Clarifying Certain Misunderstandings About Confirmation

Yesterday we discussed a bit about baptism and some of the pastoral practices surrounding it. Today in a kind of companion piece I’d like to address some of the distortions and confusion that often surround the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Some one once said that Confirmation is the Sacrament in search of a theology. While not true, the statement does capture that there is a lot of incorrect and sometimes silly teaching about this sacrament to young people. And since it is the season for Confirmations, it may be helpful to explore what the Catechism teaches about the sacrament.

It will also help to exclude certain common, but incorrect notions about Confirmation.

1. Confirmation is not a Sacrament of Maturity – Canon Law (891) states that Confirmation is generally to be administered at about the age of discretion, which age is understood to be seven (Canon 97.2). It may be administered earlier if there is “danger of death” or for another “grave cause.” The same Canon allows the conference of bishops to determine another age for reception of the sacrament. While one may argue that a later date for the Sacrament is pastorally advisable, (e.g. to keep young people engaged in catechetical instruction) one simply cannot argue that it is a “Sacrament of maturity” when Church law generally presupposes its celebration at the age of seven. This is made clearer by the fact that most Eastern Churches, and the Orthodox confirm infants.

2. Confirmation is not “becoming an adult in the Church.” – This is just plain silly. I was taught this as a mere seventh grader, and found it laughable even then. Seventh graders are not adults. They are children and remain so even after Confirmation.

3. Confirmation is not a sacrament where one claims or affirms the faith for himself – Baptism confers faith. To claim that Confirmation “allows me to speak for myself” is to imply that this is how faith comes about. It is to imply that baptism somehow did not actually give real faith, or at least gave inadequate faith,  and now I am getting it by “speaking for myself.” No, Faith is a gift, it is not something I cause by speaking for myself, it is something I receive as an unmerited and free gift of God. It is true that the grace of faith mysteriously interacts with our freedom. But faith is received at baptism. Confirmation strengthens faith that is already there, but it does not cause it. Further it is a bit of a stretch to say that seventh or eighth graders really “speak for themselves.”

4. Confirmation does not “complete Christian initiation” and “make me a full Catholic.” – One of the problems with delaying Confirmation is that the three Sacraments of Initiation are celebrated out of proper order. The proper order of celebration is: Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion. Hence it is Holy Communion that completes initiation, not Confirmation. That we celebrate it out of order creates a lot of confusion and makes initiation a little murky. The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults observes the proper order. Some diocese in this country have returned to this for children as well. In a couple of diocese of which I am aware, the bishop comes to the parish and confirms the seven year old children and then, at the same Mass, gives them First Holy Communion. While this preserves the order of Initiation, and there are pastoral advantages in this regard, it  must be clear that each Bishop is able to set the policy that makes most sense for his diocese. He will obviously weigh a number of pastoral concerns in making his decision.

So what is Confirmation?

1. Confirmation is the Christian’s Personal Pentecost – The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, The sacrament of Confirmation is the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost (# 1302) Before Pentecost, the Apostles were fearful, confused and secretive, gathering only behind locked doors.

But, Suddenly from up in the sky there came a noise, like a strong driving wind which was heard all through the house where they were seated. Tongues as of fire appeared which parted and came to rest on each of them. All were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to..make bold proclamations as the Spirit prompted them. (Acts 2:1-4)

Consider the change in these men! They had been fearful and confused. Now they are courageous, boldly proclaiming Christ, with insight and an effectiveness so great, that three thousand were added that very day to their number. This is what can happen when we really yield to the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is in the Sacrament of Confirmation that we called to experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us for our mission of spreading and defending our faith. The very word, Confirmation comes from the Latin word Confirma, meaning to strengthen.

2. Confirmation strengthens and quickens our faith for witness and mission – The essential grace (or gift) of the Sacrament of Confirmation is that we should be strengthened equipped for mission. And what is that mission? Again the Catechism teaches, Jesus Christ has marked a Christian with the seal of his Spirit by clothing him with power from on high so that he may be his witness (CCC # 1304). The Catechism also teaches how the sacrament accomplishes this great strengthening within us: Confirmation…is the sacrament which gives the Holy Spirit in order to root us more deeply in the divine filiation, incorporate us more firmly into Christ, strengthen our bond with the Church, associate us more closely with her mission, and help us bear witness to the Christian faith in words accompanied by deeds (CCC # 1316).

See too how this sacrament is given to us not only for our own sakes but also for the world: …enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit…the [confirmed] are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith…( # 1285) Further, A candidate for Confirmation…[must] be prepared to assume the role of disciple and witness to Christ, both within the ecclesial community and in temporal affairs [i.e. “the world”] (CCC # 1319).

3. The Biblical roots of the Sacrament – Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit. For example He said,

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you….I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:7ff).

He also told them, But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8) And yet again, Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high. (Lk 24:49)

Within days, while they were gathered in prayer, the Holy Spirit descended on them like tongues of fire (See Acts 2:1-4 recounted earlier). The Apostles began to boldly proclaim the gospel from that day on.

Those who believed in the apostolic preaching were baptized. But in addition to baptism these Apostles also laid hands on the faithful that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this was done at the time of baptism and sometimes it was done later. Consider for example these two texts.

