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.

Life after Sunday

Did you hear a good homily on forgiveness yesterday? Not only were the readings a great starting point for reflecting on the tenth anniversary of 9-11, the Gospel story is one of those that just hits home every time.  It was one of those Gospels where we leave church thinking,  I know I need to grapple with the fact I don’t want to forgive THAT person.” Or I want to believe that even though I may never see justice, I can do something so that the situation will stop eating at me. You may find yourself thinking I want to hear another homily on how I can forgive.


As perfectly timed, as yesterday’s Gospel, is the publication of my fellow blogger and colleague, Fr. R. Scott Hurd’s book, Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach. In the spirit of full disclosure, Fr. Scott is a colleague and we have admired each other’s work for a number of years and I have written an endorsement for the book which all adds up to having lots of evidence that Fr. Hurd knows what he is talking about.  The book is worth purchasing for yourself and for a friend who may be stuck in the awful cycle of anger and hurt.  What makes Forgiveness such a good read is that it is also a manual.  It answers the HOW question in a step-by step look at sin, forgiveness and reconciliation and how we can make it happen.  If you are a regular reader of this blog or have had the good fortune to hear Fr. Hurd preach,  you will recognize his gift for storytelling and you will appreciate that his example of people grappling with forgiveness and finding their way toward reconciliation come from his own experience in ministry, from the lives of the saints and ripped from the headlines of the news. They offer such a breadth of experiences that I can’t image you won’t see yourself in one of them.

Be An Instrument

Forgiveness is more than just stories; Fr. Hurd tackles the big questions as well.  He writes of having to face the fact we may need to express anger with God, and he tackles how tough forgiving in a Christian way can be.  He reminds us that prayer and participation in the other sacraments not only can help but are essential to the process.  He helps us to honestly ask ourselves if the place to start is realizing we just may need to “lower the bar!”  Fr. Hurd’s book is the kind of book that you could read together with a spouse or family member or friend with whom you are trying to find the way toward reconciliation but just can’t seem to get past an obstacle.  Cardinal Wuerl, in his forward to the book, writes “…We are all called to even more than the passive reception of God’s mercy. Jesus asks us to be instruments of forgiveness.”  In Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach we are given the tools to be instruments of forgiveness.

Even Demons Believe and Tremble – A Story about the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist

St Marys Trid Mass smaller

It was almost 15 years ago. I was At Old St. Mary’s here in D.C. celebrating Mass in the Latin (Extraordinary Form). It was a solemn high Mass. I don’t suppose I thought it any different than most Sunday’s but something quite amazing was about to happen.

As you may know the ancient Latin Mass is celebrated “ad orientem” (towards the Liturgical East). Priest and people all face one direction. What this means practically for the celebrant is that the people are behind him. It was time for the consecration. The priest is directed to bow low, his forearms on the altar table the host between his fingers.

As directed I said the venerable words of Consecration in a low but distinct voice, Hoc est enim Corpus meum (For this is my Body). The bells rang as I genuflected.

But behind me a disturbance of some sort, a shaking or rustling in the front pews behind me to my right. And then a moaning or grumbling. What was that? It did not really sound human, more like the grumbling of a large animal such as a boar or a bear, along with a plaintive moan that did not seem human. I elevated the host and wondered, “What was that?” Then silence. I could not turn to look easily for that is awkward for the celebrant in the ancient Latin Mass. But still I thought, What was that?

But it was time for the consecration of the chalice. Again, bowing low and pronouncing clearly and distinctly but in a low voice: Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, novi et æterni testamenti; mysterium fidei; qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem pecatorum. Haec quotiescumque feceritis in mei memoriam facietis (for this is the cup of my Blood, of the new and eternal covenant; the mystery of faith; which will for the many be shed unto the remission of sins. When so ever you do this, you do it in my memory).

Then, I heard another sound this time an undeniable moan and then a shriek as some one cried out: “Leave me alone Jesus! Why do you torture me!” Suddenly a scuffling as some one ran out with the groaning sound of having been injured. The back doors swung open, then closed. Then silence.

Realization – I could not turn to look for I was raising the Chalice high over my head. But I knew in an instant that some poor demon-tormented soul had encountered Christ in the Eucharistic, and could not endure his real presence displayed for all to see. And the words of Scripture occurred to me: Even Demons believe and tremble (James 2:19).

