A Valuable New Book Sets Forth the Gift of the Priestly Blessing

Fr. Robert Kilner gives first blessings (J. Lippelmann 2017)

For priests, there is probably no request more common than this one: “Father, will you bless this?” Dozens of times per week we’re requested to bless a new rosary, statue or other religious article, or even a new car or home. We also get more personal requests: “Father, may I have your blessing?” Even in these secular times many of the unchurched and lukewarm still instinctively seek our blessings and prayers when they see us out in public, whether it’s at the airport or in the grocery store.

One might think, given the frequency of such requests, that we would have studied a good bit about the theology of blessings in seminary and would have been trained to make these brief pastoral moments more meaningful both for ourselves and for those to whom we minister—but such is not the case. I cannot remember a single thing being taught about the theology of blessings. Perhaps blessings were mentioned in passing when listing examples of sacramentals (objects, rituals, blessings, or events that are like sacraments in some sense but are not among the seven sacraments), but there was no elaboration of a theology of blessings.

Hence, many priests have a rather vague theological framework for one of the most frequent requests that we get. If we are not careful, we can treat such requests in a rather perfunctory way, waving our hands and saying a few holy words, barely realizing that we are using a priestly power that is often more appreciated by the faithful than by us. Something important is happening in a blessing and we priests do well to be more aware of what that is in order to avoid a kind of dubious rationalism or a superstitious excess.

A recent book by Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, The Priestly Blessing: Rediscovering the Gift, is most helpful in filling this gap in the training of most of us priests. It thoroughly develops a theological and pastoral framework for giving and receiving blessings. In a mere 150 pages, he surveys the biblical and ecclesial history of blessings and sets forth a theological, spiritual, and pastoral explanation of them. He explores the place of blessings in the incarnational aspects of the Catholic Faith, their purpose in sanctifying and restoring who and what was wounded in the fall of creation, and the roots and effects of blessings in the lives of the faithful. He also answers many practical questions such as these: Who can bless? Are hands to be extended, folded, or imposed? Are there some things that should not be blessed?

Msgr. Rossetti also explores the controversy that has emerged in the last fifty years among some theologians about the nature of blessings, how they are best conferred, and whether things should be blessed or only the people who use those things.

This debate among theologians reached the parishes in the late 1980s. The “Book of Blessings,” published in 1989, became controversial because it generally stopped short of using language or gestures that were associated with actually blessing the item. The new ritual book arrived from Rome without much explanation, and most of us who were priests at the time obediently sought to use it.

When someone requested the blessing of an object, we would dutifully open the new ritual and read the prayers. Puzzlement would often result when the prayers ended without a sign of the cross over the item and without traditional words specifically asking God to bless the item. Sometimes the faithful would ask, “Father, did you bless it?” They were instinctively looking for the traditional gesture of the extended hand moved in the sign of the cross with words such as these: “May almighty God bless this [item] in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The new Book of Blessings intentionally removed such things and spoke instead of asking God to bless the people who used this or that object or lived in this or that place. Without any explanation from Rome as to why traditional blessing formulas and gestures were eliminated, most of us priests either began to add the words and gesture back in or just quietly returned the Book of Blessings to the shelf and returned to using informal blessings or prayers from older books.

Msgr. Rossetti sets forth the theological views that underlie both the new and the old ritual books. He is fair in his presentation and explores why some in the past century have sought to adopt a different understanding of blessings. Were they involved in a correction of superstitious understandings? Did they over-correct? Is there a balance to be found in studying both views? And because the use of the older rituals is still permitted, does the debate even matter anymore?

Msgr. Rossetti takes the helpful approach of using the controversy to teach more deeply on the theology of blessings. I know that it has helped me in understanding that those who developed the modern Book of Blessings were not engaging in innovation for its own sake, nor were they being impious. Even for someone like me who strongly prefers the older Roman Ritual for blessings, the vision of the newer ritual is not without merit and can help prevent excesses and superstition. Msgr. Rossetti has provided a helpful contribution to the controversy and, while favoring the traditional gestures and the insight that things as well as people can be and are blessed, articulates the newer insights as well.

This is an excellent resource that should be required reading for all priests and be included in the curriculum of seminary formation. It is also readable and helpful for all of God’s people. It would make a good Christmas gift for any priest or deacon, filling what is likely a significant gap in their studies. Go, my brother priests, sell all you have and buy a copy! (Or, put it on your Christmas wish-list.) This priestly work is too important for us to be vague about it. As the subtitle suggests, rediscover the gift!

What Attachments Are and What They Are Not

This past Sunday, we read St. Paul’s almost ominous words about our need to break free from attachments to this world:

I tell you, brothers, the time is running out.
From now on, let those having wives act as not having them,
those weeping as not weeping,
those rejoicing as not rejoicing,
those buying as not owning,
those using the world as not using it fully.
For the world in its present form is passing away
(1 Cor 7:29-31).