When the Apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down to these people and prayed that they might receive the Holy Spirit. It had not as yet come down upon them any of them since they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. The pair, upon arriving imposed hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:15-19)

This text shows some separation between the time of baptism and the time of confirmation (the “receiving of the Spirit). The text also explains our Catholic tradition of generally reserving the sacrament for the bishop to celebrate since, in the early Church, the Apostles made it part of their mission to impose hands for the outpouring of the Spirit. Phillip the Deacon had performed the baptisms in Samaria but he waited for the apostles to confirm them in the Spirit.

This next text shows the Apostle Paul baptizing. Because he, an apostle is present, there is no delay in confirming the newly baptized in the Spirit

“When they heard this, [Paul’s preaching] they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. As Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came down upon them and they began to speak in tongues and utter prophecies.” (Acts 19:5-6)

Thus we see the Biblical roots of the Sacrament of Confirmation. Jesus promised the Spirit and did in fact send Him on the day of Pentecost. The Apostles understood that they were not to keep this experience to themselves. So, as the catechism teaches, From that time on the apostles, in fulfillment of Christ’s will, imparted to the newly baptized by the laying on of hands the gift of the Spirit that completes the grace of Baptism….The imposition of hands is rightly recognized by the Catholic tradition as the origin of the sacrament of Confirmation, which in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church. (CCC # 1288)

4. The Importance of our Confirmation – More than ever, we need to take the power of God given in this sacrament seriously. All too frequently many Catholics are hindered by fear and confusion from proclaiming the Gospel to the world. This need not be so. There is just too much that needs to be done in proclaiming the Kingdom. We must speak boldly for Christ and announce his salvation day after day. [F]or God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self control. Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord..! (2 Tim 1:7-8) And this gift is not just for some; every member of the faithful is called to receive a special out-pouring of the Holy Spirit.

We have a mission to spread the Gospel in union with the Church by what we say and what we do. It is tragic indeed that so many have seen fit to leave this essential task to others. There is a saying that is sadly true: “Evil triumphs when the good remain silent.” Is this not what has happened in our day? How could a nation with so many Christians living in its midst have so many confused and lost sheep?

If the Apostles could be so changed for their mission by the Holy Spirit, so can we. We are called to spread that faith handed down from the Apostles to our family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. And we must do so in season and out of season. In our Confirmation Christ unites us more firmly to himself and his Church, increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit within us and gives us special strength to live holy lives and to spread and defend the faith (cf CCC # 1303).

It is in Confirmation especially that Christ lays his hands upon us to strengthen us for this mission of evangelization. The task may seem daunting but this is exactly why Christ himself strengthens us so that we can truly say I can do all things in Christ, who strengthens me. (Phil 4:13)

This Blog Post is available as a PDF Document here: The Sacrament of Confirmation

Here’s a little video I put together for the youth on Confirmation. The Song says, “You should be a witness. Why don’t you testify? Stand up and be a witness for the Lord! Don’t be afraid to be a witness!”

Parents: Don’t Delay Baptism for your Infants!

There is a trend that has set up for years now, and that is that Catholics are waiting many months to get their children baptized. I suspect that what we have here is a combination of a much lower infant mortality rate and, also, a less fervent practice of the faith by many. Further, there seems little sense among the faithful today that an unbaptized infant would be excluded from heaven.

As regards the last point, I think it is pastorally sound to trust in God’s mercy for infants who die before baptism. However, I do not think it follows that we ought to disregard or substantially delay a sacrament which Jesus commands, and which the Church indicates ought not to be delayed. The Code of Canon Law says the following:

Parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptised within the first few weeks. As soon as possible after the birth, indeed even before it, they are to approach the parish priest to ask for the sacrament for their child, and to be themselves duly prepared for it. If the infant is in danger of death, it is to be baptised without any delay. Can. 867 §1,§2

The Catechism also states: The Church and parents deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer baptism shortly after birth. (CCC # 1250) So it seems clear that a higher priority should be given to scheduling the baptism of babies within the first few weeks after birth.

Protestant practice departs from the received Tradition – Another factor for American Catholics is that many are influenced by the Protestants. Protestants, (though not all of them) disagree with our Catholic practice of baptizing infants. They usually wait until a child is between 8 and 12 to baptize,  reasoning that the child will know and understand what is happening and be able to claim Christ for themselves.

But, I hope you see the supreme irony of this in the fact that the Protestants, who so emphasize that salvation does not come from works, delay baptism on the grounds that the infant has not achieved (i.e. worked up to) the proper level of maturity. To know, requires one to learn, which is a work. And we Catholics, who supposedly teach salvation through works (we do not), baptize infants who can work no work.

Novelty – Indeed, the Protestant denominations (mostly Baptists (another irony), Pentecostals, Fundamentalist and Evangelicals) who refuse baptism to infants, engage in a novelty unknown to the Church until recent times.

It is a simple historical fact that the Church has always baptized infants. Even our earliest documents speak of the practice. For example the Apostolic Tradition written about 215 A.D. has this to say:

The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. (Apostolic Tradition # 21)

Scripture too confirms that infants should be baptized if you do the math. For example

People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15-17 NIV)

So the Kingdom of God belongs to the little children (in Greek βρέφη (brephe) indicating infants and little children still held in the arms, babes).

And yet elsewhere Jesus also reminds that it is necessary to be baptized in order to enter the Kingdom of God: Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5 NIV)

If the Kingdom of God belongs to little children, and we are taught that we cannot inherit it without baptism, then it follows that baptizing infants is necessary, and that to fail to do so, is a hindering of the little children which Jesus forbade his apostles to do. So both Tradition and Scripture affirm the practice of baptizing infants.

