Tag Archives: religion

Review: BOOKS READ IN 2016

I love to read. 

You know how people ask you about your hobbies?  Mine is reading (and writing, like for this blog!).  Pretty much always has been. 

In 2015, I tried to read as many books as I could during the year (including books read with my wife Sarah, of course).  I kept track of the books, which had to be books which I had never read before. 

I read thirty-eight, almost thirty-nine (so close).

This year, I tried again to read as many books as I could.  I also kept track of each book’s length, so I could see how many pages I read by the end of the year.  The list of books is below, with a little review for each.   

This past year was an adventurous one, what with my wife and I both delivering talks in Leeds, England about J. R. R. Tolkien in July, and with me delivering a talk about Pope Francis at Franciscan University of Steubenville in November.  My Tolkien talk was entitled “Tolkien and the Battle of the Somme” and the Pope Francis talk was called “Memory and the Family: Pope Francis’ View of History.”  I’ve indicated which books were read in the process of researching for these talks, in case people would like to read more about the topics. 

  1. Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church by Raymond E. Brown – 121 p – Fr. Brown’s take on several of the big “issues” in the Church today. Made me frustrated a few times. 
  1. Unless Some Man Show Me by Alexander Jones – 155 p – Collections of columns written about Scripture interpretation for a Catholic newspaper in England. Very useful. 
  1. The American Catholic Almanac by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson – 408 p – Read for a review for Homiletic and Pastoral Review. A story from American Catholic history and culture for every day of the year.  I learned a lot!  I only wish there was a Bibliography so I could dig deeper. 
  1. Christ in His Fullness by Bruce Sullivan – 222 p – Conversion story and refutation of the major arguments that had held this former Church of Christ minister from entering the Church.  A very quick read. 
  1. Why Johnny Doesn’t Behave: Twenty Tips and Measurable BIPs by Annemieke Golly and Barbara D. Bateman– 122 p – A book on teaching for a change. It focused on how to deal with misbehaving children and implementing Behavioral Implementation Plans (BIPs)   . 
  1. The Ten Commandments by Charles Pope – 80 p – Short but sweet overview of the Decalogue and the Church’s teaching on the commandments.
  1. The Crown of Sorrow by Alban Goodier – 156 p – My Lenten spiritual reading this year. Slowly moves you through the passion account, beginning and ending with the Scriptures, to draw you into Christ’s Passion.  It worked well as a daily Lenten meditation. 
  1. Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling – 870 p – Read this with my wife. Harry is a whiny teenager, people start gathering to fight the evil guy and someone dies (da da DA!)
  1. J. R.R. Tolkien: His Life, Work, and Faith by Raymond Edwards – 88 p – Little Bio about Tolkien. Read to help prepare for the Tolkien talk in England. 
  1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – 374 p – Part dystopian novel, part love letter to the 1980s. Had a predictable ending and parts that I really didn’t like (the full page apologia for touching yourself was not appreciated). 
  1. The Broker by John Grisham – 422 p – The only John Grisham novel I’ve read. Guy from Washington DC gets a pardon set up by the CIA and lives on the run in Italy. 
  1. Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling – 652 p – Read this with my wife. Harry’s less whiny.  Good mystery in this one. 
  1. Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth – 313 p – Read to help prepare for the Tolkien talk in England. About Tolkien’s early life and his time in World War I.  Very interesting. 
  1. Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury – 364 p – Collection of stories by the master of science fiction short stories. Included the story that inspired the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
  1. Prove It: You by Amy Welborn – 125 p – Book on morality written for teens.
  1. Why Be Catholic by Patrick Madrid – 230 p – Read for a review for Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Good reflection on why it’s great to be Catholic.  The book weaves in personal stories about each topic. 
  1. Francis: Pope of the New World by Andrea Torinelli – 180 p – Short biography about Pope Francis written soon after his election. Read to help prepare for the Pope Francis talk at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
  1. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling – 759 p – The last Harry Potter book. It is the climax.  Anyone else feel like Rowling was inspired by C. S. Lewis while writing this one, especially by The Great Divorce?
  1. 2201 Fascinating Facts by David Louis – 376 p – Fun trivia facts on basically everything. A little dated (it was published in the late ‘80s).
  1. The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui by Affleck Gray – 178 p – The only book on Scotland’s hairy biped (like Bigfoot). Purchased in Scotland.
  1. Black Priest/White Church by Lawrence E. Lucas – 270 p – About overcoming racism in the Catholic Church during the 1960s and 1970 (when the book was written). I didn’t agree with all of the priest’s points, but it did make me think about what I can do to help race relations in my own experiences.  
  1. Mary, Bloody Mary by Carolyn Meyer – 227 p – Historical fiction for middle schoolers. Actually a pretty fun read. 
  1. On the Family by Pope Francis – 120 p – Pope Francis’ Wednesday Audience reflections on the family from 2015. Read to help prepare for the Pope Francis talk at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
  1. A Song for Mary by Dennis Smith – 374 p – Memoir of growing up as a Catholic poor kid in New York.
  1. McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie – 247 p – My first Agatha Christie novel. I won’t tell you how it ends.
  1. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide by the Writers of the Series – 207 p – The title pretty much says it all. The only problem is that it was over too soon!
  1. Doctor Who: Big Bang Generation by Gary Russell – 238 p – An adventure based on the TV show characters. Lots of fun when you hear the actors’ voices in your head while reading the story. 
  1. Pope Francis Speaks to the US and Cuba by Pope Francis – 175 p – All of the homilies, talks, and interviews Pope Francis gave during his visit to America in 2015. Read to help prepare for the Pope Francis talk at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
  1. Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis – 225 p – The controversial Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis on the Family. Lots of good stuff, but the confusing parts are legitimately confusing.  Read to help prepare for the Pope Francis talk at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
  1. Creation, Evolution, and Catholicism by Thomas L. McFadden Sr. – 138 p – Independently published. Argued that you cannot be a Catholic and hold that evolution, even theistic evolution, is true.  Lots of insults against Jesuits in this one.  Not too fun of a read. 
  1. Liturgical Question Box by Peter J. Elliott – 189 p – Adapted from the author’s column in an Australian Catholic newspaper
  1. Poor Richard’s Almanac, etc by Benjamin Franklin – 130 p – Little book of “advice” from Poor Richard. . . I mean Benjamin Franklin
  1. The Enchanted World: Dragons by the editors at Time-Life – 130 p – Part of a series of books published by Time-Life. Lots of fun stories and pretty pictures. 
  1. Irish Saints Robert T. Reilly – 169 p – Lots of short lives of great Irish saints (and some saints to be?).
  1. A Father Who Keeps His Promises by Scott Hahn – 293 p – Dr. Hahn presents the story of Salvation in an interesting, entertaining, and spiritually enlightening way. I’ve already begun incorporating material from this book into my lesson plans. 
  1. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter – 277 p – The official biography of the great author. Very interesting read.  I read parts of this for the Tolkien talk, and I read the rest of it later in the year. 
  1. Catholics in America by Russell Shaw – 149 p – Short bios of key figures in American Catholicism. Really made me want to read more about these people. 
  1. Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating – 340 p – This work of apologetics helped launch a revival of Catholic apologetics (which this blog is hopefully a small part). Very informative, looking at Fundamentalist arguments and answering them with the Church’s teaching. 
  1. Narrative Poems by C.S. Lewis – 186 p – Of the four poems in this book, only the first one, Dymer, was published in Lewis’ life. Good, quick read. 

And for those that weren’t keeping track, that’s 10,279 pages read in 2016. 

For 2017, I’m doing something different (again).  First, again I’m trying to read as many books as I can (my goal is forty).  Secondly, and different for this year, I have picked ten books that I have been meaning to read for a while (in some cases, over a decade).  The goal is to read all ten of them before the end of the year.  I own them all, so getting my hands on the book is the easy part.  The order of me reading them doesn’t matter, which hopefully will make things easier. 

