Bible study: Acts of the Apostles


-“Saint Paul”, Bartolomeo Montagna, ~1431 AD


-by Casey Chalk

“Ecumenical Bible studies: they are often demonstrations of the best and worst of Christian dialogue. In their most beneficial form, they offer opportunities for members of various Christian traditions, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, or various strands of Evangelicalism, to share their own rich understandings and applications of Biblical literature. Alternatively, they can devolve into unprofitable contests of “name that Scripture verse” to support some particular doctrine — justification by grace through faith alone, Petrine primacy, infant baptism, you name it. A tendency among those Christians eager to “keep the peace” in a setting featuring divergent theological beliefs and practices is to try to find common ground, lowest common denominators, and “non-negotiables.” Such attempts can themselves be profitable, though at times the result is a conversation lacking any theological depth, the participants so frightened of controversy and of offending one another that folks reduce themselves to “this is how this Scripture verse speaks to me” comments. Better than nothing, I suppose, though certainly less than what we are called to do as Christians when approaching Holy Scripture. It’s hard to imagine St. Paul walking into a synagogue in Corinth and declaring in firm confidence to the Jews present: “You may have your own interpretations of the Torah, which may be equally true, but let me tell you what this Scripture means to me!” Is there any way for Christians of different theological stripes to bridge the gap? In this post I will propose an alternative way to read and discuss Scripture that I think offers opportunity for more fruitful exchanges between Christians.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in ecumenical Bible studies is that individuals from different traditions have certain “voices” speaking to them when they sit down to read Scripture, and it’s not that we are all schizophrenics. What I mean is that no one really sits down to read their Bible in a vacuum, as if one could really isolate their reading in such a way that it was just that person, the Holy Spirit, and the text. Rather, we read Scripture with all manner of unavoidable influences: what others have told us about the text, what we have read others say about the text, what influence the text may have had on our lives (presuming we’ve read it before), what associations we have with certain words or ideas in the text, and so on. Truly, there’s no such thing as “me and my Bible” — it’s me, my middle-school youth group leader, my first “Teen Bible,” the pastor at my church, Christian radio, that course I took in college, what my significant other believes, and on and on.

To take a more doctrinal view, some Protestants will be reading their Bibles in light of doctrines prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism (say, Rick Warren or Philip Yancey), Reformed thought (say, John Piper or R.C. Sproul), or even the “emergent church” movement (think Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or William P. Young’s The Shack). Catholics, on the other hand, will read their Bibles in light of popular Catholic thinkers like Scott Hahn or Bishop Robert Barron, and probably with various Magisterial teachings from Church councils or papal doctrinal statements floating around in the background, as well. None of these influences, I would argue, can be easily put aside in an ecumenical Bible study, because their mark on our thoughts and practices runs deep. But neither can members of different traditions just accept an opposing position, as if an evangelical would say, “fine, I’ll just put my opinions on hold for the next hour-and-a-half and act as if whatever the Pope says is true.” We do indeed need some “common ground” beyond just picking up the Bible and starting to read it together, and it needs to be more than just some overly-deferential and vapid validation of everyone’s opinions. Since the New Testament, and particularly Paul’s letters, are one of the more popular texts for Bible studies, I want to focus my attention there. In this case, I propose that reading Paul in light of another New Testament text, the Book of Acts, can reap ecumenical dividends.1

Why Acts?

Using Acts as an interpretive “lodestar” can be an effective tool for ecumenical dialogue because it itself is something everyone at the table should already agree on: it’s Scripture! There shouldn’t be any Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox asserting their defiance to the book, as if it represents some subtle means of asserting one’s particular theological tradition over the conversation. In addition to this fairly obvious point, I can identify at least three other good reasons why Acts can be an interpretive lodestar — meaning, just as certain stars in the sky, like Polaris, can serve as a guide the course of a ship, so Acts can serve as a guide or reference point for reading Paul.

The first is that Acts is history, specifically, the history of the early Church during part of the Apostolic age. Generally speaking, reading a history of a particular era shines light on the “primary texts” of that era, helping contextualize and make sense of that historical period. Consider this example: let’s say you want to learn about the American Civil War. There are many great collections of letters, diaries, and memoirs regarding this historical period: Elijah Hunt Rhodes, Sam Watkins, Mary Chestnut, etc. You could certainly pick up one of them and just start reading. But will much of the text make sense to you, especially if you have little knowledge of that period? If your goal is to answer certain broad contextual questions regarding the Civil War, like “what were its causes?,” “who were the most important people?”, “what were the most important events”?, and “how and why did it end?”, these texts will not provide a systematic or thorough answer. Indeed, they weren’t intended to, because they were occasional, meaning written in reaction to a certain occasion. Elijah Hunt Rhodes, an enlisted soldier in the Union Army, didn’t intend his journal to be a history — he was simply recording his own personal experiences. In order to have a history in the modern sense, one needs a book (or books) written by someone who has read scores of primary and secondary sources, interviewed people, and visited important sites. You need a general history.

The Book of Acts is, in a sense, exactly that kind of general history. It is an overview of the major events and themes of the early Church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension into heaven around A.D. 33, and ending when St. Paul was imprisoned in Rome (probably around A.D. 60). Of course, for us as twenty-first century readers, Acts is itself a primary source of information about the early Apostolic Church, but it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a type of “secondary source,” or maybe more accurately a “proto-secondary source.” The author, St. Luke, very explicitly says in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that his research is a compilation of information based on eyewitness testimony. If we read Acts first, and read Paul’s letters (or any other letters in the New Testament, for that matter), in light of what we know about the Church in Acts, we are sure to reap interpretive rewards.

A second reason to understand Acts as a general history is an argument from literature. Consider this analogy: if you wanted to know about Jane Austen and her literary corpus, reading all of her literature would give you quite a few details about her: her own life, and the major themes and ideas of her writing. But it would still be incomplete, because reading Austen’s work doesn’t tell you a lot of important things about her, information that would illuminate much of her books. If you were to read other works by authors who have done research on Austen, or who have sought to compile a biography of her life, you would be able to grasp more fully what she is trying to accomplish in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

St. Paul’s letters are themselves a genre of literature, what scholars often call epistles, a type of formal letter. If you want to understand St. Paul, his life, the themes and doctrines that defined his theological understanding, you could read only the thirteen letters ascribed to him. Yet this would be woefully incomplete, especially given that the Book of Acts contains so many details about his life and teachings. Indeed, in addition to his conversion story (related three separate times!) and his missionary activity, Acts features several sermons of St. Paul, giving an additional important aspect to interpreting his teaching. Moreover, St. Paul is the main character of the second half of Acts, so much so that he is mentioned 131 times in the entire book. If you know Acts, you will better know St. Paul.

Finally and somewhat obviously is the organization of the New Testament itself. One may know that the books of New Testament are not listed in chronological order. In chronological order, the first book of the New Testament would likely be the Gospels of Matthew or Mark, or possibly Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Then would be most of Paul’s epistles, followed by the Gospel of Luke, then Acts, possibly some more epistles, and finally the Gospel of John and Revelation. Yet in our our Bibles, we have Acts coming right after the Gospels, before any of Paul’s epistles, the other epistles, or Revelation. Why?

Remember that the New Testament canon did not arrive in the early Church overnight, nor was it easily agreed upon by all Christians. The books of the New Testament were written over a period of around 50 or 60 years, and many churches didn’t have access to all of those books for centuries. The earliest lists of New Testament books we have are from the latter half of the second century A.D. — this includes the Muratorian Canon and a list provided by St. Irenaeus of Lyon. No body of Christians (at least that we know of in the historical record) weighed in on an authoritative list of the New Testament until the four century. When these councils did vote on the content of the New Testament, they placed Acts directly after the four Gospels. This seems to have been a reasonable decision, given that the Gospels tell the life of Jesus and His Apostles up through the resurrection and ascension, and Acts picks up the story from the ascension. Possibly a bit more curiously, these Church councils separated Acts from the Gospel of Luke, which most scholars recognize was written by the same author, given the similarity of language and themes. In between the two books the councils placed the last of the Gospels, John, written almost certainly last, and also almost certainly after Acts. Why do this? Possibly because the council wanted to declare to readers: “first, know the story of Jesus; then,, know the story of the early Church; and once you know those stories, know the epistles of Paul and others.” Acts appears where it does in the New Testament because the Church in the fourth century believed it important for people to read it before reading St. Paul’s own works.

A Few Questions to Explore

I’d like to briefly move from theory to application. Bible studies often feed upon group questions for discussion. I’ll propose a few here, with the overarching theme of asking what happens if one reads St. Paul’s letters (or other Apostolic letters, for that matter) in light of Acts. I’ll also offer a few of my own reflections as I’ve sought to read St. Paul using Acts as my lodestar.