Many of the Protestants who do refuse infant baptism also water down (pardon the pun!) the fuller meaning of baptism, no longer seeing it as washing away sins and conferring righteousness per se, but more as a symbol of faith that they claim to have already received when they said the “sinners prayer” and accepted Christ as their savior. But what a tragic loss for them, since baptism and particularly the baptism of infants, says some very wonderful things about the complete gratuity of salvation and the goodness of God. Consider these points:

1. The baptism of infants is a powerful testimony to the absolute gratuity (gift) of salvation. Infants have achieved nothing, have not worked, have not done anything to “merit” salvation. The Catechism puts it this way: The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant baptism. (CCC # 1250) The Church is clear, salvation cannot be earned or merited and infant baptism teaches that most clearly. Salvation is pure gift. How strange and ironic that some of the very denominations which claim that Catholics teach salvation by works (we do not) also refuse, themselves, to baptize infants. They claim that a certain age of maturity is required so that the person understands what they are doing. But this sounds like achievement to me. That the child must meet some requirement, seems like a work, or the attainment of some meritorious status wherein one is now old enough to “qualify” for baptism and salvation. “Qualifications….Achievement (of age)….Requirements….it all sounds like what they accuse us of: namely works and merit. To be clear then, the Catholic understanding of the gratuity of salvation is far more radical than many non-Catholics understand. We baptize infants who are not capable of meriting, attaining or earning.

2. The Baptism of infants also powerfully attests to the fact that the beauty of holiness and righteousness is available to everyone regardless of age. To be baptized means to be washed. Washed of what? Original Sin. At first this seems like a downer, “Are you saying my baby has sin?” Yep. All of us inherit Original Sin from Adam and Eve. We are born into a state of alienation from God that is caused by sin. The Scriptures are clear: [S]in entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (Rom 5:12). So even infants are in need of the saving touch of God. Now why would we wish to delay this salvation and resulting holiness for 7 to 12 years? The Catechism says this,

Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by Original Sin, children also have need of new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and be brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God….The Church and parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer baptism shortly after birth. (CCC # 1250).

St. Cyprian Bishop of Carthage in the 3rd Century was asked if it was OK to wait to the 8th day to baptize since baptism had replaced circumcision. He respond with a strong no:

But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day We [the bishops] all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. (Epist# 58).

So then here is the beauty, that infants are summoned to receive the precious gift of holiness and righteousness and that they are summoned to a right relationship with God by having their sin purged and holiness infused. Infants are called to this dignity and should not be denied it. With this done, some of the holiest and most innocent days of our lives may well be our first years. Then, as the will begins to manifest, and reason begins to dawn, the grace of holiness gives us extra strength to fight against the sinful world that looms.

3. The Baptism of Infants also attests to the fact that faith is gift for every stage of development– To be baptized is to receive the gift of faith. It is baptism that gives the true faith. Even with adults, true faith does not come until baptism. Prior to that there is a kind of prevenient faith, but it is not the Theological Virtue of Faith.

Now faith is not only an intellectual assent to revealed doctrine. It is that, but it is more. To have faith is also be be in a righteous and trusting relationship with God. An infant relates to his parents long before he speaks or his rational mind is fully formed. He trusts his parents and depends on them. It is the same with God. Thus the infant can well trust and depend on God and be in a right relationship with God, in an age appropriate way.

With his parents, his or her relationship of trust with parents, leads the infant to begin to speak and understand as he or she grows. It is the same with God. As the infant’s mind awakens, the infant’s faith grows. It will continue to grow until the day he or she dies (hopefully) as an old man or woman.

That faith accompanies us through every stage of our life, and develops as we do, is essential to its nature. An infant needs faith no less than an old man. An infant benefits from faith no less than a teenager or an adult. To argue, as some Protestants do, that you have to be a certain age before faith can exist, hardly seems to respect the progressive nature of faith which is able to bless EVERY stage of our human journey.

I have some very vivid memories of my experience of God prior to seven years of age and I will say that God was very powerfully present to me in my early years, in many ways even more so than now, when my mind sometimes “gets in the way.”

Too many Catholics are waiting months, even years to have their children baptized. Precious time is lost by this delay. Infant Baptism speaks powerfully of the love that God has for everyone he has created and of his desire to have everyone in a right and saving relationship with Him. Surely baptism alone isn’t enough. The child must be raised in the faith. It is the nature of faith that it grows by hearing and seeing. Children must have faith given at baptism but that faith must be explained and unwrapped like a precious gift for them.

Don’t delay. Get started early and teach your child the faith they have received every day.

What are they thinking?

On Easter Sunday I had the privilege of serving as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at the 9:00 am Mass.  By the time Mass began it was standing room only in the church. This was not a surprise. I bet it was the same at your parish. When it came time to distribute Communion, another person and I were asked to go to a station at the rear of the church. A line formed among those standing. At a certain point, I wondered why the line did not seem to get shorter and I realized that people were coming through the doors of the church and getting in line for Communion. After Mass, I learned that indeed people were standing three deep on the sidewalk during Mass. Because it was such a beautiful day, the doors were wide open and the music could surely be heard, but how much of the readings and homily and Eucharistic prayer did people hear?

