On This Rock

360px-Entrega_de_las_llaves_a_San_Pedro_(Perugino)One of the key doctrines that separates Catholicism from all other Christian expressions is the firm belief that Jesus established his Church on the rock that is St. Peter. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19 NRSV). One of the things I didn’t realize until I began my journey to Catholicism is that in the Greek all the uses of “you” underlined above are in the second person singular. Jesus was speaking specifically to Peter.

On another occasion Jesus also gives all the apostles the power to bind and loose, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23 NRSV). In both cases it is obvious that Jesus is investing apostolic authority to these men and as Catholics we understand that because of apostolic succession, through the bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, and through him all bishops, and through them all priests who represent them, minister the sacraments of the Church.

One of the beautiful passages that show the primacy of Peter reveals words that Jesus spoke to him before his arrest on Holy Thursday. “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34 NRSV). It will be Peter’s mission to strengthen his fellow apostles after the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. 

And while we know Peter certainly denied his Lord three times, by all standards disqualifying him from the important role of leadership, we see our Lord draw Peter to himself in a very significant and tender moment. In John 21:15-19 NRSV, we read of an important encounter between the two of them after Jesus’s resurrection.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Jesus reiterates the commission he gave Peter in Matthew 16. He says to him, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep.” It is Peter a few days later in the book of Acts who takes charge and leads the search and installation of the successor of Judas. And then on the day of Pentecost, it is Peter who stands and preaches the first sermon that brought 3000 converts to the Church.

Pope Francis is now the 266th Bishop of Rome and 265th successor of St. Peter. No pope is perfect, not Peter, not Francis, not anyone of these men. Many times we are concerned with what a pope says or does. There have been many concerns expressed about our current holy Father. We must pray and pray always that Christ will guide his Church by the Holy Spirit operating through the Vicar of His Church.

St. Peter pray for us! Pope St. John Paul II pray for us!

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Above My Pay Grade

At the conclusion of our interview on “The Journey Home” on September 10, I said these words: “I love being a layperson. Being pope was too much. It was above my pay grade.” And it’s true, I don’t regret not being a Protestant pastor at this stage of my life. It was a lot of pressure to always be trying to figure out what was what and having to speak authoritatively to my congregation on every topic–on my authority as it turned out.

That being said, it’s sometimes very hard to let old habits die, or to teach an old dog new tricks. I discover this on a regular basis as I struggle with wanting to “pontificate” about every issue that comes up.

As Catholics we have a “three-legged stool” of authority: 1) Sacred Scripture, 2) Sacred Tradition, and 3) the Magisterium. The Vatican II document Dei Verbum (Word of God) addresses the relationship of these three “legs” as they relate to our Catholic faith. Allow me to quote from Chapter 2, paragraphs 9 and 10.

9. “Hence sacred tradition and scripture are bound together in a close and reciprocal relationship. They both flow from the same divine wellspring, merge together to some extent, and are on course towards the same end. Scripture is the utterance of God as it is set down in writing under the guidance of God’s Spirit; tradition preserves the word of God as it was entrusted to the apostles by Christ our lord and the holy Spirit, and transmits it to their successors, so that these in turn, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, may faithfully preserve, expound and disseminate the word by their preaching. Consequently, the church’s certainty about all that is revealed is not drawn from holy scripture alone; both scripture and tradition are to be accepted and honoured with like devotion and reverence.”

10. “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God , whether in its written form or in that of tradition, has been entrusted only to those charged with the church’s ongoing teaching function, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching function is not above the word of God but stands at its service, teaching nothing but what is handed down, according as it devotedly listens, reverently preserves and faithfully transmits the word of God, by divine command with the help of the holy Spirit. All that it proposes for belief, as being divinely revealed, is drawn from the one deposit of faith.”