Question 1: What were the most important issues facing the early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts? Once you’ve named two or three, consider how those issues are addressed in St. Paul’s letters.

I would argue that apart from the persecution of Christians by Jewish and Roman authorities, the most pressing question facing the early Church was this: who is in the Church, and what do they have to do to be part of it? More specifically, is the Church only for Jews? If Gentiles are allowed in, do they in any sense have to become Jews? Note that the first recorded conflict in the early Church is between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews over the distribution of food to widows from their respective communities (Acts 6:1). This cultural-linguistic division becomes more pronounced when some Church leaders start sharing the Gospel with non-Jews, including an Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40), and a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10: 1-48). Moreover, the centurion’s conversion is so controversial that when St. Peter returns to the Church in Jerusalem he is forced to defend himself against certain Jewish Christians (called “the circumcision party”), who question the decision to baptize a Roman pagan. This conflict becomes an overwhelming tidal wave by Acts 15, when certain Christian men assert that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The greatest controversy within the early Church seems to localize on this particular question: do Gentiles who convert to Christianity need to become Jews by being circumcised and accepting Jewish dietary laws? The Church determines in Acts 15 that no, they do not, but the question continues to dog the Church: St. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:11-21 that St. Peter, coming under the influence of the same “circumcision party,” had separated himself from Gentile believers in Antioch, for which St. Paul publicly reprimanded him. This is actually the only mention we have within the New Testament of one Apostle publicly rebuking another.

What I’ve described above suggests that this was the predominant controversy of the early Church, encompassing the entirety of the historical period during which St. Paul’s letters were written. We should thus ask ourselves how the issues cited in the Pauline epistles (including his discussion of “faith v. works”) appear when viewed as part of this particular conflict over the status of Gentile Christians.2

Question 2: How did the Apostles pursue evangelism toward Jews and Gentiles in the days of the early Church? What was necessary to become a Christian? Do we see those priorities identified in St. Paul’s letters? Is there continuity or discontinuity in St. Paul in comparison to Acts?

St. Peter gives the first sermon of the early Church, recorded in the second chapter of Acts. When his audience asks him what is necessary for them to be saved, his response is that they repent, be baptized, and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The theme of baptism is consistent throughout the conversion stories of the early Church, repeated in Acts 8:13, 38-40; 10:44-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; and 19:5, among others. Baptism, it would appear, is an essential feature of the missionary efforts of the Church. Moreover, baptism seems to be intimately united to the gift of the Holy Spirit, as if the sacrament in some sense actually serves as the mode by which new Christians receive the third person of the Trinity. Baptism also plays a dominant role in St. Paul’s theology, and is often united to discussion of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5, 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 6:11, 10:2; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 2:5-6, 5:26; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5-7, etc.).

Question 3: What is the Church according to Acts? How does the Church resolve crises and conflicts? How does that compare to what St. Paul says about the Church?

The Apostles, unsurprisingly, are central to the leadership of the early Church. Indeed, Acts is largely a story of just a few key leaders: St. Peter, St. John, St. James, and St. Paul. St. Peter and St. Paul loom the largest. As noted above, the debate over the place of Gentiles within the nascent Church seems to reach its apex in Acts 15, when we read that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). This is in a sense the very first council of the Church, with the most important leaders, including St. Peter and St. Paul, present. Indeed, it is St. Peter who seems to give the “keynote address,” while St. James confirms St. Peter’s judgment. The council, apparently representing “the whole Church,” then sends a letter to the church in Antioch with its determination and various commands, while apparently claiming to act with the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

The role of the Church is also central to St. Paul’s letters, emphasizing the importance of its unity (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Ephesians 4:1-6), its holiness (1 Corinthians 6:1, 16:1; Ephesians 5:25-27), its universality or catholicity (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 3:8-10), and its apostolicity (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2). Indeed, St. Paul’s ecclesiology is so high, he declares the household of God, the “church of the living God,” to be the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).3

Conclusion

Disagreements between Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian communions over the interpretation of Scripture are inevitable. In settings like Bible studies, however, we too often try to gloss over the differences as if they weren’t there, or as if discussing them will weaken our fellowship. This only needs to be the case if we aren’t capable of respectfully listening to and considering an interpretation or belief different from our own, or of communicating our own position with humility and charity. Yet through prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome our own weaknesses, and find far richer ecumenical dialogue in the process. Reading the letters of the New Testament through the lens of Acts presents one opportunity for such conversation. We will likely disagree over such issues as the role of faith and works in salvation, or the how and when of baptism, or the exact nature of Church authority. Yet rather than returning to our usual mode of defensive apologetics or proof-texting, we might all benefit from a careful study of Paul in the context of Acts. We might be surprised what we find.”

Love, & Christian charity,
Matthew

1. I am indebted here to Fr. Sebastian Carnazzo, a professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, who provided this methodology in his New Testament course.
2. Helpful analysis of this question can be found in N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) and N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
3. Taylor R. Marshall, The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Dallas, TX: Saint John Press, 2010), 35-46.

Grace?

“With the Gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of supernatural grace makes one’s whole existence holy. This doctrine of deification, or divinization, involves a true sharing in God’s life that does not diminish our created dignity but raises our freedom above its natural capacities.

To be assimilated into the life of God in a way that perfects our humanity, the human person, as a creature, needs a gift that elevates, transforms, and unites it to the Holy Trinity. Sanctifying grace given through a new presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul is a participation in the life of God in the sense that it implicates and lifts up the very substance and nature of what it means to be a human being in the very life of God.

The theological tradition says that this sharing in divine life has a physical, formal, analogous, and accidental character. This seems odd to affirm and can easily be misunderstood. A proper understanding of these terms, however, opens up the mystery of sanctifying grace and protects it from dangerous and reductionist lines of reasoning.

We say that grace is an accidental participation in the life of God because even those who do not know God and who have rejected grace still have a soul and remain in the Divine Image. Whether or not someone has the gift of grace, his life is sacred and his dignity calls for respect. Furthermore, sanctifying grace does not physically change a human being into a wholly different creature. Human nature receives the life of God as a secondary reality, a second nature. This means that grace builds up and perfects humanity but does not replace it. This also means that as we accept the gift of grace, our frailty and inadequacy do not magically disappear. Instead, through grace we discover in our weaknesses that the power of God is brought to perfection (see 2 Cor. 12:9).

Why do we affirm that grace is an analogous participation in divine life? Analogous refers to the true relation, the harmony, the due proportion that grace establishes between creatures and God. Grace does not make us God by nature. If it did, we would cease to be human; we would cease to be at all. There would be no question of harmony or relation between humanity and divinity, between creation and creator.

To be analogous, to be in harmony, to be in due proportion requires that the soul who freely accepts sanctifying grace perfects its unique individuality before God. Affirming that grace is an analogous participation in the life of God is therefore essential for understanding justification. Grace, because it is analogous, gives real standing before God, because without standing there is no real relation. The gift of God is an analogous participation in the life of God insofar as it brings new and deeper meaning to the personal existence of the believer, establishing a real relation, while animating, healing, and perfecting the uniqueness of the individual before the Lord.

The more infused our humanity is with divine life, the greater our union with God and at the same time, the more fully human we become. Grace makes us like God to unite us to Him. This increased likeness does not diminish our humanity, and our union with God does not deprive us of our freedom. Instead the closer we draw to God, the greater freedom we enjoy, and the more we are like Him, the more the uniqueness of who we are delights His heart.

An analogous participation in God’s life opens up an understanding of relational mysticism that stands over and against various mysticisms of identity. Many systems propose an absolute being or absolute emptiness that either absorbs or annihilates the individual soul. In pantheistic systems, like that proposed by Hegel, the value of the individual is only its part in an overall process. Here, a measurable outcome yet to be realized surmounts the uniqueness of the individual: no soul is to be saved, but instead individual freedom must be overcome, made to conform. Our participation in God’s life, on the contrary, is not about mere compliance, but about a tender friendship with God, a sacred solidarity with the whole reality of heaven.

What do theologians mean by the term physical? In this context, physical does not mean simply something visible or bodily or material but instead refers to something invisible and spiritual. Grace works not extrinsic to the soul’s natural powers, but intrinsically through them, renewing the soul’s very substance. God’s nature does not impose itself from without but lifts up and expands the soul’s interiority so that the Divine Persons might dwell in it.

To participate physically in the life of God implies that the soul can be animated by a life infinitely deeper and fuller than the one that is its own by nature. It can have a second nature, a new nature within its nature, a life that is “not my own” (cf. Gal. 2:20). In the life of grace, frail human nature is physically caught up in and transformed by the immensity of divine life.