I’ve been wondering what made them stay and what makes our brother and sister Catholics who don’t come to Mass often and maybe only at Christmas and Easter come on these feasts. On the one hand, if recent studies are correct and a majority of Catholics consider themselves as “active” if they go to Mass once a month on average, then making sure you plan to go on Christmas and Easter is a no-brainer. But for those who come infrequently, why stand on the sidewalk? Reverend Andrew Greeley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a sociologist talks about the “sacramental imagination” that is nurtured in the Catholic mind and that like Baptism seems to leave and indelible mark and so even for the Catholic who is not practicing the faith, his world view is a Catholic worldview.  Another priest pondered that maybe if a person calls themselves Christian, then at the very least they see a need to come to church on Easter to “represent” so to speak!

Always welcomed

Don’t get me wrong, I love that the congregation overflowed onto the sidewalk on Capitol Hill. What a witness to the truth that the Easter story has real meaning and continues to capture people’s imagination. When I ask “what are they thinking,” I really want to know, because if we who are serious about the New Evangelization can better understand what the pull is to come to church once or twice a year than we can use that as a starting point for helping them look more deeply at their own experience. We can better able in our preaching and teaching and conversation make a more convincing argument for how active participation in life of the church will make a real difference in every part of one’s life. Fr. Bill Byrne, the pastor, in his homily said that the story of the Resurrection does not just have meaning for a moment but rather calls for a commitment. If you believe the story, you need to make a commitment—to discipleship, to Mass, to service. How did people hear that? Are they still thinking about it today?

He knows as all of us know that it won’t be standing room only next week. When we better understand the impulse to come to church once, twice, a few times a year, we can better help our brother and sisters move from impulse to commitment. Any insights you can share with me?

The Story of a Misunderstood Maritial Vow. A Necessary Rebuttal to a Washington Post Story

Playing on the heart-strings does not always (or even usually) produce a good or proper melody. Such is the case of a recently published Washington Post Article entitled: A Family Learns the True Meaning of the Vow: ‘In Sickness and in Health.’ Actually, they do not. In fact they demonstrate the exact antithesis of what that vow means.

I want to be careful here, since this is a story about real human beings who have lived through a tragic situation. And while they have made decisions that I think are wrong from a biblical and faith perspective, I do not lack sympathy for them. There’s is a human struggle here and not all of us hold up perfectly in such struggles.

Yet, they themselves have decided to go public, in a national newspaper about their decision and, as a pastor of many, I  am thus compelled to speak in a public way as well, lest others be misguided as to what a true Catholic and biblical response to this tragedy is.

The article and story is a very lengthy one. The full article is available above by click there in the title. I have also produced a summary here: A Story of Misguided Marital Vows. But the basic facts are these:

  1. Robert and Page Melton were married in 1995 and had two children.
  2. In 2003 Robert had a severe heart attack that left him with brain injuries. His motor skills were unimpaired but his memory was devastated. He remembered nothing of his wife and children and almost nothing of his earlier life.
  3. His behavior was also child-like and erratic which meant he needed to live in a nursing care facility.
  4. His wife visited him several times weekly and they developed a new sort of relationship. Though he came to know that he was her husband and the father of their daughters, he was not able to resume this role in any sort of substantial way.
  5. His wife Page was resigned to this, and still loved and cared for him as best as she was able.
  6. But then Page met an old friend, Allan who was divorced, and they fell in love.
  7. Allan also befriended Robert even as he was romancing Robert’s wife.
  8. Allan proposed marriage to Page.
  9. Page felt guilty, but wanted this new life. So she asked Robert.
  10. Robert said she should marry Allan, but wondered what would happen to himself.
  11. Page promised to continuing caring for Robert, but divorced him and married Allan.
  12. Robert continues today in her care and she is his legal guardian, but no longer his wife.
  13. The Post article assures us that everyone is blissfully happy, and will live happily ever after.

OK, a heart-wrencher to be sure. And the article is surely written to obtain our heartfelt consent by tugging at our heart-strings.

But be careful here, emotionally based reasoning is usually very blurry, and often quite wrong. And this is no exception. Lets look at some of the issues.

1. To begin with , there is the terrible title of the Post article: “A Family Learns the True Meaning of the Vow ‘In Sickness and In Health.'” Actually they do not. In fact they “learn” precisely the opposite of what this vow means. The vow does NOT mean that if one of the spouses gets sick, the other is free to leave the marriage and find love in the arms of another. It does not simply mean, as their “minister” falsely said to Page, that “so long as you make sure the other is cared for you have fulfilled this vow.”

Rather, the vow says that I will be true to our marriage even if you are sick and not able to live in a state that I would prefer. Sickness might mean that a spouse is no longer able to provide mutual support and companionship. It might mean that they are no longer able to be sexually intimate. It might mean that they can no longer provide financially or help in the raising of the children. There are any number of scenarios that the vow covers. It is open ended, and intentionally so.

In this case Robert was severely impaired from meeting most of his marital duties. Though he was not unconscious, his personality changed, he became more childlike and somewhat erratic. His memories were gone and, as the article implies, he was no longer interested in sexual intimacies.

Tragically this sometimes happens in marriages. But this is precisely why vows are made. And this leads us to a second point.

2. We do not make vows because life is going to be peachy and easy. Vows are not necessary to cover joyful and attractive things. Vows are necessary to cover less appealing scenarios, scenarios that are hard, and often unpleasant. And because they are such, we “vow” to remain true in spite of them.

