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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this leads to the final point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Recall Notice!

Some Computer problems today mean I cannot easily post a new blog tonight. Back up to speed tomorrow. I could not think of a better post to re-post that this one with a few additions:

The maker of all humans beings (GOD) is recalling all units manufactured, regardless of make or year, due to a serious defect in the primary and central component of the heart. This is due to a malfunction in the original prototype units (code named Adam and Eve 1.0) resulting in the same defect in all subsequent units. This defect has been technically termed “Sorrow Inducing Non-morality (S.I.N.). Some of the symptoms include:

  1. Loss of direction
  2. Foul vocal emissions
  3. Amnesia of Origin
  4. Lack of peace and joy
  5. Selfish or violent behavior
  6. Depression or confusion in the mental component
  7. Fearfulness
  8. Idolatry
  9. Rebellion
  10. Sometimes the units are just plain mean.

The Manufacturer, who is neither liable nor at fault for this defect is providing factory-authorized repair and service, free of charge, to correct this defect. The Repair Technician, Jesus, has most graciously offered to bear the entire burden of the staggering cost of these repairs. Some of the following procedures will be necessary in this repair:

  1. The disk in the heart component must be scrubbed clean of all viruses.
  2. The mental component must be overwritten with new software, (especially WORD of GOD 3.0)
  3. Virus Protection software (such as Pure Eyes 2.0) must be installed to protect the unit from further damage.
  4. Connection to the Maker of all all human beings (GOD) must be re-established through the restoration of communication software in the unit. This is done by installing COMMUNION 2.0 Software and reconfiguring the USB (Upward Soaring Brotherhood) port.
  5. Communications protocols must be upgraded to make sure that the unit says “only the good things men need to hear” and to be sure the unit speaks only that which is true.

Please bring your unit to the nearest Catholic Parish for immediate service. While it is true that WORD of God 3.0 is available for immediate download, an interpretive key must be installed on site at the Catholic parish. Without this interpretive key, WORD of God 3.0 may not function properly in the unit. Further, scrubbing the disk of the heart component can only be done by an authorized technician as well as the installation of COMMUNION 2.0 software. Jesus has personally authorized these technicians to do the work necessary to repair your unit. Upon arrival at a Catholic Parish ask to see the Properly Registered, Indwelt & Elected Service Technician (P.R.I.E.S.T.).

WARNING: Continuing to operate the human being unit without correction voids any manufacturer warranties, exposing the unit to further dangers and problems and will result in the unit being permanently quarantined. For more information on avoiding the “Hell sub-routine” send a kneemail to Jesus at: [email protected]

Please note that emergency service is always available. For information on the location of Catholic Churches and regular service hours go to

Please spread the word on this recall!

Recall Notice!

The maker of all humans beings (GOD) is recalling all units manufactured, regardless of make or year, due to a serious defect in the primary and central component of the heart. This is due to a malfunction in the original prototype units (code named Adam and Eve) resulting in the same defect in all subsequent units. This defect has been technically termed “Sorrow Inducing Non-morality (S.I.N.). Some of the symptoms include:

  1. Loss of direction
  2. Foul vocal emissions
  3. Amnesia of Origin
  4. Lack of peace and joy
  5. Selfish or violent behavior
  6. Depression or confusion in the mental component
  7. Fearfulness
  8. Idolatry
  9. Rebellion
  10. Sometimes the units are just plain mean.

The Manufacturer, who is neither liable nor at fault  for this defect is providing factory-authorized repair and service, free of charge, to correct this defect. The Repair Technician, Jesus, has most graciously offered to bear the entire burden of the staggering cost of these repairs. Some of the following procedures will be necessary in this repair:

  1. The disk in the heart component must be scrubbed clean of all viruses.
  2. The mental component must be overwritten with new software, (especially WORD of God 3.0)
  3. Virus Protection software (such as Pure Eyes 2.0) must be installed to protect the unit from further damage.
  4. Connection to the Maker of all all human beings (GOD) must be re-established through the restoration of communication software in the unit. This is done by installing COMMUNION 2.0 Software.
  5. Communications protocols must be upgraded to make sure that the unit says “only the good things men need to hear” and to be sure the unit speaks only that which is true.