How is grace a formal participation in divine life? The form of grace is divine — it comes from God and is in God, not man. To say participation in divine life is formal affirms that the grace that makes us holy is a higher reality, above our human nature, capable of lifting our created nature into the very life of God. Divine life is a gift that is over the soul, above human existence, and its divine form lifts the soul above the limits of human nature without harming the integrity of our humanity. To say that grace is a physical and formal participation in the life of God is to say that all that is most noble, good, and true about being human is under the influence of this higher power.

This kind of participation in divine life subordinates everything that can be felt and touched, understood and imagined in human existence so that nothing can separate us from the love of God. New powers of faith, hope, and love, infused virtues, and an array of spiritual gifts lift merely human works above themselves. The grace that makes us holy elevates, transforms, and unites to God that part of us that is deeper than our bodily existence and even our psychological powers, so that through cooperation with the Holy Spirit, we can actually give praise to God. Thus, grace as a physical and formal sharing in God’s life refers to those depths and horizons of human existence and being that no science can adequately measure or examine.

Sanctifying grace involves the deepest center of the soul, reaching deeper into our human substance than any feeling, any enlightened state of consciousness, or any attitude, although it can influence all of this in the powers of the soul. This gift of holiness is an intrinsic principle at work within our nature: not an external force, not an extrinsic influence, not a power imposed over and against the natural greatness of humanity. In the very center of our being is where God physically implicates our frail human “I” with His omnipotent divine “Thou,” tenderly setting apart the very substance of who we are, subtly consecrating our very life-principle itself so that we can offer our bodies as a living sacrifice of praise.

In the form of heavenly things, the grace that makes us holy involves a sacrificial self-emptying of our humanity and a divinely humble lifting up of our frailties. Not limiting itself to the greatest and most powerful, the perfection of this eternal life is revealed in our weakness and failures. It is not the product of human effort or industry, but of trust and complete surrender. Only Uncreated Love can create this new life in the soul, but to do so, the soul must die to itself out of devotion to its crucified Master.

Through this blessing from above, God reveals His glory while protecting the integrity of human nature. Sanctifying grace raises the wonder of human dignity, helping man and woman see the greatness of each one’s created purpose. This gift from above commits the saint more deeply to promoting what is good and noble in the created order even as he is drawn closer to the Lord’s uncreated mystery.”

Love, & His grace, always,
Matthew

The Old Evangelization

Q. Before we get into the “Old Evangelization,” could you give us a definition of the New Evangelization?

A. Pope St. John Paul II called for a “New Evangelization” because he recognized that we are in a new era in the Church’s history: we have millions of baptized Catholics who have not been evangelized. Instead of traveling to a foreign country to evangelize, now we need only look next to us in the pews. This new reality presents new challenges for spreading the gospel.

Q. So what is your definition of the “Old Evangelization”?

A. The Old Evangelization is a return to the basic principles of evangelization that originated with Jesus himself. Too many things labeled “New Evangelization” today are neither new nor evangelization. The term has been co-opted. Popular techniques and programs are often just reruns of corporate marketing tricks or Protestant megachurch methods. The Old Evangelization focuses on the bold proclamation of the gospel, based on the model of Jesus Christ, and primarily through one-on-one relationships.

Q. What was your motivation behind writing this book?

A. I’ve been involved in Catholic evangelization for twenty-five years. In that time I’ve seen “evangelization” go from being practically taboo in Catholic circles to a buzzword attached to every parish program and outreach. Yet we still see a massive number of people leaving the Church. So I asked myself, “What if we don’t really understand what evangelization is?”

The most common misunderstandings I’ve seen are a result of two traps. First, many Catholics see evangelization primarily as a job for other people—those who are professionals, or maybe the people who run the programs at their parish. Or, second, they misunderstand what evangelization entails, figuring it can be summed up as being nice to others. Yet true Catholic evangelization—as Jesus and his first followers practiced it—means every Catholic boldly proclaiming the truths of our Faith to those around us. I wrote The Old Evangelization to remind Catholics of that fact and to show them how to do it.”

Love,
Matthew

Mercy?

FROM A SERMON BY SAINT CAESARIUS OF ARLES (470-542 AD), BISHOP
(SERMO 25M I: CCL 103, 111-112)

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
(Matthew 5:7)

“My brothers and sisters, sweet is the thought of mercy, but even more so is mercy itself. It is what all men hope for, but unfortunately, not what all men deserve. For while all men wish to receive it, only a few are willing to give it.

How can a man ask for himself what he refuses to give to another? If he expects to receive any mercy in heaven, he should give mercy on earth. Do we all desire to receive mercy? Let us make mercy our patroness now, and she will free us in the world to come. Yes, there is mercy in heaven, but the road to it is paved by our merciful acts on earth. As Scripture says: Lord, your mercy is in heaven [cf Psalm 36:6].

There is, therefore, an earthly as well as heavenly mercy, that is to say, a human and a divine mercy. Human mercy has compassion on the miseries of the poor. Divine mercy grants forgiveness of sins. Whatever human mercy bestows here on earth, divine mercy will return to us in our homeland. In this life, God feels cold and hunger in all who are stricken with poverty; for, remember, he once said: What you have done to the least of my brothers you have done to me [cf Matthew 25:40]. Yes, God who sees fit to give his mercy in heaven wishes it to be a reality here on earth.

What kind of people are we? When God gives, we wish to receive, but when he begs, we refuse to give. Remember, it was Christ who said: I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat [Matthew 25:42]. When the poor are starving, Christ too hungers. Do not neglect to improve the unhappy conditions of the poor, if you wish to ensure that your own sins be forgiven you. Christ hungers now, my brethren; it is He Who deigns to hunger and thirst in the persons of the poor. And what He will return in heaven tomorrow is what He receives here on earth today.

What do you wish for, what do you pray for, my dear brothers and sisters, when you come to church? Is it mercy? How can it be anything else? Show mercy, then, while you are on earth, and mercy will be shown to you in heaven. A poor person asks you for something; you ask God for something. He begs for a morsel of food; you beg for eternal life. Give to the beggar so that you may merit to receive from Christ. For He it is Who says: Give and it will be given to you [cf Luke 6:38]. It baffles me that you have the impudence to ask for what you do not want to give. Give when you come to church. Give to the poor. Give them whatever your resources will allow.”

“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” -Mk 7:2

Love, begging for His mercy,
Matthew

Peacocks & Resurrection

Master of Isabella di Chiaromonte. ‘Initial D with Imago Pietatis (Christ on His Tomb with Marks of the Passion),’ ca. 1460. ink, paint and gold on parchment. Walters Art Museum (W.328.101R): Acquired by Henry Walters.


-by Rev John Bartunek, LC

“Peacocks often appear in early Christian art as a symbol of the Resurrection and Eternal Life. There are various levels to this symbolism.

Pagan Roots

The most obvious is a carry-over from ancient pagan religions, some of which held the belief that the peacock’s flesh never decayed, even after it died. Early Christians, therefore, adopted the bird as a symbol of the Resurrection, Christ’s eternal, glorious existence.

Medieval Theories

In medieval times, it was also thought that peacocks molt (shed their feathers) every year, and the new ones that grow are more beautiful than the old ones. Along with this idea, medieval legends included the theory that the gorgeous colors of a peacock’s feathers came from a special diet: It was believed that peacocks could kill and eat poisonous serpents, ingesting the poison and transforming it into the colors of their feathers. This too contributed to their being an apt symbol of Christ’s Resurrection, since Christ “became sin” [cf 2 Corinthians 5:21] for us on the Cross, but then rose from the dead with his glorified body and wounds having conquered the powers of evil.

Regardless of the biological accuracy or inaccuracy of these traditions, they help explain why Christian artists often used peacocks as a symbol of the Resurrection and Eternal Life.

Hidden Splendor

Personally, however, I have always been moved even more deeply by another level of symbolism that we can discover in this intriguing bird.

During the normal activities of a normal day, peacocks are fairly normal looking animals. And yet, all the while they are pecking and clucking like your average fowl, a hidden splendor lies underneath. When they spread their tail-feathers, this magnificence shines forth, revealing their true beauty.

The symbolism here is clear. When you see a Christian walking along the street, you can’t tell the difference between him and someone who has never been baptized. From all external appearances, they are both just human beings making their way through the hustle and bustle of daily life. And yet, underneath that ordinary appearance, the Christian soul enjoys a hidden splendor through the transforming power of God’s grace. The Blessed Trinity actually dwells in the soul who lives in that grace. And the person living the life of grace has also received a plethora of spiritual gifts: the theological virtues and the other infused virtues; the gifts of the Holy Spirit; the sacramental seals coming from baptism and confirmation, etc.

These spiritual realities are habitually and dynamically present in every Christian who lives the life of grace, but they are not visible in the ordinary way. Their full splendor will only become visible when the Christian enters into eternal life and comes to share in Christ’s own glorious resurrection. At that point, the hidden magnificence of each Christian’s soul will be revealed, to the wonderment of all, similar to a sudden spreading of the peacock’s magnificent feathers.