Anyway, here’s that list (in no particular order):

  • Witness to Hope by George Weigel
  • The End and the Beginning by George Weigel
  • The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
  • The Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology by Michael Newton
  • Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
  • The History of the Catholic Church by James Hitchcock
  • The Life You Save May be Your Own by Paul Elie
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  • The Poem of the Cid by Anonymous
  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

In other words, it’s looking like 2017 is shaping up to be a great year for reading!  Expect a short review of each of the ten, and every other new book I read this year, in January 2018.

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Question: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul?

We are back!  Well, we’re back with a QUESTION!!!!!

Marcy asks: “Why was there a split between what I think of as the doctrine Peter and the doctrine of Paul?  Was it a matter of ‘money talks’?  And, of course, why no married priests if Peter was married?”
I don’t know if Marcy is getting at the famous phrase “Robbing Peter to pay Paul.”  If she is, the best my research can show indicates that the phrase has nothing to do with these two Apostles.  Most of the sources I’ve found in my research say that the “Peter” in question is actually Westminster Abbey (aka, the Abby of St. Peter’s), while the “Paul” is St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Apparently, after King Henry VIII took over the monastery lands, including Westminster Abbey, in the sixteenth century, he used money from the monastery to pay for repairs to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  Thus Peter was robbed to pay for Paul.  The phrase had nothing to do with the doctrines of the two disciples.  There is evidence for earlier references to the phrase, but they always have to do with moving money around and nothing to do with the actual Apostles.

 

However, there is a deeper topic of discussion here.  Marcy mentions the debate over the doctrine of St. Peter vs. the doctrine of St. Paul.  Many Protestant theologians embrace the writings of St. Paul as an antidote to the theology of the Catholic Church, and since the first pope is St. Peter, these theologians set up St. Paul as an antidote to St. Peter.  It is a hot topic in many interdenominational debates.

 

In order to approach this hotly debated topic, we must first get to know the two great men in question, Sts. Peter and Paul.  Both men helped form the Church.  If there was a divide between them, if one’s beliefs were suppressed for the other, then perhaps the entirety of Christian history is a lie.  That would be bad.

 

But first, a little about St. Peter.

 

He was a fisherman named Simon, a strong man, tough and weathered by years on the Sea of Galilee.  He was like all of us, a sinner.  He admits as much to Jesus when Our Lord helps him catch a miraculous net of fish.  He was outspoken, saying his mind, a sometimes-flaw which Christ used to spread His Word.  Christ did not choose him randomly to be the “Rock” upon which He would build His Church.  Matthew 16 is clear on this; it was a defining moment in Church history, and as such merited the change of the Apostle’s name from Simon to Peter.  Yet this same man who declared Christ was the “Son of God” later tried to forbid Christ from going to Jerusalem.  Christ’s rebuke of Peter serves to remind us that though Christ works with us for our salvation and the salvation of others, He is in charge, we are not.  Jesus used this man of conviction, in spite of his brash nature, to transform the world.  It was Peter who, after Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, stood up and took charge of the Apostles; Christ had, after all, left Peter the task (see Luke 22:31-32 and John 21:15-19).  No one challenged him.  When the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost, it was Peter who addressed the crowd, and 3000 joined the Church that day.  Peter was the leader, and the Church followed his lead.

 

Paul was similar to Peter in that he too had great faith and spoke his mind.  Unlike Peter, Paul (whose original name was Saul) was well educated and, notably, a Roman citizen.  He studied under Gamaliel, one of the most notable rabbis of first century Jerusalem.  On fire for God, Saul joined the Persecution of Christians in Jerusalem.  He was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians there when a blinding light knocked him to the ground, and Christ’s voice announced that Saul was persecuting Him, not merely His followers.  This conversion transformed Saul.  After retreating to the Arabian desert for three years, Saul met with the Apostles in Jerusalem.  During this time, Paul drew into Christ, and soon he referred to himself not by his given name (Saul) but by a Greek version of that name (Paul).

 

These two men are, as Fr. Robert Barron says in his Catholicism series, “the indispensable men” of the early Church.  The Church would not exist as it does today if not for these men.  They together formed a huge bulk of the New Testament.  St. Peter wrote two letters contained in the Canon of Scripture, as well as working with St. Mark on his Gospel account.  St. Paul is responsible for the bulk of the New Testament, penning the majority of the New Testament Letters, as well as working with St. Luke to write the third Gospel and Acts of the Apostles.  These two men, Peter and Paul, presented to the Church an authentic understanding of Christ’s mission and teaching.  St. Peter helped spread the word to Jewish Christians; St. Paul’s preaching earned him the title “Apostle to the Gentiles.”

 

What, then, of this split between their teachings?  Did they teach different doctrines?  If so, who was right?

 

The controversy stems from a rather strong passage in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (2:11ff).  Here Paul describes how he went to preach to the Gentiles, as Peter, James, and John preached to the Jews.  However, while in Antioch, Paul stood up to Peter “to his face” because Peter ate with the Jewish Christians but not the Gentile ones.  Protestant scholars see in Paul’s statement proof that he and St. Peter were at odds with each other, and that Paul had enough authority to counter the authority of Peter.  Peter, it seems, taught one thing while Paul taught something else, and given the chance, Paul would reject Peter’s authority.  Does this mean Peter was not really in charge of the Christian Church following Christ’s Ascension?

 

The answer lies in the Acts of the Apostles (side note: remember to read the Bible, especially St. Paul’s letters, as one book; St. Paul’s writings fit into the historical narrative relayed in Acts of the Apostles, and oftentimes the historical writings are helpful for making sense of Paul’s writings).  In Acts 10 there is the story of a Roman centurion named Cornelius.  Cornelius was one of the “God-fearers,” pagans who believed in the one true God, but didn’t want to go through the rather painful process of becoming Jewish.  Cornelius received a vision telling him to send for Peter.  He does this immediately.  The next day, as the messengers from Cornelius approach the place where Peter stayed, Peter himself received a vision of a sheet with all sorts of animals, clean and unclean.  Peter, though very hungry (it was lunch time), refused to touch the animals, saying “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14).  A voice responded, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”  This happened three times, and at the end of it, Peter was confused.  Then he met the messengers from Cornelius, and things started to make sense.  He went with the men to Cornelius, and long story short, Cornelius and his household were baptized, even though they were not Jewish.  They became the first Gentile Christians, baptized by the hand of Peter himself.

 

Now as time progressed, many Gentiles became Christians.  Some of the Jewish Christians (converts from Judaism) were upset that the Gentile Christians didn’t have to follow the law of Moses before becoming Christians.  Other Christians said the law of Moses no longer had the authority it did before Christ.  Christ fulfilled the law, the logic went, and so we don’t need the explicit law any more.  Paul supported this latter view.  The final decision on this question finally came at the Council of Jerusalem (the first council of its kind in Church history).  There the Apostles decided that Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians were equal, and that Gentile Christians did not have to follow the Mosaic law (the whole story is in Acts 15).  Peter not only supported this decision, it was his speech in the council that rallied the Apostles to agree.  So there in Acts 15 Peter and Paul agree on this issue of Gentile vs. Jewish Christians.  They are the same, and one can interact with both groups.  All are one in Christ.

 

What, then, of Galatians 2:11 ff?  Look at what Paul says he said to Peter.  First, the context.

 

Chapter two of Paul’s letter begins by Paul saying how he went to Jerusalem to defend his ministry to the Gentiles.  He gives a beautiful, reflective summary of the council in Jerusalem:

 

“When they [the other Apostles] saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked through me also for the Gentiles), and when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised; only they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:7-10).

 

Paul left the council with the blessing and prayers and support of Peter, James, and John (Peter = Cephas).  However, the very next verse is the startling one: “But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.”  Does Paul know better than Peter?  Does a normal bishop dare stand up to the pope?  The rest of the passage holds the answer.

 

For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.  And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity.  But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”  We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.  But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin?  Certainly not!  But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor.  For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.  (Gal. 2:12-21)

 

This isn’t an example of a bishop (Paul) splitting off from the pope’s (Peter’s) teaching.  This is a bishop reminding the pope of his own teaching.  Paul does this reprimand not to break off from Peter or to try to take control of the Church, but to unite the Church, rallying the faithful around the teaching of the Apostles.