Repentance – But just as James used those words to rebuke the weak faith of his flock I too had to repent. Why was a demon-troubled man more aware of the true presence and astonished by it than me? He was moved in the negative sense to run. Why was I not more moved in a positive and comparable way? What of the other believers in the pews? I don’t doubt that any of us believed intellectually in the true presence. But there is something very different and far more wonderful in being moved to the depth of your soul! It is so easy for us to be sleepy in the presence of the Divine, forgetful of the miraculous and awesome Presence available to us.

But let the record show that one day, almost 15 years ago, it was made quite plain to me that I held in my hands the Lord of Glory, the King of heaven and earth, the just Judge, and Ruler of the kings of the earth. Is the Lord truly present in the Eucharist? You’d better believe it, even demons believe that!

We Called For the Priest and He Never Came – A Reflection on the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick When Priests Are Fewer

In a recent post on the ministry of priests, there were a few comments that reflected both frustration and pain over the fact that a loved one had been in the hospital and, though the priest was called, he either never came or did not come at once. To be sure, it is lamentable that any priest would receive a request for a visit and do nothing in response to it. The Church as a whole, and pastors in particular, have obligations to the faithful who are seriously ill, especially if they are in danger of death. That said, there are very real difficulties that priests face in responding immediately and personally to all requests. In this post I would like to ponder some of the pertinent issues involved in sick calls, especially to the hospitalized.

Perhaps it is best to begin with a mini-catechesis on the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

  1. By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests, the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ. (Catechism # 1499).
  2. Scripture teaches that the sick are to be anointed by priests – Jesus sent the apostles forth two by two to proclaim the kingdom. The following description is given of their actions: So they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them. (Mk 6:12-13). We also read, Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters [i.e. “priests”] of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15).
  3. The Sacrament of the Sick is given to baptized Catholics who are seriously ill. Thus, a person with an ordinary virus, flu or injury is not usually anointed unless such illness or injury has a serious nature due to other pre-existing situations. Since most surgeries are presumed to involve serious maladies and involve significant risk, those scheduled for surgery (especially when general anesthesia is used) ought to be anointed before the surgery. A person is usually anointed only once in the course of an illness or injury. However those suffering from illnesses of a long duration or due to advancing age may be anointed periodically and especially if their condition takes a turn for the worse.
  4. Children under the age of seven are not anointed. This is because the sacrament is related to the Sacrament of Confession and is designed to be a remedy against temptations and the effects of sin. Children under the age of seven are usually not presumed to have sufficient use of reason to be considered responsible for sins committed and hence have no need of this sacrament.
  5. Those who receive this sacrament ought also to have recourse to confession if it can reasonably be offered and celebrated. While confession is not strictly required, anointing and confession both related to the problem of sin. Anointing is not just celebrated with the idea of physical cure in mind, but of spiritual strengthening and the avoidance of temptation that often comes with illness. Hence, confession and anointing are integrally related.
  6. In the past, many often waited to the point of death before requesting this sacrament of the priests of the Church. Pastoral care today however emphasizes that this sacrament should be offered long before the final stages of dying set in. When physical illness of a serious or chronic nature sets in the sacrament should be administered sooner rather than later. Likewise, it is a good idea to celebrate the sacrament before surgery takes place. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is meant foremost to help us experience healing and assist us to live gracefully with our illnesses, and not merely as a Sacrament that prepares us to die.
  7. The purpose of the sacrament – One gift to be hoped for in this sacrament is the complete recovery of health. This is sometimes experienced. Miraculous cures are surely a sign of the power of the risen Lord and they were promised as a sign of the reign of God (cf. Mk 16:18). And yet this is not all that is meant by the “healing” that is given and experienced in this sacrament. The word “healing” however involves more than just the notion of cure. In his own day Jesus did not heal everyone. Christ also taught of the inevitability of suffering and the need to remain faithful: If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Lk. 9:23). St. Paul too experienced the call to faithful endurance as he prayed for a cure of his own illness: Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Hence the healing that this sacrament offers is more often the grace to endure suffering with holiness, and faith. Hence, a grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death. (Catechism # 1590)

