Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Vocation Story (Plus Two More!)

Laurent Okitakatshi, Archbishop Joseph Naumann,
Daniel Koko Oleko, and yours truly.
Several people have asked for my vocation story, but I haven't written much on the subject. So let me share a bit about how I got to be where I am now. This is from a radio show that I did with my bishop, Archbishop Joseph Naumann's, on his radio show, “The Shepherd's Voice,” back in April.

As I mentioned earlier, I had an hour-long interview on Vocation Boom on EWTN. The first part is my vocation story, and the second part is Q&A on vocations-related questions. If that sounds interesting to you (or you just want to hear how weird my voice sounds), check out the audio below:

You can also download it here.

At the time, I was in Kansas City along with two of my friends, Daniel Koko Oleko and Laurent Okitakatshi. Daniel and Laurent are seminarians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and were in town for Holy Week. Bill Scholl, who helps to put the show together, was more than happy to have all three of us on the show.

So this is really three vocation stories, plus the story of Daniel's conversion to Catholicism, plus (during the first couple minutes), an explanation of Archbishop Naumann's vision for the future of the Church.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why Are Catholics So "Into" Mary?

Aureliano Milani, Expulsion of Adam and Eve (18th c.)
Today's post is for those Protestants who view the Church's teachings on Mary as unnecessary and odd, rather than evil. There are a lot of you out there, and for good reason.

Let's be honest. If you're not Catholic, or even if you're a Catholic who grew up without much of a focus on Mary, the Catholic devotion to Mary is hard to understand. It seems, if not idolatrous or superstitious, at least ... weird. More specifically, it seems excessively devotional and sentimental, the sort of thing that might work in a culture in which men kiss each other when they meet, but which just doesn't fit in our culture.

But Marian devotion is neither superstition nor mere emotionalism. In fact, Catholics care about Mary so much because Scripture does.

At first, that answer sounds surprising, because Mary doesn't seem to be mentioned that often in Scripture. But that's just on the surface. We need to dive deeper. To see what I mean, let's consider Genesis 3:15. In the midst of cursing the serpent for his role in the Fall, God says:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
To get what's going on here, let's look at several dimensions of this passage.

1) What's meant by the “Seed” of “the Woman”?

“Seed” is one of the ways that descendants are described in Scripture. But it's measured through the man. In part, that's because ancient cultures tended to have an inaccurate understanding of human sexuality. They understood how agriculture worked: you planted the seeds of a certain plant in soil, and if the soil was fertile, then the offspring of the original plant grew. They assumed human reproduction worked the same way, with the man providing the “seed,” and the woman providing the “soil.” Many of the terms used today (like “fertility”) are holdovers from this view. Hebrew was no exception to this: the same word, zera` meant seed, semen, and descendent, as we see in passages like Genesis 38:8-9.

The point is, we hear continually about “the seed of Abraham” (2 Chronicles 20:7), “the seed of David” (1 Kings 11:39), “the seed of Jacob” (Psalm 22:23), etc., but not the seed of a woman. There are only two exceptions to this in all of Scripture. One of those times is in Genesis 16:10, in which the angel promises Hagar that she'll have many descendants. There, they're referred to as her seed, because it's specifically about her children, not Abraham's children by his wife Sarah.

The only other time is here, in Genesis 3:15. Why?

The answer is clear enough. As the Evangelical pastor John MacArthur explains, “the unique reference in Genesis 3:15 to “her Seed” looks beyond Adam and Eve to Mary and to Christ.

Understood in this way, the passage is quite beautiful: it means that at the very moment of the Fall, God promised that the story wasn't over yet, that Satan wouldn't have the last laugh, and that the Virgin-Born would come and save us from our sins.

This interpretation is also the only one to explain the strange language used. Jesus doesn't have a biological human father, so it would be inaccurate to refer to Him as “the seed of Joseph.” He's the offspring of the Virgin Mary in a way that He's not the offspring of anyone else. Given the Virgin Birth, it becomes clear why God should speak of “her Seed.”

2) What's meant by “the Woman”?

Given the answer to the last question, this one is simple. If Genesis 3:15 is a promise of the Virgin Birth, then the Woman” is the Virgin Mary. You can't have the Virgin Birth without the Virgin.

But this point is an important one for two reasons: first, because it establishes a parallel between Mary and Eve, a parallel that the early Christians grasped. They even share a title, Woman. Remember that, at the time of the Fall, Eve is still called “Woman” (Gen. 2:23), as she doesn't get renamed Eve until Genesis 3:20, a few verses later.

But it's important for a second reason. It means that the Virgin Mary is prophesied from the very first Book of the Bible. God is promising us (and threatening Satan) that a woman will come along who will give birth to a Son who will save us.

And note well: Scripture speaks of “the Woman,” not just “a Woman.” Too often, the Virgin Mary is treated as an unnecessary element (or at best, a replaceable part). But Scripture shows that she was part of God's plan of salvation from the very moment of the Fall. In fact, we can say that God, who “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), chose the Virgin Mary for this role from all eternity. Genesis 3:15 is just the first time He reveals this to us, since it's the first time we need redemption.

3) The Two Teams

Often, when Genesis 3:15 is mentioned, the debate has revolved about the second half of the verse. Since a neuter pronoun is used, the second half of the verse literally translates, “it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise its heel.” Is this a reference to Jesus? Mary? Christians? The Church? All of the above? This is an interesting debate, but it risks missing the other half of the verse, which is no less shocking.

Recall that God is addressing the serpent, Satan. He says: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” That is, Our Lord depicts the battle between good and evil as a battle between Mary and Satan. Those are the two sides: you're either with Mary, or you're with the devil. You can be a child of Mary, or you can be a child of the devil. There's no room to be lukewarm (Revelation 3:15-16).

That's what Genesis 3:15 is saying. To be sure, it's saying a lot more than that: for example, about the ultimate triumph of Christ over Satan. But it's hard to get around the fact that the enmity between the serpent and the woman is a foreshadowing of the fight between Satan and Mary, a fight that continues between his offspring and hers until the Last Judgment. Given this, the reasons for the Catholic devotion to Mary should be clear. It's not about excessive emotionalism, but understanding the spiritual battleground.

4) Why Mary's Team?

Domenico Beccafumi, Fall of the Rebel Angels (1530)
Everything up to this point has been, in my view, pretty straightforward exegesis. Even Protestants like MacArthur admit that Genesis 3:15 is about the Virgin Birth, and no Christian can claim ignorance of who that Virgin is. But when we ask why God should description the battle as the serpent against the Woman (instead of the serpent against the Seed of the Woman, as we might expect), we are speculating a bit.

But it's worth asking, because it might sound that Genesis 3:15 is raising Mary to the level of God. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Scripture continually shows Satan being defeated by created beings. For example, in a passage heavily reminiscent of Genesis 3,  Revelation 12 describes the fall of Satan in this way (Revelation 12:8-9, 13):
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. [...] And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child.
So once again Scripture speaks of how Satan, the serpent, is at war against the woman [the Mother of Christ, the “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5)]. A few verses later, after he fails to corrupt the Mother of Christ, he goes after us (Revelation 12:17): “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” In other words, the devil is at war with those of us on Mary's team.