 

And before anyone gets too excited, no, this episode does nothing to diminish papal infallibility.  Peter was causing scandal through his actions (a discipline-related matter), but he did not break from the set doctrine of the Church.

 

So there was no conflict between Peter and Paul.  In fact, one finds in one of Peter’s letters an endorsement of Paul’s letters: “Count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters.  There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.  You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability” (2 Peter 3: 15-17).  Likewise, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul lists Peter first among those who saw the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:5).  Paul also discourages the Corinthians from distinguishing between his teaching and that of Peter.  As Paul states, “let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3: 21-23).

 

Peter and Paul together transformed the Church.  It is no wonder that the Church celebrates both men together on June 29 (which, on a completely unrelated side note, is also my wedding anniversary).

 

 

Above: An Icon of Peter and Paul.  See, they’re bros!

One final note about Peter.  Marcy asked why there are no married priests if Peter was married.  We know that Peter was married because Jesus healed his mother-in-law (see Matthew 8, Mark 1, and Luke 4 for the story).  Why, then, can’t priests be married?

 

The celibate priesthood is a discipline of the Church.  Disciplines can change.  In the early church, some priests were married (as we mentioned in the post about the question of women priests in Church history), and this discipline is still practice in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches.  Likewise, in the Roman Catholic Church, certain clergymen who convert from certain Protestant groups (like former Anglicans) may, under certain circumstances, be ordained even though they are married.  There are also permanent deacons in the Roman Rite who are married.  However, there is a major condition for all of these men, whether they are Eastern or converts or permanent deacons: married clergy must be married prior to receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders, that is, before ordination.  Married men can become priests.  Priests can’t become married men.

 

There is a lot more which could be said about this.  I have a special section in the For More Information below concerning married priests.

 

For More Information

 

On “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul”

 

http://idiomation.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/rob-peter-to-pay-paul/

 

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/rob-peter-to-pay-paul.html

 

 

On Married Priests

 

Thurston, Herbert.  “Celibacy of the Clergy.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 3.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.  Accessed June 8, 2014.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03481a.htm

 

Catholic Answers.  “Celibacy and the Priesthood.” Accessed June 8, 2014.  http://www.catholic.com/tracts/celibacy-and-the-priesthood

 

“Clerical Celibacy (Catholic Church).”  Accessed June 8, 2014.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerical_celibacy_(Catholic_Church)

 

Cattaneo, Arturo.  Married Priests?: 30 Crucial Questions about Celibacy.  San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2012.

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Question: Can Catholics celebrate Halloween?

Kristy, who writes at Granola Vogue, asked a question (and to emphasize just how BEHIND I am, I had joked with her that I hopefully wouldn’t be writing about it around Halloween. . . ) about everybody’s favorite candy-giving, creepy movie watching, totally spiritual holiday: “I read your latest post on Christmas [sorry to interrupt again, but this kinda shows just how old this question was] so I was wondering where does the Catholic Church stand on celebrating Halloween? Where does it fit it, if at all into their beliefs?”

A fine question, Kristy.  Let’s look at the history of Halloween first, compare its historical celebrations to today’s, and see what Catholics say about it.

Halloween got its start as a religious feast.  It is the day before All Saints’ Day, one of the holiest feasts of the year, when the Catholic Church celebrates all of the saints in Heaven, especially those who have not been declared a saint by the Church (remember, the Catholic Church doesn’t make someone a saint; she declares that that person is a saint).  The word “Halloween” is adapted from its proper, liturgical title: “All Hallows’ Eve.”  “Hallows” is an older English word that we still use in some contexts (for example, in the “Our Father” we say in the first line “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name”).  The word “hallow” means “holy,” and thus “All Hallows’ Eve” celebrates the eve (evening) before the feast of All Saints (the holy ones of God).  The words combine to make Halloween.

The feast of All Saints’ Day wasn’t established in the Church calenders until 615, when Pope Boniface IV established the Feast of All Martyrs to commemorate the conversion of the Pantheon in Rome into the Church of “St. Mary of the Martyrs” (“Santa Maria dei Martiri”).  There had been earlier celebrations commemorating the Church’s martyrs, but this was the first time it was made official by the Pope (it was celebrated on May 13).  This feast was later turned into the Feast of All Saints by Pope Gregory IV in 840 and moved to November 1 in 844 by that same pontiff.  Several commentators note that the establishment of both the feast in honor of All Martyrs and the feast in honor of All Saints marked an attempt to turn a sometimes pagan Europe towards God, baptizing the day in honor of the saints, rather than towards pagan gods.  To highlight the importance of the feast, Pope Sixtus IV made the feast a holy day of obligation in 1484, meaning all Catholics were to attend Mass that day.  Pope Sixtus also established a vigil feast for this major feast day (what is now called Halloween) as well as an octave to extend the feast’s celebration.  However, the octave and the liturgies attached to the eve of All Saints were removed before the mid-1950s.

(Above: Raphael’s “The Disputation of the Sacrament,” aka, What they do in Heaven)

All Souls’ Day (November 2) has a much shorter history.  Since the beginning of the Church (and before, as noted in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46), the faithful have offered prayers for the dead, so that they might be freed from the stain of sin and brought into paradise.  The feast of All Souls’ Day grew out of this practice, first in local monasteries as a way to pray for those monks and loved ones who had died (particularly from the 6th through 11th Centuries), then in the major cities (Liege by 1008, Milan by 1125), and eventually to the whole world.  Pope Sylvester II recommended the feast for the Universal Church (but did not require the feast be added to the universal Church calender) in the 11th century, and as is often the case in matters liturgical, once the feast gained the support of the Pope, it spread throughout Europe.  It wasn’t until very recently (1915, under Pope Benedict XV), however, that the feast became an official one on the universal Church calendar (and a special exemption from the two-Masses-per-day rule was given to priests).

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass freeing souls from purgatory

(Above: What happens during a Requiem Mass)

So that’s a quick summary of the history behind All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days and the creation of Halloween as a liturgical celebration.  Halloween is, as you can see, at its roots a Catholic celebration: remembering the saints who dwell with God in Heaven and the departed who left this world in need of our prayers.  In that way, it is very Catholic to celebrate Halloween.

But what about Halloween today?  Where did we get all the holiday stuff, the ghosts, the monsters, the jack-o-lanterns, etc.?  Is the Church ok with all of that?

First, the party stuff.

The connection with All Souls’ Day reveals right away the emphasis on ghosts and things that go bump in the night.  Ghosts are often connected with souls from Purgatory who cannot find rest.  A church in Rome contains relics of visitors from Purgatory (these and other ghost-like visitations were the subject of a recent book, Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory), emphasizing the need for prayers for the faithfully departed, especially those who have no one to pray for them.  The accounts attached to those relics are real ghost stories.  It is little wonder, then, that ghosts and other denizens of the night are associated with the two feast days of the Church which focus on the afterlife, not on the lives of heroic men and women but on what happens to us when we die.

Many of the familiar Halloween features stem from pagan European practices.  The most commonly noted is a festival in Celtic areas (Ireland, England, Scotland, etc.) prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries dedicated to Samhain, their god of death.  This feast marked the Celtic New Year.  Rituals included offering burnt sacrifices in huge bonfires and wearing animal skins as costumes.  The hope was that these would keep the god at bay, as well as protect the people of the villages from the evil spirits released into the world by Samhain.  From these Celtic areas, we also find familiar rituals which may be the ancestors of our Halloween celebrations.  In Ireland people joined a parade led by a druidic priest in an animal mask who went from house to house begging for food in the name of another god, Muck Olla (those who would give food were blessed, while those who didn’t were cursed).  The Irish also started carving turnips for the feast.  Scottish peasants wandered the fields at night with torches to keep evil spirits at bay.  When Roman legions conquered the Celtic regions, their Latin customs of autumnal harvest rituals mixed with the Celtic festival.  Christian missionaries attempted to baptize the festivities (as they did with festivals near Christmastime), resulting in a strong emphasis in Celtic Christianity on death and physical mortification.