In this passage St. Paul speaks about what is, for most of us, the struggle that most hinders our spiritual growth. The great majority of the spiritual life is a battle about desire, worldly attachments, and the answer to this fundamental question: “What do you want most, the world and its pleasures or God and His Kingdom?” This world gets its hooks into us so and we easily become attached to it. It is hard to break free from inordinate desires.

But what are attachments and what are they not? Are there ways we can distinguish attachments from ordinary and proper desires? What are the signs that we are too attached to someone or something?

To address questions like these I turn to a great teacher of mine in matters spiritual, Fr. Thomas Dubay. Fr. Dubay died more than seven years ago but left a great legacy of teaching through his books, audio recordings, and programs at EWTN. I would like to summarize what he teaches in his spiritual classic, Fire Within, a book in which he expounds on the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

Here then are some excerpts (pp. 133-135). Fr. Dubay’s teaching is shown in bold, black italics, while my lesser remarks are presented in plain red text.

I. WHAT ATTACHMENT IS NOT:

Sometimes it is easier to say what a thing is not than what it is. In doing this Fr. Dubay disabuses us of incorrect and sometimes puritanical notions that are neither biblical nor Catholic because they reject as bad what God has made as good. Scripture says, God created [things] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:3-4).

  1. First of all, attachment is not the experiencing of pleasure in things, not even keen, intense pleasure. The complete avoidance of pleasure is neither possible nor advisable in human life … There is no doubt that the pleasures of the five senses easily lead to a selfish clinging to them for their own sakes, but nonetheless, the pleasures themselves are not blameworthy. God made them, and they are good.

The remarks here are very balanced. Of itself, taking pleasure in what God has made is a kind of thanksgiving and surely an appreciation of what God has created and given.

Yet, due to our fallen nature, we must be cautious that our experience of pleasure, like all our passions, does not become unruly, improperly directed, and/or take on a life of its own. If we are not mindful, pleasures can divert our attention from the giver (and His purpose) to the gift.

Consider that a husband properly enjoys intense pleasure in his intimate experiences with his wife. Correctly understood, there is little way he can fail to enjoy this, other things being equal. These intimate moments, however, have a meaning beyond themselves: They summon him to greater appreciation and love for his wife, and ultimately for the God who created her. Further, they draw him to share his love and appreciation through an openness to the fruit this love will bear in his children.

The gift of intimacy is wonderful and to be enjoyed to the fullest, but it is not an end in itself. When it becomes its own end and exists in our mind only for its own sake, we are on the way to attachment and idolatry.

  1. Nor is possessing or using things an attachment to them.

We must all make use of things in this world to accomplish what God has given us to do. God is surely pleased to equip us with what we need to do His will: to build the Kingdom and to be of help to others.

  1. Nor is being attracted, even mightily attracted, to a beautiful object or person an unhealthy attachment. As a matter of fact, we should be drawn to the splendors of creation, for that is a compliment to the supreme Artist. Saints were and are strongly attracted to the glories of the divine handiwork and especially to holy men and women, the pinnacles of visible creation.

We should pray for the gift of wonder and awe, wherein we appreciate and are joyful in God’s glory displayed in the smallest and most hidden things as well as in the greatest and most visible things. We are also summoned to a deep love of, appreciation for, and attraction to the beauty, humor, and even quirkiness of each person.

Here, too, these things are meant to point to God; they are not ends in themselves. Sometimes that we fail to connect the dots, as St. Augustine classically describes, Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love You! For behold, You were within, and I without, and there did I seek You; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, would not exist” (Confessions 10.27).

So once again, to be attracted by beauty is of itself good, but it is not an end. It is a sign pointing to the even greater beauty of God and His higher gifts.

II. WHAT ATTACHMENT IS: St John of the Cross [observes] that if anyone is serious about loving God totally, he must willingly entertain no self-centered pursuit of finite things sought for themselves, that is, devoid of honest direction to God, our sole end and purpose. St. Paul makes exactly the same point when he tells the Corinthians that whatever they eat or drink, or whatever else they do they are to do all for the glory of God … (1 Cor 10:31)

St John of the Cross explicitly states that he is speaking of voluntary desires and not natural ones‚ for the latter are little or no hindrance to advanced prayer as long as the will does not intervene with a selfish clinging. By natural desires the saint has in mind, for example, a felt need for water when we are thirsty, for food when hungry, for rest when fatigued. There is no necessary disorder in experiencing these needs … to eradicate these natural inclinations and to mortify them entirely is impossible in this life.

Of course even natural desires can become unruly and exaggerated to the point that we seek to satisfy them too much and they become ends in themselves. St. Paul laments that there are some people whose god is their belly and who have their mind set only on worldly things (cf Phil 3:19).

[More problematic and] especially damaging to normal development are what John calls, “habitual appetites,” that is, repeated and willed clinging to things less than God for their own sake.

Here we come to some critical distinctions.

[W]e may ask when a desire becomes inordinate and therefore harmful. I would offer three clear signs.

  1. The first is that the activity or thing is diverted from the purpose God intends for it.

This is common today with sex, food, drink and with many diversions.