So we see the devil fighting (and losing) first against St. Michael, against the Mother of Christ, and against Christians. But why does Christ choose to defeat Satan by proxy? I suspect it's that God doesn't treat Satan as a worthy adversary, because he's not. It's the heresy of dualism to treat God and Satan as equally-powerful opposing forces. They're not. This is the very heart of the matter. Satan's arrogance is encapsulated in his claim: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). But despite his fiercest efforts, Satan will never succeed in making himself like the Most High. God's decision to repeatedly defeat Satan via created beings like the Virgin Mary makes this fact abundantly clear.


Of course, this is in no way an exhaustive examination of the Scriptural references to Mary. But I think it does enough to show why Mary is so central to Catholic spirituality: Scripture presents her as part of the plan of redemption from the very moment that redemption is needed, and depicts the choice between good and evil as a choice to be a child of Mary or a child of the devil. Given this, go be a child of Mary!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Joel Osteen, Judas Iscariot, and the Heretical "Prosperity Gospel"

Lakewood Church
(Joel and Victoria Osteen's megachurch)
The recent controversy over Joel and Victoria Osteen has put these megachurch preachers back in the spotlight. This time, it was because Victoria said:
I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we're not doing it for God—I mean, that's one way to look at it—we're doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we're happy. That's the thing that gives Him the greatest joy. So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God really. You're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy. Amen?
This wasn't spoken by someone on the fringes of Evangelicalism. The Osteens run the largest megachurch in the United States, with over 40,000 weekly members (and millions more tuning in), bringing in an estimated $75,000,000 a year. That's in addition to the tens of millions that Joel has made selling books: his Your Best Life Now sold some seven million copies.

And why are millions of people clamoring to follow the Osteens? Because these two are the most successful peddlers of what's known as the “Prosperity Gospel.” Here's how they describe the “Prosperity Gospel” on their website:
So many people are confused about what the Bible means by prosperity. Prosperity isn’t just about money. It’s about having health and peace in your mind. It’s being able to sleep at night and having good relationships. There are many things that money cannot buy that represent prosperity, but having monetary provision is also a part of prosperity. You’ll never find one place in the Scripture where we are supposed to drag around not having enough, not able to afford what we want, and living off the leftovers of others. No, we were created to be the head and not the tail! Jesus came that we might live an abundant life!
It turns out, when you replace this:

with this:

...people love you for it. The Osteens have gotten rich and successful off of telling people what they want to hear: namely, that God wants them to be rich and successful. And then, they've pointed to all of their extravagant wealth and success as proof of their “Gospel.”

All of this success has come at a price: to achieve it, they have had to pervert and sell out the Gospel. My original idea was to analyze the Prosperity Gospel point-by-point, to show how it puts us, rather than God, at the center of Christianity; how it prostitutes the Gospel in service of Mammon; and how it misrepresents the very Scriptures that it cites as support.

All of this seemed too small, though. If you've ever actually read the Bible, or even if you simply know the basics of the history of the Jews, of Jesus Christ, and of the Christians, then you should be able to see that the Prosperity Gospel is very nearly the antithesis of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Consider.

I. The Prosperity Gospel v. Israel

Nicholas Poussin, Gideon's Battle Against the Midianites (1626)
God chose Israel precisely because it was so small and weak. The survival of the Jewish people is literally a miracle, given that so much of their history has been spent surrounded by people who wanted to kill them. But the constant temptation for Israel was to rely on their own strength, or on powerful political alliances, rather than trusting in God. In response to this, God would sometimes force Israel to be weak, just so that they could see that it is He, and not they, who are responsible for their survival. My favorite example of this is from Judges 7:2-7, before Gideon leads the Israelites into battle against the Midianite army:
The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Mid′ianites into their hand, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me.’  Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.’” And Gideon tested them; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained. 
And the Lord said to Gideon, “The people are still too many; take them down to the water and I will test them for you there; and he of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall go with you,’ shall go with you; and any of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall not go with you,’ shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water; and the Lord said to Gideon, “Every one that laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself; likewise every one that kneels down to drink.” And the number of those that lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was three hundred men; but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. 
And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Mid′ianites into your hand; and let all the others go every man to his home.”
So, just to ensure that Israel didn't think that they had won the battle by their own power, God reduces their army from 30,000 troops to 300, and those 300 are, to put it nicely, quirky.

The Jews were not always happy about this arrangement. While moderns have the problem of evil, “why do bad things happen to good people?” the Jewish concern was just the opposite:  “why do good things happen to bad people?” Call it the problem of prosperity. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jeremiah 12:1).

Jacob Matham, Avarice (1587)
The Psalms in particular are full of the Jews' grappling with this problem of prosperity. For example, in Psalm 73:3-7, Asaph admits:
For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as other men are; they are not stricken like other men. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies.
In other words, the threefold prosperity that the Osteens describe -- wealth, health, and freedom from trouble -- is a great description of the wicked and arrogant. The Psalmist comes to recognize that all of this prosperity is fleeting and pointless, and that the wicked enjoy it only briefly on their way to destruction (Psalm 73:16-19).

By the light of the Holy Spirit, the Jews came to see that the prosperity that they envied wasn't actually a blessing, but a curse. Even saintly men like Abraham and Lot had to part company, “for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together” (Genesis 13:6). Such prosperity also provokes jealousy and greed, and most disturbingly, causes the greedy to hunger for money and worldly security, rather than hungering after God and eternal salvation.

In this way, the inspired authors show that the poor man who trusts in the Lord is on the road to eternal bliss with Him, while the rich man who trusts in himself (or in his wealth, or his skills, etc.) is poised to accumulate a fortune of no use to him when he dies. “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:12, 20). That's why it's most fitting that Joel Osteen's book is entitled Your Best Life Now, because that's exactly the case for the greedy: they briefly enjoy worldly pleasures, before spending all of eternity in the fires of Hell.

It's for this reason that the prophet Habakkuk prays (Habakkuk 3:7-8),
Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
In other words, we shouldn't rejoice in God because He's given us nice things or because we think we can get nice things out of Him this way (although, obviously, it's good to thank Him for those things He's given us). We should rejoice in Him because He's God, and because He's extended His hand of salvation, even if we've got absolutely nothing else going for us, and even if God decides to give us nothing but failure and trial.

In a passage that should properly terrify anyone who preaches or believes the Prosperity Gospel, David wishes material prosperity on his enemies (Psalm 17:13-15):
Arise, O Lord! confront them, overthrow them! Deliver my life from the wicked by thy sword, from men by thy hand, O Lord, from men whose portion in life is of the world. May their belly be filled with what thou hast stored up for them; may their children have more than enough; may they leave something over to their babes. As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form.
So that's the Old Testament, in a nutshell: a long history of God's chosen people being kicked around by the prosperous and powerful, while the Israelites' very lack of prosperity leads them into greater faith and to salvation.

II. The Prosperity Gospel v. Jesus Christ

Michael Rieser, The Night Before the Birth of Christ (1869)
Jesus is born to a working-class couple. His first crib is a food trough used by animals, “because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7). His Mother sang of the glory of God (Luke 1:51-52), and how “he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” After spending His infancy as a refugee in Egypt, the Holy Family returns to Israel (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23), to a town sown lowly that one of the Apostles would later ask, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

The teachings of Christ reflect the poverty that He freely chose from all eternity. When John the Baptist sent his followers to see that Jesus was the Christ, He confirmed it for them by showing that “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). Part of this Good News is of the blessedness of the poor in spirit, those who have come to rely upon God (Matthew 5:3).