A three-legged stool is stable and can hold weight. A two-legged stool, based only on scripture and tradition, will be less stable, lacking the authoritative magisterium. And even less stable is the one-legged stool that is based only one of these, usually scripture alone. I came to see that was largely the problem faced in the Protestant expressions that take one scripture and interpret and apply it in multiple ways. Common examples of these issues include the “security of the believer,” “the meaning of baptism and to whom it is administered,” and the “role of women in ministry,” among many others.

So when I no longer had to make those calls after serving eight years in a non-denominational setting where there was no final word on these and other issues, I felt a weight lifted and realized that “pontificating” was no longer in my job description, nor was it meant to be.

So back to my tendency to fall back into said practice. I didn’t, nor does any Catholic, surrender our brain and our reason at our baptism and confirmation. We are called to trust scripture, tradition and the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church, yet we are still able to discern and acknowledge that sometimes a deacon, a priest, a bishop, a cardinal, yea even a pope, God forbid, can teach or preach something that doesn’t jibe with what St. Jude wrote about in his epistle:

Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (verse 3).

This is where as Catholics in the pew, in our apostolates, and our vocations, we must be prayerfully alert and live into what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 92:

“The whole body of the faithful…cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful,’ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” (Lumen Gentium, 12).

In blogs to come I will touch upon the freedom and responsibility these truths put on us as Catholic Christians. For now, let’s contend for the faith that has been entrusted to us!

Above My Pay Grade

Is the Pope Catholic?

When I was growing up and someone asked a question with an obvious positive answer, the sarcastic response that was often given was “Is the Pope Catholic?” I found myself asking that “rhetorical question” once again yesterday after Pope Francis’s appearance before a large crowd of youth in Sicily.

At the end of his meeting with the youth of Sicily, Pope Francis prayed a simple prayer rather than give the Pontifical Blessing, so as not to offend the “many non-Catholic Christians, those of other religions, and the agnostics” present. In itself, there is nothing wrong with the prayer, although weak on actual message (I’m trusting someone else’s translation from Italian to English to provide the content):

Now I would like to give you a blessing. I know that among you there are young Catholics, Christians, other religious traditions, and even some agnostics. For this I will bless everyone, and I will ask God to bless that seed of restlessness that is in your heart.

Lord, Lord God, look at these young people. You know each of them. You know what they think. You know that they want to move on, to make a better world. Lord, make them seekers of good and of happiness, make them active in their journey and in their encounter with others; make them bold in serving; make them humble in seeking their roots and carrying them forward to bear fruit, to have identity, to have belonging. May the Lord, the Lord God, accompany all these young people on the journey and bless everyone. Amen.

It seems that “seeker sensitivity,” long popular in evangelical circles, has moved into the Vatican circle and is being practiced by Pope Francis. Understand that I’m not saying we should never try to contextualize the message of the gospel. But there are certain factors here that make this seem bizarre. I’m fully aware that not every Sicilian, especially among the youth, are practicing Catholics, but the vast majority of them are. For many of those young Sicilian Catholics it was probably the first time to see the pope in person and have the opportunity to receive a pontifical blessing from him.

A Pontifical Blessing

V. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
R. Now and forever.

V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who made heaven and earth.

V. May Almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
R. Amen.

Another issue is that the person who gave the simple blessing rather than the pontifical blessing was not just any cleric, but Pope Francis, the Holy Father, the Successor to St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ on earth. Who better to give a beautiful, significant and enduring Trinitarian blessing, than him. Pray the simple prayer, but then give the people the blessing that befits the holy office.

In this time of crisis in the worldwide Church we need more than simple, bland, generic, fluffy, fuzzy, theologically indistinct blessings.

St. Peter pray for Pope Francis! St. Peter pray for Christ’s Church! St. Peter pray for us!

Is the Pope Catholic?

“Scaring the hell out of me”

Mother Angelica foundress of EWTN used to say, “My intention is to scare the hell out of you.” She minced no words as she spoke the truth in love.