  1. The second sign is excess in use. As soon as we go too far in eating, drinking, recreating, speaking, or working, we show that there is something disordered in our activity. We cannot honestly direct to the glory of God what is in excess of what He wills. Hence, a person who buys more clothes than needed is attached to clothing. One who overeats is clinging selfishly to food.

A couple of beers is gratitude; ten is a betrayal. God certainly gives in abundance, but He does so more so that we can share with the poor than that we should cling to it selfishly as though it existed as an end of itself.

Sharing spreads God’s glory. St Paul says, All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God (2 Cor 4:15). You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God (2 Cor 9:11). Thus the abundance of God is directed to the spreading of His glory and to an increase in thanksgiving, not as an end itself that we should hoard. God’s gifts point back to Himself.

  1. The third sign of attachment is making means into ends. We have one sole purpose in life: the ultimate, enthralling vision of the Trinity in glory, in our risen body. Everything else is meant in the divine plan to bring us and others to this final embrace with Beauty and Love … As soon as honesty requires us to admit that this eating or that travel, this television viewing or that purchase is not directly or indirectly aimed at Father, Son, and Spirit, we have made ourselves into an idol. We are clearly clinging to something created for our own self-centered sake.

This is often the hardest of the three signs to discern, but the main difference between a thing becoming an end rather than a means is the question of gratitude. How consciously grateful are we to God for the things and pleasures we enjoy? Do they intensify our gratitude or do they merely distract us from thinking about God? Further, do they help us in our journey upward to God or do they merely root us more deeply in this passing world?

Another scary question is this one: How easily could we give a particular thing up if it was hindering us from God or if God no longer wanted it in our life? This is difficult because we really enjoy certain things and situations, but the important thing is not that we enjoy them but that they lead us to God. We must be honest in answering this question, avoiding puritanical notions as well as self-justifying ones.

An important gift to seek from God is not merely the strength to give things up (while displaying a sour face and poor attitude) but to begin to prefer good things in moderation to distracting things in excess. If we let God go to work in us, the good begins to crowd out the bad in an incremental way.

[Therefore:] an attachment is a willed seeking of something finite for its own sake. It is an unreal pursuit, an illusory desire. Nothing exists except for the sake of God who made all things for Himself. Any other use is a distortion.

A final observation I would add about attachments is that they are a complex aspect of self-mastery. We are not easily rid of them, especially in certain areas. The areas that are difficult vary from person to person. We do well to ask God for help humbly A particularly clear sign of an attachment is excessive worry about the loss of particular things, persons, or situations. In such cases, we must run to God like a child and cast such cares on Him, trusting that He can restore us to a proper and free joy in His gifts, a joy increasingly free of the fear of loss.

Grant us, O Lord, to rejoice in your gifts free from the possessiveness that incites the fear of loss. We cry to you, for only you, O Lord, can heal our wounded hearts. Amen.

Advice for the Married: Don’t Forget the Gifts in Strange Packages

In his book Humility Rules (which I think should be read as Humility Rules!), Fr. J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B. offers some insight into the humility of patience, forgiveness, and mercy.

Fr. Wetta recalls a situation in which he was asked to preach at the wedding of his best friend. As a monk, he was not accustomed to in preaching in parish settings and so sought the advice of an older monk:

I went looking for Fr. Luke. He is the founder of our community and has seen pretty much everything a monk can see. I found him asleep in a chair in the calefactory [a warmed sitting room in a monastery]. “Wake up, Father,” I said, “I need something wise to say at my buddy’s wedding.”

Fr. Luke opened his eyes, look around the room for a moment, and then said, “Tell them that there will come a day when he will want the window open and she will want the window closed.” Then he went back to sleep.

Fr. Wetta observes,

So, true love is more about endurance than it is about chocolates and teddy bears. We prove our love at precisely those moments when the people we love test our patience, put a strain on our kindness, and tempt us to anger. Love is truly love—and not just infatuation—when it proves itself in the crucible of suffering (Humility Rules, pp. 59-60).

Humility Rules is a wonderful book, well worth reading for its humor, wisdom, and whimsical art. The advice offered is not all that different from what I offer to pre-Cana couples, but Fr. Wetta presents it with more humor.

Patience, magnanimity, and mercy are essential for any relationship, let alone marriage.

Married couples give each other many gifts. Some of them come wrapped in obvious packages such as companionship, intimacy, and completion. Others come in strange packages.

Indeed, a spouse can give his/her partner many opportunities to know what it means to forgive. This is a gift, however strange its package, because Jesus teaches that if we forgive we will be forgiven but if we do not then we may go to Hell.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours (Matt 6:14-15).

Without forgiveness, it is pretty hard to enter glory; with it we stand a good chance.

It is the same with mercy. Jesus says,

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Mat 5:7).

James warns,

Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful (James 2:13).