Meanwhile, He warns the rich: “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:23-24). He calls them, like all of us, to love God and hate wealth. “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).

Christ praises a tax collector named Zacchaeus for giving away half of his possessions, and repaying fourfold all of the money he earned fraudulently (Luke 19:1-10). And when a pious young rich man asks Jesus how to be saved, He says (Matthew 19:21), “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Nor was it just what He said. Just as the Osteens practice what they preach, so too does Christ. The Osteens preach that we are to be wealthy here below, so they live in a mansion worth over $10 million, while keeping another $3 million mansion just to show what they think of Luke 3:11. Christ preaches the opposite, so He could boast of no such mansions: “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Instead, His mansions, and the ones prepared for His followers, are in Heaven (John 14:2).

Of course, Christ warns us not to follow the Osteens short-term investment strategy (Matthew 6:19-21):
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
And again, in Luke 12:33: “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” Does any of this sound like the God that Osteen believes in, who wants you to get rich, and to enjoy your mansions and the good life now, and here below?

III. The Prosperity Gospel v. The Church

Carlo Crivelli, Saint Sebastian (1491)
All of this is not to say Christ was never extravagant. He was, in suffering. Despite being sinless, He suffers numerous untold indignities: being spat upon, beaten, tortured, and eventually executed on the Cross. This was the Chalice of His Passion (Matthew 26:39), and it's this Chalice from which He offers us a drink (Matthew 20:23), and it's this Cross that He invites us to pick up and carry as part of our life of self-denial (Matthew 16:24).

Christ sends the Twelve with these instructions (Matthew 10:8-10):
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without pay, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food.
The Apostles take these words to heart, not holding on to any material possession that might obstruct them from a full devotion to the Gospel (Acts 2:45). So radical was their devotion to Apostolic poverty that when a crippled man begs at the feet of Peter, the Apostle can respond honestly, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6).

Nor was it simply poverty that the Apostles eagerly embraced: they also embraced persecution, just as their Master had promised at the Last Supper (John 15:18-20):
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.
Therefore, the earliest Christians “rejoice in our sufferings,” (Romans 5:3; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 4:13). Rather than calling him to enjoy the good life, St. Paul calls Timothy to “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), a message less likely to get on the New York Times bestseller list.

When St. Paul's Apostolic authority is challenged, the credentials he cites to show his authenticity is that he has eschewed prosperity for the sake of suffering (2 Corinthians 11:24-30):
Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
By boasting in his weakness, Paul was both showing a deep understanding of the Old Testament message, as well as the New. Such a teaching can be neatly summarized in Our Lord's words to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Such a witness is proclaimed in the lives of the martyrs, from St. Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) down to the present day. Christians happily give up everything and are poured out like libations (Philippians 2:17) out of love of the Gospel.

Such a paradox has long baffled the enemies of Christianity: if Christianity is true, why aren't the Christians all healthy, rich, and powerful? When the Mongolian leader Kuyuk (or Güyük) Khan was continuing his grandfather Genghis' domination of Christian lands, Pope Innocent IV wrote to him calling for peace and trying to convert him to Christianity. Kuyuk wrote back:
Furthermore, you have said it would be well for us to become Christians. You write to me in person about this matter, and have addressed to me a request. This, your request, we cannot understand. [...] how do you know who is pleasing to God and to whom He allots His grace? How can you know it, that you speak such words? Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven?
In other words, Kuyuk assumed that since he was prosperous, he must enjoy the blessings of Heaven, and therefore, his religion must be the true one. Needless to say, his Prosperity Gospel was a false one, and the Mongolians were eventually crushed (though not before several prominent Mongol leaders converted to Christianity).


Hopefully, this suffices to show that the Gospel preached by the Osteens is a false and horrible bastardization of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is almost the perfect negative of the Gospel message. The Osteens, and those who preach and teach similar false Gospels, have pimped out the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a way to gain worldly wealth, rather than recognizing it for what it is: the self-revelation of Almighty God, and a sure path to eternal salvation. The French writer Léon Bloy described such rotten shepherds as worse than Judas, who at least returned the money:
The sum total of fifty worldly priests would not even amount to as much as one Judas, a Judas who returns the money and hangs himself from despair. Frankly, such priests are appalling. Through them it is that the rich are confirmed in their wealth, as ice is solidified by sulphuric acid.
Of course, I can't say with any certainty that the Osteens are worse than Judas Iscariot, or even that he and his followers will surely rot in Hell. Only God can know that for sure.

What I can say with certainty, though, is that trading the Pearl of Great Price for a few tens of millions of dollars is a terrible rip-off. The Prosperity Gospel is no path for your best life, either for now or (most surely) for eternity.

Monday, September 1, 2014

6 Biblical Reasons to Pray to Angels

Should you pray to angels? Does the Bible have anything to say about this practice? And if so, does it permit it or condemn it?

I should clarify at the outset that by “praying,” I don't mean “worshiping” them. All Christians are in agreement that worshiping angels is contrary to Scripture, and Revelation 19:9-10 and 22:8-9 are particularly clear that we are not to do so. That question is easy. Instead, I mean speaking to angels, asking them to pray for us, asking them to protect us, thanking them for their protection and prayers, and the like.

With that in mind, consider these six Biblical reasons to pray to angels. I'm going to present each point with minimal commentary, summarizing the resulting picture at the end:

(1) Your Guardian Angel is Praying For You.

Pietro Perugino, God the Father and Angels, Sistine Chapel (16th c.)
In Matthew 18:10, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” It's easy to overlook the importance of that line for this question, but Christ is confirming that we each have guardian angels interceding for us before the Heavenly Throne. That's why He refers to these as “their angels.”

Nor is it just individuals who have guardian angels. Revelation 1:20 tells us that each church also has its own angel. And God uses these angels as intermediaries between God and man: He sends an angel to speak to John and inspire him to write Revelation (Rev. 1:1), and then has this angel transmit a message to John to proclaim to the angels of each of the churches (Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). Nations are also entrusted to particular guardian angels, as was done with the nation of Israel (Daniel 10:21; 12:1).

So there are angels who have a direct responsibility for us, and who are involved in our lives, praying for us.

(2) Angels Bring the Prayers of the Saints to God.

Not only are angels praying for us, they're also bringing our prayers to God. In Tobit 12:15, the Archangel Raphael says, “I am Raph′ael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One.” Now, Protestants might be hesitant to accept that testimony: after all, it's from the Book of Tobit, which they believe is non-inspired. But it turns out, the Book of Revelation confirms what Raphael said. Revelation 8:2-4 says:
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.  And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.
Now, Revelation doesn't specify whether these are the prayers of the Saints in heaven, on earth, or both. But it's clear that these seven angels (along with an eighth, who serves as a heavenly thurifer) are offering the prayers of the Saints.

So angels aren't just involved in praying for us, but are intimately involved in our prayers to God. This turns out to be an important point for Protestants, who fear that intercession somehow gets in the way of their ability to pray directly to God. Their prayers directly to God are already going through angelic mediation!

(3) Angels Protect Us in Other Ways, Too.