Especially to be noted in the mini-catechesis above is that the anointing of the sick is not primarily a sacrament for emergencies and should not be delayed until death is imminent, unless this cannot be avoided. There are certain circumstances that require an emergency administration of the sacrament, such as in the aftermath of a serious accident or when  one is suddenly stricken. However, as a general practice, anointing of the sick ought to be a more routine aspect of the lives of the chronically ill and the aged, or of those who have entered the various stages of serious illnesses. If death seems to be certainly approaching, one ought to be anointed well before the final stages, and surely before unconsciousness ensues. In no case should a family wait “for the last moment” to summon the priest. This is a Sacrament for the living, not merely for those on the very threshold of death. Those who are scheduled for surgery ought to be anointed before entering the hospital, preferably at the parish, if this can be arranged.

The goal is for every Catholic to be “up-to-date” on their Sacraments long before death or the danger of death ensues, or even the advent of sudden and unexpected death. Of every Catholic who faces death, whether sudden, or at the end of a long illness, we ought to be able to say they have very recently received Holy Communion, and that confession has been celebrated with a reasonable period prior to death. Further those who have not died suddenly and unexpectedly, ought to have been anointed at some time significantly prior to death. In such cases there is no emergency need to summon the priest, for the ordinary pastoral care has already been provided. Emergency anointing ought be reserved for those who are suddenly and unexpectedly stricken, or for those who are in accidents.

And that leads us to the concerns that some have expressed that a priest was sought, and no priest came, or did not come soon.

There are a number of factors that affect the availability of the parish priest. And while these factors do not excuse a complete lack of pastoral care, they ought to be considered as we look to a solution to the problem. These factors include:

  1. There are far fewer priests than years ago. Until about 25 years ago, most parishes had more than one priest. Many larger parishes which had as many as four or five priests, back in the 1960s, have only one priest now, and that priest has many, many duties.
  2. Fewer hospitals have assigned and full time chaplains. Here in DC only the largest hospital centers have regular and full-time chaplains. The smaller hospitals and nursing homes depend on local parishes for pastoral care.
  3. Most Catholics no longer go to neighborhood hospitals near the parish. Rather they are assigned to hospitals that specialize in their issues. For example, in my own parish, I may have parishioners in as many as 6 or 7 different hospitals spread all throughout the area (Providence, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Southern Maryland, PG Hospital, Adventist Hospital, Holy Cross, Washington Hospital Center, Children’s Hospital, Veterans, and so forth). Some of my parishioners are taken as far away as Baltimore. Regular visits to hospitalized members may not be possible when they are in such varied locations. Pastors often need to depend on clergy more local to the hospital in question. This leads to concerns that “my pastor never came and saw me.” But some parishioners simply do not realize how unrealistic this is for pastors, often without assisting clergy, with dozens of parishioners in as many as half a dozen different and often distant hospitals.
  4. Pastors and priests also have serious duties at the parish which cannot always be dropped at a moment’s notice. A pastor may get an urgent call to come at once, yet he is just getting ready to celebrate a wedding. He cannot simply say to the couple they will have to have their wedding another day. Calls may come in as well in the middle of a Sunday Mass, or other significant function where a priest cannot reasonably dash off. A priest may also be teaching a class or bible study involving thirty or more people and it may not be reasonable for him to rush out in the middle of a class. He may be completely away from the parish teaching or filling in for another priest. It is simply not possible for a parish priest to be 100% available at every moment for a possible sick call, even an emergency. Sometimes the best he can do is to ask a parish staff member or the hospital to find another priest. It is not always right to allow the urgent to wholly eclipse the important.

Towards a solution. The care of the sick is important and reasonable urgencies need to be addressed by the Church. What are some of the things that can be done to realistically address the needs of Catholics given the factors seen above?