As anyone who has been married for any length of time knows, spouses give each other ample opportunities to practice mercy. Indeed, the debate about the window that Fr. Luke described above may well occur in the limousine ride from the church to the reception hall! This, too, is a gift in strange package. If I show mercy then I will be shown mercy on judgment day—and we’re all going to need mercy then, lots of it!

Even the difficult parts of marriage, the gifts in strange packages, help to sanctify the husband and wife. St. Paul reminds us, And we know that, for those who love God, all things work together for good (Romans 8:28).

Indeed they do. Don’t forget the gifts in strange packages.

How the Liturgy is Healing Medicine for Strident Times

One of the most concise and cogent descriptions of these often strident times came from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986. It is contained in, of all places, his treatise on the theology of sacred music in a book called The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986). His comments have been republished in a larger compendium of his works, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014, Vol 11).

It is hard to describe our times as anything but contentious. Loud, strident protests often predominate over reasoned discourse and thoughtful argumentation.

To be sure, every era has had, and has needed, protest and public opposition to injustice. There is a time and a place for loud protest and the use of memorable sound bites.

However, it is the predominance of loud protest and civil disobedience that stands out today. Sound bites, slogans, and simplistic “war cries” have to a large extent replaced thoughtful, reasoned discourse. Volume, power, and visually flashy techniques are prized; they are being used more and more. Such approaches too frequently produce more heat than light.

Consider, then, this remarkable analysis by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, written back before the Internet and social media had turned up the volume even more. Ratzinger paraphrased an insight of Gandhi’s, applied it to his analysis of our current times, and then proposed a healing remedy to restore balance:

I would like to note a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi … Gandhi refers to the three habitats of the cosmos and how each of these provides its own mode of being. The fish live in the sea, and they are silent. The animals of the earth scream and shout; but the birds, whose habitat is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth and singing to the heavens. Man has a share in all three of them. He carries the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of the heavens in himself. And for this reason, all three properties also belong to him: silence, shouting, and singing.

Today – I would like to add – we see only the shouting is left for the man without transcendence, since he only wants to be of the earth.

The right liturgy, the liturgy of the Communion of the Saints, restores totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening him to the depths of the sea and teaching him to fly, the angels’ mode of being. It brings the song buried in him to sound once more by lifting up his heart. . . .

Right liturgy … liberates us from ordinary, everyday activity and returns to us once more the depths and the heights, silence and song … Right liturgy … sings with the angels … is silent with the expectant depths of the universe, and that is how it redeems the earth (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11, Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 460).

This is a remarkable analysis and an insightful application of liturgy and cosmology to the issues and imbalances of our day! It is in the vein of “Save the liturgy, save the world.” For indeed, only in the worship of God do we find our true selves. Only in the liturgy is our true personality formed. The human person in his glory unites the material and spiritual orders. We are capable of pregnant, expectant silence; of the joyful shout of praise and the Gospel going forth; and of the song of Heaven.

As Ratzinger pointed out, though, we too often are preoccupied with and value only one aspect: the shouting of the earthbound creatures of this world. But the liturgy – good and proper liturgy – trains us in all three and accomplishes the balance that is so often lost today. The liturgy is a training ground, not only for our heavenly destination, but also in what it means to be truly human.

Read and carefully consider Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflection. It will bless your soul; I know it has blessed mine.

Here is a song of the heavens:

Don’t Forget the Old Evangelization

The term “New Evangelization” was originally used by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to refer to the unique situation of the West, wherein we were not preaching the Gospel to a people who had not heard it, but were instead “re-presenting” the Gospel to a culture that had once embraced the Gospel and later rejected it. In essence, the term means “re-evangelization.”

In his “Latin Letters,” C.S. Lewis quipped that while the ancient Europe encountered by the Apostles and the early Church was a virgin awaiting her groom, Jesus Christ, modern Europe is an angry divorcée.

Reaching this quite different audience, of course, would require adjusting the way in which the message was delivered. “New Evangelization” was the phrase used to signify this.

However, many have taken up the phrase in a less restrictive sense and use it in the marketing sense of “new and improved!” This has opened the terminology to abuse and misunderstanding such that it comes to mean that we must mimic secular marketing principles and “mega-church” tactics. To some, it also means that we must alter the message of the Gospel by emphasizing what is popular and pleasant, while minimizing what is challenging and countercultural.

“Welcoming” has become the watchword for many in world of the misconstrued “New Evangelization.” Being welcoming is most often used to mean being nice, pleasant, unchallenging, and completely inoffensive. The only problem with this is that Jesus, as we shall see, wouldn’t qualify for membership on such an evangelization committee.

As a kind of admonition and corrective to much of this, Eric Sammons has written, The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did. Consider this passage:

We have a simplistic notion of what it means to love our neighbors. We think of it strictly as being nice to them. Yet … Jesus rarely ever appears “nice” as we moderns would define it. On the contrary he is usually abrupt, sparing with compliments, and willing to confront others directly about their failings. He appears not to follow Dale Carnegie’s advice about “how to win friends and influence people.” Yet he has a deeper love for every individual than we will ever imagine (pp. 51-52).