Pietro Perugino, Annunciation, Santa Maria Nuova, Fano (1490)
Angels help us in countless other ways, as well. Hebrews 1:14 says of angels: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” This ministry takes different forms, as they provide for our physical and spiritual needs on the road to salvation.

For example, Psalm 34:7 says that, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” Sometimes this takes the form of physical protection: for example, in battle (2 Chronicles 32:21). Additionally, it was an angel who gave Elijah food and drink to strengthen him when he had given up on living (1 Kings 19:5-8). But beyond physical protection, angels help us spiritually. When Balaam went to curse Israel, it was an angel who stopped him - invisibly at first, and visibly only thereafter (Numbers 22:32-33). 

Other times, this angelic ministry takes the form of telling us what to do. An angel instructed the Apostle Philip to “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26) so that Philip would encounter the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah, and lead him to salvation (Acts 8:27-39).

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, they announce the will of God to us. Several times throughout Scripture, angels answer our prayers on God's behalf, or are His instrument for announcing His will or His plans. For example, the prayers of Hagar and Ishmael are answered by an angel (Genesis 16:1-10; 21:17), an angel who calls Gideon the judge (Judges 6:11-21), and so on. It was the Archangel Gabriel who told Zechariah that his wife would bear John the Baptist (Luke 1:11-13). Or, to take the most angelic appearance in history, it was Gabriel who announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear Jesus Christ (Luke 1:26-38).

So angels play a huge, unseen role in our daily lives, aiding us on the way to salvation. While this includes prayer, we now see that it includes countless other ministrations, as well.

(4) It's Okay to Speak to Angels.

As we've just seen, Scripture presents several times in which angels speak to men and women. And you know what? The people that they're talking to often respond. For example, when Gabriel announces the Incarnation to Mary, she asks him how it could happen, given her Virginity (Luke 1:34). Both Abraham and Jacob are depicted as speaking with angels (Genesis 22:11; 31:11), as did Balaam (Numbers 22:34), Samson's father (Judges 13), and many others. Both the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 1) and the Apostle John (the Book of Revelation) are presented as having extended conversations with angels.

In a few of these examples, it's unclear if the “angel” is actually Christ, but there's no question that Scripture presents men speaking with angels, and presents it in a positive manner (unless, like the high priest Zechariah, they're disrespectful: cf Luke 1:18-20). 

Typically, these people speak to angels after the angels begin the conversations. But Scripture doesn't require this, and King David freely calls upon the angels, along with the rest of Creation, to praise God: “Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!” (Psalm 148:2) and “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word!” (Psalm 103:20).

(5) The Disciples Even Speak to Demons.

One point that's often overlooked is that the Disciples are sent out to exorcise demons (Luke 9:1), and this mission entails speaking to them at times. After all, they are driving out demons in the name of Jesus (Luke 10:17). And when non-Disciples start imitating this, driving out demons in the name of Jesus, He doesn't discourage them (Mark 9:38). For that matter, Christ Himself spoke with demons (Matthew 8:28-32; Luke 8:30).

Obviously, it's not as if Jesus and His followers were making small talk with demons. Rather, they were speaking to them in the course of casting them out. But nevertheless, this point is significant, because it would bizarre to say that it's okay to speak to demons, fallen angels, in order to cast them out, but not okay to speak to holy angels.

(6) This Doesn't Violate Scripture's Prohibition Against Consulting the Dead.

Finally, let's go ahead and anticipate a common Protestant objection:
Praying to the dead is strictly forbidden in the Bible. Deuteronomy 18:11 tells us that anyone who “consults with the dead” is “detestable to the Lord.” The story of Saul consulting a medium to bring up the spirit of the dead Samuel resulted in his death “because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance” (1 Samuel 28:1-25; 1 Chronicles 10:13-14). 
And that's all true: Scripture does condemn consulting the dead. Isaiah 8:19 says, “And when they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the wizards who chirp and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?

The Scriptural condemnation of consulting the dead is closely tied to the idea of trying to go around God. Both 1 Chronicles 10:13 and Isaiah 8:19 point this out clearly. But in the case of praying to the angels or the Saints in heaven, you're not trying to go around God. You're trying to go to those close to Him: those who are praying for you, offering up your prayers, and looking out for you in innumerable ways.

More importantly, praying to angels isn't consulting the dead. After all, angels aren't dead. After all, these are the angels that didn't fall, the angels who stand in the presence of the Living God at all times (Matthew 18:10; Luke 1:19; Tobit 12:15; Revelation 8:2). They're alive in a way that we're not, alive in a way that we still strive to be. 

To act as if angels are dead just because they're immaterial, spiritual beings is an incredibly anti-Christian attitude. After all, “God is Spirit” (John 4:24), yet we don't declare “the living God” dead (cf. Hebrews 3:12). This idea that those without bodies are “dead” might make sense for an atheist materialist, but not for a Christian.

While we're on the subject, this is why the prohibition against consulting the dead doesn't prohibit praying to the Saints. The Sadducees made the same mistake that these Protestant objectors made, and Christ corrected them for it (Mark 12:26-27):
And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”
To say that we can't pray to the Saints because they're dead is to say that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of the dead. If you believe that, you are quite wrong.


To summarize the case for praying to angels, Scripture has revealed to us that there are spiritual beings who are standing in the presence of God, and who are both offering up our prayers to God, and their own prayers for us. More than this, they are tasked with ministering to us to lead us to salvation. Of course we should talk to them: requesting that they pray for specific things, entreat them to protect us in areas in which we realize that we are weak, and the like. In doing this, we are helping them to do what God has tasked them to do.

And so it's the most natural thing in the world that Scripture presents holy men and women speaking with angels. How could they not? Consider Genesis 22:11,
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”
Imagine the absurdity of a Protestant Abraham, afraid to speak to the angel for fear that this might somehow be “worship.” Or a Protestant Mary, too “pious” to ask Gabriel about the Virgin Birth. 

Of course, I don't say these things to be rude to Protestants, who act out of a well-meaning piety in avoiding acknowledging or thanking the angels who assist them daily. But I do mean to show that this aversion to praying to angels is unbiblical, and born out of a terribly flawed and anti-Christian notion that the immaterial angels and disembodied Saints in glory are “dead,” when they are in fact in the presence of the living God.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Can All Christians Agree to a "Mere Christianity"?

Martin Luther, illustration from Die Gartenlaube (1883)
Martin Luther and many of the original Protestant Reformers believed thatthe all-clear Scriptures of God” were so clear that “if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth.” In other words, if there is any doctrine that any two Christians disagree on, it's because at least one of them is evil or uneducated.

In Luther's formulation, this really meant everything: “nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.” I suspect that few Protestants today would go this far, and for good reason. If you're a Lutheran who took Luther's view, it would mean writing off all non-Lutherans as foolish or blinded by their wickedness. And since modern Lutheranism consists of multiple denominations disagreeing with one another, you'd have to reject even most other Lutherans in this way. But even this wouldn't be enough: you would literally have to say that anyone who disagrees with you about anything about the Bible is ignorant or evil. Because according to Luther, if you're a Christian, 100% of doctrines are crystal clear to you. If your neighbor disagrees, the doctrines must not be crystal clear to him, so one of you is suspect.