  1. Large hospital centers should have full time chaplains if this is possible. This is especially true if the hospital has a shock and trauma unit that routinely receives accident victims and those suddenly stricken. The chaplain would also need to a coordinate with local parishes to cover any gaps caused by his day off or vacation. Here in Washington, we are often able to depend on priests from religious orders. Other dioceses are less blessed with options.
  2. If a full time chaplain really cannot be found, the parishes near the larger hospitals need to develop a carefully coordinated plan to cover the hospitals and field emergencies. The plan should make sure that gaps are properly covered and emergency calls can be quickly handled. Further, parishioners and hospital staffs should be well aware of how to contact the priest on duty.
  3. Smaller hospitals and nursing homes still need coverage from the local parishes. The diocese should have a carefully crafted plan on who covers them and when. Emergency clergy numbers for each hospital and nursing home should be easily available to all the priests and staff of the parishes in each diocese; for it often happens that a brother priest near the hospital will need to be contacted by a priest or staff member from across town who cannot reasonably make a visit.
  4. Some teaching on the nature of a true sacramental emergency needs to be made to both the faithful and to hospital staffs. When death is clearly imminent we usually have an emergency. However, just because some one has gone to an emergency room does not mean that death is imminent, and that a priest is needed at once. Sometimes it is fine to wait for the next day when a priest routinely visits. Even when death is imminent, it is sometimes the case that a priest gave sacraments just the day before. It is not necessary for the priest to return and be there at the moment of death, when a person has been receiving ordinary pastoral care given to those who are seriously ill. It is sufficient in such cases that the person has recently received the sacraments and there is no reason to summon the priest to come at once or in the middle of the night. True sacramental emergencies usually occur for those who are suddenly and unexpectedly stricken or who are in an accident and are, for these reasons, in immediate danger of death.
  5. Parish priests should well instruct their staff how to field emergency calls, assess their importance, and know options to pursue if the parish priest cannot be reasonably reached.  Families should not simply be told, a priest cannot be found, they must be helped to find a priest in an authentically urgent situation.
  6. To the degree possible, hospital staffs should also be able to know how to contact a priest quickly. Their phone lists should be up to date and include several options.
  7. The faithful may have to accept that a priest will not always be found in time. In such cases they ought to remember that God does not reject any who call on him. And, though anointing is surely helpful, it is not absolutely necessary for salvation. Even confession in dying moments should not be thought of as magic. If a person seeks a priest and a priest cannot be reasonably found in time, it suffices for the person to make an act of contrition – no one who calls on the Lord will he ever reject. If a person is unconscious, a priest saying absolution over them, will only have effect if they had some contrition and openness to receive the sacraments prior to the unconscious state. Even when a priest rushes he does not always get there in time. In such cases, we have to trust in God.
  8. Again, an important goal for every Catholic is to be up to date on their sacraments and in a state of grace. Sacraments are to be part of ordinary pastoral care and an ordinary part of the life of a Catholic. They are not to be merely postponed to the moment of death.

It is surely an added grief when a priest cannot be found in cases of true emergency or when proper pastoral care is not reasonably extended to the chronically ill. And while it may be an explanation that parish priests are sometimes overwhelmed, it is not an excuse. Parishes and dioceses need to work together with the faithful to see that the sick and the dying are properly cared for, that emergencies are covered, and that the faithful are properly instructed on the nature of the sacraments and how to secure the ministry of a priest when such needs arise.

As always, I am interested in your experiences in this regard. It is most helpful if you can suggest how the Church might better help in such matters.

On The Spiritual Attack of our Converts and What to Do About It

Back just before Holy Week I read an interesting and provocative essay by Jennifer Fulwiler at the National Catholic Register. It is about the need to more clearly instruct Catechumens and those being received into the Church about spiritual attack. Plain and simple, the devil wants to destroy the faith of those who have newly entered the Church. And we need to be sober about this. Being sober does not mean we are in a panic. It merely means we are alert and have a mind that is clear as to the possibility, even the likelihood that the Devil will seek to snatch them from our hands. I want to quote from Ms Fulwiler’s article article and then give some personal experiences and concerns:

It’s a subject nobody wants to talk about. Even among fellow Catholics, you risk being seen as superstitious or ignorant if you acknowledge that there is a dark force whose sole purpose is to keep people away from the light of Christ. And, to be sure, some hesitation about the subject is warranted: We’ve all heard stories of people who became overly fixated on the subject of evil, renouncing personal responsibility with “The devil made me do it!” arguments or seeing demons around every corner. So it’s good not to place too much emphasis on the forces of evil. But this is a subject where we want to be very, very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I think that modern Catholic culture has done just that.

In my own journey, an understanding of the reality of demonic activity has been critical to my spiritual life. I’ve been fortunate to have a spiritual director who has helped me learn to recognize when these kind of forces may be at work, and to act accordingly. …it was helpful for me to learn to recognize and reject those thought patterns that are not of Christ.