It’s only an artistic symbol, so there isn’t a perfect correlation. But it’s a lovely one, in my opinion.”

Love, and beauty,
Matthew

Vocal Prayer

-by Rev Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, (c) 1964

Presence of God – Lord, teach me to pray!

MEDITATION

When one of His disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), He taught them a very simple vocal prayer: the Our Father. It is certainly the most sublime formula possible and contains the whole essence of the most elevated mental prayer. However, Jesus gave it as a for post on vocal prayerformula for vocal prayer: “When you pray, say …” (Luke 11:2). This is enough to make us understand the value and importance of vocal prayer, which is within the reach of everyone—even children, the uneducated, the sick, the weary…. But we must realize that vocal prayer does not consist only in the repetition of a certain formula. If this were true, we should have a recitation but not a prayer, for prayer always requires a movement, an elevation of the soul toward God. In this sense, Jesus instructed His disciples: “When thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret…. And when you are praying, speak not much as the heathens” (Matthew 6:6,7). It is interesting to note that in St. Matthew these prescriptions concerning the exterior and interior dispositions necessary for well-made prayer immediately precede the teaching of the Pater Noster.

Therefore, in order that our vocal prayer be real prayer, we must first recollect ourselves in the presence of God, approach Him, and make contact with Him. Only when we have such dispositions will the words we pronounce with our lips express our interior devotion and be able to sustain and nourish it. Unfortunately, inclined as we are to grasp the material part of things instead of the spiritual, it is only too easy in our vocal prayer to content ourselves with a mechanical recitation, without taking care to direct our heart to God; hence we should always be vigilant and alert. Vocal prayer made only by the lips dissipates and wearies the soul instead of recollecting it in God; it cannot be said that this is a means of uniting us more closely to Him.

COLLOQUY

“Never permit it to be thought right, my God, that those who come to speak with You do it with their lips alone.

“I must not be unmannerly because You are good, addressing You in the same careless way I might adopt in speaking to a peasant. If only to show You my gratitude for enduring my foul odor and allowing one like myself to come near You, it is well that I should try to realize who You are ….

“O my Emperor, Supreme Power, Supreme Goodness, Wisdom itself, without beginning, without end, and without measure in Your works; infinite are these and incomprehensible, a fathomless ocean of wonders, O Beauty, containing within Yourself all beauties. O very Strength. God help me. Would that I could command all the eloquence of mortals and all wisdom, so as to understand, as far as is possible here below, that to know nothing is everything, and thus to describe some of the many things on which we may meditate in order to learn something of Your nature, my Lord and my God.

“When we approach You, then, let us try to realize who You are with whom we are about to speak. If we had a thousand lives we should never fully understand what are Your merits, Lord, and how we should behave before You, before whom the angels tremble…. We cannot approach a prince and address him in a careless way. Shall less respect be paid then to You, my Spouse, than to men?… I cannot distinguish mental prayer from vocal prayer when faithfully recited with a realization that it is You, O Lord, that we are addressing. Further, are we not under the obligation of trying to pray attentively?” (Teresa of Jesus, Way of Perfection, 22-24).”

Love,
Matthew

Salva festa dies – 6th century AD

Salve, festa dies, toto venerabilis aevo. qua deus infernum vicit et astra tenet (Repeat after each verse)

Ecce renascentis testatur gratia mundi omnia cum domino dona redisse suo.

Namque triumphanti post tristia Tartara Christo undique fronde nemus, gramina flore favent.

Legibus inferni oppressis super astra meantem laudant rite deum lux polus arva fretum.

Qui crucifixus erat, deus ecce per omnia regnat, dantque creatori cuncta creata precem. salve, festa dies.

Christe salus rerum, bone conditor atque redemptor, unica progenies ex deitate patris.

Qui genus humanum cernens mersisse profundo, ut hominem eriperes es quoque factus homo

Nec voluisti etenim tantum te corpore nasci, sed caro quae nasci, pertulit atque mori

Fexequias pateris vitae auctor et orbis, intras mortis iter dando salutis opem.

Tristia cesserunt infernae vincula legis expavitque chaos luminis ore premi.

Depereunt tenebrae Christi fulgore fugatae et tetrae noctis pallia crassa cadunt.

Pollicitam sed redde fidem, precor, alma potestas: tertia lux rediit, surge, sepulte meus.

Non decet. ut humili tumulo tua membra tegantur, neu pretium mundi vilia saxa premant.

Lintea, precor, sudaria linque sepulchro: tu satis es nobis et sine te nihil est.

Solvecatenatas inferni carceris umbras et revoca sursum quidquid ad ima ruit.

Redde tuam faciem, videant ut saecula lumen, redde diem qui nos te moriente fugit.

Sed plane inplesti remeans, pie victor, ad orbem: Tartara pressa iacent nec sua iura tenent.

Inferus insaturabiliter cava gruttura pandens, qui rapuit semper, fit tua praeda, deus.

Evomit absorptam trepide fera belua plebem et de fauce lupi subtrahit agrnus oves.

Rex sacer, ecce tui radiat pars magna triumphi, cum puras animas sancta lavacra beant

Candidus egreditur nitidis exercitus undis atque vetus vitium purgat in amne novo.

Fulgentes animas vestis quoque candida signat et grege de niveo gaudia pastor habet.

Salve, festa dies, toto venerabilis aevo. qua deus infernum vicit et astra tenet.

Hail, thou festive, ever venerable day! whereon hell is conquered and heaven is won by Christ. (Repeat after each verse)

Lo! our earth is in her spring, bearing thus her witness that, with her Lord, she has all her gifts restored.

For now the woods with their leaves and the meadows with their flowers, pay homage to Jesus’ triumph over the gloomy tomb.

Light, firmament, fields and sea, give justly praise to the God that defeats the laws of death, and rises above the stars.

The crucified God now reigns over all things; and every creature to its Creator tells a prayer.

O Jesus! Saviour of the world! Loving Creator and Redeemer! Only ­begotten Son of God the Father!

Seeing the human race was sunk in misery deep, thou wast made Man, that thou mightest rescue man.

Nor wouldst thou be content to be born; but being born in the flesh, in the same wouldst thou suffer death.

Thou, the author of life and of all creation, wast buried in the tomb, treading the path of death, to give us salvation.

The gloomful bonds of hell were broken; the abyss shook with fear, as the light shone upon its brink.

The brightness of Christ put darkness to flight, and made to fall the thick veils of everlasting night.

But redeem thy promise, I beseech thee, merciful King! This is the third day; arise, my buried Jesus!

‘Tis not meet that thy Body lie in the lowly tomb, or that a sepulchral stone should keep imprisoned the ransom of the world.

Throw off thy shrouds, I pray thee! Leave thy winding sheet in the tomb. Thou art our all; and all else, without thee, is nothing.

Set free the spirits that are shackled in limbo’s prison. Raise up all fallen things.

Show us once more thy face, that all ages may see the light! Bring back the day which fled when thou didst die.

But thou hast done all this O loving conqueror, by returning to our world: death lies defeated, and its rights are gone.

The greedy monster, whose huge throat had swallowed all mankind, is now thy prey, O God!

The savage beast now trembling vomits forth the victims he had made, and the lamb tears the sheep from the jaw of the wolf.

O King divine! lo! here a bright ray of thy triumph- the souls made pure by the holy font.

The white ­robed troop comes from the limpid waters; and the old iniquity is cleansed in the new stream.

The white garments symbolize unspotted souls, and the Shepherd rejoices in his snowlike flock.

Hail, thou festive, ever venerable day! whereon hell is conquered and heaven is won by Christ.”

Happy Easter!!!

Love,
Matthew

Catholicism is true – Casey Phillips


Casey Phillips

“What would convince a Jesus-loving, hymn-singing, Baptist preacher’s son to become a Catholic? This is a question that many have had for me over the past couple of years, whether they have worded it quite as succinctly or not. Why would someone with such a vibrant faith, rooted in a rich, solid family tradition, walk away from it and leap into the arms of the Church of Rome? Though many have probably speculated, citing history, art, or unity, they all fall short of the true reason that my wife and I made the journey across the River Tiber. As the famous Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton, once put it, “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons, all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” Though it may seem simplistic, it all boils down to that. Catholicism, when taken seriously and studied critically, simply cannot be denied.