I have my own story of  a sermon I heard at church camp when I was 12 years old. The preacher was an “old-fashioned” man of God who wasn’t afraid to talk about hell. In the message he talked about the danger of missing heaven and if one did so, the eternal destiny was hell. The central point that I remember was how he described someone going to hell for all eternity. He painted the picture of a iron sphere the size of the earth and a tiny bird like a sparrow. The sparrow began his trek of circumnavigating the world walking without stopping. The bird’s little feet didn’t make a dint on the sphere, but who knows after how many eons the sphere begins to show some wear and a little path is carved into the ball. Eons more pass and the bird has made quite a dent in the sphere. Finally the bird is able to wear a path clear through the iron ball (remember it’s the size of the earth) and it breaks into two. And then God says, “Eternity has begun!” All the time I’m sitting there trembling, thinking about the absolute endlessness of the eternal torment one would never see the end of. He scared the hell out of me!

We might take issue with the preacher’s tactic, but I will tell you I am thankful! I learned that day there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. During the 30 plus years that I served as a pastor I preached my share of sermons, but I never preached one like that, perhaps to my shame. Hell was not something we talked about in “polite company.” We tend to focus more on God’s love, but to be honest, we don’t talk much about heaven either. Our focus seems to be more on making the world a better place. Now there’s nothing wrong with that—that too is our call as Christians. But unfortunately, that’s only part of the story—eternity is a long, long, long…

Jesus talked about a lot about heaven, but he talked even more about hell. The fact that there is more to life than what we know in the present helps us keep perspective. At the end of our life we will either spend eternity with God or separate from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this biblical truth:

1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

I believe when we lose the vision of eternity, or believe that it really doesn’t matter how we live now, we lose our moorings, we lose restraint, and we decide what is right for us. Proverbs 29:18 says,

Without a vision the people lose restraint;
but happy is the one who follows instruction.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, gives that instruction that will make us truly happy.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.

I venture to say in light of our current challenges in the Church there is a need to recover the teaching on eternal destiny—that there is something that follows our life here. I can’t help but think that when we have a healthy fear of hell, it will also increase our love for God and for the promise extended to those who love and serve Him.

You know what, I am thankful for the preacher that “scared the hell out of me!”

“Scaring the hell out of me”

Missing the Mark

Sin—there I said it—is a difficult topic to address and deal with today. I don’t think it has ever been on the “Top Ten” topics to talk about. Yet it seems that we really try to suppress the subject in our current world. Even in the places where you would imagine that the topic should come up—in church—it gets glossed over.

I was a pastor for 30 plus years and sin was not one of my favorite topics, in a sermon or otherwise. And even when there was a blatant issue of sin that was obvious to the whole community, it took all that I had to confront it, even in love.

As I prepared to come into the Roman Catholic Church in 2016, one of the things I had to do was make my first confession. I remember doing my examination of conscience covering 42 years since my baptism at the age of 17! The idea of making a list of my sins and declaring them in the confessional was daunting. “Father, forgive me for I have sinned…this is my first confession ever.”

I slogged through it. The priest didn’t throw me out of the confessional. And most importantly I heard the words of absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son,  and of the Holy Spirit.”

Every day when I go to Mass I look forward to the opening words spoken by the priest in  what is known as the Penitential Act:

Brethren, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, (And, striking their breast, they say:) through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; (Then they continue:) therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

(The absolution by the Priest follows:) May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

(The people reply:) Amen.

There is a shorter form, but I always look forward to the Confiteor in bold above. If I attend a Mass where it seems that the celebrant is “free-styling” I feel uncomfortable and wonder if once again we are trying to make ourselves feel better by “white washing” or minimizing the impact of our sin. One of those occasions is when “we” ask forgiveness for “missing the mark.” Now, I know the Greek word hamartia can be translated “missing the mark,” and that is a serious offense, but not in the way I’ve heard it presented. It seems more like the goal was 100% and I got 90% so for that 10% I’m sorry. The Confiteor says I have “greatly sinned” and I have, you have, all God’s children have!

That same Greek word is also translated, “to be without share in,” “to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honor, to do or go wrong,” “to wander from the law of God, violate God’s divine law in thought or in act.”