This advice has been particularly critical in times of doubt. Twenty-five years of atheistic thinking patterns don’t go away overnight, and since my conversion I’ve had plenty of periods where I experienced doubt or spiritual dryness. In these moments, it’s been extremely important to understand how to parse through my thoughts carefully, separating reasonable points from lines of thinking that seem to stem from spiritual attack, bad moods or other distracting forces (I once summarized what I learned about that here). Thanks to this understanding, each period of exploring my doubts has only led me to a deeper knowledge of God and greater faith in the Church.

And so, as a new group of converts (and “reverts”) prepares to come into full communion with the Church this Easter, I hope that our RCIA directors talk to them about this issue. I hope they make Dr. Peter Kreeft’s recent article about the reality of spiritual warfare required reading, and emphasize the benefits of finding a trusted priest or trained spiritual director to help navigate the ups and downs of the ongoing conversion process. Because while the path to sainthood is a beautiful road where we find peace and fulfillment as we grow closer to the Lord, we must never forget that it is also a battle.

The Full Article is Here: On Spiritual Attack

I must say, this article caused me to pause and repent. For I, who know better, have not made it a practice to speak to my Neophytes and Newly Received about this. That has to change. And I also need to extend longer care to those who have newly entered the Church.

It is sobering for me to consider how many of the people I have baptized quietly slipped away from the Church in the years that followed. A couple of years ago I was looking at my notes from past Easter Vigils and gradually my mouth came open. For as I looked back over those notes going back fifteen years, I saw the names of many I had prepared for baptism and reception. But more than half were gone now. And of only a very few could I say, “Ah, they have moved and I know that they are in a parish there.”

I was, frankly, stunned. Some of them had been intense, joyful and excited to be baptized and received. I remember the joy of those congregations gathered at the vigil as, one by one the catechumens went down into the water. “Alleluia!” went forth the song, as each of them emerged from the font. And joy too was expressed for those received into full communion. And now half of them gone, quite certainly lapsed.

I cannot find any hard data on line, but, I have talked to RCIA “experts” who do work at a national level and they quietly affirm that, within five years, 50% of those who came through RCIA are no longer practicing the faith in any real way. I cannot show you the hard numbers, but I have personally found this to be true.

I have tried to be better about following up with those who have come through my classes who later go “off the radar.” I call them in, or speak with them on the phone: “You know what I taught you about Mass attendance, I’m worried about you….Jesus wants to feed you!” “Adam where are you….Eve, why do hide your face?” I get their sponsors on the job too. But it’s strange, a kind of lethargy seems to come upon some of them. They make promises to return, but often don’t. Or they come once, but then disappear again. Maybe I’ll see them in the store later on and josh with them, or be very serious, depending on the situation. But something has come over them. Most didn’t have some terrible experience, they just drifted away, they just lost the joy, or things just got routine.

But Jennifer Fulwiler, above, is on to something very important: they are likely under some level of spiritual attack. Demon, thy name is lethargy, thy name is boredom, thy name is sorrow and sloth, distraction and forgetfulness. Jesus warned:

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mk 4:15-19)

Yes, spiritual attack is real. So is the world and the flesh.

I think, in the early days of RCIA we figured that those who entered in this way had a great advantage over “cradle Catholics,” for they had come to the faith as adults, and made a mature decision to follow Christ. Yes, they would remain firm. But we are waking up from that notion. We need to be more vigorous and sober in our assessment of what new and returning Catholics face. Satan is sure make some moves on them and, as Ms Fulwiler says, Twenty-five years of….thinking patterns don’t go away overnight.

In my own parish, thanks to the generous offer of a skilled parishioner, we’re looking to strongly enhance our mystagogia (post baptismal catechesis) and extend it for as long as two years. We’re also going to give more vigorous formation to sponsors and insist that they see their role as more than ceremonial and one that does not end with the Easter Vigil.

And I am going to begin to be more frank with my newly received and baptized as to the nature of spiritual attack, and the likely moves the devil will try. Further, they  must be taught a deeper understanding of the drives of the flesh and influence of the world. Peter Kreeft’s article, hot-linked  above in the quote from Ms Fulwiler, is a good place to start. CS Lewis also has some good material in the Screwtape Letters about how Satan seeks to knock out new converts like “low-hanging fruit.” I am grateful if you,  dear reader, can add to the list of suitable material to help in this matter. Clearly the goal here is not to frighten them, but to instill sobriety and an ability to discern spirits and resist demons, all by God’s manifold grace.