Similar rituals arose in Frankish and Germanic Christian kingdoms.  French Catholics in particular had a festival known as “Dance Macabre” in honor of departed souls, often dressing in costumes to represent people throughout their life.  French monks in the monasteries in Cluny developed devotions in honor of the souls in Purgatory, offering special Masses for the dead (the Masses of the Clunaic monks inspired Pope Sylvester II, who himself was French, to spread the celebration of Mass for the Dead).  These rites and rituals became popular among the lay faithful, and soon became part of Christian culture.

Our modern understanding of Halloween came about when all of these features mixed together in America, the world’s cultural melting pot.  French, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants lived near each other, intermarried, and formed a new culture.  The Irish tradition of carving turnips and asking for food became our tradition of carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating.  The French devotion to prayers for the souls in Purgatory and their costume-filled “Dance Macabre” mixed with Celtic fears of ghosts and goblins.  Other cultures mixed and mingled, and eventually our modern holiday of Halloween formed.

This leaves the biggest question of them all: can a Catholic celebrate Halloween?  I would say yes, provided they avoid the more disturbing facets that have slithered into the holiday’s celebration in recent decades.  The focus of the holiday turned from remembering the dead, praying for them, and invoking the saints, to a disturbing obsession with evil.  This evil appears in various forms, and its not always as obvious as the evil in a horror movie.  Many children (and those who wish they were children) dress in costumes for trick-or-treating.  Those costumes speak volumes.  A cute costume might draws “awwws” and “how sweet.”  Gory costumes draw the opposite reaction.  Girls dressed in overtly sexual costumes draw a very disturbing reaction.  Costumes of children dressed as witches and zombies seem more appropriate.  Mix this with attempts by modern witches and druids to claim Halloween as their holy day and the water gets murky.  The Christian origins of the holiday fade into obscurity.

Christians are divided into four groups regarding Halloween.  One group just doesn’t celebrate it, not out of any dislike but simply because they don’t want to.  Another wants nothing to do with it, some because of its connection to pre-Christian Europe, some because of how disturbing some of the celebrations of Halloween have become.  A third group, on the other end of the spectrum, celebrates the holiday like anyone else, without any concern over the controversies mentioned above.  The fourth group, which I lean towards, seeks to embrace what is properly Christian, reclaiming, so to speak, Halloween.  Rather than wandering the streets dressed as monsters, children trick-or-treat dressed as saints or religious figures.  Others dress in some heroic costume (knights, soldiers, policemen, etc).  Other costumes work too (I was a shark when I was very young!) and there is room for some monstrosities, gentle ghosts and lovable witches.  However, it is not my place to say in definite terms “this is wrong” or “the parent who allows this or that costume is a bad, sinful parent.”  These, of course, are mere suggestions.

There is a place for terror during Halloween, for it reminds us of the end of our lives.  Halloween brings to our attention a terrifying reality: we will all die.  Even those who emphasize the spiritual aspect of the holiday know that this reality is at the root of the celebration.  The saints, though heroic and in Heaven, had to die to reach their triumphant state.  The souls in Purgatory likewise had to die to reach their state of purification.  Those in Hell suffer the worst fate, for in their death they have separated themselves from God.  It is of this reality that Halloween seeks to remind us.  Horror has its place in reminding us.  Perhaps it is the easiest way to shock us into drawing back to God.

No matter the costume or the celebration, this main focus of Halloween should be maintained.  We should recall those who have gone before us, either celebrating in the triumph of the saints or pray for those who still journey through Purgatory.  Some suggested practices help refocus our attention during the holiday.  Reflections on the saints form a delightful part of the celebration. Readings from the lives of the saints or their writings might help to remind Christians young and old of the great patrimony of our spiritual siblings in Heaven.  In this way, a new generation of Christians can reorient themselves towards Christ through His saints.

For Further Reading (note: most of these websites are articles discussing the history of Halloween in more detail):

http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/hallween.htm

http://www.fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecost12aa.html#1a

http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Oct2001/Family.asp

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/months/10_2.cfm

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6210

http://www.wordonfire.org/WoF-Blog/WoF-Blog/October-2012/Culture–Time-for-Catholics-to-Embrace-Halloween.aspx

http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/784/Truth_about_Halloween.html

http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/all-hallows-eve-or-halloween

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Saints’ Day

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315b.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Souls’ Day

Van Den Aardweg, Gerard J. M.  Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory.  Rockville, IL: TAN Books, 2009.

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Question: Christmas trees and Yule Logs

Yes, yes, Christmas Day has passed us, but we are still in the Christmas Season.  Christmas, like Easter, is SO important a feast that it stretches over weeks, giving its name to an entire liturgical season.  With Christmas we celebrate the manifestation of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, to the world.  For nine months, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity dwelt in the womb of Mary, His mother; on Christmas Day, He was born.  With Easter we celebrate the redemption wrought by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross; He died so that our sins might be forgiven.  These are important feasts, so it makes sense that we focus our attention on these mysteries of our salvation.

In light of all of this, Marcy asks: “Why is the date for Easter set according to a phase of the moon, instead of on a fixed date, like Christmas, and who set it up like that?  Why is Christmas placed so close to the winter solstice instead of closer to the assumed actual time of year that Christ was supposed to have been born?  Why are there so many pagan items incorporated into the celebration of Christmas (Yule log, Christmas tree, etc.)?”

Thanks to Marcy’s excellent questions, we will divide this discussion into two major topics: The dating of Christmas (compared to the dating of Easter) and pagan influences on Christmas celebrations.  We will look at the latter topic in this first post, and will take up the question of dating Easter and Christmas in the next post.

Many Christian religious traditions (not just those involving Christmas) developed from ancient pagan rituals.  It is part of being Catholic.  The word “catholic” means universal, and from the beginning of the Church, from its earliest days of evangelization, Christian missionaries have sought to incorporate the rituals of those converted into the rituals of the liturgy and Christian living.  In a sense, the Church “baptized” these pagan rites to aid the spiritual life of the former pagans, who would more likely than not reject the alien practices of the larger Christian cities (Rome, Constantinople, etc).  Such an embracing of pagan practices made it easier for recent converts to adapt to their new Faith.  It always helps to show catechumens not only the truths of the Faith, but also how their previous beliefs had already prepared them to accept Truth.

One sees this incorporation of pagan practices throughout the missionary activity of the Church, especially following the conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  Pope Gregory the Great encouraged St. Augustine of Canterbury, when evangelizing the British, to convert pagan temples into churches and pagan rituals into Christian festivals to which they might be connected.  Similar stories abound involving the Christianization of Ireland, Germany, and France, the preaching of the Faith in Asia and Africa, and the conversion of the Native Americans in both North and South America.  In all of these cases, the earlier pagan rituals were adapted to the Christian beliefs so that the culture of the people might remain intact.  The Church, as guardian of culture, always seeks to find the best in true culture, rejecting what is evil and elevating what is good.

So it was with Christmas.  Many of the traditions associated with Christmas stem from earlier, pre-Christian practices which the Church saw as beneficial for the faithful.  The Christmas tree is perhaps the clearest example of this.  Stories connect the Christmas tree with the story of St. Boniface, the 8th century missionary to Germany, who chopped down an oak tree worshipped in a pagan village (well, he started to chop it down, but a powerful wind finishes the job for him).  When Boniface didn’t die (the pagan priests said the gods would strike him dead if he chopped down the tree) the people converted.  The story concludes with Boniface pointing to an evergreen fir sprout growing near the felled tree.  No more human sacrifices, Boniface said (human sacrifices were prevalent in pre-Christian Germany), and pointed to the evergreen as a counter to the fallen tree.  The evergreen thus became a symbol for Christ, for just as the evergreen remained green through the dead of winter, so also Christ conquered death and sin.  Now, whether Boniface actually taught this or not does not matter; what does matter is that subsequent Christian generations have adopted the evergreen as a symbol of eternal life in Christ.  The actual practice of decorating the tree didn’t come about until the 15th and 16th centuries in Germany; the History Channel’s website names Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, as the one who first put lights on the trees.  Until the late 19th century, Christmas trees were seen as a specifically German particularism.  Thanks to the mixing of immigrants in America, the popularity of the Christmas tree has spread.

