Category Archives: Works of Mercy

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

Catholic Church: eating w/sinners & tax collectors – the difficult way of mercy, part 3 of 3


– by Jan Cornelisz, Vermeyen (circa 1504-1559)


-by Dr. Randall B. Smith, is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston where he holds the Scanlan Foundation Endowed Chair in Theology. His book “Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide” was published in late October 2016 by Emmaus Academic. Born and raised near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Dr. Randall Smith also lived in Philadelphia and Chicago before attending college in Mount Vernon, Iowa, graduating with a BA in Chemistry from Cornell College. During his time at Cornell, he converted to Catholicism, and after college, went off to study his new-found Catholic faith. He subsequently earned a Master’s degree in theology from the University of Dallas and then completed a Master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Notre Dame.

“…People will fault me for writing a long article….and, I’ve never written anything that I didn’t look at in print and wish I had said something differently. Nor have I written anything, no matter how faithful to official Catholic teaching, that didn’t bring me excoriation in the “comments” section as a fool, a scoundrel, or worse…

…At the present moment, however, I’m more concerned with what culturally “conservative” Catholics will say and do, largely because I am one. It’s easy enough to vilify the other side; but are we willing to turn that critical eye around on ourselves? Are faithful Catholics willing to interpret this apostolic exhortation charitably and in accord with the document’s overall intention? Will we be willing, then, to do the hard work it challenges us to do?

Will bishops, for example, strive to do a better job and expend more resources on Pre-Cana programs and tribunals? (Ed. INSTEAD OF REAL ESTATE? ARE YOU SURE the Catholic Church is NOT in the real estate business? Really? Can you hear the non-Catholics laughing? I do. I always do.) Or will pre-Cana continue to be the notoriously bad, pro-forma exercises many Catholics have come to know and dread? I know someone who says—only somewhat tongue-in-cheek—that if 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, then 50 percent of the people sitting in Pre-Cana probably shouldn’t be getting married. I’m not saying I agree with those numbers, but the serious point behind the comment is that, if so many marriages are failing, the kind of two-day quickie marriage preparation we’re currently asking couples to participate in clearly isn’t doing the job.

Are bishops going to undertake the hard steps needed to help couples considering marriage avoid a spiritually and emotionally devastating set of mistakes? Good ones have. Or will they continue to take the easy route of simply passing along the problem to their understaffed marriage tribunals for them to take the heat, and to their priests in the local parishes to figure out how to deal with the “irregularities” caused by these bad marriages?

…We are called upon to live as members of Christ’s Body, seeking more fully to make ourselves into the image and likeness of God. And if, as St. Thomas says, mercy is God’s primary act, then we must go out of ourselves to extend mercy. How we do that in various situations will take wisdom—the sort of wisdom we don’t characteristically develop in a society of autonomous individuals.

And it precisely because we have allowed ourselves to become a society of autonomous individuals that we depend more and more upon the law to bring order in society rather than building fellowship and community from the ground up, by serving as a leaven in society through the exercise of the virtues, both intellectual and moral; through countless conversations with others with whom we disagree; and by living the Gospel message fully and truly so that our light will shine before men. When the Gospel is a matter only of words and rules, it has no power to transform. Or at least that’s what St. Paul thought.

Is no one else concerned about Paul’s warnings about the law: about its tendency to tear down and destroy, and about its failure to bring life? Is no one else concerned about Christ’s harsh condemnations of the self-righteous and complacent scholars of the law?

In these endless conversations about the precise interpretation of the canons and who should or should not be received at Christ’s table, I’ve heard comparatively little about how we can find ways of talking to our fellow Catholics, of calling each other to account for our failures while still maintaining a spirit of charity.

Does no one else hear the warning echoing repeatedly in their ears: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to carry, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them”?”

Love, really, and His mercy,
Matthew

Catholic Church: eating w/sinners & tax collectors – the difficult way of mercy, part 2 of 3

-please click on the image for greater detail


-by Dr. Randall B. Smith, is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston where he holds the Scanlan Foundation Endowed Chair in Theology. His book “Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide” was published in late October 2016 by Emmaus Academic. Born and raised near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Dr. Randall Smith also lived in Philadelphia and Chicago before attending college in Mount Vernon, Iowa, graduating with a BA in Chemistry from Cornell College. During his time at Cornell, he converted to Catholicism, and after college, went off to study his new-found Catholic faith. He subsequently earned a Master’s degree in theology from the University of Dallas and then completed a Master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Notre Dame.

“…Christ never said that ours would be an easy task. He illustrated this truth by suffering and dying on a cross for our sins. What if the author of our imagined apostolic exhortation were to insist that mercy, as Thomas Aquinas says, is the property that “befits God to the highest extent because His merciful deeds are over all His works, and He saved us not on the basis of works of justice that we have done, but according to His mercy”? What if he reminded us that mercy is hard both going out and coming back?

The way of repentance is hard, but so is the way of mercy, and this for two reasons. First, because acting with mercy is to be most like God and is thus most contrary to our natural sinfulness. And second, because the moment when we force ourselves to the hard business of embracing others in mercy is when we often have to be most honest with ourselves about our own sinfulness. We need God, and we need others. If we don’t show them we’re willing to sacrifice for them, to help them carry that cross, then what motivation will they have to pick theirs back up after falling and move forward?

Catholics believe that we are born in original sin, and that it is only by God’s grace that we can become free, by what is often a slow process of moral development over time. Step by painful step, gradually, God has led us, often carried us, if we have made any progress at all. And He has often led us and carried us by means of the blessed people He sent into our lives, people who patiently put up with all our selfish foolishness until, bit by bit, we turned toward God, began to crawl, then take a few stumbling steps, and then walk.”

Love, really, and His mercy,
Matthew

Catholic Church: eating w/sinners & tax collectors – the difficult way of mercy, part 1 of 3


-by Jan Van Hemessen

In the rapping lyrics of will.i.am, “Where is the LOVE (more than just a word), y’all?” As a fellow sinner & tax collector, I just wonder if fifty years, or thereabouts, of enduring worse sinners and tax collectors is a limit? I feel like the words to the country song, I need to go find a “better class of losers”? Some with more love would be nice; which, and I am not alone, hardly, I have only occasionally seen in fifty-one years. Inspiring, though only occasionally. Sure they’re hippies, but I’ll trade. Is being Catholic itself a penance? Surely, St Therese of Lisieux would say “YES!” Very likely, it is also highly redemptive and sanctifying to remain Catholic, in an extreme way. Suffering is redemptive in Catholic theology, even, almost certainly when, inflicted by stupid Galatians, especially. I wonder. I’m sure; out loud.


-by Dr. Randall B. Smith, is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston where he holds the Scanlan Foundation Endowed Chair in Theology. His book “Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide” was published in late October 2016 by Emmaus Academic. Born and raised near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Dr. Randall Smith also lived in Philadelphia and Chicago before attending college in Mount Vernon, Iowa, graduating with a BA in Chemistry from Cornell College. During his time at Cornell, he converted to Catholicism, and after college, went off to study his new-found Catholic faith. He subsequently earned a Master’s degree in theology from the University of Dallas and then completed a Master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Notre Dame.

“…Christ sat down to eat with tax collectors and other sinners as a way of opening up a conversation with them. It didn’t always work: some repented and reformed; others hardened their hearts. But He went out into the world to call sinners back. And we killed Him for it.

What would happen if a pastor’s first words to a transgender person were: “The Catholic Church demands you stop this foolishness, get yourself to a surgeon, have him change you back, and start acting like a real man”? I can tell you what would have happened if the first words I heard from a Catholic priest had been: “You know, if you keep going on the way you are, you’re going to hell.” He would have been right, but I wouldn’t have gone back to the Catholic Church.