It would seem that Jesus never got the memo when it comes to many modern notions of evangelization. To be sure, many found in Jesus remarkable love and healing, but it was not the sort of saccharine and soft love (understood as mere kindness) that so many think of today. It was a strong, vigorous love. It was providing true healing rather than mere emotional relief.

Healing often requires difficult surgeries. Healing can hurt. It can disclose deep drives that require strong rebuke and aggressive therapies. Many people are looking for relief, but not healing. Jesus was in the healing business and was more than willing to assert that the cross was the necessary remedy for what ails us. A lot of this does not sit well with the welcoming, pleasant paradigm of evangelization.

In his book, Mr. Sammons goes on to remind us of the true goal of evangelization:

[We think that] if we are nice enough, everyone will want to be our friends. But that was not goal of Jesus Christ. His goal was to covert sinners, to rescue souls from damnation and bring them to their eternal reward in heaven (p. 52).

True spiritual health and final salvation are the goals. Hospitality and making people feel good and welcome have a place initially, but it’s a little bit like the dentist’s office. A nice waiting room, pleasant hygienists, soothing music, and a smiling dentist are all good, but once the pleasantries are accomplished, we have to talk about dental health and get down to the business of teeth cleaning, and checking for cavities and gum disease. If a dentist sees problems and says nothing because niceness is his goal, he is not being nice or compassionate at all. Indeed, by his silence, he is guilty of serious malpractice and unworthy of his title, Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS).

It is the same with an evangelizer. An evangelizer is unworthy of the title if he leaves the call to repentance and conversion unspoken. Pleasantries and a welcoming environment have their initial place but if that is all there is, then there is no true evangelization taking place and it is outright malpractice on the part of the evangelizer, parish, or Church.

True love for others desires what is best for them, not merely what is apparently good or pleasant in the moment. The fundamental kerygma (Gospel proclamation) is summarized as follows: “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). These were the opening words of Jesus’ public ministry of evangelization. I seriously doubt that most parishes would even consider such a proclamation as central to their evangelization program.

In modern settings (and probably in Jesus’ day), “Repent” is not exactly a “welcoming” word, but it is a loving word nonetheless. “Repent” suggests (actually, it outright says) that there are problems and that changes are needed. Yes, there are some problems that need attention and some drives that must be called sinful whether or not it is politically correct or popular to do so. The transformative Word and grace from God can heal and perfect us, but we must come to believe the Gospel. To believe the Gospel is to accept the wisdom of the cross, which is absurdity to the world.

Thus, “Repent and believe the Gospel” challenges; it doesn’t always feel welcoming. Eric Sammons further notes,

Too many Catholics will avoid tough topics in the desire to remain “welcoming.” But this is exactly where we most fail in evangelization. In order to make disciples, we must be willing to push into uncomfortable areas … Only by doing so will we bring another to confront the truth. (p. 57).

Only the truth will set us free. Care and prudence will assist us in knowing how and when to shift from welcoming to making disciples, but we cannot forever remain in welcoming mode and call it true evangelization. The true Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; each of us, including the people we evangelize, is a little bit of both.

Be careful, then. The term “New Evangelization” is not always rightly understood.

I recommend Eric Sammons’ book as an important help in understanding that the “New Evangelization” cannot exclude the “Old Evangelization” established by Jesus and the Apostles, which must remain our truest model. It is not that there are no insightful aspects of the “New Evangelization” Just be careful not to embrace the new so much that the old is repudiated. Jesus’ approach was quite different from many versions of the “New Evangelization.” It would be an ironic twist if Jesus and His methods were not welcome in your warm, embracing, and welcoming parish.

At work here is the supreme evangelizer, even though He breaks almost every modern rule:

Pray for Priests! An Urgent Call Based on a Teaching by Robert Cardinal Sarah

One of the most consistent concerns expressed both by my readers and by attendees at the various talks I give, is the large number of tepid and problematic clergy. We clergy give our people much to endure, yet for the most part they are so very patient and loving with us despite our foibles and idiosyncrasies.

Most of the people are highly concerned about the widespread silence and/or vagueness of the clergy in the face of the grave moral meltdown in our culture. At best, many pulpits are silent or replete with abstractions and generalities. At worst, some pulpits and clerical teaching contain outright errors or ambiguities that (intentionally or not) mislead and confuse the faithful.

There are, to be sure, numerous exceptions to these concerns. There are many fine, hard-working priests who teach courageously and clearly, with love and zeal. However, the problem is widespread enough that it is a common concern of the faithful.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, in his recent book The Power of Silence Against the Dictatorship of Noise, presents an insightful analysis of the problem and its causes. He relates the problem to a lack of prayerful silence on the part of many priests, who find little time for prayer let alone deeper silent contemplation. He begins by referencing Fr. Henri Nouwen, who once said,

Silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive … Especially we [priests], who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world, need to tend the fire within with utmost care … [Yet] many minsters have become burnt-out cases … in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died, and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring and petty ideas and feelings; … It is as if [they] are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people [cited in The Power of Silence, p. 77].