Too many people today claim that vows are unreasonable when tough things come up. “Well if I had known that this would happen I would not have married.” But in fact this is the very reason you made vows, to cover the tough stuff. You did “know” in a general way, that difficult and painful things are possible and do occur. And this precise knowledge is why you made the vow: I take you to be my husband/wife, from this day forward, for better OR WORSE, for richer OR POORER, in SICKNESS and in health, till death do us part.

Nothing could be more clear, the vow says, “I will be at your side as your spouse no matter what.

This is the “true meaning” of the vow “in sickness and in health” no matter what the Washington Post says. Page, the wife, though sorely distressed and understandably desirous of an ordinary marriage, and “adult male compansionship” (as the article describes), has made a vow to her first husband that she must honor. That is the true meaning. A vow is a vow, a promise to act accordingly when the conditions are tough and warrant it.

3. But Father, but Father, she asked Robert and he said it was OK for here to marry Allan! Two responses must be made here.

First, as the article indicates, Robert has been affected mentally in a severe and substantial way. He is child-like in his reasoning, and not able to act on his own accord. He is in no position to be asked for a divorce or legally to grant one. The article indicates that Page was his legal guardian and, in order to procure the divorce, had to get Robert’s brother to act as his legal guardian.  Even secular law accepts that Robert could not simply answer for himself in his condition. Hence his “consent” to the legal divorce is not valid from an interpersonal point of view.

Secondly, and more importantly there is the standpoint of biblical and sacramental marriage. Jesus says, They are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one divide (Mark 10:9; Matt 19:5 inter al).  The “no one” here includes the spouses themselves. Thus, even if Robert was mentally competent and  strangely happy that his wife was dating another man and wanted to marry that man, Robert could not give this consent for divorce from the perspective of faith. Perhaps the civil authorities could accept this, but no one who holds to biblical and sacramental marriage could.

4. There is a notion today that everyone is entitled to be happy and that we should gleefully accept whatever they do to find that happiness. Well, happiness is not promised here in the valley of tears. And life has a way of dishing out both its pleasures and sorrows. True and lasting happiness must wait for the heavenly realms.

Jesus spoke very clearly of the need to accept and carry the cross in this life if we would be truly his disciples.

Page, in this story, received a difficult cross, one that was unexpected (they usually are) and long lasting. We cannot glibly dismiss her struggle, but neither can we exempt her from what God has permitted and gives her the grace to accept. Life is not always what we wish, but God can grant us a serenity and a courage to face life’s trials with faith and fidelity to the vows and commitments we have made.

I know many spouses who have cared for years for an incapacitated or difficult spouse. They are heroic in their virtue and steadfast to their vows. My own father stood faithfully by my mother in her 15 year decline into alcoholism, just she had stood by him in his earlier struggle with the same. It wasn’t easy but it made them both holy. In the cross is our salvation.

And this leads to the final point.

5. Too many Christians are ashamed of the cross. Scripture says was are to glory in the cross (cf Gal 6:14 inter al) and proclaim its magnificent, though often painful power.

Many are able to glory in the cross when it is an abstraction. But when the cross gets real, many Christians collapse and seek a way out. Sometimes it is a way out for themselves, sometimes it is for others.

And the world of course sees the cross as an absurdity and will often call the Church and true Christians harsh, unloving and uncaring, for our insistence that, only by the way of the Cross, will we reach our heavenly goal. To the world’s strident and rhetorical questions, (meant to illustrate the absurdity of the cross) we must often answer a simple yes:

  1. Are you saying that people who are suffering at the the end of life cannot be put out of their misery by euthanasia?! – Yes
  2. Are you saying that two loving homosexuals cannot marry and must live celibacy?! – Yes
  3. Are you saying that people who are unhappy in a marriage  should not be able to divorce?!? – Yes
  4. Are you saying that Page, who finally found love, after her years of suffering, cannot realize that love in a new marriage?!  –  Yes.

Sometimes the answer has to simply be yes and we cannot be ashamed to hold up the Cross of Christ who said, Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matt 10:38). And again, If anyone is ashamed of me and my teaching in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. (Mk 8:38), And yet again, In this world you will have tribulation. But take courage! I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33).

Yes, this world will often rail against the Cross and call Christians who point to its demands hateful, inseneitive, heartless and so forth. Scripture says, For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil 3:18). And to a world that often regards the Cross with sneering indignation, we must insistently hold it up, for it alone, by God’s grace, is our salvation.

In this tragic story of a family, our hearts may well go out and understand the difficulties faced by Page. But that cannot make what she did right. I do not hold that she is per se, an enemy of the Cross of Christ. She obviously received bad advice from her “minister” and lives in a world wherein the Cross makes no sense.

But in this sad and poignant story is a lesson for us all and a reminder that vows really do matter, even when “stuff” happens later, that the Cross is not just and abstraction that we sings hymns about, it is about real difficulties that we are asked to face with courage and faith; faith in the utter and absolute power of the Cross of Christ to save us.

Here’s a Video of a happier outcome rooted in the Cross and vows:

You’ve Got it Bad and that Ain’t Good – But the Doctor is In

Alright, I got some news for you. It’s difficult news, but I’m sure you can take it! Here it is: your condition is grave, so is mine. We’ve got some serious stuff wrong with us! You might say we’ve got a few issues!