Yet another thing we must do better is to draw new members deeper in to the life of the Church. While Mass attendance and regular confession are primary goals, it is also most critical that new members feel welcome and be encouraged to get involved in the wider life the parish. This will usually root them more deeply in the faith and ensure a greater fraternity that will help them in their walk: Woe to the solitary man, for if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccles 4:10).

And we need to teach them to pray. The danger of RCIA is that it can be top heavy on intellectual formation but almost bereft of spiritual formation rooted in prayer and the spiritual and liturgical practices of the Church. Here too, I need to do a better job of finding the right balance.

As always, I am interested in your thoughts and experiences in this matter. Perhaps your own parish is addressing this? Perhaps too, you are a recent addition to our numbers in the Church and would be willing to share the good things, and the short-comings of your formation and mystagogia.

We have to do better. My recent trip down memory lane was real wake-up call. In the early Church, we went from the rather sudden and quick baptisms of Scripture (e.g. Acts 2:39; 8:36) to a three year catechumenate. This was likely due to a bad experience the Church had with those baptized too soon. I am not sure I want to make people wait three years, but I AM more sure I want their mystagogia to extend two years beyond their baptism and reception. We need to walk with our new brothers and sisters a little further down the road than just a few weeks or months out of the font. Lord, have mercy on me for taking so long to know better.

The Time is Near, Have You Gone to Confession?

It’s Holy Week and Lent is drawing to a close. Have you made a good confession? It just doesn’t seem possible that any Lent can be complete or even proper without going to confession. In many diocese there is a “Light is On for You” outreach wherein confession is available in all the parishes of that diocese every Wednesday night from 6:30 pm – 8:00pm. That is surely the case here in the Washington Area. I’ll be in the box waiting for people this Wednesday! So will all the other priests in the Washington and Arlington Dioceses. I am aware that Boston and other dioceses are doing something similar. But wherever you are it’s not too late to get to confession.

There are a number of reasons people postpone or even refuse to go to confession. Here are a few, plus a helps and suggestions.

1. I don’t need to go to the priest to confess my sins. Really? I wonder where you might have heard that? Is there some Bible verse that says that? Or is it perhaps just an unproven opinion? For scripture nowhere says, that you should only tell your sins privately to God. To the contrary, it says, Declare your sins, one to another (James 5:16). This same text goes on to specify that the priest is the one to do this and declares: The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Hence the Scriptures do not affirm a merely private notion in terms of confession. Quite the opposite. I have written more on the thoroughly Biblical origin of the Sacrament of Confession HERE.  Please consider reading it if you have doubts that confession is an integral part of the life of a Christian.

2. I’m anxious because it’s been a long time and I have forgotten the ritual. Be of good cheer,  you are not alone. Priests are well aware that many people need a little help with the format and things like the Act of Contrition. And don’t be too quick to think of Confession merely in terms of ritual. Fundamentally, Confession is a discussion. Feel free to ask the priest questions and to request help. If you’d like to review some of the aspects of Confession, how to prepare, and how the rite is celebrated here is a good site: How to Make a Good Confession.

3. I don’t have a lot of time and am not available to go at the usual time. Consider calling your parish or a nearby parish and asking for an appointment with the priest when you ARE available. Most priests are quite willing to make time to hear confessions at other than usual times. This is one of the essential reasons we were ordained. In larger cities there are often monasteries and Religious houses that make confession available all through the week at frequent hours. Here in DC both the Basilica and the Franciscan Monastery are legendary as places to go daily at all the major hours to celebrate Confession.

4. I don’t have to go if I don’t have mortal sin. Well, perhaps a lawyer will agree with you. But two things come to mind. First even little things have a way of piling up. Before long a room can look pretty cluttered, one little thing at a time. Secondly, mortal sin isn’t as rare as some people think. There is not the time to develop a whole theology of sin here, but simply realize that it is possible for all of us to do some pretty harsh and mean-spirited things, to say things that harm the reputation of others, to indulge in highly inappropriate sexual thoughts, to look a pornography, engage in masturbation, skip miss on Sunday, be prideful, thin-skinned and egotistical, misuse God’s name and refuse charity to the poor. And many of these things can become mortal sin, or are, by nature mortal sin. There is an old saying: Nemo judex in sua causa (no one is a judge in his own case). Simply making declarations that “I don’t have mortal sin” might not be a judgment you should be making. Regular confession is a more humble approach, it is less legalistic and also brings forth the grace to avoid sin in the future.