Here are two key insights. First, a priest who is not accustomed to silently praying and listening to the voice of the Lord begins to hear only the voice of the world and to parrot its slogans and often insipid, ephemeral notions. The voice of Christ and the light of the Gospel grow dim, and his mind centers more on vain things and worldly notions. Gradually, he “goes native,” taking up the mind of the world, fleshly notions, and even the doctrines of demons.

Second, a priest can slip away from the “still, whispering voice of the Lord.” He can begin to lose trust in the power of God’s grace to touch and change people’s hearts. Vigorous preaching is rooted in confidence about both the truth proclaimed and the power of grace to bring about what the revealed Word announces. It is true that the Lord’s teachings are often challenging to the faithful, but this did not trouble Christ who, knowing the power of grace, did not hesitate to point to the highest truths and confidently summon the faithful to trust in His grace and mercy to get there! Without deep prayer, we lose our trust in God and in His people.

Gradually, as Nouwen notes, a priest’s untended inner fire grows cool and the numbness of the world extinguishes his joy, zeal, confidence, and love. The demands of the Gospel come to seem unreasonable or even impossible to him. And because he sees the Gospel as too challenging he is hesitant to preach its demands. As the inner fire grows dim, he slips into watering down the Gospel message, into the obfuscation of abstractions and generalities, or into outright denial of the harder truths.

Cardinal Sarah warns priests of this tendency and its outcome:

Christ is certainly distressed to see and to hear priests and bishops, who ought to be protecting the integrity of the teaching of the Gospel and of doctrine, multiply words and writing that weaken the rigor of the Gospel by their deliberately confused, ambiguous statements. It is not inopportune to remind these priests and prelates … of Christ’s severe words: “Therefore I tell you every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven … either in this age or the age to come. [He] is guilty of an eternal sin” [Ibid., pp. 77-78].

Thus, as both Fr. Nouwen and Cardinal Sarah point out, priests who let the fire of God grow dim and who no longer trust God or His people, sin against the Holy Spirit. They do so because they come to doubt or even deny the power of grace to make possible the satisfaction of the Gospel’s demands. Human flattery and worldly perspectives are preferred to the Holy Spirit’s urging to announce the Gospel plainly, lovingly, and without compromise. Human weakness becomes the baseline for what is expected. God the Holy Spirit is dismissed as irrelevant or incapable of perfecting God’s people. This is a sin against the Holy Spirit and a disastrous end for a priest, especially one who has reached the point of outright misleading God’s people and confirming them in sinful and erroneous notions.

Therefore, I ask all of the faithful to pray often for priests and bishops. In our human weakness, we clergy can stray from prayer. From there, the fiery zeal of God and the joy of the truth give way to the thinking of the world and to a lack of confidence in preaching without compromise. From the point of compromise, things just keep getting worse.

In his book, Cardinal Sarah references St. Augustine’s own plea for prayer, and I will conclude with that:

It is not my intention to waste my life on the vanity of ecclesiastical honors. I think of the day when I will have to render an accounting for the flock that has been entrusted to me by the Prince of pastors. Understand my fears, because my fears are great [p. 79].

Tu es Sacerdos in Aeternum by Vivaldi:

The Carnage of Divorce

divorceAlmost two decades ago, as a younger priest, I remember trying to save a marriage. Sadly, by the second counseling session I concluded that the couple really had no intention of trying to save the marriage. Rather, they were looking to me to assuage their guilt and to console them by telling them they were really “doing the right thing,” that God wanted them to be happy and would not mind if they divorced. I could do no such thing.

At a critical moment the couple said, in effect, “We are really doing this for the sake of the children. We don’t want them to suffer with all of our bickering.” To which I replied, “Then stop the bickering!” As they looked at me incredulously, I went on to urge them to get whatever help they needed to work through their differences. I insisted that God hates divorce and that divorce is not good for children; reconciliation is what they want and need.

Realizing that they were not going to get the approval and consolation they sought, the couple ended the session and did not return. They finalized their divorce. Their three children went on to be subject to things far worse than bickering: being carted around to different households on weekends, meeting Dad’s new girlfriend, accepting a stepdad, always secretly wishing that Mom and Dad would love each other again.

I thought of that story (and others like it) as I was reading this book, published in May: Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak, by Leila Miller. It should be required reading for anyone who thinks that divorce is “good thing” for their children—or even for them.

Consider the following passage from the book, in which a woman writes of suffering through her parent’s divorce during her youth:

My grandparents’ generation had to deal with a lot — war, undiagnosed PTSD, and alcoholism—but they had a noble idea: That you sacrificed your own happiness for your children’s well-being. You took on all the heartache so they didn’t have to. …

My parent’s generation inverted that. They decided it was better a child should have her world torn apart than that an adult should bear any suffering. Of course, they didn’t frame it that way. They wanted to believe that the child would suffer less, because children were just extensions of the mother, and the mother would theoretically be happier [p. 131].

It is shocking logic, but widespread in our culture. Indeed, the whole conversation about marriage today is about adults and what makes them happy; children are something of an afterthought. Marriage is said to be about romance, being happy, and “finding a soulmate.” But if one asks a couple about having children, a common response is, “Oh sure, that too. We’ll probably have a kid or two … when we’re ready.” Children are seen more as a way of accessorizing the marriage, as an “add-on” rather than the essential work of a marriage.

Yet the biblical and traditional understanding of marriage has its entire structure made sensible by its central work: procreation and the subsequent raising of the children. That a man and a woman should enter a stable, lifelong union makes sense because that is what is necessary and best for children. Marriage is about children and has its very structure directed toward what is best for them. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, a child is best raised by a father and a mother who are stably present and who manifest the masculine and feminine genius of being human. To intentionally subject children to anything less or anything different does them an injustice.

The divorce culture casts this aside and insists that marriage is about adults and what makes them happy. If there are children in the picture, don’t worry, they’ll adjust; kids are resilient. Or so the thinking goes.

Leila Miller has done a wonderful service in showing that children are not so resilient after all. In fact, even long after attaining adulthood, these victims of their parents’ divorces still suffer painful and lasting effects. Ms. Miller interviewed 70 adult children of divorce and let them speak for themselves.

Many were surprised that anyone was interested or even cared about what they thought or had experienced. One of the more common experiences shared was a “we’re not going to talk about the divorce” mentality. Never mind the awkwardness of Mom and Dad marrying others. We’re supposed to go along with the drastic changes and be delighted, happily accept new siblings, and call some man “Dad” (or some woman “Mom”) who really isn’t. We want to make sure that no one’s feelings get hurt, so we’re all going to be nice and pleasant. The unspoken message in this is that the feelings of the children matter less and must be sacrificed so that others—mainly adults—can be happy and “get on with their lives.”

Some who have read this book say, “Finally, someone understands.” Or “Wow, that’s just how I feel!” The powerful, articulate testimonies in it will help those who had to live through divorce to name and understand their own hurts and feelings, not merely so as to brood or to reopen old wounds, but to the bring them to the light and seek deeper healing.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a healing for those who have suffered and, I pray, a strong medicine to prevent divorce. As Christians, let’s remember that God designed marriage to be what is best for children. The truest happiness any father or mother can find will be the knowledge that they made the sacrifices necessary to be sure that their children were raised well and prepared for life here, and even more, for eternal life.

Disclaimer: Not everyone who is divorced came to be so in the same way. Some tried hard to save their marriage but their spouse was unwilling. Others came to conversion later in life. Still others were physically endangered during the marriage. This essay is not to be construed as a general condemnation of all who are divorced. Rather, it is a heartfelt plea that amidst today’s divorce culture we count the full cost of divorce and that we remember that marriage is first and foremost about what is best for children.

A Brief Reflection on the Ministry of the Angels Throughout Creation

The conclusion of the Book of Tobit on Saturday featured the Archangel Raphael revealing himself to Tobit and others and explaining his ministry to them. This post I write is not a full angelology, it is just a grateful reflection for God, his angels and his creation. Book-length treatments are necessary for a good angelology. If you are looking for a readable, and brief account of angelology I might recommend The Angels and Their Mission According to the Fathers of the Church, by Cardinal Jean Danielou.

Let’s look at a brief excerpt of Archangel Raphael and ponder gratefully the ministry of the angels. Raphael says,

I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead. When you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner in order to go and bury the dead….

God commissioned me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord.” (Tobit 12:14-16)

This passage presents a description of how God interacts with his creation through the ministry of the angels. Notice how Raphael presented the prayers of Tobit and Sarah before God. More than this, the text implies that Raphael presented a record of the prayerfulness of the two and described Tobit’s good deeds. Thus, he stood before God more as a witness of their love and prayerfulness than as a mere conveyor of requests.

Why is this? Is God not omniscient? He is of course and therefore does not need the mediation of the angels, but He does seem to will it. It is common in both Scripture and doctrinal traditions to ascribe to the angels the work of mediation.

Angels in Scripture often speak for God and mediate His presence. At times, such as when Jacob wrestles with God, it is not clear whether it is an angel or God (Genesis 32:22-32); Abram greats three angels but calls them “Lord” (Genesis 18). At other times, it is clearly an angel that people such as Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15), Tobit (Tobit 12), and Mary (Luke 1) encounter. These angles speak for God and mediate His presence but are not God. Throughout the Book of Revelation, angels are sent forth to mediate God’s justice. In many places in Scripture, we are told by the Lord heed the voice of the angels who are sent to guard and guide us.

In the sacred Liturgy the ministry of the angels in connecting our sacrifice to the true altar in heaven is spoken of (Roman canon) and the Book of Revelation describes how the heavenly and earthly liturgy is the work of angels and men. Angels bring the prayers of the saints before God, minister at the altar of incense, and so forth.

There are numerous other passages and teachings that I could present, let it suffice to say that God, though almighty, all-powerful, and omniscient, most often chooses to mediate His presence to creation through the work of the angels.