Yes, I’ve got your spiritual “medical chart” and mine open too, and I’m looking at the test results and the numbers don’t look good. We’ve tested positive for a number of things:

  1. It says we tend toward being dishonest, egotistical, undisciplined, weak, immature, arrogant, self-centered, pompous, insincere, unchaste, grasping, judgmental, inpatient, and shallow.
  2. It looks like we’ve tested positive for being inconsistent, unfaithful, immoral, ungrateful, disobedient, selfish, lukewarm, slothful, unloving, uncommitted, and just plain sinful.
  3. Further tests indicate the presence of fear, indifference, contempt, impurity, hatred, laziness, cowardice, and anger.
  4. Likewise, poor test results indicate the presence of greed, jealousy, revenge fullness, disobedience, hardheartedness, pride, envy, stinginess, selfishness, pettiness, spite, self-indulgence, lust, careless neglect, and prejudice.
  5. Our “spiritual” medical history indicates that we have sinned against justice, modesty, purity, and the truth. We have committed sins against the human person, the children and the young, innocent and the trusting, the frail and elderly, the unborn in infants, weak and powerless, immigrants and strangers, and those who are disadvantaged.
  6. A set of further test results indicates the absence of important key indicators, for we have failed to give witness to Christ, we have failed to join our will to God or give good example to others. We have failed to seek God above all things, to act justly you show mercy, and to repent of our sins. We’ve failed to obey the commandments and curb our earthly desires. We have failed to lead a holy life and to speak the truth. We have failed to pray for others and assist those in need; neither have we consoled the grieving.

Well, you can see that we’re kind of in bad shape. And though you might say that I’m exaggerating,  yet I suspect, if you’re honest, that you have committed many of these sins if not most of them.

Without a lot of grace and mercy, we are in very bad shape! Indeed, I will say more simply that we are doomed!

But here’s the good news: the doctor is in! Jesus! Likewise, the doctor has a cure:

  1. Daily Prayer
  2. Daily reading of scripture
  3. Holy Communion EVERY Sunday
  4. Frequent Confession, at least 4 times a year, more if mortal sin is a problem!
  5. Frequent doses of the Catechism, the lives of the saints and devotions such as the rosary, and novenas.
  6. Good company
  7. And custody of the eyes and ears.

Yes, we need help; we’ve got some stuff going on that will kill us eternally. But Jesus has a hospital: the Church, and Medicine: the Sacraments. Likewise there is spiritual “medical” advice available, the Word of God, sermons, the teachings of the Church and the presence of encouraging doctors and nurses such as the priests, religious, and fellow Catholics.

Whether you and like to admit it or not we need regular check-ups and serious medicine. And Jesus is guiding his Church to give skillful advice and distribute powerful medicine.

Do you think of the sacraments as medicine? Many simply think of them as rituals.  But the truth is they are powerful medicine. I’m a witness. After more than twenty-five years of seeing the doctor, Jesus, and letting him minister to me through Sacraments, the Word, and his Church, a wonderful change has come over me. I’m not what I want to be but I’m not what I used to be.

We got it bad and that ain’t good. But the doctor is in and you know you need him! Reach out for him, what ever your struggles. He’s waiting to minister to you especially in the liturgy and the sacraments. You can’t do it alone. Join us every Sunday at the “holy hospital”, the Church. The Doctor is in!

Here’s a little video humor I put together indicating that sometimes Jesus the Doctor gives a diagnosis that may surprise us. For it is often the case that we say everyone else has a problem, but in fact, the problem is inside us, and so is the solution. Please pardon my video, I have a face for radio.

Don’t build a bridge over troubled waters! Wade on in! A Meditation on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a moment to reflect not only on the Lord’s baptism, but also on our own. For in an extended sense, when Christ is baptized, so are we, for we are members of his body. As Christ enters the water, he makes holy the water that will baptize us. He enters the water and we follow. And in these waters he acquires gifts to give us, as we shall see below.

Why was Jesus Baptized – It has been asked in every generation why Christ sought baptism. For baptism of John surely pointed to sin, of which Christ  had none. The question has been well answered by the Father and many others. In effect, Christ descended to those waters, he troubled those waters, stirring them up to make them holy for our sakes. And by this descent, which points to the paschal mystery, to obtain manifold blessings for us. St. Maximus of Turin speaks Christ’s Baptism as this:

I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so that they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a path for those who followed……But Christ the Lord does all these things: in the column of fire He went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now in the column of his body he goes through baptism before the Christian people….At the time of the Exodus the column…made a pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism. (de sancta Epiphania 1.3)

So Christ, as it were, opens a way for us by troubling the waters, just as he did at the Red Sea,  and obtains for us victory over our spiritual enemies.  He brings us forth to freedom on the other side. He is baptized for us. Ephesians 5:30 says we are members of Christ’s body. Thus when Jesus goes into the water we go with him. And in going there he stirs up, he troubles the water for us, acquiring gifts on our behalf.

Don’t be afraid of troubled waters, there is a blessing on the other side. A song writer one spoke of seeking a bridge over troubled waters. Biblically this is poor advice. For it is only by going through, or wading into, the troubled waters that the blessing is found. More on this in moment. For now simply observes that Christ wades in, he troubles the water, and he obtains blessings for us out of troubled waters.