4. I don’t know what to confess. This is a common problem today where moral formation in our culture and even among Catholics is poor and generally vague. But there is help available. The sight already mentioned How to Make a Good Confession has a pretty good examination of conscience. I have also posted before what I consider one of the best helps I have discovered in preparing for confession. It is called the Litany of Penance and Reparation and is available by simply clicking on the title. If you prefer a more biblical preparation trying reading this passage:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:5-17)

It’s pretty hard to read a passage like this and come away thinking we have little to confess.

The bottom line is this: Go to Confession. Make the time. We find time for everything else. Remember how Lent began with this plea on Ash Wednesday: We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!…Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 5:20, 6:2).

Enjoy this effective video:

Walk in the Light – A Meditation on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent

In today’s Gospel, Jesus, the Light of the World, brings light to a man born blind. If you are prepared to accept it, you are the man born blind, for all of us were born blind and in darkness. It was our baptism alone, and the faith it gave, which has rendered us able to see, and, by stages, to come more fully into the light. The man in today’s Gospel shows forth the stages of the Christian walk, out of darkness, and into the beautiful light of Christ. Let’s take a moment and observe these stages evident in this man, for we are the man.

I. The Problem that is Presented – We are introduced to man who was blind from his birth, he is quite incapable of seeing at all. The text says: As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

So there is the problem, he is blind, he has no vision. And this us. On account of Original Sin we had lost all spiritual vision. We could not see God, or endure the light of his glory. This lack of vision causes many to have no “vision” for their life. They don’t know why they were made, or what the true purpose of their existence is. Many cannot see past the sufferings of this world to the glory that waits. Still others have retreated into the material world and cannot see beyond it. Others have retreated even further, away from reality into the realm only of their mind, their own opinions and so forth. St. Augustine describes this condition of the human person as curvatus in se (man, turned in on himself). Yes, there is a blindness that imprisons many in the darkness. And even for us who do believe there are still areas where it is hard for us to see. Coming to see God more fully, and ourselves as we really are is a journey we are still on.

While the disciples want to dwell on secondary causes, Jesus sidesteps these concerns and focuses on solutions. The fact is he is blind, assessing blame is unproductive. Healing the man is uppermost. In a statement, dripping with irony, Jesus says that the works of God will be made visible in a blind man. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Cor 1:25). Yes, God can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines. So Jesus gets to work.

II. The Purification that is Prescribed – Having diagnosed the problem and noting that the man is in darkness, Jesus, the Light of the World, begins the work of healing this man. The text says, When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva,and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” – which means Sent -. So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

Hopefully, you can see baptism here.  Jesus says, “Go and wash.” – He went, he washed and he came back able to see. Yes, this is baptism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of Baptism: This bath is called enlightenment, because those who receive this [catechetical] instruction are enlightened in their understanding… Having received in Baptism the Word, “the true light that enlightens every man,” the person baptized has been “enlightened,” he becomes a “son of light,” indeed, he becomes “light” himself.…(CCC1216).

Baptism is required, in order to truly see. It is no mere aside that John mentions the name of the pool to which the man goes: Siloam, a name which means “sent.” Jesus sends him, and He sends us. Baptism is required. Jesus says elsewhere:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)

Notice he comes back ABLE to see. But just because you’re able to see does not mean you actually DO see. Right now I am able to see the Statue of liberty, my eyes work fine for that. But I do not yet see it. I have to make a journey to do that. Thus, the man here is able to see Jesus, but he does not yet see him. He has a journey to make in order to do that. Though able to see but he, like we, has a long way to go to see Jesus fully, and face to face. Baptism is not the end of our journey but the beginning of it. It renders us able to see. But we are still new born babes. We need to grow. We can see, but there is plenty we haven’t seen yet.

III. The Perception that is Partial – Hence we notice the man can see, but he still does not know much of the one who has enabled him to see. Notice what the text says: His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is, ” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” So they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.”

So he’s able to see. But he hasn’t seen much. The man must grow in his faith to come to know who Jesus Really is. Look at how his partial perception is described. For now, he merely understands Jesus as “the man called Jesus.” To him,  Jesus is just some “dude,” some “guy.” And then they ask where Jesus is, and all he can say is that he does “not know.” Hence although he able to see, he does not yet actually see Jesus.

And this describes a lot of Christians. They know about Jesus but they don’t know him. Many Catholics in the pews are “sacramentalized but unevangelized.”  That is, they have received the sacraments, but have never really met Jesus Christ and do not know him in any more than an intellectual way. Many don’t even expect to know him. He is little better to them than “the man called Jesus.” They’ve heard of Jesus, and even know some basic facts, but he still remains a distant figure in their lives. And when asked questions about him, they respond like this man, “I don’t know.”

The man needs to make progress, and he will and we shall now see. Remember, you are the man.

IV. Progress Through Persecution and Pondering – The text goes on to show us the progress this formerly blind man makes in coming to know and finally see Jesus. It is interesting that this progress comes largely through persecution. Now persecution for us need not always be understood as being arrested and thrown in jail etc. Persecution can come in many forms such as puzzlement, expressed by relatives and friends, ridicule of Catholicism in the media, or even those internal voices that make us question our faith. But, in what ever form, persecution has a way of making us face the questions, and refine our understanding. Our vision gets clearer as we meet the challenges.

Notice the man’s progress up till now. He HAS been baptized and is now able to see. But he still knows little of Jesus calling only “the man called Jesus,” and not really knowing where Jesus is. But, he is about to grow, and he does so in several stages.

In stage one of his post-baptismal growth we that his neighbors turn on him and bring him to the Pharisees who interrogate him because Jesus had healed him on a sabbath. The text says,

They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a Sabbath. So then, the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”

Thus notice what this persecution does for him. As he is challenged to say something about Jesus he moves beyond calling him “the man called Jesus” and describes Jesus as a “prophet.” He has gained some insight here. A prophet speaks for God and, Jesus is the Word, made flesh.

In Stage two of his post-baptismal growth we see that the Pharisees doubt his story and broaden their persecution to interrogate and threaten his fearful parents, and then they call him back and put him under oath and declare Jesus to be a sinner. The text says:

Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” his parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ, he would be expelled from the synagogue. For this reason his parents said, “He is of age; question him.”

In stage three of his post-baptismal growth we note that the continuing persecution seems to make him grow even stronger and more able to withstand his opponents. Note his determination and fearlessness in the second interrogation he faces which includes ridiculing him and placing him under oath:

So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner.” He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” So they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.

The result of this is to further deepen his vision of Jesus. For, at first, he saw him only as “the man called Jesus,” then he sees him as a prophet, now he goes further and sees him as “from God.” He’s progressing from sight to insight. His ability to see, given him in baptism is now resulting in even clearer vision.

This then, leads us to the final end of this gospel and this man’s journey.

V.Perfection that is Portrayed – He has been thrown out of the synagogue, as many early Christians were. He has endured the hatred of the world, and the loss of many things. Now, cast aside, and hated by the world, the Lord approaches him. The text says:

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.”He said, “I do believe, Lord, ” and he worshiped him.

Now his vision is plain. After all this, he finally sees. He sees, not only Jesus, but Who Jesus is. First he saw him only as “the man called Jesus.” Next a prophet. Next, he says, he is from God. But this final stage is the best of all. He actually sees Jesus and falls down to worship Him, Jesus is not only from God, he IS God. Christ has fully enlightened this man.

This is our journey, moving in stages to more perfectly know Jesus. One day we will see him face to face. But even before that time we are called to grow in faith by stages so that we see Jesus for who he is.

Where are you on this journey? Our vision is daily getting better if we are faithful but it is not yet complete. Scripture says

  1. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. (1 Cor 13:12)
  2. Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2)
  3. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God? (Psalm 42:2)

For now, make this journey. Journey in stages. Come to know who Jesus is.

I have it on the best of authority that the man, on his journey to Jesus, sang this song: Walk in the Light, beautiful light. Come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright. Walk all around us by day and by night, O Jesus the Light of the World!