The Yule log, on the other hand, does not have a missionary saint as its legendary origin; it seems that St. Boniface even banned the early ancestors of Yule logs.  It seems that the ceremony stemmed from people lighting their fireplaces during the winter; it was only in the 16th century that Englishmen started holding elaborate ceremonies where a log was burned publicly.  Even then, the Yule remained, for the most part, a household tradition, less connected with religion and more connected with winter.

So why the pagan traditions in Christmas?  Because there was nothing overtly anti-Christian about them.  Having a tree to symbolize eternal life in your house far outshined the ritualistic human sacrifices of the Germanic pagans.  If it didn’t hurt the Faith of the former pagans, then the Church saw such traditions as helpful, and either allowed them to exist or utilized them, leading to cultural flourishing.

For Further Reading:

Martindale, Cyril Charles.  “Christmas.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia. – Provides some information concerning the background of some Christmas traditions.

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Are Papal tweets infallible?

Are Papal tweets infallible?.  With the Pope’s new Twitter account going live tomorrow, this question seems to have come up in the press.

 

Silly press people.

 

Here’s a good reiteration of Papal authority, over at Improperium Christi.  The post also goes into what exactly the Church means by infallibility, which seems to be a controversial misunderstanding even today, almost 150 years after it was official defined at the First Vatican Council.

 

And if you haven’t seen already, you can follow Quidquid on Twitter @quidquidestest.

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Reflection: Year of Faith – I Believe in God

“I believe in God”

Thus opens one of the oldest prayers in the Christian Tradition: the Apostles’ Creed.  Tradition states that the prayer dates back to the time of the Apostles, if not to the Apostles themselves.  “I believe in God.”  That’s how the prayer begins.  All of our actions, all of our daily lives, everything we think, do, say, everything about us centers on that one phrase, that one belief: there is a God.  The more specific phrase “I believe in one God” comes from the later Nicene Creed, formulated from the First Council of Nicea, held in 325.  This emphasis on there being only one God stems from the controversies that led up to the Council of Nicea.  The heretic Arius had denied the divinity of Christ, saying that to say Christ was divine would imply that there were two gods, not one.  The Council Fathers denied such a claim; hence the emphasis of there being one God.

Early on in Christian history, the believers in Christ had to express their belief in one God.  One could see the possible confusion.  Was there only one God?  The pagans in Greco-Roman culture seemed to say otherwise.  Was Jesus really God, and if so, why not someone else?  These were issues that the earliest Christians, those who followed the Apostles, had to answer.  One sees this in St. Paul’s trip to Athens (Acts 17:16–34).  Paul preached to the Athenian philosophers about the “Unknown God,” to whom the Athenians had an altar in the Areopagus.  This was the one true God, Paul preached.  He was unsuccessful, for the most part: “When they [the philosophers] heard about the resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, ‘We should like to hear you on this some other time’” (Acts 17:32).  Paul wasn’t entirely successful, but we can see in this episode the early conflict between paganism and Christian monotheism.  This conflict predated Christianity, of course, for the Jews faced a similar conflict with their monotheism, and since the Christian is the spiritual heir of the Jew, he must expect the same conflicts.

If only people today were as polite as the Athenians were to St. Paul.

Today there is a renewed atheism and a renewed paganism.  The agnosticism of today’s world spits in the face of the ancient Greeks and Romans because at least the pagans believed in something, even if it was multiple gods or the spirits of nature.  Even some sort of bizarre mythology where Zeus or whoever had affairs with humans was a step above new atheists and agnostics because at least the pagans knew there was something beyond them, some spiritual realm.  Today’s “New Atheists” don’t believe in anything.  Today we must turn to basic proofs for God’s existence, renewing our basic belief in one God.

Now, fortunately for those speaking with someone who dismisses the Bible as a collection of myths and superstitious stories written down over the centuries, one can prove that God exists using logic, reason, and the natural world, without having recourse to the Scriptures.  St. Thomas Aquinas did just that, borrowing from the metaphysics of Aristotle.  He presents five classic arguments for the existence of God: from Motion, from Efficient Causality, from Necessity, from Perfection, and from Governance.  Since the gist of the arguments all boils down to the same point, I will focus on the first argument, based on Motion.

By Motion, St. Thomas is referring to the tendency of things in creation to go from a state of potency (able to do/be something) to actuality (being/doing something) and then back to potency.  This process occurs throughout creation, and can be seen in all things, living or non-living.  However, as both Thomas and Aristotle note, something cannot be potentially and actually the same thing.  A log cannot be potentially on fire and on fire at the same time.  It is either one or the other.  Things move from one state to another, and in order for a thing to move from potency to actuality, some other force must act upon it (the log doesn’t spontaneously combust; a pyromaniac lights it on fire).  Tracing the series of movements, one ultimately reaches an Unmoved Mover, a thing which is pure Act.  This must be the case, since if there was any potency in this Unmoved Mover, it would not be able to have any actuality in it, since in order for it to move from potency to actuality, an external force must affect it.  This Unmoved Mover is pure Act, and is what people commonly call God.

This proof does not provide a perfect description of God; the other four proofs expand our understanding of God.  The proof from Causality follows the same process as that from Motion, only this second proof focuses on how one cause leads to an effect; however, following the links of causes back to the beginning of time, one must conclude there is an Uncaused Cause, that is, God.

By Necessity, St. Thomas brings the issue of being into the discussion of God.  All things in the universe exist, but they don’t have to.  Things come into existence and they go out of existence, all without the universe collapsing.  Things in the universe share in existence.  They are not existence itself; their essence is something particular to them, but their essence is not existence.  They had to have gotten their existence, their being, from some other source.  There must be something beyond everything else, something which has as its essence existence, which is in its nature Existence itself.  That would be God.

The other two proofs are very simple.  St. Thomas uses Perfection to prove that, because we know something is better than another, there must be a perfect Entity that transcends all other things.  Our understanding of perfection must stem from a perfect source.  That’s God.  At the same time, the argument from Governance states that the order in the universe points to the fact that the universe could not have come to being by accident.  There must have been a great mind behind the universe; that Mind is God.

So God exists.  But what about the specific nature of the first line of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God.”  How do we know Hindus aren’t correct?  How do we know there are not multiple gods out there, or that we all become gods upon our death?  Let us look back at the argument from philosophy just discussed.  You cannot have multiple first causes, multiple sources of being.  You just can’t.  Try to think of a universe with two infinite, perfect sources of all existence.  Two perfect beings would be identical, and there cannot be two purely identical beings; they would be the same being.  It doesn’t make sense to have more than one god.  If it doesn’t make sense to have two gods, it doesn’t make sense to have a whole pantheon, nor to have everything be “God” as found in pantheism.

One God.  Basta, as the Italians say.  Enough.

But don’t Christians say there are three persons in God?  Doesn’t that mean we think there are three gods?

It’s hard to discuss the Trinity.  It’s one of those mysteries of Faith that truly transcends full comprehension.  God’s like that.  The Trinity is not one of the truths of the Faith that is knowable by Reason alone.  We need Faith in order to know God fully, and by knowing God through Faith, we are able to come into close communion with Him.

And we will focus on the Trinity in the next post in this series.

For further reading/listening:

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Catholic Encyclopedia, “God” – Note: This provides links to other articles about God in the Encyclopedia.

Sabatino Carnazzo, “Catechism 102: The Creed”

William Saunders, “Alpha & Omega: God the Father, Creator of the World”

Paul Scalia, “Credo: I Believe in One God”

Robert Barron, et. al, “Faith Seeks Understanding Pt.1: What Is God?” – This is part 1 of a series discussing God, the Trinity, and other aspects of the Faith.  There are links to other parts of the series from this video.