And what are the gifts He obtains for us? The texts speak of them somewhat figuratively, but also clearly. In effect, there are four gifts spoken of in the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ Baptism:

  1. Access the heavens are opened . The heavens and paradise had been closed to us after Original Sin. But now, at Jesus’ baptism, the text says the heavens are opened. Jesus acquires this gift of sanctifying grace for us. And by this grace, the heavens open for us and we have access to the Father and to the heavenly places. Scripture says: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, (Romans 5:1) It also says, For through Jesus we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:17). Hence the heavens are opened also at our own Baptism and we have access to the Father.
  2. Anointing the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove – Here too, Jesus acquires the Gift of the Holy Spirit for us. In Baptism we are not just washed of sins, but we also become temples of the Holy Spirit. After baptism there is the anointing with chrism which signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit. For adults this is Confirmation. But even for infants, there is an anointing at baptism to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells in the baptized as in a temple. Scripture says, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
  3. Acknowledgmentthis is my beloved Son. Jesus receives this acknowledgment from his Father. He allowed this to be heard by some of the bystanders for the sake of their own faith. But he also  acquires this gift for us. In our own Baptism we become the children of God. Since we become members of Christ’s body, we now have the status of sons of God. On the day of your Baptism the heavenly Father acknowledged you as his own dear Child. Scripture says: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26)
  4. ApprovalI am well pleased . Jesus had always pleased his Father. But now he acquires this gift for you as well. Here too is another acknowledgment of the sanctifying grace that the Lord gives us in Baptism. Sanctifying grace is the gift to be holy and pleasing to God. Scripture says, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Eph 1:1-3)

Thus, at his Baptism, Christ acquired these gifts for us, so that, at the troubled, stirred up water of our own Baptism, we could receive them. Consider well the glorious gift of your Baptism. Perhaps you know the exact day. It should be a day as highly celebrated as your birthday. Christ is baptized for our sakes, not his own. All these gifts had always been his. Now, in his baptism he fulfills God’s righteousness by going into the water to get them for you. It’s alright to say, “Hallelujah!”

This video I put together shows that God has a way of bringing blessings when he troubles the Water.

He troubled the waters in the great flood to cleanse the earth,
He troubled the waters at the Red Sea to bring forth victorious escape and freedom from oppression,
He troubled the waters in the desert to satisfy the Israelites,
He troubled the waters of the Jordan so they could enter the promised land,
Jesus troubled the waters at his baptism and obtained many a gift for us,
And from the troubled waters of his pieced side came for salvation and the Holy Spirit.

So don’t build a bridge over troubled waters, wade on in! There’s a blessing on the other side.

What Does It Mean to Be Baptized With the Holy Spirit?

In the final lines of yesterday’s Gospel, John the Baptist says,

I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:8).

Matthew and Luke add: and with fire.

We ought to consider, What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit (and with fire)? In the first place we must be careful to indicate, right from the beginning, that Baptism in the Holy Spirit is not distinct, different, or later than our reception of the Sacrament of Baptism. Rather it is the unfolding and deepening experience of what the Sacrament of Baptism (and Confirmation) have effected in us.

In a strictly theological sense,  John the Baptist is distinguishing his Baptism, which was merely a washing that signified repentance, from the Baptism of Christ, which actually brings forgiveness and the bestows the very life of God, and all the graces of this new life to the believer. We are not merely washed of our sins in the Sacrament of Baptism, we are made new, and the seed of God’s very own life, love and grace are sown in us, to grow. We are actually sanctified and made new.

Some of the Fathers of the Church have this to say:

Theophylus – The baptism of John had not remissions of sins, but only brought men to penitence. He preached therefore the baptism of repentance, that is, he preached that to which the baptism of penitence led, namely, remission of sins, that they who in penitence received Christ, might receive Him to the remission of their sins.

Jerome – For what is the difference between water and the Holy Ghost, who was borne over the face of the waters? Water is the ministry of man; but the Spirit is ministered by God.

Bede – Now we are baptized by the Lord in the Holy Ghost, not only when in the day of our baptism, we are washed in the fount of life, to the remission of our sins, but also daily by the grace of the same Spirit we are inflamed, to do those things which please God

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says,

According to the Apostle Paul, the believer enters through Baptism into communion with Christ’s death, is buried with him, and rises with him: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4) The baptized have “put on Christ.” (Gal 3:27) Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies (1 Cor 6:11). Hence Baptism is a bath of water in which the “imperishable seed” of the Word of God produces its life-giving effect. (CCC 1227-1228)

This quote from the Catechism then moves us beyond the merely Theological answer to the question, “What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?”  and opens also, the “experiential” question: What is it “like” to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?

Experientially, It means knowing what we have received in Baptism and Confirmation. But here, “knowing” does not mean mere intellectual knowing (οἴδα – odia in the Greek New Testament). Rather it means experiential knowing (γινώσκo – ginosko in the Greek New Testament). It is one thing to “know about” God and to be able to pass a religion test. But to be Baptized with the Holy Spirit is to “know” the Lord, personally, deeply, intimately. It is to be in a life changing, transformative relationship with the Lord. It is experiential faith.

Too many people are satisfied with with living their faith by inference, rather than by experience. In other words, they are content to go along saying what they heard some one else say. “Jesus is Lord and risen from the dead” because my mother says so, or my preacher says so, (or even), the Bible says so. All of this is fine, for faith first comes by hearing. But there comes a point when YOU have to say so, because you personally know it to be true.

And this is what it means to be Baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It is to be able to say, “In the laboratory of my own life I have tested the Word of God and found it to be true. I have personally met and know the Lord, I know Him for myself.”