My journey began in a small, rural Baptist church in western Kentucky. My wife’s began as a member of one of the largest Baptist churches in the state. Though from different church climates, both of us grew up alongside caring, God-fearing people who loved the Lord and wanted nothing more than to serve Him. We both were taught about the atoning death of Christ, the reality and impact of our sin, and the importance of Scripture. We were inspired to live lives totally entrusted to God’s love, and though we often took that mission for granted, the impact of that message remained with us throughout our formative years. The Baptist church was the only thing I knew as a child. We would often pass by the Methodist church downtown, but there was always an unspoken understanding that the Baptist tradition was the correct one. As far as Catholicism was concerned, my exposure to it, and that of my family, was non-existent. A thick shroud surrounded the term Catholicism, and none of us knew enough about it to commend or condemn it. Was it a Christian church? We weren’t exactly sure, but we also did not see any real necessity to investigate further. In short, the Baptist church was the only filter through which we understood the Christian Faith and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lunchroom Preacher

As a young child, I fondly remember going to our local Baptist church with my entire family and participating fully in each service. As I moved into adulthood, I was asked to be the song leader as well as the Sunday school secretary, charged with recording each morning’s attendance, Bible reading participation, and offering. This active participation in my church community bled over into how I acted at school among my peers. I was the “lunchroom preacher” who called my peers to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I recall one occasion when I attended a party, very much out of my character, after graduation. Upon my arrival with a friend, and greeting many familiar faces from school, one of my peers retorted: “Casey, what are you doing here? It’s like Jesus is here!” To those around me, my identity was inextricably linked to the faith that I proclaimed. I was not ashamed to stand up for what I believed, and I often did so with vigor. In one instance, of which I am not particularly proud, I made a girl my age cry after expressing to her my dislike for the less than laudable activities that she and some of her friends had planned for Easter weekend. For better or for worse, I was type cast as the “Jesus Freak” among my friends, and I had no intention of rejecting that title.

As I matured, I began to have troubles of my own, and my relationship with Christ was challenged. I had private struggles which no one knew about, that threatened to destroy the image that I had made for myself. At the very least, the perception that others had of me kept me from outwardly manifesting my innermost vices. This tug of war between who I claimed to be and who I was behind closed doors persisted and drove me to question my own justification before God. How could I sincerely call myself a follower of Christ and knowingly persist in the sinful ways from which He had died to redeem me? Many days I would return home from church, a cold sweat on my back, in fear that I had somehow lost the salvation which God had given to me at age fourteen. As a Baptist, I believed that God, once He justified or “saved” someone, kept him or her in His graces regardless of whatever sin he or she may have committed. Known as the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” this teaching was ordinarily a source of great solace for me. No matter how blinded I became of my sin, no matter how far I wandered away from my Creator, He persisted in holding me tightly in His clutches. Throughout high school, this doctrine was enough to keep me from completely questioning what I believed to be true. As many others have experienced, it was not until my undergraduate years that I was forced to make a decision about what I ought to believe about God. An encounter with other people who believed differently than me about eternal salvation, but who at the same time were God-fearing Christians, sought to frustrate my understanding of who God is and what He wanted from me.

Discovering That Not All Christians Are Baptist

Yes, it was during college, that proverbial hotbed of rebellion and dissension, when I was faced squarely with the fact that I may have had it wrong on at least one aspect of the divine. It was impossible for me to persist, as I had been doing up to that point, in the sinful acts that had begun during my high school years. This realization did not happen overnight, however, and it took me delving even deeper into sin before I experienced any real awakening. An addiction to pornography had ravaged my interior life with God, not to mention the serious relationship that I had with my fiancée (now my wife). This addiction, which had started when I was a pre-teen and which subsequently worsened when I became a young adult, forced me even deeper into the role of a faux Christian. But wasn’t my salvation secure? Was I not justified before God regardless of my sinful actions? My ruminations on the Baptist doctrine of “once saved always saved” grew longer and more intense. I continually sought to cool my burning conscience through watching and listening to different Protestant pastors or apologists who also promulgated this doctrine. Though they seemed to answer my questions for a time, I always ended up back online, searching the web for answers. The justifications that I had previously used for my actions had all failed to convince me that what I was doing was morally benign. It was through this struggle with sin that I was brought to the realization that I could not continue in it and legitimately call myself a Christian. Through God’s grace, I eventually stopped justifying my actions, became honest with myself about their malignancy in my life, and started the arduous trek toward walking uprightly with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though I was still far from becoming Catholic, I began to seriously doubt the legitimacy of certain doctrines with which I had been raised. Specifically, I began to no longer believe that once God “saved” or justified someone, he or she could no longer be found outside of His fold. I realized that this man-made tradition of “once saved always saved” had been the source of all the stress and anxiety that I had endured over the last 10 years of my life. The biblical truth was that I needed to continue following Christ and guarding my relationship with Him, lest I be cut off from His grace (see Romans 11:22).

At the same time that I was coming to an awakening in my faith, I was double majoring in Spanish and religion as an undergraduate student. As I studied religion, with a focus in biblical studies, I began to see the divergence of beliefs between people who called themselves Christian. The professors who made up the religion department were themselves a testament to this fact; I took a class on Judaism with a Lutheran, a class on Augustine with a former Baptist, and advanced Old Testament with an Episcopalian priest. The culture of the college campus also lent itself to a broad range of belief and practice, some not even Christian. As I studied church history and the Bible, I began to discover that my understanding of the Christian religion, as described within the boundaries of conservative Evangelicalism, was somewhat limited, and that it could not be the only legitimate understanding of what Christianity is or should be.

As time progressed and my receptivity of other views increased, I was asked to serve as a teaching assistant under an Episcopalian professor. Noticing my progression away from my Baptist moorings, this professor would casually assert, jestingly, the superiority of the Episcopalian faith. During one specific exchange, he conveyed to me what he thought to be the benefit or advantage of being an Episcopalian. “Look,” he had said, “you don’t want to be Catholic because that is going too far. As an Episcopalian, you can be as Catholic or as Protestant as you want to be.” Though he did not know it at the time, that statement stuck with me until I eventually came home to the Catholic Church. It was not until much later that I found out that this view, known as the via media, was one that confronted other, more notable converts like Blessed John Henry Newman. Though my professor was a sincere, faith-filled individual, I could not begin to imagine having it “my way” when it came to eternal truths. Can I lose my salvation or not? Is the Eucharist truly the Body and Blood of Christ or merely a symbol? Must I confess my sins to a priest or not? I wanted the truth on these topics, as well as many others, and I did not wish to be the arbiter of divine revelation. Little did I know that the answers to these questions would be found in the Catholic Church.

At the same time that I was discovering the multiplicity of Christian belief, I had a Spanish professor who was one of the most outspoken people I have ever met, and he was unapologetically Catholic. Up until this point of my journey, I had never encountered anyone who was a practicing, sincere Catholic. In fact, when I first found out that this professor was Catholic, I remember being somewhat shocked. You mean Catholicism and Christianity are related somehow? At no point did this professor seek to evangelize or proselytize me during my four years of undergraduate work, but he did live his faith. No power or institution, not even the very institution for which he worked, could stand in the way of his ability to genuinely live his faith in everyday life. It was via his witness, and that of other Catholics that I met during this time, that I began to incorporate Catholicism into the panorama of Christian views that I considered to be legitimate. This move, though I did not recognize it at the time, would be my first step into the River Tiber, on my way to the Eternal City.

Amidst all of this spiritual awakening, God gifted me with a spouse who would prove vitally important to the direction of my faith journey. On July 28, 2012, the summer before our senior year of college, I exchanged vows with the woman who would become the mother of my children. Our wedding took place in a small country church just outside of Lexington, Kentucky, presided over by a very close friend with whom I had worked previously in a small startup church back in my home town. Marrying Erin was the best decision I had made up to this point in my life, outside of following our Lord. Though we would see our ups and downs, she would prove to be the rock I would lean on along the rough road we followed on our journey of faith.

My journey during college can only be described as an awakening. Transitioning from a fundamentalist, Missionary Baptist understanding to one which appreciated the beauty of many different Christian traditions was the first step toward my eventual conversion to the Catholic Church. Through an intense struggle with the Protestant doctrine of “once saved always saved,” I was convinced that I had erred in my understanding of how God redeems and heals His children. I vividly remember, toward the end of my undergraduate work, clutching an application to Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky and feeling unable to complete it. The application asked me to describe my relationship with Christ up to that point in my faith journey. How could I reveal all that I had gone through? Would they accept my application if I was truthful? I wasn’t even sure where I stood on my justified state before God, so undertaking a masters degree in theology seemed irresponsible. With the help of my wife, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Spanish rather than undertaking the life of a Protestant seminarian. Though I could not see it at the time, and I often entertained doubts about my decision, the Lord was preparing my heart to receive something that I would have otherwise rejected out of hand. If I had gone to that seminary, who knows if I ever would have become Catholic?

What Is This Thing Called Catholicism?