Perhaps an example may illustrate a likely reason. The laptop computer on which I am typing is not plugged directly into the wall outlet; its delicate circuitry cannot endure the 110-120 V. alternating current; it would blow out. Instead, an adaptor between the laptop and the wall outlet mediates, reducing the voltage to 19 V. direct current. Similarly, direct encounters with God may well be impossible for us on this side of the veil unless God hides His face or mediates His presence through the angels and/or the sacraments.

For us and for all of His creation, the ministry of the angels is a great mercy of God. Doctrinal traditions emphasize the ministry of the angels in mediating all of God’s providence. The highest angels minister in God’s Heaven, other ranks of angels minster the cosmos, and still other ranks minister here on earth. Nations, cities, local churches, and individuals have presiding angels. The Book of Revelation describes angels controlling winds and earthquakes as well as executing God’s justice and authority over history and events. Angels mediate God’s providence and sustenance throughout the whole of creation.

We seldom talk or even think this way today. Let’s look at another modern example. In explaining how a large passenger airplane rises off the runway, a scientist would speak of “lift” and “thrust.” The angle of the wing creates an area of lower air pressure above the wing and higher pressure beneath. Combine this with enough thrust to overcome gravity and you have the lift required for the plane to take off. However, a theologian from the Middle Ages might simply say that “the angels lift the plane.” In a certain sense both explanations are correct. If God sustains all of creation, and if He mediates His actions through the angels, it is not incorrect to say that “the angels lift the plane,” just as they serve God in all His creation. The theologian speaks to the metaphysical while the physicist speaks to the physical/material. The physicist speaks to efficient causality while the theologian speaks to final causality.

Yet there are many today, even among believers, who scoff at ascribing so much (or anything at all) to angels. To them one must point out that physics and mechanics alone cannot fully answer the legitimate questions that arise as we watch the plane take off into the sky. Science is good at answering mechanical questions and quantifying things such as force and lift, but it is not able to answer deeper questions such as why, from what, or for what ultimate reason things exist. Why are things the way they are and not some other way? Where does the order and intelligibility of the material world come from? How is the world sustained in a steady-enough state that we can interact with it reliably and depend upon its laws and order? In fact, why is there anything at all?

There are deeper realities to things than the mere mechanics. And many of the mechanics are not even fully explained or understood. Science, despite the use of numbers and formulas, still has not pierced all the physical mysteries of the plane’s vertical rise.

Perhaps the deepest mystery at the physical level is gravity. We can quantify this force, but its presence in the physical order is mysterious and even counterintuitive. Why do objects attract one another? And how does this attractive force work? Are there invisible strings that pull us toward the earth or other large bodies? What is it about gravity that affects time, as it seems that it does? There are not definitive answers. That gravity exists and can be measured is clear, but precisely what it is and how it works exactly is not clear.

Perhaps one day we will uncover gravity’s secrets, but this still does not satisfy our legitimate metaphysical questions. Simply scoffing at or being dismissive of the ministry and existence of angels (or demons, for that matter) does not do away with our questions. The existence of order, intelligibility, and predictability presents questions that cannot be sidestepped. Who or what ordered creation so that we can discover its order and its laws? If creation can speak to our intelligence by its intelligibility, what intelligence introduced it there to be discovered? If creation moves from simplicity to complexity (in seeming violation of the usual entropy of physical things), how do we explain this?

It will be granted that simply saying “the angels do this” amounts to a kind of “God of the gaps” argument (wherein every unknown thing is simply ascribed to God), but utterly dismissing the role of the angels (and ultimately the role of God) is to fall into the opposite error of scientism, which says that everything can and must be explained as merely the result of physical and mechanical causes. This cannot explain why things exist at all, nor can it speak to metaphysical concepts that are real but nonphysical such as justice, beauty, infinite longing, or our sense of good and evil.

God interacts with his creation. It is revealed to us that He does this most often, if not exclusively, through His angels. This is not to deny that the material order has observed laws and that chains of material causalities that can be measured and observed. The theological world would remind us to reverence all the orders of creation: physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual.

Blessed be God, who created all things through His Word, his Son Jesus, who holds all creation together in Himself (Col 1:17). Blessed, too, be the angels, who mediate God’s interaction with His creation and are His ministers. Blessed also is the created world, all that is in it from the tiniest parts of atoms to the greatest galaxies. Yes, blessed be God, all His angels and saints, and all that He has ordered and sustained. Blessed are we, who by God’s gift of our intellect, can observe and understand the beauty, order, and laws of God’s creation.

May you, O Lord keep us humble, and fill us with wonder and awe. Help us remember that Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Cor 8:1). Thank you for your angels. Keep us mindful that although they are hidden from our eyes, myriad angels mediate your presence to this world and are at work all about us in your creation and unto your highest heavens. May Raphael and all the angels witness to our prayers and actions before you and may they bring your graces to us swiftly. May the angels one day lead us to paradise.