To totally reject the Reformers' belief in the clarity of Scripture would require an interpretative aid, like the Church or Sacred Tradition. Many Protestants are unwilling to accept such a conclusion, so we've instead seen a shift to a modified position, that we might call “mere Christianity.”

I. The Case for Mere Christianity

The modern Protestant claim is usually more cautious than what Luther presented. Nowadays, you're likely to hear that by reading Scripture, all Christians will come to at least a sure knowledge of all “essential” doctrines. Left to our own devices (or submitting ourselves to the teaching authority of our own choosing), we may not get the finer details right. Even Luther admitted this, sort of:
The Scripture simply confesses the Trinity of God, the humanity of Christ, and the unpardonable sin. There is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity. But how these things are the Scripture does not say, nor is it necessary to be known.
So there are things we don't know, and presumably, things that we're wrong about. But they're unimportant. They're not part of the “heart” of Christianity, and nobody's soul is in jeopardy by getting doctrines of this sort right. On such matters, Christianity is best when Christians exercise a healthy sense of Christian liberty on the matters. As the famous axiom says, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Such a view gets rid of the need for the papacy or any sort of authoritative teaching authority in the Church. Indeed, that appears to have been part of its original appeal. While the “in essentials, unity” axiom is credited to all sorts of famous personages (St. Augustine and John Wesley, for example), apparently, the first known appearance of the phrase actually comes from Marco Antonio de Dominis. He was the ex-Archbishop of Spilatro, who left the Church after running afoul of the Inquisition to become the Anglican dean of Windsor. In 1617, whilst denouncing Catholicism, de Dominis declared:
Now if this plague of an abomination [were to] be cleared away at the root—i.e. see or rather throne of the Roman pontiff—itself, [...] we would all embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity.
So from the start, the axiom pursues the same goal pursued both by Luther and by modern “Mere Christianity” proponents: the creation of a unified Christianity built upon everyone agreeing about the Scriptures rather than everyone submitting to the Church. 

II. The Problems With “Mere Christianity”

How well does the claim that all Christians agree about essential doctrines hold up? Not particularly well. It turns out there are two major problems: (1) who counts as a Christians? and (2) what counts as essential? Let's consider each problem in turn:

Problem # 1: What do we mean by Christians?

Let's take “Christians” in its broadest sense first, to mean “anyone who calls themselves Christian.” Obviously, we will find no doctrinal unity on the “essentials,” or indeed, ANY major doctrine with so many competing creeds and beliefs.

Think about it: within that group, you've got everyone from Mormons who claim that God the Father is a human being who physically impregnated the Virgin Mary to Episcopalians who deny the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ to Pentecostals who reject the Trinity. All of these are people who consider themselves Christians, and who want to be considered Christians, but who most other Christians don't want considered Christians. And each of them denies something central to orthodox Christianity.

So if you take a broad “whoever calls himself a Christian is a Christian” view, there's no hope of finding even basic agreement on any of what might termed the essentials, or much of anything else. And if you have some sort of standard of what defines a Christian, what is it, and who gets to decide?

Problem #2: What do we mean by Essential?

C.S. Lewis
The first problem is bad, but the second problem is worse. If you say that all Christians agree on essential doctrines, which doctrines fall into that category? It turns out, there's virtually no agreement. Doug Beaumont, prior to his conversion to Catholicism, produced a list of 75 significant areas of debate within Protestantism. Debates rage between Protestants over Creation and evolution, contraception and abortion, Saturday or Sunday worship, women's ordination, Eucharistic theology, justification, pacifism, dispensationalism, the role of the Old Testament in Christianity, and numerous other topics.

It's not just that Protestants are disagreeing with one another in a way that disproves Luther's claims about Biblical clarity. It's that you don't even find these Protestants agreeing with one another about whether or not the topic is essential.

Take justification by faith alone. For Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformers, justification was by faith alone (sola fide), and this was the most essential doctrine in all of Christianity:
The classical Reformed and Lutheran traditions have maintained that the doctrine of justification is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, the article upon which the Church stands and falls. What we're really saying is that the gospel, that is the good news that God justifies sinners by grace, through faith on account of Christ, is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. So, in the minds of the reformers, the doctrine of justification is synonymous with the gospel. 
Contrast that with C.S. Lewis' view (presented in his wonderful book Mere Christianity, ironically), that Christians need faith and works, and that the debate over justification is a waste of time:
“Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ. I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary. A serious moral effort is the only thing that will bring you to the point where you throw up the sponge. Faith in Christ is the only thing to save you from despair at that point: and out of that Faith in Him good actions must inevitably come.” 
So there are really two disputes. Not only do Luther and Lewis disagree about justification, but they also disagree about whether justification is an essential doctrine or not. For Luther, it's the Gospel. For Lewis, it's a trivial dispute, like asking which blade of the scissors does the cutting.

There are really two problems here. First of all, who gets to decide which doctrines are essential? And second, isn't the question of which doctrines are essential itself an essential part of Christianity? If we can't even agree which doctrines are essential, how can we possibly claim to agree on all essential doctrines?

So how can these two problems be resolved?

III. The Unworkable Solution: The No True Scotsman Fallacy

If you're not familiar, the No True Scotsman fallacy works like this:
Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge." 
Person B: "I am Scottish, and I put sugar on my porridge." 
Person A: "Well, no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
That, more or less, is the response of many “Mere Christianity” Protestants to the problems I've outlined. Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals, and liberal Episcopalians disagree with you on doctrines that you consider “essential”? Well, then, they're not Christian. Once you declare that anyone who disagrees with you on essential doctrines is no longer a Christian, then you can quickly conclude that all Christians agree with you on essential doctrines.

But that's nothing more than a tautology. All that proves is that everyone who agrees with you agrees with you. That doesn't get us to Mere Christianity. It gets us to merely you.

Worse, your opponent might do the same thing, declaring that everyone who disagrees with him isn't a Christians. So why should we believe you (who he says isn't a Christian) instead of him (who you say isn't a Christian)? After all, neither of you have any authority to excommunicate the other one. Your usurped authority is based simply on the idea that you're each really sure of your own correctness.

IV. The True Solution: The Magisterium

Pope John XXIII, 1959
As should be plainly clear, to be able to “embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity,” you need an authority capable of determining which doctrines one must hold to in order to be Christian, and which areas permit if varying viewpoints between Christians.

This authority can't be the Bible itself, for two reasons. First, most of the time, the Bible is the exact area of dispute. This would be akin to saying that we should do away with the Supreme Court, and settle all questions of Constitutional interpretation by all reading the Constitution until we agree. Should we take your interpretation, or your opponent's? Without an authority capable of determining which of you is right in your interpretation of the Bible, you can't solve that dispute (and on this point, 500 years of Protestantism prove me correct).

Second, we need a living authority capable of settling disputes when they arise. Several of the heresies of today simply weren't around in the first century, and there's an ongoing task of determining how the Scriptural teachings apply to modern settings. For example, there are a whole slew of moral problems arising in the realm of bioethics that didn't even exist when most people reading this were born.