After college, my wife and I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where I completed the master’s degree in teaching Spanish. Resolving not to go to seminary was a difficult move, but I felt it was the only honest one to make. I was still struggling with what to believe as a Christian. After our move, my wife and I attended the church where she was raised, Southland Christian Church. Southland, the second largest church in the state of Kentucky, holds a very special place in my heart. Though it seemed at least ten times larger than the church I was raised in, Southland’s mission to serve others as the hands and feet of Christ left an impact on me. These people loved Jesus and loved each other in a way that I had not seen before.

For the first few months after our move, we attended Southland regularly, often accompanied by my mother-in-law. All seemed well, and from the outside it must have seemed like the perfect scenario. But my wife and I still felt as though something was missing. Was worship truly supposed to be about entertaining sermons, loud music, and strobe lights? Our hearts longed for something different, but we didn’t know what we were looking for. Though we had not considered it seriously before that point, we decided to go to Mass at the local Catholic cathedral. Both of us were nervous as we entered the cathedral and found a seat. “What if they smell the Protestant on us, Erin?” I asked semi-jokingly. We had been to Mass a couple of times before, but neither time were we fully engaged or remotely tuned into what was happening there. This time, however, we were very aware of our surroundings. When the people next to us stood, we stood, and when they knelt, we knelt. How very strange this experience was for someone who had grown up in a church where sitting throughout the service was the norm, and the only time the congregation spoke was to sing a hymn or offer an occasional “amen.” These people seemed like robots, chanting after the priest, who led them in these odd rituals. Though the Mass did not make sense to us at the time, it piqued our curiosity and set us on a course to investigate this “Catholic thing.”

Our investigation centered at first on the conversion stories of other Protestants turned Catholic. The Journey Home program on EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network) I had long been familiar with. I had begun watching it while I was still in college. Looking back, I cannot remember what my initial motivation was for watching it as a college student, because I was at that time not considering Catholicism, but the episodes took on a new meaning to me once I began considering the Catholic Church seriously. Story after story, I found myself being drawn into the lives of many people, like myself, who had searched for answers and finally had found them in the Church of Rome. “Why couldn’t that be us?” I often pondered. Programs like The Journey Home provided my wife and me with a safe way to engage with Catholicism without the threat of being “found out.”

Books, like Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie, also played a role in breaking down barriers between myself and becoming Catholic. I remember becoming excited and re-reading portions of the book to my wife at night. Also, Bishop Robert Barron’s video series “Catholicism” played a major role in our eventual conversion. Displaying the Church in all her beauty and universality opened my eyes to the incredible breadth of Catholicism. Truth after truth emerged before my eyes. Catholics actually had good reasons for their beliefs! I found out that the Catholic Church has taught about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist since the earliest days of Christianity, that Jesus established a hierarchical order to safeguard the Church, and that Peter was truly the first pope. These revelations, along with many others, swept over me like a tidal wave.

Of these revelations, one of the most exciting to discover, and at the same time the scariest, was the Church’s teaching on justification. I was relieved to find that the Church did not teach the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” but I was also concerned about what that might imply. I quickly found out that the Church taught that a Christian can, after initially being justified by God, sin against Him in such a way as to sever the relationship with his or her Creator. As with all things that the Catholic Church teaches, there is scriptural support for the assertions she makes. I remember looking to verses such as 1 John 5:16 and seeing the differentiation between sin that leads to death and sin that does not lead to death (mortal and venial sin). I also learned that priests were given the authority by Christ to forgive my sins and to restore the life of grace that is lost through my disobedience (John 20:23). As a Baptist, I had been taught that no sin could separate me from my life in Christ, and yet the Bible clearly showed me otherwise. The truth had been hiding in the very book that I carried back and forth to the Baptist church of my youth. Answers were coming, and I welcomed them.

As our objections to the Catholic Church continued to fall, the ominous realization that we needed to become Catholic became something we could not “shelve” or mentally evade any longer. When Erin and I both concluded that Rome was our destination, we took the next step in our journey and joined adult faith formation classes. Having intellectually grappled with the Church for months on our own, we decided to stop by our local cathedral parish to pray. Though we were seated several pews away from one another, we both began to sob as we prayed. It was as if the Lord was saying, “Enough waiting, come follow me.” Though our intellectual battle had not completely ended, it was safe to say that our hearts had “caught up.” So we joined RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), formed wonderful relationships with faithful Catholics and aspiring converts, and finally arrived at our confirmation day. On February 23, 2014, filled with joy and anticipation, my wife and I were sealed with sacred chrism and graced by the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Son of God Himself. The finish line then became the starting gate as we entered fully into the life of the Church — the Church that Jesus Christ Himself had established on St. Peter some 2,000 years ago.

Proclaiming the Invitation to the Feast

In Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a master who sends his servants out to gather people for a great feast at his home. After many of society’s prominent figures had rejected the master’s call, in verse 23 the master commands the servants to go out into the highways and byways and bring in anyone who will come to the feast. I definitely feel that I am one of those who has been graced by the master’s call to the peripheries, that I must respond by going out to those in need. I am now the leader of a local chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization, an apostolate which seeks to take the truth of the Church to the streets, to those who have not heard it before or who had rejected it at some time in the past. The reality is that the Church needs voices to proclaim the good news of Christ and His Church. God can use the most unlikely avenues, as He did in my story, to convert souls.

In the past two years, since being received into the Church, my family has seen the moving of the Holy Spirit in a mighty way. Since our Confirmation, my sister has become Catholic, my mother-in-law was received into the Church on Christ the King Sunday of 2015, and my grandmother was confirmed during the Easter Vigil this year. The Lord truly is good, His love truly does endure forever, and His faithfulness endures through all generations (Psalm 100:5).”

Love,
Matthew

Lunch w/an atheist


-by Trent Horn

“I was sitting in a booth at a restaurant in San Diego waiting for the religious equivalent of a “blind date” to begin.

A few weeks earlier, some Catholic friends of mine asked me to meet with their son while he was home from college. They wanted me to speak to him because he told his parents he wasn’t going to church with them anymore because he was now an atheist. They asked me, “Can you help him see he needs to start going back to church? Can you help him get over all this atheist stuff?”

Then their son, who I’ll call Vincent, walked through the door. I raised my hand and he did his best to manage half a smile before he sat down.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“Good, I’m Trent.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I didn’t expect this to go very well and, to be frank, I understood his lack of enthusiasm about having lunch with me. That’s why I decided just to be honest with him.

“You think I’m here to talk you back into being Catholic again?”

“Sure, it’s why my parents kept asking me to see you,” he said.

“Look, I don’t think there’s anything I can say that’s going to make you change what you believe. I just think you should believe in something because you think it’s true, not just because it’s convenient for you. Does that make sense?”

He nodded in agreement.

“How about this. Why don’t you just tell me why you’re an atheist.”

“I know you wrote a book on atheism, so I’m not going to debate you,” he shot back.

“I don’t feel like debating anybody over a plate of mozzarella sticks,” I responded. “I just want to find out what you believe, that’s all.”

So for the next twenty minutes I asked him questions. What do you mean by the term “atheist”? What are the best arguments for and against God? What are the worst? What do you think are the good and bad things about the Catholic Church?

By the time our entrees arrived we were having a good discussion. I gently challenged some of his atheistic beliefs but, true to my word, it wasn’t a debate. It was just two guys having a deep conversation.

As I dipped my quesadilla into some salsa I said to Vincent, “I think I’ve got a good grasp on why you’re an atheist and I actually like talking to people like you. You’ve given this issue a lot of thought, and if I’m wrong about atheism I’d want someone like you to show me where I’m wrong.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“But it’s a two-way street, Vincent. Be honest. If you were wrong about the Catholic Church, would you want someone like me to show you what you were wrong about?”

He took a sip of his soda while he thought the question over, and finally said, “Yeah, I’d be open to that.”

“Okay, well, I’ve spent a lot of time asking you questions, so now it’s your turn. Why don’t you ask me about what Catholics believe and I’ll tell you why we believe that stuff. You can take my reasons or leave them, but I think your parents will be happy that we at least talked about them.” Vincent agreed and we kept at it for another hour.

As the check came, he said to me, “I appreciate what you said. I’ll definitely think about all of it.”

“And I’ll think about what you said,” I replied. “Remember, it’s a two-way street.”

A Common Desire

I don’t look at people who’ve left the Catholic Church or who aren’t Catholic as potential “customers.” They’re just people. They have things they love and things they hate. They may differ from me in lots of ways, but they almost certainly have one thing in common with me: they don’t want to be ignorant and they do want to be happy. I became Catholic in high school because 1) I thought it was true, and 2) finding answers to my deepest questions about existence and purpose made me happy.

It would be selfish for me to keep to myself the peace and joy I receive from being Catholic, so I share this “good news” with others. My aim in Why We’re Catholic is simple: to explain why Catholics believe what they believe. I haven’t given every explanation I can think of, because most people aren’t in a rush to read a book that is so thick it can double as a step-stool. Instead, I’ve presented the reasons that made the biggest impact on me during my conversion to the Catholic faith.

If you are Catholic, this book should give you a great starting point for discussions with your non-Catholic friends and family. If you aren’t Catholic, then I hope, you will at least be willing to hear me out, like Vincent did. Even if it doesn’t convince you, it should help you have more thoughtful conversations with Catholic friends and family, because you will better understand their point of view.

Whoever you are, whether you’re a believer, a skeptic, or you’re just not sure what you believe, I hope at a minimum this book will encourage you to follow an ancient piece of wisdom: “Test everything, retain what is good.”

Love,
Matthew

The search for truth – Jennifer Fulwiler

Jennifer Fulwiler is a former atheist who was born and raised with the natural materialist worldview that says, “If you can see it and touch it, then it is real.” Influenced by her atheist father, who told her, “Seek truth and do not believe assumptions,” from early childhood she sought answers to her many questions that eventually brought her to an unexpected destination.


-by Jennifer Fulwiler

“One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special. (I was a blast at parties.)

By simply living my life, I felt like I was living a lie. I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain. Suicide had crossed my mind — not because I was depressed in the common sense of the word, simply because it seemed like it was nothing more than speeding up the inevitable. A life multiplied by zero yields the same result, no matter when you do it.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed the well-worn path of people who are trying to run from something that haunts them: I worked too much. I drank too much. I was emotionally fragile. Many of my relationships with other people were toxic. I wrapped myself in a cocoon of distractions, trying to pretend like I didn’t know what I knew.

A Guy Named Joe

A year after I graduated from college, I met a guy at work named Joe. I was so impressed with him but I didn’t think I had much of a chance. He’d grown up poor, raised by a single mother, and had gone on to get degrees from Yale, Columbia, and Stanford. People who knew him said he was one of the smartest people they’d ever met. So when we began dating, I was thrilled. Our life together turned out to be even better than I could have imagined: We traveled the world on whims, ate at the finest restaurants, flew first class, and threw epic parties on the roof of his loft downtown. On top of that, both of our careers were taking off, so our future held only more money and more success.

We were a perfect couple. The only thing we didn’t see the same way was the issue of religion. A few months after we started dating, it came out that Joe not only believed in God, but considered himself a Christian. I did not understand how someone who was perfectly capable of rational thought could believe in fairy tale stories like those of Christianity. Did he believe in Santa Claus too?

It didn’t cause any problems between us, though, since we had the same basic moral code: he didn’t practice this bizarre faith of his in any noticeable way, and, mainly, I did not want to think about it. At all. Whenever the subject of God came up, something deep within me recoiled. Not that I had any problem demolishing silly theist ideas — it had been something of a hobby back in college — but the subject took me too close to that thing I was trying to forget. I had constructed my entire life around not thinking about it, so I never articulated what it was. It had been so buried by the parties and the socializing and the breathless running from place to place that it was no longer a specific concept, just some dark, cold amorphous knowledge I needed to avoid.

Joe and I married in a theater in 2003, reciting vows we wrote ourselves, with me wearing a dark purple dress. The plan was that marriage would be just a stepping stone along the path we were already on. But then I discovered I was pregnant, and everything changed.

Motherhood Turns My Life Upside Down

Motherhood caught me completely off guard. I’d grown up as an only child in a culture where nobody I knew had more than two kids living at home. I never had a friend whose mom had a baby during the time of our friendship. And considering that I’d never wanted kids and had some minor medical issues that made me think I probably couldn’t have them anyway, I was utterly unprepared for motherhood. The physical, mental, and emotional changes I went through after the birth of my son were a hard blow, like a punch to the head that comes out of the blue, and it left me reeling.

This cataclysmic event unearthed all those old thoughts about meaninglessness, and this time there was no re-burying them. Now that I had a child, it felt like my life had more meaning than ever. The dark-haired, blue-eyed baby felt so valuable; my own life was flooded with hope and joy at his presence. But with none of the usual distractions in place, the facts of the matter now descended upon me: There was nothing transcendent about my son’s life, my life, or any of the love I felt for him. He was destined for the same fate as the rest of us, to have his entire existence erased upon his inevitable death.

For weeks, I hardly got out of bed. Some combination of severe sleep deprivation and more severe depression left me almost catatonic. But then one morning, as I looked at the baby in the pre-dawn light that filtered in through the window, I felt something new within me. It was something that was not despair, some unfamiliar yet welcome feeling. I peeled back the layers to find that it was doubt: Doubt of my purely materialist worldview, doubt of the truth I had believed since childhood that there is nothing transcendent about the human life.

I considered that in almost every single time and place throughout human history, people have believed in some kind of spiritual realm. Almost every human society we know of has shared the belief that there is more to life than meets the eye, that what transpires here in the material world somehow reverberates into the eternal. Previously I had assumed that the vast majority of the billions of people who had ever lived were all simply ignorant; now I wondered if maybe I was the one who was missing something.

My First Christian Book

A few months later, I stumbled across a Christian book. I’d never been in the Religion section of a bookstore, let alone read anything about Christianity. I’d only picked up this book because the author claimed to be a former atheist, and I was curious to see what level of fraud he was. After flipping through the first few pages, I was surprised to find that I believed that he had been an atheist. I read a few more pages, and found his writing to be clear and basically reasonable. Obviously he’d come to the wrong conclusions, but I could respect the fact that he at least attempted to reason his way into his current belief system, rather than basing it on some emotional experience. I found that I couldn’t put the book down, and ended up buying it (loudly noting to the cashier that it was a gift for a friend).

A quick internet search showed that the book was widely scorned by atheists, and some of their counter-points to the author’s arguments were good. But it was simply not true to say that there was nothing compelling about it. For example, the book pointed out that thousands of Jewish people abandoned the sacred practices that had sustained them through centuries, through all types of persecution, in the years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Almost all of Jesus’ original followers went to their death rather than recant their statements that they’d seen Him rise from the dead. Christianity spread like wildfire in the early centuries, despite the fact that becoming a Christian often meant persecution or even death.

I had never seen Jesus as anything other than a silly fairy tale figure whom people called upon to give a divine thumbs-up to self-serving beliefs, but now I was intrigued by the man as a historical figure. Something happened in first-century Palestine, something so big that it still sends shockwaves down to the present day. And it all centered around the figure of Jesus Christ. As Joe once pointed out when I asked him why he considered himself a Christian, Christianity is the only one of all the major world religions to be founded by a guy who claimed to be God. That’s an easy claim to disprove if it’s not true.

One afternoon, shortly after I finished the book, I was caught off guard by a thought: What if it’s true?

What if there were a God? What if He chose to enter history as a human being? It was the most shattering thought that had ever crossed my mind. Never once in my life, not even as a child, had I considered that a personal God might exist, or that there could be even a shred of truth to any of Christianity’s supernatural claims. I quickly came to my senses and admonished myself to stop this silliness. Part of me wondered if I was losing my mind — what else could explain such a thought?

I wanted to forget all about this embarrassing little incident … but I couldn’t. Some strange feeling had risen up within me, that wouldn’t let me walk away from this subject. I figured that it must be simple curiosity. All I needed to do was read a bit more about Christianity, then when I was overwhelmed with the obvious flaws in its theology, I could move on.

Plunging Into the Deep End of the Pool

I bought another Christian book, this one called Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, this was not going to help me extricate myself from this religion.

Lewis was reasonable and obviously intelligent. His book was one of the most clear, well-written things I’d read in a long time. I was particularly captivated by his case for the Natural Law, in which he proposed that God is the source of all that we call “good,” which is why people in all times and places have had the same basic ideas about what is good and what is bad. My curiosity piqued, I then read excerpts online from the great Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas. I began to think that this religion was not opposed to reason at all — in fact, some of the most intelligent, reasonable people in history were Christians.

I finally caved in and bought a Bible, the first I’d ever owned. Not knowing how else to approach it, I started reading at page one. I was alternately baffled and horrified by what I read in the first few hundred pages. Joe encouraged me to read the second part of the book, called the New Testament, since that is where Jesus comes into the picture. That didn’t help. There was no clear call to action, like, “If you like what you’ve read here and would like to become a Christian, here’s what you do.” I had no idea how to interpret most of the passages, and it seemed like no one else did either. When I would search online for whether or not the Bible said abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, etc. were right or wrong, I encountered as many different answers as there were people, with each person citing Bible verses to back up his or her personal view. Similarly, I had no idea which church to go to if I wanted to ask someone questions in person: In my community there was everything from Church of Christ to Jehovah’s Witnesses to conservative Baptist to liberal Anglican churches, each one claiming to be based on the Bible, yet they all taught drastically different things about what constitutes sin.