Please bring your unit to the nearest Catholic Parish for immediate service. While it is true that WORD of God 3.0 is available for immediate download, an interpretive key must be installed on site at the Catholic parish. Without this interpretive key, WORD of God 3.0 may not function properly in the unit. Further, scrubbing the disk of the heart component can only be done by an authorized technician as well as the installation of COMMUNION 2. 0 software. Jesus has personally authorized these technicians to do the work necessary to repair your unit.

WARNING: Continuing to operate the human being unit without correction voids any manufacturer warranties, exposing the unit to further dangers and problems and will result in the unit being permanently quarantined. For more information on avoiding  the “Hell sub-routine”  send a kneemail to Jesus at: [email protected]

Please note that emergency service is always available. For information on the location of Catholic Churches and regular service hours go to

Please spread the word on this recall!

Baptism Should Be Celebrated Very Soon After Birth

Snow-babies soon to arrive? It was about nine months ago that Washington DC and most of the northeast US was snowed in for days. Really for the better part of two weeks folks spent extensive time at home. I hope you won’t consider me indelicate if I prophesy that a higher number of births will be taking place here in the next few weeks, nine months after the blizzards. I also hope to see a higher than average number of baptisms for this reason.

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

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

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

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

Protestant practice departs from the received Tradition – Now many Protestants (though not all) disagree with our Catholic practice of baptizing infants. They usually wait until a child is between 8 and 12 to baptize reasoning that the child will know and understand what is happening and be able to claim Christ for themselves. I hope you see the supreme irony of this in the fact that the Protestants, who so emphasize that salvation does not come from works, delay baptism on the grounds that the infant has not achieved (i.e. worked up to) the proper level of maturity. To know, requires one to learn, which is a work. And we Catholics, who supposedly teach salvation through works (we do not), baptize infants who can work no work. Alas, the Protestant denominations (mostly Baptists (another irony), Pentecostals, Fundamentalist and Evangelicals) who refuse baptism to infants engage in a novelty unknown to the Church until recent times.

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

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

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

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

So the Kingdom of God belongs to the little Children (in Greek βρέφη (brephe) indicating infants and  little children still held in the arms, babes). And yet elsewhere Jesus also reminds that it is necessary to be baptized in order to enter the Kingdom of God: Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5 NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Baptism of Infants also attests to the fact that faith is gift for every stage of development– To be baptized is to receive the gift of faith. It is baptism that gives the true faith. Even with adults, true faith does not come until baptism. Prior to that there is a kind of prevenient faith but it is not the Theological Virtue of faith. Now faith is not only an intellectual assent to revealed doctrine. It is that but it is more. To have faith is also be be in a righteous and trusting relationship with God. An infant relates to his parents long before he speaks or his rational mind is fully formed. He trusts his parents and depends on them. It is the same with God. The infant trusts and depends of God and is in a right relationship with God. With his parents, this relationship of trust leads the infant to begin to speak and understand as he grows. Here too it is the same with God. As his mind awakens the infant’s faith grows. It will continue to grow until the day he dies (hopefully) as an old man. That faith accompanies us through every stage of our life and develops as we do is essential to its nature. An infant needs faith no less than an old man. An infant benefits from faith no less than a teenager or an adult. To argue as some Protestants do that you have to be a certain age before faith can exist hardly seems to respect the progressive nature of faith which is able to bless EVERY stage of our human journey. I have some very vivid memories of my experience of God prior to seven years of age and I will say that God was very powerfully present to me in my early years, in many ways even more so than now, when my mind sometimes “gets in the way.”

Another post too long. Forgive me dear reader. But please spread the word. Too many Catholics are waiting months, even years to have their children baptized. Precious time is lost by this laxity. Infant Baptism speaks powerfully of the love that God has for everyone he has created and of his desire to have everyone in a right and saving relationship with Him. Surely baptism alone isn’t enough. The child must be raised in the faith. It is the nature of faith that it grows by hearing and seeing. Children must have faith given at baptism but that faith must be explained and unwrapped like a precious gift for them. Don’t delay. Get started early and teach your child the faith they have received every day.