I am so thankful when my confessor acknowledges that I have sinned. He doesn’t give me the excuse that I am human or that I only missed by a little bit. I didn’t say it makes me feel good, but it’s necessary for my soul to be honest! But then what incredible joy when I hear those words: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

I’m going to confession this Saturday. Won’t you join me?

Missing the Mark

Verses You Never Hear in Church

bible-rosary

I made an interesting discovery this week and decided I would share it with you today. To give context there are several things that I need to point out.

  1. I spent almost 60 years of my life in Protestant evangelicalism.
  2. I entered the Roman Catholic Church a little over two years ago.
  3. The vast majority of my ecclesiastical life in Protestantism was not centered on daily and weekly liturgical readings. We were more free-style in our Bible reading in church.
  4. Since coming into the Catholic Church the lectionary dictates all Scripture read in public worship.
  5. During the last 10 to 15 years in evangelical circles there has been and continues to be a lot of conversation around several Scripture passages that speak to the issue of homosexuality.
  6. The recent Archbishop McCarrick scandal is revealing a likely connection between homosexuality and the abuses that took place in Catholic churches and seminaries.
  7. In light of this most recent sexual abuse scandal some laity and some Catholic media are making that connection, but there has not been any recognition from the Church hierarchy to that regard. In fact, one could say there has been a rather laissez faire view of homosexuality among average Catholics.
  8. The final point, and the discovery that I made this week: none of the passages that I referred to above in #5 are included in the lectionary readings that the Catholic and major Protestant denominations use. We’re talking about the Revised Common Lectionary for Protestants which in turn is based on the Ordo Lectionum Missae a three-year lectionary produced by the Roman Catholic Church following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

I found this very interesting when I compare my findings with the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states:

Chastity and homosexuality
2357 
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity (Genesis 19:1-29; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:10; 1 Timothy 1:10), tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Persona humana 8). They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358  The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359  Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Please hear me! This is not meant to be a “heavier burden of condemnation” to those who experience and struggle with same-sex attraction, but a call to our pastors and bishops to give us the “full counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and help us toward “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

Verses You Never Hear in Church

The Curé of Ars

One hundred twenty-three (123) weeks ago today my wife and I entered the Catholic Church. This past Monday we traveled to Zanesville, OH, to tape our story for the television program “Journey Home” that airs on the Catholic cable station EWTN.

When we first entered the Church there were many questions about our journey and I tried to answer some of them through this blog. About 15 months ago I made the last entry. I don’t know how many times since that I have thought about taking it up again, but didn’t.

It seems appropriate on this day that Catholics celebrate the life, ministry and sainthood of Fr. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, that I would return to this and recommit myself to this mode of communication.

John Vianney lived in France from 1786-1859. He was four years old when the French Revolution forever changed the face of France and altered drastically religious life for the French. It was a time when priests had to go into hiding and put their lives in danger to serve and administer the Sacraments to their parishioners. John felt the effects of this turmoil; it hindered his education, to the point that when he later entered seminary to prepare for the priesthood he struggled due to a subpar educational preparation.

Eventually as a priest he was assigned to the small village of Ars where he spent 40 years as the parish pastor. John dedicated himself to the renewal of spiritual life of those in his sphere of ministry. Daily he would spend 11 to 12 hours hearing confessions. By 1855, 20,000 pilgrims traveled annually to Ars to be ministered to by Fr. Vianney. When he died over 300 priests and 6,000 people attended his funeral.

As Catholics we believe that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith. In a world that is constantly shifting, even as our faith and our Church is challenged on a daily basis, we can receive graces and strength from receiving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus, even daily, in the Mass.

St. John Vianney said, “If we could comprehend all the good things contained in Holy Communion, nothing more would be wanting to content the heart of man”.

This morning at the Mass, as in every Mass, after the celebrant declares, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of Lamb,” we respond, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Jesus in the Eucharist–there is nothing more needed to content our hearts!

The Curé of Ars