So we need an authority capable of telling us which Christian doctrines are essential ones on which we must all agree, and which are perhaps unsettled areas, in which Christians may legitimately hold differing views. To what I imagine would have been de Dominis' displeasure, this clearly requires a living Magisterium, a Church teaching authority. So it is a Divine irony that what had begun as an anti-papal axiom ends up not only showing the need for the papacy, but actually being used by a pope. Pope St. John XXIII, in Ad Petri Cathedram, remarked:
71. The Catholic Church, of course, leaves many questions open to the discussion of theologians. She does this to the extent that matters are not absolutely certain. Far from jeopardizing the Church's unity, controversies, as a noted English author, John Henry Cardinal Newman, has remarked, can actually pave the way for its attainment. For discussion can lead to fuller and deeper understanding of religious truths; when one idea strikes against another, there may be a spark.(25)

72. But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.
Here, we see the only way “Mere Christianity” can work: with the Magisterium of the Church there to guide it, to determine which things are necessary parts of that “Mere Christianity” and which are superfluous.

To at least some Protestant readers, I imagine that conclusion seems ridiculous, so let me close on a challenge to you: if St. John XXIII's approach isn't the way to save “Mere Christianity,” what is? How else can we (a) know which doctrines are essential to Christianity and (b) unanimously come to complete agreement on these doctrines?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

9 Ways To Restore All Things in Christ

Pope St. Pius X
The world looks pretty frightening for the Church these days. Christians are being martyred around the world, whether it be by Communists in China or by Islamic radicals in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Western society is becoming ever more anti-religious, and the Church is facing increasing threats by secularists in many countries, including in the United States. As big as these external threats are, yet larger ones exist within the Church. Bad priests and religious educators have led, and continue to lead, untold numbers of Catholics astray; partially as a result, there are large numbers of Catholics who have either left the Church entirely, or who are Catholic in name alone, or who are lukewarm or heretical.

This picture can seem rather bleak. Fortunately, the Church has weathered such storms - and worse - before, and we have the example of our forebears to see how to survive. Consider, in particular, St. Pius X, who died 100 years ago today, and whose feast day we celebrate today. As I've mentioned before, Pius didn't want to become pope, a fact he made no secret of. In fact, he talked about it openly in his first encyclical, E Supremigiving two reasons: his own unworthiness, and the grim situation of the society of his day:
3. Then again, to omit other motives, We were terrified beyond all else by the disastrous state of human society today. For who can fail to see that society is at the present time, more than in any past age, suffering from a terrible and deeprooted malady which, developing every day and eating into its inmost being, is dragging it to destruction? You understand, Venerable Brethren, what this disease is - apostasy from God, than which in truth nothing is more allied with ruin, according to the word of the Prophet: "For behold they that go far from Thee shall perish" (Ps. 1xxii., 17). 
Seeing the dismal state of the world, Pius dedicated his pontificate to a single aim: to restore all things in Christ. Since we face many of the same problems today that he faced a century ago, this call remains as relevant as ever. But how do we go about doing that?

1. Look to Jesus: Several years after E Supremi, Pius summarized the encyclical this way: “We stated in Our first encyclical that We would labor without ceasing "to restore all things in Christ."We begged everyone to turn their eyes with Us to Jesus, "the apostle and high priest of our confession...the author and finisher of faith."[Heb. 3:1; 12:2]” If you want to restore all things in Christ, live and act like Christ.

2. Take the Virgin Mary as Your Model: Christ isn't easy to imitate, since He is more than perfect: He's Divine. We're not God, so acting like we are isn't always the best model (that is, what is fitting for Christ might not be fitting for us, given the situation). Pius recognized this, and called upon us to imitate Mary as well:
Since the majesty of that Model may be too much for fallen human nature, God mercifully gave Us another model to propose for your imitation, the glorious Virgin Mother of God. While being as close to Christ as human nature permits, she is better suited to the needs of our weak nature. 
Antonello da Messina, St. Gregory the Great (1473)
3. Imitate the Saints: In addition to Mary, Pius called us to imitate the Saints. This is solid Biblical advice: St. Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Cor. 4:16). The Saints show us how to imitate Christ. We might draw the analogy to early childhood: sometimes, the best way young children can learn to imitate adult behavior (walking, talking, and the rest) is by watching the example of slightly-older children.

For this reason, Pius wrote encyclicals on St. Gregory the Great, on St. Anselm, and on St. Charles Borromeo. He wanted the Saints before our eyes, partly because they had been through these problems before, and triumphed. As he said of Pope St. Gregory:
When Gregory assumed the Supreme Pontificate the disorder in public affairs had reached its climax; the ancient civilization had all but disappeared and barbarism was spreading throughout the dominions of the crumbling Roman Empire. Italy, abandoned by the Emperors of Byzantium, had been left a prey of the still unsettled Lombards who roamed up and down the whole country laying waste everywhere with fire and sword and bringing desolation and death in their train. This very city, threatened from without by its enemies, tried from within by the scourges of pestilence, floods and famine, was reduced to such a miserable plight that it had become a problem how to keep the breath of life in the citizens and in the immense multitudes who flocked hither for refuge.
So Pope Pius X looked to Pope Gregory the Great as a model for the exact same reasons we ought to look to Pope Pius X as a model today: because, guided by Christ, he lead the Church through some dark and troubling times.

4. Be a Saint: Sanctity wins more souls than argumentation. Pius again: “We are of the opinion that the shining example of Christ's soldiers has far greater value in the winning and sanctifying of souls than the words of profound treatises.” Even if you have the best Catholic apologetics or theology in the world, that won't matter for much if your life doesn't reflect the love of Christ. So be a Saint!

5. Sanctify Your Family and Your Work, and Help Restore Christian Civilization: Restoring all things in Christ is even bigger than evangelization. It's also about building a truly Christian culture, “not only for the sanctification of his own soul, but also for the extension and increase of the Kingdom of God in individuals, families, and society.” Every field of work, every aspect of daily life, should be filled with Christ, since the “light of Catholic revelation is of such a nature that it diffuses itself with the greatest brilliance on every science.” For this reason, Pius explains:
To restore all things in Christ" includes not only what properly pertains to the divine mission of the Church, namely, leading souls to God, but also what We have already explained as flowing from that divine mission, namely, Christian civilization in each and every one of the elements composing it.
6. Pray for Priests and Seminarians: One of the chief ways that people encounter Christ is through His priests: in the Sacraments, in the proclamation of the Gospel, and in the priest himself. This is why holy priests are so important. Pius instructed the world's bishops to make the formation of good priests a chief concern:
This being so, Venerable Brethren, of what nature and magnitude is the care that must be taken by you in forming the clergy to holiness! All other tasks must yield to this one. Wherefore the chief part of your diligence will be directed to governing and ordering your seminaries aright so that they may flourish equally in the soundness of their teaching and in the spotlessness of their morals.
Odds are, you're not a bishop. But you can still do your part by supporting priests and seminarians, chiefly by your prayers. Holy priests are indispensable for the laity.

Pope St. John Paul II
7. Do Not Be Afraid: That's a phrase more associated with another saintly pope, it's also a good summary of St. Pius X's reminder that the Church gains the most from these dark times:
When vice runs wild, when persecution hangs heavy, when error is so cunning that it threatens her destruction by snatching many children from her bosom (and plunges them into the whirlpool of sin and impiety) - then, more than ever, the Church is strengthened from above. Whether the wicked will it or not, God makes even error aid in the triumph of Truth whose guardian and defender is the Church. He puts corruption in the service of sanctity, whose mother and nurse is the Church. Out of persecution He brings a more wondrous "freedom from our enemies." For these reasons, when worldly men think they see the Church buffeted and almost capsized in the raging storm, then she really comes forth fairer, stronger, purer, and brighter with the lustre of distinguished virtues.
We haven't been abandoned by God: He's still in control, and He permits these situations for the good of the Church. Let's not forget that.

8. Trust in Christ, Rather than Yourself: It's easy to imagine that the last seven points can be accomplished by your own strength. They can't, and Pius was quick to acknowledge this, reminding the bishops:
But, Venerable Brethren, we shall never, however much we exert ourselves, succeed in calling men back to the majesty and empire of God, except by means of Jesus Christ. "No one," the Apostle admonishes us, "can lay other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ." (I. Cor.,iii., II.) It is Christ alone "whom the Father sanctified and sent into this world" (Is. x., 36), "the splendor of the Father and the image of His substance" (Hebr.i., 3), true God and true man: without whom nobody can know God with the knowledge for salvation, "neither doth anyone know the Father but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal Him." (Matth. xi., 27.) Hence it follows that to restore all things in Christ and to lead men back to submission to God is one and the same aim.
If your attempts to win over souls are causing you to pray less, or miss Mass, or behave in an un-Christlike way, those are signs that you're trying to do it on your own strength, rather than trusting in Him. Submission to Christ starts with us.

9. Be Catholic! If restoration of all things in Christ is submission to Christ, how can we reach Christ? Pius has an answer for that:
Now the way to reach Christ is not hard to find: it is the Church. Rightly does Chrysostom inculcate: "The Church is thy hope, the Church is thy salvation, the Church is thy refuge." (Hom. de capto Euthropio, n. 6.) It was for this that Christ founded it, gaining it at the price of His blood, and made it the depositary of His doctrine and His laws, bestowing upon it at the same time an inexhaustible treasury of graces for the sanctification and salvation of men.
So there you have it. While things might look dark sometimes, remember that Christ is in control, and that our mission is clear: to be Catholic Saints, to draw others to Christ, and to sanctify our daily lives. If we do this, everything will be more than fine.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Early Church and the Virgin Mary: St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker

St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker (14th c. icon)
In honor of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, I thought I would share with you a glimpse into how the early Church viewed Mary. In particular, I want to share excerpts from a homily delivered by one of the great Saints of the early Church, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, who lived from about 213-270 A.D.

Gregory is little remembered today, but that's a shame. In the early Church, he was held in high esteem. To give you some sense of what I mean, “Thaumaturgus” isn't a last name: it's the Greek for “the Wonder-Worker,” in honor of all of the miracles that he performed. In addition, he was a great evangelist. When he became bishop of Neo-Caesarea, there were only seventeen Christians in his town. By his death, it is said that there were only seventeen pagans left unconverted. Writing some decades later, St. Basil (329-379 A.D.) had this to say about St. Gregory:
But where shall I rank the great Gregory, and the words uttered by him? Shall we not place among Apostles and Prophets a man who walked by the same Spirit as they; who never through all his days diverged from the footprints of the saints; who maintained, as long as he lived, the exact principles of evangelical citizenship? I am sure that we shall do the truth a wrong if we refuse to number that soul with the people of God, shining as it did like a beacon in the Church of God; for by the fellow-working of the Spirit the power which he had over demons was tremendous, and so gifted was he with the grace of the word for obedience to the faith among...the nations, that, although only seventeen Christians were handed over to him, he brought the whole people alike in town and country through knowledge to God. 
He too by Christ's mighty name commanded even rivers to change their course, and caused a lake, which afforded a ground of quarrel to some covetous brethren, to dry up. Moreover his predictions of things to come were such as in no wise to fall short of those of the great prophets. To recount all his wonderful works in detail would be too long a task. By the superabundance of gifts, wrought in him by the Spirit in all power and in signs and in marvels, he was styled a second Moses by the very enemies of the Church. Thus in all that he through grace accomplished, alike by word and deed, a light seemed ever to be shining, token of the heavenly power from the unseen which followed him. To this day he is a great object of admiration to the people of his own neighbourhood, and his memory, established in the churches ever fresh and green, is not dulled by length of time. Thus not a practice, not a word, not a mystic rite has been added to the Church besides what he bequeathed to it.
Now that we know who Gregory the Wonder-Worker is, what he had to say about the Virgin Mary. Again, this homily was delivered back in the mid-200s.This detail is significant, because there's a myth that Marian devotion didn't really start until after the Council of Ephesus in 431. But Gregory is clearly devoted to Mary, and in a way closely connected to his Christology. Notice how his praise of Mary flows over into praise of Jesus Christ, and his praise of Jesus Christ flows into praise of the Virgin Mary. He doesn't pit the two against each other, but clearly sees how love of Jesus and love of Mary are related to one another:
Mother of God, Milkgiver (19th c. Ukrainian icon)
1. When I remember the disobedience of Eve, I weep. But when I view the fruit of Mary, I am again renewed. Deathless by descent, invisible through beauty, before the ages light of light; of God the Father wast Thou begotten; being Word and Son of God, Thou didst take on flesh from Mary Virgin, in order that Thou mightest renew afresh Adam fashioned by Thy holy hand.

2. Holy, deathless, eternal, inaccessible, without change, without turn, True Son of God art Thou before the ages; yet wast pleased to be conceived and formed in the womb of the Holy Virgin, in order that Thou mightest make alive once more man first fashioned by Thy holy hand, but dead through sin.

3. By the good pleasure Thou didst issue forth, by the good pleasure and will of the invisible Father. Wherefore we all invoke Thee, calling Thee King. Be Thou our succour; Thou that wast born of the Virgin and wrapt in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger, and wast suckled by Mary; to the end that Thou mightest make alive once more the first-created Adam that was dead through sin. [....]

5. Turn ye, O congregations, and come. Let us all praise Him that is born of the Virgin. For that being the glory and image before the ages of the Godhead, He yet became a fellow-sufferer with us of poverty. Being the exceeding magnifical power [and] image of God, He took on the form of a slave. He that putteth on the light as a garment, consorted with men as one that is vile. He that is hymned by cherubim and by myriad angels, as a citizen on earth doth He live. He that being before (all) maketh all creation alive, was born of the Holy Virgin, in order that He might make alive once more the first created. [....]

7. And He took the form of a slave from the Holy Virgin, in order to call us up to the glorified dominical image. He put on the outward shape made of clay, that He might make [us] sharers of the heavenly form. He sat in the lap of the Holy Virgin, that He might place us on the right hand in the intimacy of His Father. In a vile body was He; and by means of the same He was laid in a tomb, that He might manifest us heirs of eternal life. In the womb of the Holy Virgin was He, the incomprehensible (or inaccessible) one, confined; in order that He might renew the Adam destroyed through sin. [....]

9. Wherefore even with one voice [let us sing the praises] of God the Word, that according to the worthiness of each is cause and promoter of salvation, unto young men and old, and unto children and women. For from Mary, the divine fountain of the ineffable Godhead, gushes forth grace and free gift of the Holy Spirit. From a single Holy Virgin the Pearl of much price proceeded, in order to make alive once more the first-created man that was dead through sin. [....]

Coronation of the Virgin (18th c.)
11. Let us twine, as with a wreath, the souls (or selves) [of them that love the festival and love to hearken] with golden blossoms, fain to be crowned with wreaths from the unfading gardens; and offering in our hands the fair-fruited flowers of Christ, let us gather [them]. For the God-like temple of the Holy Virgin is meet to be glorified with such a crown; because the illumining Pearl cometh forth, to the end that it may raise up again into the ever-streaming light them that were gone down into darkness and the shadow of death. [....]

13. The Holy Virgin is herself both an honourable temple of God and a shrine made pure, and a golden altar of whole burnt offerings. By reason of her surpassing purity [she is] the Divine incense of oblation ( = προθέσεως), and oil of the holy grace, and a precious vase bearing in itself the true nard; [yea and] the priestly diadem revealing the good pleasure of God, whom she alone approacheth holy in body and soul. [She is] the door which looks eastward [this is a reference to the Temple Gate of Ezekiel 44], and by the comings in and goings forth the whole earth is illuminated. The fertile olive from which the Holy Spirit took the fleshly slip (or twig) of the Lord, and saved the suffering race of men. She is the boast of virgins, and the joy of mothers; the declaration of archangels, even as it was spoken: "Be thou glad and rejoice, the Lord with thee"; and again, "from thee"; in order that He may make new once more the dead through sin.

14. Thou didst allow her to remain a virgin, and wast pleased, O Lord, to lie in the Virgin's womb, sending in advance the archangel to announce it [to her]. But he from above, from the ineffable hosts, came unto Mary, and first heralded to her the tidings: "Be thou glad and rejoice." And he also added, "The Lord with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." But she was in tumult, and pondered in her mind what sort of tidings was this. But then in seemly fashion, I ween, the grace chose out the Holy Virgin; for she was wise in all ways, nor was there her like among women of all nations. [....]

18. The Virgin spake in turn unto the angel: My mind swims in thy words as in a sea. How shall this be unto me? for I desire not to know an earthly man, because I have devoted myself to the heavenly Bridegroom. I desire to remain a virgin. I wish not to betray the honour of my virginity. [...]

20. Great is the mystery. Thou hast learned, O Mary, that which till now was hidden from angels. Thou hast known that which deaf prophets and patriarchs heard not; and thou hast heard that which the choirs of the God-clad were not ever held worthy to hear. David and Isaiah, and all the prophets foretold in their preaching about the Lord's becoming man. But do thou alone, O Holy Virgin, receive the mystery unknown by them, and learn and be not perplexed as to how this shall be unto thee. For He that fashioned man out of virgin soil, the Selfsame shall even now do as. He will for the salvation of His creature.

21. New radiance now of eternal light gleams forth for us in the inspired fitness (or harmony) of these words. Now is it meet and fitting for me to wonder after the manner of the Holy Virgin, to whom in seemly wise before all things the angel gave salutation thus: "Be thou glad and rejoice"; because with her are quickened and live, all the treasures of grace. Among all nations she alone was both virgin and mother and without knowledge of man, holy in body and soul. Among all nations she alone was made worthy to bring forth God; alone she carried in her Him who carries along all by His word.

Bartolomeo Caporali, Madonna and Child with Angels, 1470
22. And not only is it meet to marvel at the beauty of the Holy Mother of God, but also at the excellence of her spirit. Wherefore were addressed to her the words: "The Lord with thee"; and again also, "The Lord from thee." As if this: " He will save him that is in His image as being pitiful." As purse of the Divine mystery the Holy Virgin made herself ready, in which the Pearl of Life was enveloped in flesh and sealed; and she also became the receptacle of supramundane and Divine salvation. [....]

24. Not any more doth Adam fear the crafty serpent; because our Lord is come and hath dispersed the host of the enemy. Not any more doth the race of men fear the craftiness and mad deceit of the serpent, because the Lord hath bruised the head of the dragon in the water of baptism. Not any more do I fear to hear the words: Dust thou wast, and unto dust shalt thou be turned. For the Lord in baptism hath washed away the stain of sin. Not any more do I weep, nor ever lament, nor ever reckon it again to wretchedness, when the thorns wound me. For our Lord hath plucked out by the roots the sins which are our thorns, and hath crowned His head withal. Loosed is the first curse in which He said: Thorns and thistles shall earth bring forth to thee, for the thorn is plucked out by the roots, and the thistle withered up; and from the Holy Virgin hath shot up the tree of life and grace. No more doth Eva fear the reproach of the pangs of childbirth; for by the Holy Virgin her transgressions are blotted out and effaced; forasmuch as in her was God born, to the end that He might make alive him whom He made in His image.

25. A bulwark of imperishable life hath the Holy Virgin become unto us, and a fountain of light to those who have faith in Christ; a sunrise of the reasonable light is she found to be. Be thou glad and rejoice. The Lord with thee and from thee, who in His Godhead and His manhood is perfect, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead: "Be glad and rejoice, the Lord with thee and from thee" ----with His handmaid the Lord of glory; with her that is unspotted, He that halloweth all; with the beautiful, He who is wonderful in beauty above all the sons of men, to the end that He may make alive him whom He made in His image. [....]

27. Holy and wise in all things was the all-blessed Virgin; in all ways peerless among all nations, and unrivalled among women. Not as the first virgin Eva, who being alone in the garden, was in her weak mind led astray by the serpent; and so took his advice and brought death into the world; and because of that hath been all the suffering of saints. But in her alone, in this Holy Virgin Mary, the Stem of Life hath shot up for us. For she alone was spotless in soul and body.

28. With intrepid mind she spake to the angel: Whence is this salutation, and how shall this be unto me? Dost thou desire to learn how the exceeding magnifical power becomes a fellow-sufferer with us of our poverty? How He that hath power over the hosts assumes the image of our baseness; and how He who is God before the ages is about to become a child and be made flesh, He that putteth on light as a garment and giveth life unto His creature. Grant me, said the Holy Virgin, to learn such an impenetrable mystery, and I become the vessel that receives the Divine mystery (or thought), being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and [I am] to receive the truth of His flesh in my flesh, unto the building by Wisdom of her abode.[....]

30. The element of flesh doth the Son of God take from the Holy Virgin, for before the ages He is God. He hath deigned to be born, and to be called Son of man, and to become visible, He the invisible; and for our sake to be poor, who is all riches; and to suffer as man, He the impassible and deathless. For with (or in) the flesh in truth He was united, but He was not changed in spirit. In a mortal body the Invisible One was enveloped, that He might make it also deathless, making it sharer of His deathlessness through His Godhead; to the end that He might renew him that was fashioned by His holy hands. [....]

35. Therefore, O ye fair-fruited and comely branches of Christ's teaching, ye shall in this place bring to us the fruits of blessing (= εὐλογίας). Here, where is all purity and fragrance, let us offer to God with holy conscience the incense of prayer. Here, where virginity and temperance dance together, bearing for fruit the life-giving cluster of grapes. [...] Here, where the mystery of the Holy Trinity was revealed by the archangel to the Holy Virgin according to the gospel: "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. For Holy is that which is born of thee, Son of God." To whom be glory and honour for ever and ever.
Happy Feast of the Assumption!