Priests who start out with the bad news rather than the Good News usually aren’t going to see that person again. Embracing the faith will often require us to make some serious changes, perhaps even to make what we may see as real sacrifices. Who among us isn’t in need of real change and reformation? The question a pastor must ask is how he can get the person in front of him up to that point where he or she is willing to entertain the possibility of change.

So what are we to say to the transgendered? How about those with same-sex sexual attractions? What state must they have attained, what actions should we insist they undertake, to show they are worthy of (a) entering the Church, (b) participating in the life of the Church, or (c) partaking in any of the sacraments (including confession)? Must those with “gender dysphoria” agree to psychological treatment before coming to confession so they can promise honestly that they will be able to make good efforts not to cross-dress anymore? The Catholic Church has never demanded this. How about those with same-sex sexual attractions? How much chastity must they be able to document before entering the confessional or receive anointing of the sick?

Question: Were you with me on the apostolic letter condemning “transgenderism” right up until the point where I started talking about reaching out in mercy? At that point did you start drawing back and asking yourself: “What’s going on here? He was lying when he said he was opposed to transgenderism. The moral condemnation I understand; this squishy ‘reaching out in mercy’ stuff is what has gotten us into trouble.” Has it? Or has the problem been that we’ve allowed ourselves to become a Church with only two gears: moral condemnation and moral approbation?

Is there some third way, we might wonder, between hosting drag parties and “coming out” events on Catholic college campuses and simply turning away cross-dressers and transgender persons from the church door? Is it possible to invite transgender persons into the activities of the Church without necessarily making them Eucharistic ministers day one? If we take seriously the demands of the Gospel to be Christ for others, there simply has to be.”

Love, really,
Matthew

Mercy & laughter?

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” -Is 55:8-9


-by Br Hyacinth Grubb, OP

“How does the world react to true mercy? Sometimes it laughs.

I recently saw the film Silence, (spoiler alert) about two Jesuit missionaries in Japan during a time of terrible persecution, and it features one particularly striking character named Kichijiro. He was a Japanese Christian who, when the persecutions came, abandoned his faith and watched his wife and daughters be martyred. Years later, under the guidance of the missionaries, he begs forgiveness in an emotional scene. He seeks the sacrament of confession, he is absolved and forgiven, and he promises to reform his life.

Yet Kichijiro’s story isn’t over. When the persecution returns he apostatizes again, abandoning God and his fellow Christians. What’s worse, he turns around and betrays the missionaries for 300 silver pieces, 10 times what Judas received. With time he is consumed with sorrow for his sin, and again seeks confession from the now imprisoned priest, Fr. Rodrigues. Being a priest, Fr. Rodrigues shows him the mercy of Christ which holds no grudges. Yet at the first threat Kichijiro apostatizes again. And again he repents, again he seeks mercy, again he apostatizes.

Four times he abandons God, four times he sorrows for his sin, and four times he receives mercy in confession. Four times! This drama only ends when the Jesuit missionary himself apostasizes. The priest, in a further act of betrayal to God and to Kichijiro, refuses to hear his confession and denies Kichijiro’s plea for mercy.

Kichijiro is a pitiful character. He is cowardly, unreliable, and unfaithful; a failure as a man, and a failure as a Christian. Above all else, he is one who needs mercy.

Mercy is a response to misery and that misery is very real and very wretched. Mercy is not for the righteous, but for sinners (Lk 5:32). It is given not only once, or only four times, but “seventy times seven times” (Matt. 18:22). Mercy has no conditions, and it never changes; it is recklessly generous. It is not an exchange for reformed behavior, and it is not withdrawn when the promise of reform is broken. Mercy is messy; after all we are washed in the blood of the Lamb, not in spring water! We see all of this each time Kichijiro is absolved, and it is beautiful.

As I sat in the movie theater and watched Kichijiro fall and be raised and fall again, do you know what I heard? I heard the audience around me laugh. Each time Kichijiro came with contrition to receive mercy they laughed louder. Did they find it funny, or absurd? Were they unable to see the difference between weakness and hypocrisy? Or was it nervous laughter to relieve the intensity of a film they didn’t understand? I’m not sure exactly what motivated their amusement, but what is certain is that when faced with a depiction of mercy given freely again and again, there was mockery.

Worldly men and women do not understand mercy. They do not recognize what they thirst for, and so they laugh, because to them it seems senseless and incoherent. Pope Benedict XVI once gave a homily in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in which he compared the Catholic Church to the building’s stained glass windows. You can only see their radiant beauty and the rich colors from the inside with the light shining upon you. From the outside they appear to be cold and dreary, lifeless. Mercy is the same way. Its beauty and appeal are only apparent to those open to it. You can only understand the mercy of God if you’ve experienced it, either from Him directly or in the actions of faithful Christians. (This is why the works of mercy are so important for evangelization).

Without a knowledge of Christ, without at least an indirect knowledge seen reflected in the lives of Christians, worldly men and women will be mistaken about mercy. They will call profoundly un-merciful acts merciful: acts such as ending a suffering life, refusing the life of a child with a disability, encouraging men and women in their harmful fantasies, and even hating Love Himself in apostasy. And at the same time they will call merciful acts irrational: such as forgiving with reckless generosity, loving the worst of enemies, and bearing great wrongs silently and patiently. Worse, they will even call merciful acts harsh and rigorous: such as refusing to aid in sin, admonishing the sinner, cherishing and protecting the marriage bond, and preaching the hard but beautifully necessary truths.

Our role within this drama and this conflict between the world’s false idea of mercy and God’s true mercy is simple: cling to God. It is easy to accept the world’s ideas. It is easy to listen to the lies shouted at us day in and day out. Cling to God. Withdraw from the world and stay with Jesus. Stand alone with mercy incarnate, and mercy will reveal Himself to you, for He has said, “as the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you; abide in My love” (John 15:9).”

Love, & always in desperate need of His mercy,
Matthew

Rigid Catholics

-Young women pray at a Solemn High Pontifical Mass for Blessed Karl of Austria in Washington, D.C. The annual Blessed Karl Mass is widely attended by young Catholics in the eastern United States.

Pope Francis on the young who like Latin Mass: ‘Why so much rigidity?’

November 11, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – In a new interview, Pope Francis criticized the “rigidity” of young people who are attached to the Traditional Latin Mass.

“I always try to understand what’s behind people who are too young to have experienced the pre-conciliar liturgy and yet still they want it,” the pontiff said. “Sometimes I found myself confronted with a very strict person, with an attitude of rigidity. And I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.”

Pope Francis frequently criticizes faithful Catholics using this type of rhetoric. He has blasted the “excessive rigidity” of Catholics who believe in moral absolutes.

“Traditionalists” with their “hostile inflexibility,” fail to allow themselves to be “surprised by God,” he said in 2014.

In the same interview, Pope Francis said Vatican II’s major liturgical changes “should carry on as they are.”

“To speak of the ‘reform of the reform’ is a mistake,” he said.

The “reform of the reform” is an expression inspired by Pope Benedict XVI to refer to a reform of the post-Vatican II liturgy that would make it more closely aligned with Catholic liturgical tradition.

Following the Second Vatican Council, it was widely and errantly believed that the Old Rite of the Mass had been abolished or forbidden. In his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI clarified that both the Ordinary Form (post-Vatican II Mass) and Extraordinary Form (Mass according to the 1962 missal) of the liturgy are permitted and “there is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal.”