Robert Baron, Catholicism, Episode 3: “THAT THAN WHICH NOTHING GREATER CAN BE THOUGHT – THE INEFFABLE MYSTERY OF GOD” – An episode from the popular series about Catholicism.  See a clip from the episode here.

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Question: How was Joseph and Mary’s Marriage valid?

Just in time for Advent, here’s a post about the Holy Family.

Nicole asks: “How was Joseph and Mary’s marriage valid since it was virginal?”

A lot of people have dealt with this exact question.  In fact, it may be the most dealt with question I’ve answered on this blog so far.  I could fill up the rest of this post with links to other Catholic blogs and websites, video and audio sites, all answering the question, all saying the same thing.

Simple answer: yes.  Of course.  Validity in sacraments deals with whether or not the sacrament really happened.  A valid marriage basically means that, yes, the couple is really married.  Such was the case with Mary and Joseph.

The more elaborate answer (because, let’s face it, who really wants a simple answer) is one which can be found in the writings of that giant of the faith, St. Thomas Aquinas.  In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas deals with this question directly (Part III, Question 29, article 2, or III, Q. 29, art. 2) in a relatively short discussion.  His “I answer that,” wherein he normally gives the full answer to the question posed, is worth quoting in its entirety:

Marriage or wedlock is said to be true by reason of its attaining its perfection.  Now perfection of anything is twofold; first, and second. The first perfection of a thing consists in its very form, from which it receives its species; while the second perfection of a thing consists in its operation, by which in some way a thing attains its end. Now the form of matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered. And the end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.

Thus we may say, as to the first perfection, that the marriage of the Virgin Mother of God and Joseph was absolutely true: because both consented to the nuptial bond, but not expressly to the bond of the flesh, save on the condition that it was pleasing to God. For this reason the angel calls Mary the wife of Joseph, saying to him (Mat. 1:20): “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”: on which words Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “She is called his wife from the first promise of her espousals, whom he had not known nor ever was to know by carnal intercourse.”

But as to the second perfection which is attained by the marriage act, if this be referred to carnal intercourse, by which children are begotten; thus this marriage was not consummated. Wherefore Ambrose says on Lk. 1:26,27: “Be not surprised that Scripture calls Mary a wife. The fact of her marriage is declared, not to insinuate the loss of virginity, but to witness to the reality of the union.”  Nevertheless, this marriage had the second perfection, as to upbringing of the child. Thus Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “All the nuptial blessings are fulfilled in the marriage of Christ’s parents, offspring, faith and sacrament. The offspring we know to have been the Lord Jesus; faith, for there was no adultery: sacrament, since there was no divorce. Carnal intercourse alone there was none.”

Make sense?  There are two parts to marriage: the giving of oneself to the other by way of the marital vows and the raising of children.  The exchange of vows makes the marriage valid, not the sexual union of the spouses.  In that sense, Aquinas says, the marriage of Mary and Joseph was valid.  But even though there was no sexual union between them (in the immediately prior question, Aquinas presents a defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary), the Holy Couple still performed the second part of marriage.  They raised Jesus, albeit not Joseph’s biological son, but still his legal son, as Jesus was born to Joseph’s legal wife (this last part is important, for it made Jesus a legal “Son of David” and therefore heir to the Davidic throne).  Mary and Joseph’s marriage was a real marriage.  In fact, their marriage was better than many marriages not only during our own time, but even at the time of Jesus.  As St. Augustine notes (Aquinas quotes him at the end), the only thing missing from their marriage was sexual intercourse, and since intercourse is not necessary for a real marriage, one can comfortably say that Joseph and Mary had a valid marriage.

Besides, we should remember that God is not bound by the rules concerning the sacraments.  He can work outside them, if He so chooses.  He can bring souls to Heaven outside of Baptism, for example.  Likewise, we can be sure that the marriage into which God was born was a true, valid one, and example to all who seek a pure, holy union.

Reflecting on the marriage of Joseph and Mary leads to much fruit.  I recommend it.  How Joseph must have felt, married to sinless Mary and foster father to the Son of God!  What father could brag of such a burden?  Likewise, when Christ speaks of true marriage, in His mind He must have turned to the holy example of Mary and Joseph.

We too should turn to their example.

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Married Priests?

In light of the earlier post about the supposed history of women priests, here is a practical examination of the married priest question (sometimes linked to the issue of women priests) by a Catholic married deacon.

DeaconCast

Every once in a while someone brings up the topic of married priests.  “Wouldn’t it be great if priests could marry?”  “There wouldn’t be a shortage of priests if they could be married.”  “There would be no sexual abuse crisis if priests were married.”  And on and on.  Then you hear the usual criticisms, “It’s all about money.  The Church doesn’t want married priests because then they’d have to pay them more money.”  “The Church doesn’t want married priests because they don’t want to have to take care of their widows.”  “The Church doesn’t want married priests because of the high cost of health insurance for families.”   “The Church doesn’t want married priests because they’d have to provide them with houses where they could raise their families.”  Again, on and on.

I’m no expert on the theology of married clergy, but since I am one, maybe I can shed…

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Question: Who were the Gnostics

Marcy asks a pretty simple question: “Who were the Gnostics”?

 

The answer is another question: “When”?  At what point in the history of Gnosticism should we focus?  It is a cult that has morphed throughout the centuries, predating Christianity, then sliding into the Church via distortions of the Church’s teaching, dying down only to reappear in various forms throughout the Christian era.

 

Gnosticism falls into that disturbing category of religious movements that one can safely call diabolical.  Like the pagan worship of Moloch and Ba’al, or the widespread slaughters done by the Aztecs in Mexico, there is an essential anti-life aspect to Gnosticism.  This follows naturally from the Gnostic understanding of the material world.  The main trait of Gnosticism is a degrading, if not abhorrent, view of the material world.  Matter is evil, according to a Gnostic.  In its earliest forms, the material world was a mistake created by a Supreme Being (alternately called Sophia [Wisdom] or Logos [Word]).  Sophia/Logos, however, is not THE ultimate Supreme Being.  That is “God,” for lack of a better word, though one should understand that the Gnostic understanding of “God” is not the same as the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim understanding of God.  Sophia/Logos is a lesser, non-God, divine spiritual being.

 

And, according to the Gnostic myth of creation, at some point before all material creation, Sophia/Logos made an error.

 

Usually this error is described as some estranged attempt to understand the Gnostic “God,” who does not seem to like sharing his inner divine life with other divinities.  This prideful error led to “the hypostatization of her (Sophia/Logos) desire in the form of a semi-divine and essentially ignorant creature known as the Demiurge” (Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [July 2005], available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic).  This “begotten” Demiurge then decided, out of some strange ignorance (strange because the Demiurge is sort of divine, like its source) to claim he is a god (in fact, he claims he is the one true God) and create the material world.  He creates the universe in direct violation of the Supreme Being and Sophia/Logos.  Thus the material world is evil.

 

As mentioned above, Gnosticism predates Christianity, though one can see how it easily slipped into the Faith and corrupted it from within.  Gnostics grabbed onto the earliest Christian beliefs, most essentially that the Divine Son became incarnate as a man.  The Gnostics twisted this belief, stretching it to fit into their understanding that the material world is evil, created by an evil god, so to speak.  The “God” in the Hebrew’s Scriptures, the Gnostic taught, was the Demiurge, and thus the craziness of the Old Testament.  This figure Jesus, though, was Logos, who didn’t actually become incarnate (to do so would be to defile himself, since the material world is evil) but rather seemed to have become incarnate (this belief later evolved into the heresy of Docetism, which held that Christ’s human nature was a mirage; this was vehemently condemned at the First Council of Nicea in 325).  The Gnostics skirted around the issue that Logos wasn’t God, but was rather a creature below God.  Instead, they focused on the belief that Jesus came to save our spiritual souls from the evil creator “god,” who wished to imprison us in evil physical bodies.  The death of Jesus, then, was a show, a sort of divine play, more an example of how we should devote ourselves to escaping the prisons of our bodies.  Jesus, the Gnostics taught, was our example of how to be saved from our flesh.

 

The Gnostics also held that their leaders received special, private revelations that supplanted the teaching of the Apostles.  This hidden knowledge gave the movement its name; Gnosticism comes from gnosis, which means “knowledge.”  The existing Gnostic writings often emphasize secret knowledge, often telling stories about Christ teaching secretly to specific disciples.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Gospel of Judas, wherein Jesus informs Judas that it is part of the secret revelation that Judas would betray Jesus (who appears and disappears from among the disciples like a ghost, without any sort of physical body; this is different than Christ after the Resurrection for even Jesus’ glorified body wasn’t like a ghost’s, as Luke and John emphasize [Luke 24; John 20 – 21]).  Judas, in turn, would become great when Christ returns at the end of time, judging the other disciples.  It is a classic Gnostic story: the elect receive the secret gnosis, and as a result are blessed.  Mix in the idea that Jesus wasn’t material (hence his ability to vanish) and you have a perfectly Gnostic text.

 

The Gnostics seemed pious, and many followed their beliefs, especially as the first Christian century drew to its close.  The horrors of the persecution against Christians, first in Jerusalem under the Jewish leaders there and then in Rome under Emperor Nero, played into this belief, and many Christians were confused.  Worse still, Gnostics began twisting the teachings of Christ as taught by the disciples for their own purposes, claiming to have received secret revelations from God or from the Logos, explaining how one should live and shed his or her body.  All this, and they seemed so holy, praying for others, avoiding sins, especially sins of the flesh, and urging everyone to embrace eternal life.  Then as now, holiness (be it genuine or fictitious) attracts; a disaster brewed in the EarlyChurch.

 

Enter St. John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, who had walked with Jesus, spoke with Him, and even laid his head upon the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper (John 13:23).  Writing in the twilight of the first century A.D., John knew well the attempts to demonize the Creator of the universe while denying the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God.  Nowhere is this clearer than the Gospel attributed to this apostle.  The Prologue to the Gospel rings of anti-Gnosticism:

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.  The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1: 1-14, RSV translation)

 

The whole passage roars against the Gnostics; its wording awkward sounding in English because it stands as testimony against specific Gnostic teachings.  The Word (Logos) is God, and He became “flesh,” meaning He became incarnated, became material.  This was directly against the Gnostic/Docetist belief that Jesus’ body wasn’t material.  Not only that, it affirms the controversial teaching repeated by Christ throughout John’s account: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30; 17: 11, 22).  Likewise, the incident at the crucifixion where the Roman soldier pierces Christ’s side with a lance disproves Gnostic beliefs concerning Jesus’ body.  John is the witness (“He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe” [John 19:35]) and he includes the event as if to say “See, he was real.”

 

John repeats this teaching in two of his three letters included in the New Testament.  In his first letter, John warns his spiritual children of the dangers of Gnosticism:
Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.  They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.  But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know.  I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth.  Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also.  Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.  And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.  I write this to you about those who would deceive you (1 John 2: 18–26).

 

In his second letter, John warns against not only listening to heretics, but even associating with them:

 

Many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.  Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward.  Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son.  If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work (2 John 7–11).

 

Doctrine is serious stuff, both for John and for the Church, even through today.  St. Irenaeus (one of the EarlyChurch’s foremost anti-Gnostics) tells how John encountered a notorious Gnostic in a public bathhouse in Ephesus, and “rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, ‘Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus [the heretic], the enemy of the truth, is within.’”  St. John’s disciple St. Polycarp had a similar encounter with the Gnostic Marcion, who saw the saint on the street.  One can imagine Polycarp giving Marcion the cold shoulder, perhaps rushing past him.  “Do you know me?” Marcion asked Polycarp.  Polycarp turned to the heretic, looked him in the eyes, and said, “I do know you; you are the first born of Satan.”

 

That’s what you call a Patristic BURN!

 

The Gnostics survived the Apostolic Age (which ended with the death of St. John around AD 100) by going underground.  They reappear throughout Church History.  Montanists in the 2nd and 3rd centuries followed Montanus, who claimed to receive direct guidance from the Holy Spirit, contradicting the Church’s official teaching.  Herein is the descendent of Gnosticism’s special secret knowledge.  St. Augustine (died 430) was a member of, and then later wrote against, the Manicheans, which were next generation Gnostics.  The Manicheans emphasized a dualism (two gods, one good and one evil) to explain morality: sins were when the bad god controlled you.  St. Dominic (d. 1221) dealt with the Cathars (also called the Albigensians), again, another incarnation of the Gnostic beliefs.  In these later incarnations of the heresy, especially the Albigensians, sexual immoralities were encouraged and ritualistic suicide became their greatest form of worship.  The body became either a dreaded evil, something that must be abandoned at all cost, or nothing of consequence, meaning one could do whatever he or she wanted with it.

 

Of course, the worst thing one could do was trap another soul in a body.  Hence the Albigensian sexual immoralities: anything was permissible, so long as it did not result in babies.

 

Sound familiar?

 

Strains of Gnosticism appear today.  Besides the Free Love anti-culture (which endorses neither true love nor true freedom) that dominates society, one sees a rash of suicides as people young and old seek to escape this life.  An anti-life mentality plagues society, and people at both ends of their lifespan face death at the hands of others who see their life as worthless; having babies is seen by some as foolish and irresponsible.  Several Protestant groups throughout the last 500 years (such as the Quakers and Pentecostals) claim continual revelation from God, a secret gnosis like that of the early Gnostics.  Joseph Smith, in 1820s, claimed a secret revelation from God, which would later form the Book of Mormon, and would lead to the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  In Catholic circles, one sees this same influence today in some branches of the charismatic movement (we’ll deal with the charismatic movement in a later blog post).

 

What then are we to make of the Gnostics?  They are an ancient enemy of the Faith, one of the oldest, and Gnosticism still remains alive today.  Few would find the original Gnostic beliefs appealing today, yet this heresy’s lasting impact on the Church shows that its legacy is far from over, and that the believing Christian should expect to face shades of Gnosticism in his or her life.  One must be prepared.

 

For further reading:

 

Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (July 2005), accessed October 29, 2012, available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic – Provides a very thorough summary of the basic beliefs of the pre-Christian Gnostics, as well as the incorporation of the Gnostic beliefs into the Christian Gnostic heresy.

 

John Arendzen, “Gnosticism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909), accessed October 29, 2012, available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06592a.htm. – Though written in the first decade of the 20th century, this article provides a full account of Christian Gnosticism in the EarlyChurch, including a discussion of anti-Gnostic writers, such as St. Irenaeus.

 

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103.htm – One of the most complete attacks against Gnosticism in the EarlyChurch.  Includes much of what we know about the thought of the Gnostics.

 

 

 

 

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Question: Are similar sacred symbolic signs coincidence or not?

Marcy asks: “What do you make of the similarity of various elements of ritual and their roles in religion?  For instance, many disparate and far-ranging belief systems share the use of fire and/or smoke to purify a space or item.  Similarly, water is often used.  And candles. And music/drumming.  Do you think this is coincidental, invented, or is there some inherent property of these items that compels people to incorporate them into rituals?”

It should not surprise us that similar rituals and symbols span across man’s worship of the divine.  Both monotheistic and polytheistic religions share similar rituals.  From whence do these rituals stem (and, by the way, when was the last time you saw “whence” in a blog post?!)?  Does this in some way cheapen or degrade highly ritualistic religions, such as Catholicism, the Orthodox Church, Hasidic Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, since they all seem, at one glance, the same, with just some variety in their particulars (for some people, not me of course, important points like the number of deities and whether the soul is immortal count more as particulars to a religion rather than fundamental tenets of the faith)?  Or does it point to something higher, something that transcends our rituals?

First, let’s look at worship.

Worship is one of those acts of man that is defined by the Natural Law.  Natural Law is basically the basic, ethical beliefs man can know through reason alone, without the aid of divine Revelation.  Natural Law is not dependent on one set historical time or one physical location.  Most of Natural Law deals with our interaction with other people.  Respecting life falls under the Natural Law.  Monogamy falls under it as well, as does respecting the property of others.  In an intriguing twist of focus, the worship of God likewise falls under the auspices of Natural Law.  Now this worship of God has, of course, manifested itself in different aspects in different places and times.  It is natural for man to worship God, and thus we do it.  We must thank the Creator, and in doing so worship Him.  “It is right and just,” to quote the Roman Missal.  It is fitting to worship God, as He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible, all we can sense and all that is beyond our senses.  Is it any wonder that the ultimate form of Christian worship, the ritual instituted by Christ before His death on the Cross, is the Eucharist?  The very word Eucharist, after all, means “thanksgiving.”  Here is worship with thanksgiving as its very heart.

So we all should worship God.  Man has done just that for his entire existence.

Now, let us look at some rituals we mere mortals have used throughout the centuries to address God, to try to thank Him for His greatness.  Marcy notes several universally used items: fire and smoke, water, candles, and music.  I will reflect on these in turn, offering some historical examination, but also dive into some personal thoughts as to why these items are used.

1) Fire and Smoke:

How can one reach Heaven?  If in the sky the gods do dwell, and we mere morals must lie here below, then some other means must be chosen to bear up our burdens to the divine throne.

And so began the wide-spread ritual of burning offerings to the gods, or God, if you are a pious monotheist.

Fire held a strange power for early man.  Here was something which was pleasant and warm when you felt cold, but if you touched it the fire burned, and thus you were hurt.  Man had to control fire, but even when he thought he was in control, fire could still rage beyond stopping.  Fire destroys what it touches, burning and curling its victims until what was once one thing can no longer be recognized as what it once was.  Fire has strength, a wild and uncontrollable aspect to it, which man early on faced with great care.  Surely this fire must have come from God, for only the divine could make something so seemingly invincible.

We don’t know exactly when man first began to use fire, rather than fear it, but we do know it happened in the Old Stone Age, thousands of years before the earliest farming.  It may have been the second great invention of mankind, second only to the making of tools.  Once man controlled fire, he could move out of warmer climates close to the equator and head north; he could cook food, realizing that sweet smells emanated from cooking meat and vegetables.

Then man realized that fire, the sure sign of God’s power, could be a way to give back to God.  Here was the earliest sign of sacrifice.  Sacrifice requires the destruction of a victim, a victim which can replace the one offering the sacrifice.  Fire does the job nicely, destroying the victim beyond recognition.  It also purges away impurities, and can thus symbolize a purifying of our hearts (it is worth noting here that Catholic tradition uses the symbol of purging fire to represent the purgation process of Purgatory).  At the same time, smoke emanates from the fire, rising towards Heaven.  Here all cultures and religions agree: the smoke represents the prayers/sacrifices rising to the divine being, who then delights in the pleasing smell.  Fire thus has a practical purpose (destroying the sacrificial victim) and a symbolic one (raising the prayers to Heaven).

2) Water:

Water is life.  Is it any wonder why Thales, that notorious pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that all matter was, in some way, made up of water?  Early man did not know that life began in the oceans; he did know, however, that if he did not find water, he and his family would die.  Water vivifies, purifies, and beautifies everything.  Dead lands erupt with green after the spring rains.  What was once a desert sprouts into a lush field.  Water brings new life; water brings resurrection.

It should not surprise us, then, that man incorporated water into religious rituals.  If one is to worship God, one must be (at least symbolically) purified.  Thus came washing rituals.  The priests in many religions underwent some sort of washing ritual to symbolize their cleansing themselves of their imperfections and sins, to better prepare themselves to worship God.  This is clearly illustrated in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.  These two books lay out in details the ritual life for the Jewish people, including rituals for washing and purifying garments, items, and people after some sort of defilement.  One sees references to this throughout the New Testament as well (look at the scene during the Last Supper in John 13:1–20, wherein Jesus cleans the Apostles’ feet).  In Christian liturgy, water plays an essential role in the sacrament of Baptism (it is the matter, or physical reality, needed for the sacrament to be valid) but also in the Eucharist, where the priest washes his fingers during the preparation of the altar and also after the distribution of the Eucharist.  As always, water cleans and purifies, but in Baptism in particular, water is not merely a symbol; as in all sacraments, it does what it symbolizes.  With the waters of Baptism, Original Sin is washed away, leaving a soul perfect, purified and ready for God’s grace.

3) Candles:

Candles serve a practical purpose in religious ceremonies: they provide light.  Candles harness the darkness-shattering aspect of fire, but limit it to one small spot, specifically a darkened room in some sacred temple.  Again, usefulness led to symbolism, and the candles originally used for light came to represent some higher reality.  For example, lamps and candles hung in the temple in Jerusalem, illuminating and representing God’s light in darkness.

I don’t normally do this, but I’ll risk my credibility: The Wikipedia article “Ceremonial Use of Lights” does a better job discussing the various traditions and rituals associated with candles in various world religions than I could ever do.

4) Music: 

All religions, as far as I know, incorporate some sort of music into their rituals.  Music moves the heart and mind to focus on higher things, to draw into the divine life with God.  Music proper to worship turns the listener’s attention to God, rather than to the performer.  This is why applause is so out of place during a religious ceremony.  Literally, in such circumstances, the focus turns from divine matters to human achievements.  Worship should unite us with each other through the common worship of God; when we focus on the achievements of others rather than on God, we ignore the entire purpose of worship.  That is also why some music is inappropriate for worship.

Across the various world religions, polytheistic or monotheistic, ancient or recent, one style of liturgical music reappears throughout the centuries: chant.  Buddhists chant, as do Jews and Christians (at least Catholics and Orthodox Christians do; there is very little chant in Protestant Christian communities).  There is something about the melody of chant that speaks to the basic life in man.  It is as if the whole person bursts out in vocalizations to God.  Chanters worship God with their voices in a way that other liturgical music, even choral pieces (and even polyphonic pieces, no matter their breath-taking beauty), cannot match.  Chant is simple and expressive, and in it one feels the whole of human existence, its pains, hopes, and triumphs.

To conclude this post, let us return to our main focus.  Though all religions might share similar symbols, these do not point to some irreligious theory, that all religions are the same.  Even universal religious symbols, such as fire, can take on drastically different roles depending on the religion.  Fire meant something very different to the worshipers of Ba’al, in the days of Elijah the prophet and in the ancient city-state of Carthage, than it does to us Christians (read up on the worship of Ba’al, if you want to see the footprints of Satan in history).  Such differences point to the fundamental truths, the essential realities, which underline all systems of belief.  If only a couple, related systems of belief used these symbols, one could easily dismiss the similarities as sociological coincidences.  The universality of symbols such as water, fire, and music transcend time, and thus the quest to worship and honor the divine, a drive so essential to our human existence, manifests itself in striking similar ways.  Over the centuries, man has tried to worship God.  Some rituals work, and so rituals echo each other throughout time.  In reflecting on this, one should not think that religion is false.  On the contrary, one must confess, with almost the entire population of the planet, that there is a God who is deserving of our honor and worship.

So Marcy, no, it is not coincidence that most religions use the same liturgical symbols.  Mankind turns to reoccurring themes in worship, and so uses the same tools.  We spiritually cleanse ourselves with water; we send our offerings to Heaven with the smoke of incense; we draw our hearts to God through authentic liturgical music.  We are material creatures, and thus we must use the material world to try and reach God in worship and in our daily lives.  Most importantly, of course, is if we approach our daily lives correctly, we can worship unceasingly, for our daily life becomes a prayer, a sort of sacrament through which God works wonders.  We are meant to worship God, and for generations to come, people will use similar symbols not because of some human construction, but because the items themselves are the symbols.  In symbols, therefore, we see the unseen hand of God working and drawing us to Him, where we might worship and sing his praises forever.

For further reading:

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).  The Spirit and the Liturgy.  Translated by John Saward.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. – Though dealing mainly with Catholic liturgical practices, then-Cardinal Ratzinger does address in broad strokes some aspects of man’s universal desire to worship God (there is a whole chapter devoted to Music and Liturgy which ties in with the points made above concerning proper liturgical music).

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