In other words, it is having faith come alive! Faith that is real, tested and certain. It is knowledge that is personal. It is to be a first hand witness to the power of Jesus Christ to change my life, for I am experiencing it in the laboratory of my very own life. He is changing and transforming me. I am seeing sins put to death and wonderful graces come alive. I am more serene, confident, loving, generous and chaste. I am more forgiving, patient, trusting and patient. I love the poor more, and I am less attached to this world. My prayer is becoming deeper as I sense his presence and power in my life. Yes, God is working in my life and He is real. This is my testimony. What is yours?

But this is what it means, experientially, to be baptized with the Holy Spirit (and with fire).

And this is also at the heart of evangelization. How are you going to convert anybody if you’re not convinced yourself? Parents, you want your kids to go to Church? Great, and proper. But why do you go? Because it’s Church law? Alright, fine, but shouldn’t there be a deeper reason? To be Baptized with the Holy Spirit is to go to Mass and make the Christian walk because you know and love Jesus Christ yourself, and you want to bring your children into that living, powerful and life transforming experience of the Lord in prayer, the Mass, the Liturgy, and the Sacraments. That’s what you’re after. And that’s what it means to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Pay attention to these word of St. John the Baptist. He, through the Holy Spirit, is teaching us about the “normal Christian life,” which is to be alive, joyful, confident, serene and thrilled at what God is doing in my life, at to know (not just know about) the Lord. “I baptize you with water, BUT HE, will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” And he will light a fire in your life, a fire that never dies away, but that grows in intensity as it transforms your very self.

Let he who has ears to hear, heed what the Spirit is saying. Baptism is not a tedious ritual, it is a transformative reality.

Photo Credit: Yousuf Karsh, 1962, The Books These are the Sacraments (By Bishop Fulton J Sheen).

Here is Father Francis Martin on the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Liturgical Puzzlement: Why Do Some Parishes Display the Holy Oils in Glass Containers and Cabinets?

In some older churches there is a discrete box in the sanctuary or the baptistery called the ambry or the Olea Sancta. Traditionally the Blessed Holy Oils (Chrism, Oil of the Sick, and Oil of the Catechumens) were stored in metal containers inside this locked and opaque box. In churches where these did not exist, the oils were stored in the sacristy either in a special box, or in the safe.

But recently, the practice has set up of many parishes visibly displaying the Holy Oils in glass containers, stored within wooden boxes and behind glass doors. (See photo at right). The glass is often a fancy cut or etched glass, and mirrors sometimes exist inside to create a look of reflected light. I have even seen a few with lights.

Of itself, I see no serious harm, and I suppose it is good to store the blessed oils in a dignified way. Some of the ambry boxes are rather classy, though perhaps a bit ostentatious. I am also unaware of any specific norms on the storage of the oils in the church, though perhaps you will correct me on this.

But the use of glass is both puzzling and problematic for me. Glass presents two practical problems and one theological pondering:

  1. Glass can break. Now supposing one of the glass vessels falls, the usual result is that the entire contents of the blessed oil are lost, and the results are hard to clean. Broken glass mixed in with holy oils is a bad combination. The usual requirement of sacred vessels is that they be dignified, and not easily broken. For this reason, pottery and glass chalices have been excluded for years. The traditional metal vessels in which holy oils have been stored can be dropped, and though some of the contents may be spilled, usually not all is. And there is surely no glass mixed in the oil to cause difficulty in the clean up.
  2. Security is compromised. The glass cabinets, often used in this approach, are easily broken into. While it seems unlikely that the oils themselves would be desirable to thieves, some of the ornate cut glass and crystal  containers might be a target. Further, there are some who break into churches not to steal, but to vandalize. Glass cabinets with glass vials of oil can be a target for vandals (often youth) who enjoy smashing things.
  3. Why do we need to “see” the oils? Here is my theological pondering. There is a long tradition of Eucharistic adoration, wherein “seeing” is an essential component. But of course, the Blessed Sacrament is the abiding presence of the Lord, and to “see” the sacred species is to see the Lord. But stored Holy Oils, though blessed, are not the Lord and they are not the Sacraments per se. The Sacrament is the sacred action of the proper celebrant making use of matter and form. So the Holy Oils are the matter of the sacrament, but they are not the Sacrament (Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Ordination) itself. Theologically, I wonder what we are saying in displaying the oils in glass, to be seen? And, is what we are saying correct, theologically? Further is it a practice that prudent and comprehensible in terms of Sacramental Theology.

I am asking these as real questions. I am not being merely rhetorical and I am interested in your thoughts. I am also interested in some of the practices you observe in your parishes. Further what does the practice of displaying the oils “to be seen” mean to you? How do you understand the purpose of this, if it is done in your parish?

Two final disclaimers. I do not question the use of an ambry or an olea sancta in a Church, even when it is prominently present. There does seem to be historical precedent for the storage of the Holy Oils in the main body of the Church, even in the Sanctuary, near the altar. But it is the current practice of displaying the oils in glass receptacles and boxes, with the intent that the oils themselves be seen, that I puzzle over.

The second disclaimer is that I am not proposing that this is a terrible abuse that must be stamped out. I am however, not without the concerns that I have already stated. But in the big scheme of things, I am not losing sleep over this. I am just puzzled and wondering if perhaps greater thought should be given to this practice.

I am grateful for your responses.

This video talks a bit about the Chrism Mass and, about half way through, also shows the rather wide variety of vessels that parishes present to store the Holy Oils, some metal, some glass or crystal.