“In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture,” Pope Benedict wrote. “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

In the new interview, however, Francis describes Benedict’s actions as an “exception” that was “magnanimous.”

Pope Benedict extended a “fair and magnanimous gesture to meet a certain mentality of some groups and people who had nostalgia. … But it is an exception,” Pope Francis said.

In an essay on why she likes the Traditional Latin Mass, teenaged Anya Proctor wrote that she was driven to it by “weird” homilies about “other religions, the gospel of Judas, funny stories in the newspaper, irrelevant anecdotes, and even blatant heresies” and “a priest using props on the altar to demonstrate his homily—as if we were all five-year-olds.”

At the Traditional Latin Mass, “I came to know God,” Proctor continued. “I got to fully experience Christ Incarnate in flesh and blood, on my knees, deep in silence and prayer — to meditate on his union with me as he was placed reverently on my tongue by his holy servant. I closed my eyes when I received Jesus. I felt physically, spiritually, and emotionally transformed. Many times in the Cathedral, tears have come to me as I have prayed and focused on Jesus’s love and sacrifice for me.”

“Mass is not intended to celebrate people,” Proctor wrote. “That’s for luncheons, birthday parties, and maybe youth groups—but not Mass. The Mass is for the Lord. The Mass is where the priest is so reverent he faces the Lord, not the people, so that they don’t focus on him, but only on Christ.”

Juventutem (“youth” in Latin), an international federation of young people who attend and promote the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, has chapters around the world.

“We are a group of Catholic young adults who seek to implement Summorum Pontificum in the Archdiocese of Washington,” Juventutem’s Washington, DC chapter explains. “We love the traditional Roman liturgy and seek to share it with the Church and the world. Come pray with us!”

Juventutem’s Boston chapter “promotes the sanctification of youth by means of the traditions of the Catholic Church, faithful to the Church’s teaching and her authorities, and in spiritual union with those young people throughout the world who share our aspirations…Juventutem Boston also dedicates itself to an intercessory apostolate, praying with and for our Bishops and Priests in union with His Holiness Pope Francis.”

Six hundred young adults attended traditional liturgies at World Youth Day this year.


-by Rev Dwight LongneckerFr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Longenecker was brought up in an Evangelical Protestant home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the Fundamentalist Protestant Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson on the Isle of Wight. Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He now serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, SC.

“The Holy Father’s favorite scold is against Catholics who are “rigid”.

In this he is echoing Jesus and the gospels. Jesus’ big problems were the Scribes and Pharisees. Legalists without mercy, they famously sweated the small stuff–always taking the splinter out of someone else’s eye while ignoring the plank in their own. They burdened people with little laws, great guilt and notorious negativity.

In the end they are the ones who plotted to kill Jesus. Definitely bad news.

The Pope’s criticism of similarly rigid religious folks in the Catholic Church is necessary. Certainly we have our share of unsmiling, legalistic, backward looking, negative, hyper critical Catholics. We have our share of Pharisaical, judgmental, hide bound, angry conservatives. Francis is right. They’re a brood of vipers.

Just try it. Poke at them and they’ll strike, and they’re not harmless. Their fangs have venom.

While I support the Pope’s criticism of Pharisaical Catholics, I don’t actually think they are that big a problem. Here’s why:

They are a minority. Perhaps it would be easy to tar all traditionalist Catholics with this brush, but we know its not so. While there are definitely a few vindictive, paranoid, legalistic nut cases among them, most traditionalist Catholics are good, solid, sensible folks who simply love the old Mass and all that goes with it.

Are there harsh, legalistic and judgmental priests? I’ve been a Catholic for over twenty years and I’ve only heard complaints about a priest being harsh in the confessional twice–and both times it was about the same priest.

Two complaints in over twenty years and only about one priest?

Maybe Pope Francis’ experience in Argentina is different than mine in England and the USA, but my experience is that our primary problem is not rigid, legalistic Catholics, but exactly the opposite.

The complaints I hear about priests in the confessional are along these lines, “I went to Fr Whoever for confession and all he did was tell me that the things I confessed weren’t really sins.” or “The priest just said, ‘Remember Jesus Loves You. Go in Peace.’ I had to ask him to say the words of absolution three times, and even then I had to remind him what to say!” or “Our priest doesn’t have set times for confession. He says we should just confess our sins to God and if we need counseling to make an appointment.” or “I confessed that I had slept with a woman before marriage and the priest told me that ‘I probably had an emotional need’ and it as long as she consented it wasn’t really a sin.” or “The priest spent fifteen minutes explaining my psychological problems to me, and then never said the words of absolution.”

In America and the UK the problems of the Catholic Church are not down to overly rigid Catholics. The problems are due to overly flaccid Catholics. We’re not too stiff. We’re too limp.

In my experience a great number of Catholics never go to confession at all. This must mean that they do not think they have committed any sins that need forgiveness. This is not rigidity. This is complacency.

In my experience, most priests are not rigid at all. They are a gentle, loving, kind and forgiving bunch. We priests are quick to explain away guilt, soften the sin and overlook the faults. We want to be nice. We want to be loved. We want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

In my experience the vast majority of American Catholics are anything BUT rigid. A huge percentage are okay with contraception. A good number think abortion is okay under certain circumstances. Many think same sex marriage is just fine. A lot of Catholic parents approve of their kids living together before marriage but still want them to have a great big Catholic wedding. A lot of American Catholics seem to be perfectly okay with remarriage after divorce.

In my experience, while some Catholics are extremely generous, a good number are not. They don’t tithe. They give to their own pet causes when they want and they don’t seem to have the faintest idea that their faith is about taking up the cross, following Jesus Christ and walking in the way of sanctity. They don’t seem to be any different from their non-Catholic neighbors.

American Catholicism is not in danger of being too harsh, bitter and judgmental. We’re in danger of being too sweet, pliable and self indulgent.

As usual, every argument is theological. We are this way because of the heresy of universalism and semi universalism. These are the sentimental heresies that everyone will be saved in the end, or if there is a hell that probably there are not very many people there and maybe they will make it to heaven too in the end or maybe God will just let them be snuffed out and cease to exist.

As nice as it is, this is completely unfaithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the historic Catholic faith.

I know this rather stands things on their head, but I reckon we could do with a bit more backbone–not less.”

Ah, Universal. Gotta, gotta love it. If anyone recently through RCIA says, “But, I need X!” I say, “Wait! I will be your concierge. I KNOW we’ve got it! I just know.” I think both the Holy Father & Fr. Longnecker are right, and, no, I’m not just being political. I actually think they’re both right. The scourge of being a moderate. 🙂

Love,
Matthew

The Church hurts, justice, & the Holy Spirit


-by Mark Shea, former Baptist and now Catholic apologist

“The good news about the Catholic Church,” said a friend of mine “is that it’s like a big family.”

“The bad news about the Catholic Church,” he continued, “is that it’s like a big family.”

A basic fact of life is that the same Body of Christ that is the sacrament of salvation, the fountain of so many graces, the home of so many amazing and wonderful people, so much healing, so much beauty, and the glorious treasury of saints to whom we owe so much…that same Church is the scene of incredibly devastating hurts dealt out by traitors, perverts, scoundrels, monsters, selfish jerks, liars, grasping careerists, Pharisees, libertines, and fools.

Just about everyone has a story to tell: the scheming chancery functionary bent on inflicting economic harm on some struggling Catholic self-employed businessman; the priest who was an insulting, despair-inducing buffoon in the confessional; the sexually abusive cleric and the bishop who protected him; the Church Lady with her petty hurtful gossip; the jackass who poses as the uber-pious Catholic while he cheats on his wife; the nun who shamed and scarred the little girl in third grade; the crazy mom who destroyed her kids lives while yakking about God, dragging them from one quack visionary to the next and then running off with the priest; the liturgist who decided the mandate was not “Feed my sheep” but “Try experiments on my rats”; the Catholic schoolteacher who destroyed your shot at college because she was a vindictive psycho who hated males.

It is, in fact, a story as old as the New Testament. Jesus’ story is, after all, a story of betrayal. It’s easy to forget that Judas was, at one time, a friend of Jesus’. And so one of the great psalms of the Passion records the messianic sufferer lamenting, “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9).

Nor did the other apostles always present a sterling example of loyal friendship. They fought amongst themselves about who was the greatest, even as Jesus was celebrating the Last Supper and warning of his betrayal (Luke 22:24). James and John elbowed each other for a coveted spot at Jesus’ left and right hands, and even sent their mom to run interference for them as they jockeyed for position (Matthew 20:20-24). Peter, who had massive failings of his own when it came to denying Jesus and chickening out in a pinch, was also frustrated by Simon Magus, a baptized Christian who saw Jesus as a potential source of super powers and who tried to buy Peter off (Acts 8:9-14).

Similarly, Paul has to write on a number of occasions to express his exasperation, not with persecuting pagans outside the Church, but with his own fellow Christians within it. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel” he tells the Galatians, adding later (of those Judaizing Christians who were tempting the Galatians to abandon the gospel and return to salvation by circumcision): “I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). (It’s been a while since a bishop blurted out in frustration that he wished members of his flock would castrate themselves.)

In various letters, Paul complains about Christians getting drunk at their agape meals, embarrassing the poor, having relations with their stepmother, rejecting the resurrection, getting puffed up with pride, refusing to work since Jesus was coming soon, and rejecting himself as an apostle since was not one of the original Twelve. Indeed, for all the abuse and beatings Paul got at the hands of both Jews and pagans, the greatest pain and frustration he felt was at the sheer ingratitude and hostility he received from fellow Christians, a fact easily verified from 2 Corinthians 10-13, in which the apostle “vents” (as they say these days) about the exasperation he feels at having to establish his bona fides as a “real” apostle to the spouting popinjays at the Church in Corinth who were simultaneously undermining all his hard work—work done at the cost of beatings, shipwreck, stoning and abuse—while leading the thankless Corinthians away from apostolic tradition. Paul practically pioneered the discovery of many a Catholic saint since that no good deed goes unpunished.

And all this sets the stage for a rich and colorful pageant of Catholic history in which Catholics drive each other crazy, hurt each other, lie to each other, cheat each other, make war on each other, rape each other, and kill each other. And by this, I mean Catholics from every walk of life. You can find everybody from Pope to dog catcher in the rogue’s gallery: clerical, lay, male, female, young, old, black, white, unlettered ruffian, cultured scholar, foreign, and domestic. No wonder Paul has to exhort us to bear with one another (Colossians 3:13) and Jesus tells us to forgive one another. It’s easy to forget that these instructions are not some platform for general social reform in which saintly Christians march out and show a barbarous world of buffoons the True Path.

Rather, the instructions to bear with and forgive one another are given to Christians first, because we need to hear them first. The New Testament documents are meant to be read in Christian assemblies of worship and are calculated to help Christians get along with each other. They were not written for classes on Civilizational Uplift to be taught by Holy Christians to a rabble of unwashed pagan thugs. Nor were they written for Christians to study in a class on “how to endure persecution from non-Christians” (though a few remarks here and there do, indeed, instruct Christians on how to cope with persecution from non-Christians).

On the contrary, the command to forgive—a command so crucial that it is the only part of the Our Father on which Jesus comments (warning “if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15))—frankly presupposes that the Church is the rabble of sinners who hurt each other before it is the communion of saints that reaches heaven.

Because of all this it’s worth looking at some of the biblical principles by which the Church orders its life for when its member don’t act like saints. In a world of pain infliction like ours, it’s easy to leap to a variety of conclusions that can hurt rather than help our faith and our obedience to Jesus Christ. We can assume that the person who hurt us meant to hurt us. We can assume that the hurt is proof the person is not really a Christian and is bound for Hell. We can assume the sinner is acting with the power and the authority of the Church (a particularly easy assumption when the sinner is a cleric). We can assume the hurt is proof that we “had it coming”. We can assume the hurt is proof the entire Catholic faith is a fraud. We can assume the hurt is proof Jesus Christ is a fraud. We can assume the hurt is proof the existence of God is a fraud.

Because of our tendency to draw unwarranted conclusions from the pain Catholics cause each other as they bonk into each other in the hurly burly of life, it’s wise to think about such matters and plan ahead for the moment when (not if) somebody in the Church hurts you.

The Mark Twain Principle

The first and most sensible thing that Catholics can do is not borrow trouble by presuming the worst right off the bat. Mark Twain said we should never attribute to malice what can be sufficiently explained by stupidity. His humorous point, of course, is that while there certainly are deliberately hurtful acts, an awful lot of what we do to one another is caused by ignorance and can even have a good-hearted intention behind the misfire if we can get past our pain to see it. The child who tries his best to be nice to the neighbor lady and ends up saying, “Gee, for a fat lady you sure don’t sweat much!” may deeply hurt with his words, but he does, after all, mean well. So our tradition counsels us to always assume the best first. With each pain we encounter, we have to develop the habit of asking “Was this grave? Did the person who did it have freedom? Did they understand what they were doing?” This spells the difference between excusing and forgiving. A lot of evil done us doesn’t even rise to the level of a sin. So we excuse the person who steps on our toes, or the verbal klutz who means to compliment us but winds up saying “You’re a lot smarter than I thought you were.”

Cultivate a 70 X 7 Habit

Of course, not all evils are excusable. Sometimes people commit actual sins against us. They fail to render the love or justice we were properly owed. They cut in line. They steal our stuff. They cheat us. They cheat on us. They abuse us. Whether by action or by failure to act, they knowingly and willingly hurt us. What then?

The command of Jesus is famous—and scary: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also Who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25) Peter, standing at the head of a long line of Christians who couldn’t even begin to imagine what Jesus really meant by that, summoned his magnanimity to its height and suggested that instead of the rabbinic custom of forgiving people three times, perhaps we should go all out and forgive them seven times. Jesus countered, “Not seven, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). How many times must we forgive? Infinity. As many times as we are sinned against. And that forgiveness is to be extended “if you have anything against any one”. No qualifications on whether or not they reciprocate or say they are sorry or show contrition.

The reason for this, of course, is for our good. Unforgiveness is, as has been famously observed, like drinking poison and expecting the other guy to die. To refuse to forgive is not to maintain power over our victimizer. It is to hand all power over to them and leave them in control of us for the rest of our lives and (if we let it destroy our souls with bitterness) possibly for the rest of eternity. In forgiveness, we hand the person who has sinned against us back to God, release them from our judgment and entrust them to the mercy of God. In doing so, we are set free from their power and can stand in the place of Christ the Beloved Son who likewise forgave and enjoyed—even on the cross—the love of God.

Don’t Blame Yourself

The Christian tradition has a healthy habit of self-criticism enshrined in the Confiteor. We are sinners, it is true. At the same time, there can be a certain pathology in which we can blame ourselves for sins committed against us. The child blames himself because his uncle beat him. The abused woman says it’s her fault that her husband gave her a black eye. The victim of priest abuse believes (and in some cases was shamefully told by ecclesial authority) that the abuse was their fault because they “asked for it”. The Church’s actual moral tradition, however, stands against this: the sinner is responsible for his sin, not somebody else. The victim of abuse needs to lay hold of Christ, the innocent sufferer, who did not say, “Maybe I had it coming”. He knew he was innocent. But neither did he allow the injustice done him to conquer him with bitterness. He showed the way between self-blame and hatred of his victimizers: the way of love rooted in the knowledge that he was the beloved Son of God. You are likewise a beloved child of God and the sin committed against you is not a sign that you had it coming or that God is angry at you. It is a sign only of the fact that we live in a fallen world. United with Christ crucified, your suffering can even help in the redemption of the evil done you, and can be a way that God will defeat Satan’s attack on you with a good that conquers and overwhelmingly triumphs.

Forgiveness Does not Mean Inaction

One great fear that can seize people is the mistaken notion that the command to forgive is a command to be passive—as though forgiveness means sitting on your hands while somebody gets away with fleecing you blind or beating you up because to oppose them would be “judgmental”. In fact, however, the New Testament knew as well as we do that sometimes sins require action:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

Clearly, what Jesus has in view here is the twofold reality that sins and conflicts are going to arise within the Church and that his disciples need to find a way to deal with them effectively. For much of our day-to-day life, these problems are the equivalent of pin pricks and paper cuts in the body of Christ. Somebody sins. You show them their fault with mercy and charity. They repent. All’s forgiven. You don’t call your pastor because your husband left the toilet seat up. The bishop is not on speed dial to adjudicate how the monies from the parish bake sale will be distributed. Subsidiarity means that the people closest to the problem will, nine times out of ten, be competent to deal with the problem.

However, sometimes a bit more is required. So you call in a second opinion when your son is blowing off his schoolwork, making you and your spouse the united front who forbid the hike or the video games till the sin is remedied. Other times, the two or three witnesses may point out that there is blame to go around on all sides. On occasion, it may be necessary to bring a conflict to a pastor, such as with marriage issues, parenting issues, or some sort of struggle with how the school, or the finance committee are doing. A huge amount of our daily life never goes further than these levels of conflict and arbitration because most of us do not live epic lives of conflict that rocks the Church.

That said, of course, there are moments when some sin is so grave that ecclesial and even civil authority must be called in. A good rule of thumb is that ecclesial authority is necessary for ecclesial issues and civil authority should be contacted for issues in which the common good is threatened. So if your parish or Catholic educational institution is, for instance, fomenting rank heresy or open contempt for the faith, it may be time to contact the bishop. The trick, of course, is that very often the people most eager to make such calls are the people least qualified to do so. Every diocese has its wannabe Inquisitors who contact the chancery on a weekly or daily basis to complain that their parish sings hymns they don’t like, or the priest does not elevate the Host as high as the Inquisitor thinks proper, or women are not wearing veils as they should or what have you. Bishops have a lot on their minds, so a good rule of thumb is to ask whether the thing I think of such burning importance seems to be of burning importance to other good and holy folk I know in the diocese. If they do not think it worth going to the mat for, say, having to sing the umpteenth chorus of “Anthem” at the family Mass, probably this is not the battle that needs to be fought right now. On the other hand, if there are really serious theological and liturgical abuses, the bishop needs to know.

With matters of civil law such as theft, sexual abuse and such like, the proper place to go is to the cops. As Paul says,

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1-4)

So, for instance, to draw from the very stark and disastrous example of the priest abuse scandal, if a layperson has evidence that a priest has been harming a child, this is not a matter for internal discipline in the diocese. This is a criminal matter and the police should be contacted. It is not “unforgiving” to do so. It is an act of justice to the victim, an act of charity and protection for potential victims, and a work of mercy to the Body of Christ.

One temptation that faces us when a member of the Church sins against us is to conclude that the sinner is “not really a Christian” or that the whole thing—Church, Jesus, God—is a sham. As to the question of whether somebody who sins is “really a Christian”, C.S. Lewis gives us a good perspective via his demonic correspondent Uncle Screwtape, who advises his nephew, the junior tempter Wormwood, on how to help sow the seeds of bitterness and pride in his human “patient” when he discovers his fellow Christians are all quite capable of sin:

All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’ You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy(God) to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug,’ commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

Remember Why the Church is Called “Holy”

It will be noticed that throughout this article I have not confined the discussion to what the press typically means by “the Church”: namely, the hierarchy and the ordained office. That’s because, of course, the Church is all the baptized. When we speak of “the Church” hurting us and think only of the clergy we are taking a radically impoverished view of the Church. And this is of a piece with a general tendency to think of “the Church” merely as a sort of institutional structure. It’s not. The Church is the Body of Christ. But what makes it the Body of Christ is not the Pope, bishops or priests. It’s not the saints. It’s not radical empowered laity full of progressive fervor bringing an antiquated institution into The Future. It’s not properly observed liturgical rubrics. What makes the Church the Body of Christ is the Holy Spirit, Who is the soul of the Church. We say the Church is holy not because we are stone blind Kool-Aid drinkers who imagine Catholics never sin despite two thousand years of evidence to the contrary, but because, through thick and thin, the Holy Spirit continues to make it possible to forgive, heal, and be reconciled despite the worst wounds—the wounds we receive in the house of our friends (Zechariah 13:6).”

Lord, strengthen me against my own hypocrisy, which is daily.
Love,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Bury the dead & Pray for the living and the dead

earth_on_coffin

nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy

“Burying the dead is the only of the Corporal Work of Mercy not named in the parable of the sheep and the goats. It comes from the book of Tobit: “If I saw any of my nation dead, or cast around the walls of Nineveh, I buried him” (Tobit 1:17).

On a glance, this work looks to be the strangest and perhaps least merciful of the the seven corporal works of mercy. What benefit is it to a dead man how his remains are interred? We recognize that during the general resurrection, the body will be restored and reunited to the soul whole and entire. The Church taught this unequivocally in one of her ecumenical councils, stating, “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess,” and the teaching has been a part of our Faith since the Church’s beginning [1]. In other words, our resurrected bodies may be renewed and glorified, but they are not otherwise “new” bodies, but are in fact our “old” bodies, the ones we have in this life.

Therefore, a proper burial has no particular effect on the resurrected body, nor does cremation (etc.). “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) is a statement of fact, yet not one which nullifies the possibility of being re-formed and resurrected from the dust on the Last Day. What does burying the dead accomplish as an act of mercy, then?

For one thing, this work is in fact arguably the most practical of the works of mercy:

The last of the corporal works of mercy is, on some level, the most logical of them. There is little direct tangible benefit towards visiting a prisoner or welcoming a stranger. But dead bodies smell bad after a couple days, rotting and spreading disease. It only makes sense to get corpses into the ground and out of the way as soon as possible.

But this corporal work of mercy is not only logical; it is merciful as well. For we could just dump bodies in the ground, and solve our problem of disease control with far less pomp and ceremony.

But burying the dead is an act of honor, symbolizing the return of a Christian’s temple of the Holy Spirit to God. Through Christian burial, we celebrate the life of an individual and his/her (presumed) return to God.

So there are three ways (at least) that burying the dead is a work of mercy, in that there are three sets of people to whom it is merciful:

  1. The community as a whole benefits, in that there are not rotting, stinking, and disease-festering corpses piled up.
  2. The beloved of the deceased, in that the memory of the man and his life are laid to rest and the bereaved are given a sense of closure and a chance to say final farewells.
  3. The deceased himself, and to some extent God, in that the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit in this life, and in that it is the matter of which the soul is the form. Moreover, the man’s memory is honored among the living.

If burying a man’s body honors his life, praying for his souls actually aides him, both in this life and (assuming that he passes through purgatory) in the next. In the second book of Maccabees, we read that after a particular battle during the Maccabeen revolution, after several of the Jews, it was discovered that they had fallen into idol worship. Judas Maccabeas orders that the living should pray for (and make sacrifices on behalf of) the dead:

“On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jam′nia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (Maccabees 12:39-45).

So the Bible rather clearly teaches that prayers for the dead are good and holy works [2], and by implication that they are efficacious. But the dead are not the only ones we should pray for. We must also pray for the living (which includes ourselves, incidentally). “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Recall that the second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). If we believe the words of Jesus, both concerning this commandment and concerning the efficacy of prayer, then it follows that we should pray for ourselves and for one another. We should ask for the big things, but also the seemingly little things. If I cannot do any of the other works of mercy, I can at the least do this one, I can pray that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, and the naked clothed; or that the afflicted be given comfort and the ignorant instruction (which leads from knowledge to love) and that the sinner will repent.

Concerning at least the spiritual works of mercy, though the action be undertaken by my fellow men, the results must ultimately be brought about by God, at least in that His grace is a necessary cause of the effects. The admonished sinner must choose between repentance and umbrage, but God’s grace enable him to make that choice; the ignorant man must choose between docility and impertinent boorishness, but again God’s grace underlies that choice. Prayer is thus to this extent the most important of all the works of mercy, even if it must also at times be accompanied by action.

—Footnotes—
[1] Saint Thomas Aquinas even addresses several seemingly difficult objections to the resurrection of the body in his Summa Contra Gentiles. Saint Augustine does the same 8 centuries earlier in his City of God. The relevant passages from Saint Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles are quoted here.

[2] Indeed, it is passages like this one which caused Martin Luther to several the 7 Deuterocannonicals from his canon. It’s difficult to make a break from the Church on the pretext of wanting to do away with the concept of purgatory and prayers for the dead when the Bible rather clearly backs these doctrines and practices.”

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Ransom Captives & Admonish Sinners

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nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy, 3/27/15

“Ransoming captives may seem the strangest, the least necessary of the works of mercy today. Oh, it was surely necessary historically (and Christ does specifically mention it in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats). There are indeed two different religious orders which were established to do this work historically. Both the Trinitarians and the Order of Our Lady of Ransom specifically had as their mission the rescuing of Christian captives from the hands of the infidels (which largely meant, Muhammedans). Members of the Order of Our Lady of Ransom took a fourth vow, which was to substitute themselves for other captives held by infidels, thereby ransoming those captives by becoming themselves captives: a very Christ-like approach to the problem of captivity.

But how can we do this particular work of mercy today? Hostage situations seem more a problem for the FBI and the police than for the average citizen. POWs are traded between warring governments, and the occasional ship taken by pirates is more likely to be rescued by SEALs than by concerned Samaritans.

Sometimes this work of mercy is interpreted as the simpler “visit the imprisoned,” and that is indeed a part of this work. Not all captives can be ransomed, nor really should all prisoners be set free: there is often a good reason why they are imprisoned, and letting them free is neither merciful to their victims nor to their own souls. But in the US at least, virtually any prisoner can receive visitors, and many of them greatly appreciate the visits. Many parishes run some sort of prison ministry, which might involve Bible studies or even Communion services, both of which can be invaluable to any prisoner. It may be too late for the hardened criminal to walk free under the sun or stars, but there is yet time for him to repent so that he finds himself in Paradise rather than perdition after his death [1].

Captivity goes beyond the bars of a prison or the demands of a hostage situation. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that sickness refers to distress due to an “internal cause” (e.g. lack of health, but any internal cause of distress), and captivity is distress due to an “external cause” (e.g. imprisonment, but any other external cause of distress):

“If the need be special, it is either the result of an internal cause, like sickness, and then we have ‘to visit the sick,’ or it results from an external cause, and then we have ‘to ransom the captive.’…All other needs are reduced to these, for blindness and lameness are kinds of sickness, so that to lead the blind, and to support the lame, come to the same as visiting the sick. On like manner to assist a man against any distress that is due to an extrinsic cause comes to the same as the ransom of captives” (Summa Theologica II-II.32.2 Answer and Reply 2).

Therefore, ransoming captives includes many works of mercy beyond visiting the imprisoned and freeing hostages. The fireman who pulls a woman from a burning building is ransoming the captive, as is the teacher who breaks up a fight in the schoolyard.

A more serious problem in our society is sex-trafficking. The USCCB (council of US bishops) has a program which attempts to fight sex trafficking, which is the modern day equivalent of slavery. The American abolitionist historically worked to ransom the captive by freeing slaves, and now their successors work against the modern slaves, those victims of human trafficking.  (Ed. Captives of sexual slavery may not be held by others against their own wills, but by themselves, and the evil forces which promote this form of slavery.  These captives are in our homes, our schools, our places of work and worship.  They are our colleagues and loved ones, our fellow Catholics and Christians.  The devil is hard at work.  Lord, save me from my temptations and sin.  Lord, save all those so imprisoned.  Save us, holy Lord.  Deliver us, merciful Lord.  Only You can.  Come and save us now.)

There are worse situations against which the Church has been leading the fight. Abortion, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, parental surrogacy, artificial insemination (arguably) and in vitro fertilization (definitely) are all forms of captivity. Many of them—embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization (in practice at least), and abortion—result in the death (often very painful) of the captive, in this case a tiny human being in the earliest stages of his development. Ransoming the captive here aims to put a stop to these evil practices, and where possible to save the lives of their victims. Abortion destroys at least two lives—the child’s and the mother’s—and rescuing a woman and her child from abortion most certainly is a form of ransoming the captive which can be engaged in directly or indirectly (by prayer) by us as lay Catholics.

Moreover, certain sins, especially those pertaining to addictions, require the presence and availability of the thing to which a person is addicted. Thus, an alcoholic sins when he over-imbibes. Whereas his addiction to alcohol is a sort of sickness, the actual presence of alcohol to tempt him is a sort of captivity, and so to remove this temptation is a sort of ransoming. Thus, another form of ransoming the captive is to remove external aides to sin, such as alcohol from an alcoholic, drugs from a drug addict, or weapons from a man who might be tempted to murder.  (Ed. pornography from the sexually tempted or addicted.)

While we are removing those external aids to sin, we might go a step further and consider the internal ones. If there are many people who are put in external danger, bodily damage, corporal captivity, then it is also true that all of us face a greater internal threat from sin. We are all to some extent enslaved, ensnared, and beshackled by sin. Thus, a fitting spiritual compliment to the corporal work of mercy ransoming captives would be ransoming sinners. However, we cannot ransom sinners and remove them from their captivity in sin: that’s a thing that only God can do. However, we can do a slightly less glamorous task which may be the first step in this process, which is the spiritual work of mercy of admonishing the sinner.

In the book of Ezekiel, we read:

“You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear Me say anything, you shall warn them for Me. If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he (the wicked man) shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9).

This is addressed by God to His prophet, meaning ultimately to all His prophets. This includes us, since we are also prophets by our baptisms. According to our Lord, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets (and among the first of the New), yet those who will be part of the Kingdom of God are greater still.

Since we are all called to be prophets by our baptisms, we are also called to take up the mantle of the prophets as “watchmen” against sin. Therefore, we are in fact called to admonish sinners. It does not seem that this was ever an “easy” task, in that admonishing sinners always carries with it a certain risk.  (Ed. the risk of hypocrisy is ever present and may be ever real.) In past ages where sin was taken more seriously, admonishing a particularly powerful sinner might bring with it certain social consequences, and worse. Nobody likes to be reminded that he is a sinner; the more humble accept the correction without bitterness; the more haughty see the rebuke as a personal attack and look to exact revenge.

That is still true today [2]. Admonishing the sinner still carries a number of social (and physical, for that matter) risks, whether the sinner is a powerful stranger or a close friend. Try telling one of your “gay” friends that homosexual acts are immoral (as per Catholic moral teaching and the Natural Law tradition), and you will see how strong the friendship is [3]. Ditto for your “straight,” Christian friends who are divorced and remarried.

However, there is an added twist in today’s society. There is a Bible verse which has been twisted and then placed on the lips of the collective culture, and used as a bludgeon against the work of admonishing sinners. After all, we read in both the Gospel of St Matthew (7:1-5) and the Gospel of St Luke (6:37-42) Christ’s own words: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Even the Gospel of St Mark echoes this point, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more” (Mark 4:24).

So we are warned sternly against judging others.

However, these passages have been twisted from their intent. For one thing, we are being told not to judge falsely (hence Christ’s use of the word “hypocrite” [4]). We are not to condemn others, either, and this is what judging as Christ uses it here boiled down to. We do not know the inner movements of the hearts or the inner thoughts of the minds of others: we cannot gaze into each others’ souls to see fully our motives, struggles, desires, thoughts, beliefs, etc.

We can, however, see actions, and call them what they are. Therefore, we cannot judge a person—this is the real warning which Christ is giving here—and call ourselves better than him for not committing all of his sins. For that matter, we can’t call ourselves worse simply because he does not seem to commit all of ours. What we can do, and what this work of mercy requires of us, is to call a sin a sin. This can be done publicly where the sin is public (what we sometimes call a “scandal” [5]); it can be done generally where the sin is widespread (e.g. abortion, contraception, usury, pornography, etc.). But in its most potent (and most merciful) form it is done tactfully, privately, and done with the intention to helping the other person to give up his sin.  (Ed. to call upon the Almighty for His Grace to say “no” to sin, and “YES!” to Jesus.)

Lest we get hung up on the “judge not” passage, Christ also tells us about fraternal correction, and admonishes us to use it rather than pretending that the sin does not exist and that it causes no harm:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

Admonishing the sinner is in fact a work of mercy, and one which Christ Himself enjoins us to do. We are to do it tactfully, lovingly, without boasting, and without condemning. That is a tall order, but it is a far cry different from not doing this at all. When we do not admonish the sinner, we risk losing our own souls, whatever else may be the outcome.

—Footnotes—
[1] Saint Dismas, often known as “the good thief,” is an excellent example of this.

[2] Mary Stachowicz is a name we may hear more often in the future. She died a martyr for the Faith, murdered by a homosexual man for telling him that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful.

[3] Not to mention that we have created a socio-political-economic climate in which the wrong remarks about the wrong classes of people can lead to losing one’s job. Personal conversations and private actions increasingly have public consequences, usually not for the better.

[4] Hypocrite means something very different in the Gospels than its common use today. Now it merely means not practicing what one preaches. This is not at all the meaning of the words as used by Jesus, since it would make anybody who preached a consistent moral code into a hypocrite. Since He tells us that we must “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48), if we merely echo His own words we would be hypocrites by today’s (mis-) use of the word.

The word then meant something akin to wearing a mask, putting on a false show like an actor. It would mean, in other words, that we ourselves do not believe in the moral standard which we are preaching, that we don’t hold ourselves to the moral standard to which we hold everyone else. We have one (easy) moral standard for ourselves, and another (harder) one for everyone else. “Hypocrisy” is, in other words, more rightly translated by the phrase “double standard,” and so “judging” means holding others to this double standard to which we do not hold ourselves. God is not fooled, and if we do this, then we will ultimately be held to the higher/harder standard by God.

[5] Another words whose meaning has changed. “Scandal” once meant something—an action, some words, etc—which caused others to lose their faith or to doubt. As Christ Himself says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Visit the Sick & Comfort the Afflicted

visit_the_sick

I have the distinct privilege of being associated as a Third Order Dominican with other men who make it their practice to visit the sick in hospitals in the Madison area and to be on call 24/7 to be present when someone is dying, regardless of creed or lack thereof, so that no one may have to die alone. Breathtaking.

I also volunteer with a secular divorced fathers group. I don’t do much. I am, as the founders call me, just one more relatively stable presence at the table. We have Chinese buffet once a month. My “official” duty or role is to be a PEO – Positive Emotional Outlet. That means that if anyone needs to primal scream at the top of their lungs, I volunteer to be the one they scream at. It is better than some of the negative behaviors these fathers deprived of their children may be tempted to indulge in. I am happy to offer. 🙂

nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy

“When we hear of “the sick,” we probably think immediately of those who are in the care of hospitals or hospices. Perhaps we think of our own families while they suffer through cold and flu season, or allergy season. This is, of course, sickness in the conventional sense of the word, and those who suffer it need our assistance and our care.

The elderly infirm also fall into this category, and so visitations to the nursing home also are a way of fulfilling this work of mercy. Since loneliness is often rampant in the nursing homes and retirement centers, the elderly in particular often appreciate visitors.

Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that the sick include both the elderly infirm and those who are permanently disabled:

“The purpose of giving alms is to relieve our neighbor’s need. Now there are many needs of human life other than those mentioned above, for instance, a blind man needs a leader, a lame man needs someone to lean on…

All other needs are reduced to these, for blindness and lameness are kinds of sickness, so that to lead the blind, and to support the lame, come to the same as visiting the sick. On like manner to assist a man against any distress that is due to an extrinsic cause comes to the same as the ransom of captives. And the wealth with which we relieve the poor is sought merely for the purpose of relieving the aforesaid needs [hunger, thirst, clothing, shelter]: hence there was no reason for special mention of this particular need” (ST II-II.Q32.A2. Obj2 and Reply).

Thus, “the sick” is a broad term. It encompasses those who are injured; those who are physically ill (whether temporary, chronic, or acute); those who are elderly infirm; those who are disabled (blind, maimed, lame, paralyzed); those who are mentally ill; and those who are ill from addiction (through substance abuse, for example).

Visiting the sick can be a simple act of kindness, such as sending a “get-well soon” sympathy card; or helping a blind man to cross a busy intersection safely. It can be a little more involved still, as when we prepare a meal or care for the children or property (e.g. pets) for somebody who is near-bedridden (if only temporarily) with sickness. This work can be even more involved to the point of feeling like it is all we are able to do, as any parent who has stayed up all night with throwing-up sick children will attest. And it gets even harder, as anyone who has suffered through the last days of a loved one’s cancer or other slowly fatal illness can attest.

I should add another thing here before considering the spiritual work of mercy which complements visiting the sick. Illnesses have alway been around, but they haven’t always been this safe. “The sick” also included lepers, which were not merely ill but fatally so; and the disease was a scary one, so that lepers were often banned from inhabited areas [1]. Yet, Saint Francis of Assisi ministered to one such leper despite his great fears of the disease, and Saint Damien Molokai eventually died from the leprosy which he contracted ministering to a leper colony on the Hawaiian island whose name he bears. There were many instances of Catholic orders setting up hospitals (as discussed previously), which eventually would care for victims of the plagues (and in particular the Black Death). And Catholic priests and sisters and lay persons have been chaplains, nurses, and doctors to the soldiers in the various wars throughout history, often risking their lives to minister to the wounded (or even to the fearful fit before a battle).

We may not all be called to take such risks in mercy, though of course we can read in the Bible that “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). We may not have to fear leprosy or the bubonic plague (for now), but there are other diseases of both mind and body. AIDS is somewhat prevalent in America, but it is a pandemic in Africa, with as many as one in three people being infected in some countries. It may not be contagious in the way that the plague or leprosy was, but there is always some small risk of coming into contact with infected fluid.  (Ebola)

Nearer to home, there is a different sort of sickness which we might confront. I would call it mental illness, but that is not quite accurate: call it mental imbalance, especially as caused by substance abuse. There are some men whose drug-addled brains leave them unpredictable at best, dangerous at worst. Yet these, too, are “sick,” these too need to be visited, though their visitations may take the form of counseling or admonishing as well as merely visiting and comforting.

Still, to comfort is the first purpose of visiting the sick, and any aide offered to the sick is surely meant in part to do that. This then is the spiritual complement to visiting the sick: comforting the afflicted. This work of mercy is often also referred to as consoling the sorrowful and occasionally as succoring the suffering. It perhaps most directly describes what we intend to do when visiting the sick (in the literal sense of visiting a person who is physically ill).

Or, to return to a previous example, it is even more so what we do for the family of the terminally ill and the surviving next of kin to the recently departed. Anyone who has suffered through the last days of a dying relative knows second-hand the suffering of the relative, but first-hand their own suffering through sympathy and a sense of loss.  (Thy will be done, Thy Kingdom come!)

The person who comes to visit the sick might also do as much to relieve their suffering as to relieve the dying person’s, if the visit is done in a spirit of charity and goodwill. The same might be said of those who engage in the corporal work of burying the dead, as their honoring of the memory of the departed might also offer comfort to the living folks dear to him.

The afflicted, the sorrowing, the grieving, the miserable: these words all pertain to an interior state more than an exterior one. Certainly, some of these states may be confused with depression, whether from a chemical imbalance (which would make it a more physical sickness) or a metaphysical state. There are correspondingly some forms of affliction which we might attempt to comfort, and some which are left to the “professionals,” by which I mean the ordained priests. I can help alleviate the physical or mental suffering of a friend or family member of spending time with him, or by kind works or kind deeds, or by a thoughtful gift or even a warm embrace.

However, some kinds of affliction are metaphysical, spiritual. We see these everyday, and are to some extent powerless against them. We can offer consolation and comfort, but some afflictions can be removed only by exorcism. This is a job for a trained priest, lest we bring the afflicting spirit upon our own heads. These kinds of affliction fall under a different work of mercy.

In the meantime, comforting the afflicted involves any true act (or words) of true kindness. Unfortunately, all-too-many people mistake comforting the afflicted with enabling the affliction. The man addicted to drugs who suffers withdrawal pains does not need to be given more drugs, but rather needs counseling and rehabilitation. Similarly, many people today are “afflicted” by their sins, and their perceived wronging at the hands of society over those sins. This is true of any addictive sin or sinful temptation, whether drug addiction, kleptomania, viewing pornography, eating disorders (gluttony), gossip [2], or any of a variety of sexual temptations and disorders, etc.

All-too-often the response is to excuse the sin as being the natural satisfaction of a very real (and often physical/physiological) temptation. It is always easier to say, “You were born this way, and there is nothing wrong (disordered) about that temptation or acting upon it” than it is to recognize that to varying extents and degrees we are all born into sin. (…And, God-do-not-forbid, acknowledging free will, God-do-not-forbid, that great gift we all cherish, and take such pride in, another deadly sin, until we are called to accountability for exercising that great gift we all take such pride in.  Until. Gal 6:7.  Thereby, NEVER having to be accountable.  HOW convenient.  How.)  We all suffer the curse of Adam, the concupiscence of our parents; to some extent, we all live in the double darkness of sin and ignorance, and we all struggle with some particular sin or set of sins. We are all afflicted in this way.

It is no comfort to pretend that a sin is not a sin for the sake of gaining physical or psychological satisfaction. It may appear to be comforting the afflicted, and may appear to be treating the “physical symptoms” of the affliction; so would be giving drugs to an addict in withdrawal pains. Doing this may alleviate the physical pains and craving for a time, but in the meantime it places the soul more firmly in the grasp of that temptation, so that the afflictions will return with a vengeance. It trades physical comfort for spiritual affliction. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

There is another kind of affliction which is spiritual, and which is of the opposite sort than this. If our society inflicts spiritual afflictions in the name of physical comforts and consolation, our consciences might at times inflict spiritual agony in greater proportion that our sins warrant. C.S. Lewis puts this idea into his children’s stories, in particular during an exchange between two characters in his Prince Caspian. Near the end of that book (spoiler!), the title character is crowned King of Narnia, and holds a brief dialogue with Aslan (Narnia’s manifestation of Christ). Aslan explains to Caspian that he is descended from pirates who had blundered into the world of Narnia, eliciting a disappointed remark from Caspian about wishing that he had descended from “more honorable lineage,” to which Aslan responds:

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve..that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”

We have a tendency to beat ourselves up over little things, which can then at times cause us to lose focus on the bigger things.  (AMEN!!!!  REMEMBER HIS INFINITE LOVE & MERCY!!!!) Scrupulosity over small sins can lead us to miss bigger ones, which is nearly as great a spiritual danger to us as listening to the world when it tells us to ignore our sins entirely.  (AMEN!!!!  Honesty, the TRUTH, is the HARDEST THING TO DO!!!!  With ourselves, gently & charitably with others, for them, mostly, but also for us, gently & charitably.  The lie is always easier, always.)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24).  (Now, we haven’t seen this in our own time, have we? 😉  (The Gospel is constantly fulfilled.  IT KEEPS COMING TRUE!!!!  And, so it will be, until the end.)

The problem of the Pharisees, as Jesus explains earlier in the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, is that they had failed to comfort the afflicted, and had indeed added to their affliction:  (Lord, have mercy!)

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:2-4).

The Scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ Judgment seat—Moses of course was the one to whom God gave the Old Law, the Ten Commandments as it were. Thus the Scribes and Pharisees were correctly interpreting the moral law, but were not correctly applying it. What underlies morality is love, and the “rules” of morality are rules of “right living” (and ultimately, of “right loving”), which have a threefold purpose: inner harmony, social harmony, and harmony between society and God. The first is harmony within one’s soul, that is, right relationship to oneself. The second is harmony with one’s neighbors (and between all members of the human race), right relationship with others. The last is harmony between the soul and God, that is, right relationship to God.

The Pharisees for their part were not being excoriated for insisting on the moral rules, nor even for their interpretations of the moral rules. The moral rules still apply insofar as they were moral rules, as Christ notes:

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

The problem is not that the Pharisees were going too far in their moral pronouncements: rather, they were not going far enough. They made the pronouncements, but then did not help others to live up to those pronouncements, and then judged and condemned those others when they failed. We look to Christ as the ultimate comforter of the afflicted, Who says “I do not condemn you for your sins: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11), but also “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). He comforts all the afflicted by taking on the cause of all our afflictions, and with it much of the suffering. herein lies the true difficulty of comforting the afflicted, which is the risk of taking on some of the suffering and some of the affliction ourselves. If we will be true disciples we must, because He did.”

—Footnotes—
[1] According to Old Testament Jewish Law, lepers must be banned from civilized areas and must further warn away any travelers whom they might encounter.

[2] Gossip can be addicting, sort of; if not gossip itself then at least the attention which comes from it.

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew