paul endures a two-year imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 23:33-27:2).
  • He is shipwrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 27:41-28:1).
  • Paul is bitten by a snake (Acts 28:3-5).
  • He is imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:16-31).

Paul was executed by decapitation ca. 68 A.D.

Never forget the price that others have paid in order that we may come to saving faith. At every Mass, remember that the Creed we profess was written in the blood of martyrs.

The movie Paul, Apostle of Christ is a worthy tribute to St. Paul and the suffering of the early Christians:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Sufferings of St. Paul and the Price of the Gospel

“The Numbers” Don’t Look Good—What Should the Church Do?

What are we to make of “the numbers”? As the Church it is hard to ignore the large decline in attendance at Mass and reception of the sacraments, yet the Lord never seemed overly concerned with numbers; He even distrusted them.

The information can help us to gauge the effectiveness of our preaching, teaching, and engagement of God’s people; it can also be a pernicious temptation to water down the gospel just to improve our numbers. The data* below showing the change over the past fifty or so years don’t paint a pretty picture:

1970 2018
Infant Baptisms 1,089,154 615,119
Adult Baptisms 84,534 39,660
Weddings 426,309 143,082
Ordinations 805 518
Number of Priests 59,192 36,580
Number of Sisters 160,931 44,117
% Attending Mass Weekly 54.9% 21.1%

* Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA)

These are astonishing declines! Remember, too, that these dry figures represent individual human beings called to know, love, and serve God in the Church here on earth and one day in the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Every loss is a soul who may be lost forever.

Many want to attribute the decline to this or that cause and then propose solutions. The danger, of course, is merely trying to increase the numbers and forgetting that our mission is not to be popular but to be a colony of Heaven, a people set apart; we were promised persecution and the world’s hatred, not its esteem or love. It is not our goal to be hated, of course, but it is sometimes our lot.

These numbers should sober us and cause us to consider how we—clergy and laity—may have contributed to this decline.

It is not entirely our fault, however. The problem cannot be fully resolved merely through better techniques or more engaging presentations—and it certainly will not be rectified by watering down or even ignoring the Lord’s more challenging teachings.

Consider that even the greatest evangelizer who ever graced this world, Jesus, lost a significant number of followers because of His teachings. He was quite willing to do this because it is the truth that saves and sets us free. Better to save some than to dilute or disregard the truth and lose everyone. Many of Jesus’ followers deserted Him after He taught that the Eucharist was His true Body and Blood (Jn 6:66). Many people scoffed at His teaching against divorce (Mat 19:10). Even residents of His own home town turned on Him when He praises the Gentiles (Luke 4:29). No one could preach the way Jesus could (Jn 7:46). No one was more eloquent. No one more perfectly exuded the Holy Spirit than Christ. To these He added miracles and the personal authority of His holiness and divinity. Yet He, too, was rejected, even by some of His disciples. Think about how small the Church looked on that Good Friday at noon: only John, Mary, and a few other women stayed with Him. Yet never was the Church more pure and powerful than at that very moment.

Concern for the decline in our numbers is proper, but it should not cause us to be so overwrought that we abandon hope or lose faith in the teachings we have received from the Lord Himself. Consider well that the mainline (liberal) Protestant denominations have cast aside many Christian dogmas as well as nearly every moral doctrine in order to appeal to modernity, and their decline has been even more precipitous than ours.

One surprising thing to note is that Jesus did not seem to trust crowds; some of His most challenging teachings were addressed to large numbers of people:

  • Large crowds were now traveling with Jesus, and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:25-26).
  • In the meantime, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, so that they stepped one on another, he began to say to his disciples first of all, “Beware you of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).
  • Large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there …. [And Jesus said to them] “Now I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman, commits adultery.” His disciples said to Him, “If this is the case between a man and his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:1-2; 9-10).
  • Truly, truly, I tell you, it is not because you saw these signs that you are looking for Me, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you (John 6:26-27).

So critical were His teachings, particularly on the Eucharist, that Jesus was willing to lose some—even many—in order to save others. A watered-down gospel cannot save. Jesus would not remove unpopular teachings to gain numbers, for that would be to lose everyone and everything.

What, then, are we to do? The answer is not complicated—we are to preach the truth. St. Paul wrote to Timothy in this regard:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:1-5).

The task is clear. We must preach the full gospel, whether it is in season or out of season. And when it is out of season (as it certainly is today) it is all the more important that we reprove, encourage, and rebuke while patiently enduring any hardship or persecution that may result.

Perhaps this decline should encourage us to be more earnest in our efforts and to look for various effective ways to reach this increasingly doubtful, skeptical, stubborn world. New methods may be considered but never an alteration of the message itself, for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings (Heb 13:8-9).

We do well to recall the strange story of the census that David took of his people (2 Samuel 24). God was displeased with the census and even issued a severe punishment for it. Why? There are many possible reasons, but something tells me that it was God’s way of saying, “David, it is none of your business how many people I have. They are mine, after all, not yours. Your strength is not in numbers but in me.” Gideon heard a similar message (Judges 7).

Jesus has sent us to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:18-20).

Whether the Church is large or small, we must sow the seed of His Word. God alone knows the harvest. No matter what the numbers look like, let’s get to back to work!

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “The Numbers” Don’t Look Good—What Should the Church Do?

Your Life is Not About You, As Illustrated in a Biblical Story

The Acts of the Apostles sets forth an event that amounts to a tale of one Church in two cities or regions. It illustrates well a couple of points: that the Church is always in need of reform and that our lives are not merely about us and what we want. Let’s look at the event in two scenes.

Scene 1: The Church in Jerusalem –

There broke out a severe persecution of the Church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made a loud lament over him.
Saul, meanwhile, was trying to destroy the Church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment
. (Acts 8:1-4)

Up until now the Church in Jerusalem has experienced steady growth. To be sure there has been some persecution, but mainly of Peter, John and the other apostles. A passage from earlier in Acts describes a kind of springtime for the Church in Jerusalem following Pentecost:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. A sense of awe came over everyone, and the apostles performed many wonders and signs. …With one accord they continued to meet daily in the temple courts…sharing their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

And yet, just at this moment of growth the Lord permits a persecution that, in many ways devastates the young community. There is the first martyrdom, a widespread arrest of Christians (led by Saul) and a scattering of “all” the community. A worldly perspective may ask, “Why O Lord?! This is bad timing. The Church was just getting her feet on the ground in Jerusalem and you have permitted her to be all but destroyed!”

Yes, the Lord had summoned the Church to the cross. And why? God alone knows the full reason, but we can speculate as to some reasons.

In the first place, the idyllic picture of Acts 2 has already been marred by squabbles and injustice of ethnic origin. The Greek-speaking widows were being neglected, it would seem (Acts 6:1). This may also point to other internal struggles that give the impression that the Church may be losing focus on essentials and that the outward priority of evangelizing is giving way to inward squabbles.

Further, there is the emerging picture of a Church rather settled in Jerusalem. But had the Lord not summoned them to go into all the world teaching, evangelizing, saving and drawing people to the sacraments? (see Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47). There is no mention to this point of that taking place, or of any plans for it. So, perhaps the Lord permits this persecution to give the Church a nudge out of the nest. In saying they were scattered, we get the image of seed being sown. The blood of martyrs is seed for the Church and persecution fires up the faithful and distinguishes them from the merely fair-weather friends of the Lord. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church is always in need of reform).

The upshot of the whole episode is evangelical, for the faith now spreads north to Samaria and into Judah.

Scene 2: The Church in Samaria (The Church and Mission are Bigger than Us) –

Now those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Thus Philip went down to the city of Samaria
and proclaimed the Christ to them.
With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed and crippled people were cured.
There was great joy in that city
. (Acts 8:4-8)

Here is a very different picture! Having been prodded by the Lord through a permitted persecution, the tears and suffering in one city, in one part of the Church, benefit others in a new and different part of the Church. Demons are being cast out, healings are taking place, the lame are walking, and there is great joy!

The seeds of faith are being sown by the suffering of some and watered by their tears that others be saved and come to joy. A psalm comes to mind: He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126:6)

So, the Lord had to prod the early Church to get moving. But this is only so that the work may become more fruitful and many more be saved.

And this points to two hard truths that, if accepted, are liberating:

1.  Your life is not (only) about you.

2.  You are not THAT important.

If we are not careful, we are very prone to become self-absorbed and think that our situation is the only thing on God’s radar. But the truth is, God has everyone’s needs in mind. My life is not simply about me and what I want and need and think and see. My life is also about what others need, and what others see and can contribute. I am not so important that God will sacrifice everything and everyone else just to answer my needs. God might actually ask me to suffer and sacrifice so that others may thrive. Our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. I have surely benefited from the sacrifices others have made, and I am called at times to sacrifice that others may come to know God and thrive. Thus, the Church at Jerusalem was permitted by God a persecution and a suffering so that others in Samaria and throughout the world would come to hear the Gospel and be saved. Scripture says elsewhere:

He who has an ear, let him hear. “If anyone is destined for captivity, into captivity he will go; If anyone is to die by the sword, by the sword he must be killed.” Here is a call for the perseverance and faith of the saints. (Rev 13:9-11)

In our times of self-esteem, we can go too far and presume that my life is all about me and nothing and no one is more important that me and I what I and my family need. Or we can become very focused on the issues that preoccupy us in the Church in America or think that everyone sees what we see, or experiences what we do. This is myopic. The Church is bigger than me or my parish or my country. The Church is in every land, speaks every language and extends back in time and forward as well. God has a little more on his radar than “me” or our small and temporary group.

This small story from Acts reminds us that the Church is always in need of reform. It also reminds us that the Church is more than me or us. Here is one Church with two scenes. In Jerusalem there is weeping, but in Samaria there is joy. My life is not about me alone. I both benefit from the sacrifices of others and am called to make sacrifices for others. The blood of martyrs is seed for the Church, the tears of the persecuted will often water those seeds. It is a hard but a freeing truth. In heaven we will see what our sufferings accomplished. For now, we must accept whatever the Lord decides, be it suffering or joy, or some combination of both. My life isn’t just about me or what I want. It’s also about you and what you need.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Your Life is Not About You, As Illustrated in a Biblical Story