This was a huge problem. If God is all that is good, then to define what is bad — in other words, sin — is to define the very boundaries of God Himself. It was nonsensical to suggest that His religion would be confused on that issue.

I’d found what I was looking for: the flaw that showed that Christianity didn’t make sense. It was time to move on.

What’s This with the Catholic Intellectuals?

Shortly after I came to this realization, someone I’d encountered online made a crazy suggestion: he said that I’d been approaching the whole thing from a very modern and distinctly American perspective, that the traditional understanding of Christianity is totally different. He suggested that Jesus founded just one Church before He left the earth, and that He instilled it with supernatural power so that it would accurately articulate the truth about what is good — and therefore about what is God — for all times and places. As if that weren’t crazy enough, he was talking about the Catholic Church!

Joe and I both balked. Joe said that Catholicism wasn’t real Christianity, and I knew that the Church was an archaic, oppressive, sexist institution. Besides, this idea of supernaturally-empowered people was just silly.

However, I did notice something: almost all the people who had impressed me with their ability to defend their faith through reason alone, both famous authors and people online, were Catholic. In fact, the more I paid attention, the more I saw that the Catholic intellectual tradition was one of the greatest in the world. I began reading books by Catholic authors; not that I was really interested in Catholicism, I told myself — I was just looking for something good to read. But I couldn’t help but admit that these people seemed to possess an understanding of the world and the human experience that I’d never encountered before. They had the same solid grasp on science and the material world as the atheists, but also possessed a knowledge of the movements of the human soul that resonated as true down to the core of my being.

I wasn’t sure what to make of all this Catholic stuff, and still vehemently disagreed with the Church on some of its crazier ideas, like its opposition to abortion and contraception. But I had to admit that the more I read about Catholic theology, the more sane it seemed.

I also began to think that it was more likely than not that God does exist, and that if the Christians weren’t entirely right, they were at least close with their understanding of Him. But why, then, had I had no experience of Him? Not that this was a requirement for me to believe, but it just seemed like if there were a God out there and He cared about me, I would sense His presence in some way.

I’d been under a lot of stress between having a new baby and some money problems we were experiencing, plus I’d developed a severe pain in my leg that was almost debilitating. All along I’d prided myself on saying that I would never convert based on emotional experience, that I only needed facts, not feelings. But now it was getting old. It was hurtful to think that God might be out there but just withholding comfort from me. I was tired of pressing forward in this pursuit with no sense of His presence. I could be miserable and feel alone in the universe as an agnostic — why bother with this religion business if that didn’t change anything?

Will It Work? An Experiment

My feelings of frustration and resentment toward God reached a head. And then, just at the right time, I happened to come across a quote from C.S. Lewis in which he pointed out:

[God] shows much more of Himself to some people than to others — not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.

Of course. I’d been walking around talking trash, watching TV shows that portrayed all types of nastiness, indulging in selfish behavior … and yet wondering why I couldn’t feel the presence of the source of all goodness. I realized that, if I were serious about figuring out if God exists or not, it could not be an entirely intellectual exercise. I had to be willing to change.

I wasn’t sure if I was ready to sign up for that for the long haul, but I decided to give it a shot: I committed to go a month living according to the Catholic moral code. I bought a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a summary of the Church’s teachings, and studied it carefully, living my life according to what it taught, even in the cases where I wasn’t sure the Church was right.

My goal with the experiment had been to discover the presence of God; instead, I discovered myself — the real me. I had thought that cynicism, judgmentalness, and irritability were just parts of who I was, but I realized that there was a purer, better version of me buried underneath all that filth — what the Church would call sins — that I had never before encountered.

I found that the rules of the Church, that I had once perceived to be a set of confining laws, were rules of love; they defined the boundaries between what is love and what is not. It had changed me, my life, and my marriage for the better. I may not have experienced God, but by following the teachings of the Church that was supposedly founded by Him, I had experienced real love.

Following the teachings about contraception had been moot since I was pregnant with our second child, but I did read up on it during my experiment of following the Church’s teachings. And, to my great surprise, I discovered that the Church had incredibly reasonable defenses of its points. I asked Joe to take a look at this stuff in case I was missing something, and, to his own amazement, he also found the Church’s arguments to be airtight. He had been doing his own investigation into Catholicism, and this was the final issue that had been troubling him too. We looked at each other, and for the first time dared to ask: Are we going to become Catholic?!

Medical and Moral Complications

Only two weeks after we had that thought, that pain in my leg got so bad that I ended up in the ER. I was seven months pregnant with our second child, and it turned out that I had a deep vein thrombosis, a life-threatening blood clot in a major vein. If the clot had broken free, I likely would have died.

After some testing, the doctors delivered worse news: I have a genetic clotting disorder that means that my blood clots easily — and I inherited it from both parents, which makes it worse. On top of that, it is exacerbated by pregnancy, which makes pregnancy dangerous for me.

I had a lot of time to mull over this turn of events: the clot couldn’t be treated during pregnancy, and the pain was so severe that I could no longer walk on my own. So I spent most of my days lying in bed, wondering what to do now.

To treat the clot postpartum, the doctors wanted to prescribe an FDA Category X drug to treat the clot — it’s so dangerous for pregnancy that women often choose to be sterilized before they take it. They told me that my clotting disorder means I should not have any more children, because of the risk that pregnancy poses to my health. I didn’t want them to think I was religious for fear of what they’d think of me, but when I hinted at the question of using Natural Family Planning (a method for spacing children that the Church deems morally acceptable), they laughed. Someone with my condition had to use contraception, they said. There was no choice.

Fatigued by the constant pain, overwhelmed by medical bills that were piling up by the thousands, I began to slide back away from this religion, tumbling down a slope that ended back in atheism. I hadn’t minded changing in the sense of not using the F-word so much, but this was a whole different ball game. To stick with the Church now would be to lose my life as I knew it, and to set out down an unfamiliar, frightening path.

Not knowing what else to do, I went back to the basics of the way I’d been taught to work through problems since childhood. My dad, my parent from whom I got my religious views (or lack thereof), had not raised me to be an atheist as much as he’d raised me to seek truth fearlessly. “Never believe something because it’s convenient or it makes you feel good,” he’d always say. “Ask yourself: ‘Is this true?’”

And so I set everything else aside, and clung to the simple question: What is true?

I quickly realized then that this was not in question, and hadn’t been for a while. For weeks now, I had known on an intellectual level that I believed what the Church taught. What stalled me had not been a hesitation of whether or not it was true; it had been a hesitation of not wanting to sacrifice too much.

I had no idea how things would work out. I thought there was a fair chance that this step would lead us to financial ruin, and may even take a serious toll on my health. But I decided, for the first time in a long time, to choose what was true instead of what was comfortable. Joe and I signed up to begin the formation process at our parish church. And, in the first statement of faith I’d ever made, I told my doctors that I would not use contraception, because I was Catholic.

God Helps Us Home

After that moment, a bunch of fortuitous events occurred that smoothed the way for us to become Catholic. A series of windfalls gave us the money we needed to manage our medical bills. After they got over their initial shock at encountering someone who wouldn’t contracept, my doctors came up with creative solutions to keep me healthy. Even after a surprise positive pregnancy test came at the worst possible time, just a few weeks after I’d healed from the blood clot, a bunch of startling coincidences played out to help us stay afloat during that difficult time.

The next spring, three days before Joe and I would be received into the Church, it was time for my first confession. As I approached the confessional, I had no hesitation. I had an intellectual understanding that God is the source of goodness, and that therefore it’s important that we take great care to repent when we have done something bad. But I’d already privately confessed all these sins in my head, so I figured that telling them to the priest, who was simply standing in for Jesus, would be redundant — after all, Jesus had already heard all this stuff.

But as soon as I heard the words coming from my mouth, everything changed. To hear all of these selfish, cowardly, hateful acts articulated with real words, for another human being to hear, was more powerful than I could have ever imagined. Tears began to flow, and, as I continued recounting every unloving thing I’d ever done, I shook and sobbed. Never could I have imagined the impact it would have on me to hear of my own sins, spoken out loud; but never could I have imagined how much it would impact me to hear the words, spoken by the​ priest on behalf of God, that I was forgiven. I walked away from the confessional in a daze, and slid into a pew in the silent church. I knew that my life had just changed, never to be the same again.

Later that night, around midnight, I stepped out on the back porch. When I was younger I used to avoid going outside at night when it was quiet and still, because it would trigger memories of all those ominous thoughts about meaninglessness that I was trying to forget. The darkness outside was too familiar, as if it had all spilled out from somewhere within me. But as I stood there that night after my first confession, I realized that all that was gone. The darkness within me was simply not there anymore. In its place was peace, and an unmistakable feeling of love. For the first time, I felt the presence of God.”

Love,
Matthew

Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth.