Category Archives: Baptism

Limbo


-by François-Joseph Navez, The Massacre of the Innocents (1824), please click on the image for greater detail.


-by Mathew A.C. Newsome

“Prior to April 2007, many Catholics had probably never heard of the International Theological Commission (ITC), a group of thirty theologians from around the world chosen by the Pope as a kind of advisory committee. But the most recent document by the ITC, published with papal approval on April 19, 2007, got a lot of attention—as well it should. Its subject is a tender one: “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” To Catholic parents who have lost a child to miscarriage, stillbirth, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or some other tragedy prior to baptism, such hope is a healing balm for a wounded heart.

Interest in this recent document is understandable, and most people have learned of it through the news media. While many articles written since the document’s publication summarize its contents accurately, many do not. A Google news search reveals headlines such as, “Pope Changes Church Teaching on Limbo,” and “The Church Abandons Limbo.” Such headlines can easily give the impression that 1) Limbo was a defined doctrine of the Church, and 2) the Pope has the authority to change—even to reverse—defined doctrine. A May 4 Washington Post article by Alan Cooperman included the statement “limbo is a ‘problematic’ concept that Catholics are free to reject.”

Beyond the headlines you encounter even larger problems. An April 21 Associated Press article by Nicole Winfield quotes Fr. Richard McBrien (professor of theology at Notre Dame and noted dissenter) as saying, “If there’s no limbo and we’re not going to revert to St. Augustine’s teaching that unbaptized infants go to hell, we’re left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace . . . Baptism does not exist to wipe away the ‘stain’ of original sin, but to initiate one into the Church.” On the other end of the spectrum, Kenneth Wolfe, columnist for The Remnant, was quoted in Cooperman’s article as saying, “The Vatican is suggesting that salvation is possible without baptism. That is heresy.”

These characterizations notwithstanding, the ITC makes no rulings (and does not have the authority to do so). “The Hope of Salvation” in fact reiterates and builds upon the Catholic tradition. It neither categorically rejects Limbo nor denies the necessity of baptism. Rather, it offers reasons to hope that God may provide a way of salvation to those little ones whose lives ended before baptism was possible.

Augustine: No Middle Ground

Debate regarding the fate of infants who die before baptism dates back to the late fourth century, and the famous conflict between Pelagius and St. Augustine. Pelagius asserted that man is capable of living a perfect moral life by virtue of his natural reason and will alone and is not wounded by original sin.

In opposition to Pelagius, St. Augustine successfully defended the reality of original sin using Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. The Apostolic practice of infant baptism was evidence of the Church’s belief that even these youngest ones stood in need of a Savior. Without original sin, baptism could only affect the forgiveness of our personal sins. Infant baptism makes no sense without original sin. In his teaching against the Pelagian heresy, Augustine affirmed the necessity of this ancient practice. If an infant died unbaptized, he died in a state of sin, and was therefore destined to eternal damnation. He denied the existence, “between damnation and the kingdom of heaven [of] some middle place of rest and happiness . . . For this is what the heresy of Pelagius promised them” (On the Soul and its Origin 1.9).

Augustine’s position is not quite as harsh as it seems. In Contra Julianum 5.11, he writes, “Who can doubt that non-baptized infants, having only original sin and no burden of personal sins, will suffer the lightest condemnation of all? I cannot define the amount and kind of their punishment, but I dare not say it were better for them never to have existed than to exist there” (qtd. in John Randolph Willis, The Teachings of the Church Fathers, 245).

Aquinas: Privation, not Punishment

Later theologians developed Augustine’s thoughts, defining damnation as essentially the deprivation of the Beatific Vision, which does not necessarily involve any positive punishment. Distinctions were made between the pain of sense, describing the torments suffered by condemned sinners, and the pain of loss, which is sorrow over being absent from God’s presence.

By the thirteenth century, the dominant view was that unbaptized infants would suffer only the pain of loss. In 1201 Pope Innocent III expressed this opinion in a letter to the archbishop of Arles. Actual sin, the Holy Father asserted, is punished by the eternal torment of hell; original sin, however, is punished by the loss of the vision of God.

This line of thinking was explored thoroughly by St. Thomas Aquinas. The Angelic Doctor consigned infants who died without baptism to the outermost borders of hell, which he called the “limbo of children.” They died without the grace of God, and would spend eternity without it, but they were not worthy of punishment. St. Thomas insisted that these little ones would know no pain or remorse. He explained this opinion in various ways. In his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, he stated that no one regrets the lack of something which he is totally unequipped to have (II Sent. , d.33, q.2, a.2). Ten years later (in De Malo, q.5, a.3) he suggested that infants would not be distraught over their loss because they simply would have no knowledge of what they were missing.

Eventually limbo ceased to be spoken of as a “border region” of hell. Hell came to be understood as a place of punishment. Limbo was not. And since it has never been a defined dogma of the Church, various theologians have understood limbo in different ways. Most views, however, would include these common characteristics: Unbaptized infants die in a state of sin and enter neither heaven nor hell but limbo, which is a state of damnation not involving pain of sense or grief of exile; indeed, a measure of natural happiness is possible, with some suggesting that the denizens of limbo enjoy a perfect state of natural happiness.

Trust in the Mercy of God

Although limbo has long been the prevailing theory, some theologians have imagined ways in which God may provide for the salvation of unbaptized infants. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, called the fate of these souls “something much greater than the human mind can g.asp” and found solace in the fact that “the One who has done everything well, with wisdom, is able to bring good out of evil” (qtd. in HS 12).

Cardinal Cajetan, in the sixteenth century, remarked in his commentary on the Summa Theologica (III:68:11), “that children still within the womb of their mother are able to be saved . . . through the sacrament of baptism that is received, not in reality, but in the desire of the parents.” In our own times, Cardinal Ratzinger echoed Cajetan in a 1985 interview with Vittorio Messori. “One should not hesitate to give up the idea of ‘limbo’ if need be,” the future pontiff advised. “[A]nd it is worth noting that the very theologians who proposed ‘limbo’ also said that parents could spare the child limbo by desiring its baptism and through prayer” (The Ratzinger Report 147-8).

None of these positions has been officially proclaimed by the Magisterium. Catholics are free to have varying opinions on this matter. Our present Catechism makes no mention of limbo at all, but has this to say regarding infants who die without baptism:

“The Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allows us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism. (CCC 1261)”

The Ordo Exsequiarum (Order of Christian Funerals) contains a special rite for children who die before baptism, during which the child’s soul is entrusted “to the abundant mercy of God, that our beloved child may find a home in his kingdom.” Option D of the opening prayer begins, “God of all consolation, searcher of mind and heart, the faith of these parents . . . is known to you. Comfort them with the knowledge that the child for whom they grieve is entrusted now to your loving care.” In the Prayer of Commendation B, the priest says, “We pray that you give [the child] happiness for ever.”

Lex orandi, lex credendi: As we pray, so we believe.

ITC: Reasons for Prayerful Hope

The default position of the Church then, as expressed in her liturgy, is that of hope. “Hope of Salvation” begins with a reference to 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you . . .” This, in essence, is the purpose of the ITC document.

It is worth noting at this point that “Hope of Salvation” is not a Magisterial document. It does not require the assent of the faithful, as would a proclamation from a pope or an ecumenical council. It simply expresses the opinion of a respected group of theologians. The fact that Benedict XVI has given it his approval and has decided to publish it publicly gives some weight to the conclusions drawn by the commission. But those conclusions are not dogmatic.

In an interview published by Inside the Vatican.com on April 27, Sr. Sara Butler, one of the authors of the document, said,

“The commission is trying to say what the Catechism . . . has already said: that we have a right to hope that God will find a way to offer the grace of Christ to infants who have no opportunity for making a personal choice with regard to their salvation. It’s trying to provide a theological rationale for what has already been proposed in several magisterial documents since the Council.”

The first part of “Hope of Salvation” gives a history of Catholic teaching on this subject, and examines the key principles involved, namely: God’s will to save all people; the universal sinfulness of human beings; and the necessity of faith for salvation, along with baptism and the Eucharist (HS 9). After thoroughly examining the issues, the ITC suggests three means by which unbaptized infants who die may be united to Christ (this is not intended to be exhaustive):

  1. “Broadly, we may discern in those infants who themselves suffer and die a saving conformity to Christ in his own death and a companionship with him” (HS 85).
  2. “Some of the infants who suffer and die do so as victims of violence. In their case we may readily refer to the example of the Holy Innocents and discern an analogy in the case of these infants to the baptism of blood which brings salvation . . . Moreover, they are in solidarity with the Christ, who said: ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Matt. 25:40)” (HS 86).
  3. “It is also possible that God simply acts to give the gift of salvation to unbaptized infants by analogy with the gift of salvation given sacramentally to baptized infants” (HS 87). “God’s power is not restricted to the sacraments” (HS 82).

These are simply some possible ways, proposed by the ITC, in which we may imagine God offering salvation to these little children. There are others. The commission mentions the possibility of baptism of desire (in votum), with the votum offered either by the infant’s parents or the Church. “The Church has never ruled out such a solution,” we are reminded (HS 94).

No Certainties

But while offering these possibilities to us, the commission is careful not to overstep the bounds of Revelation. “It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die . . . [T]he destiny of the generality of infants who die without baptism has not been revealed to us, and the Church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed” (HS 79).

There are some things that have most assuredly been revealed, and these articles of faith must be considered. Original sin is one of them. When contemplating the fate of unbaptized infants who die, one “cannot ignore the tragic consequences of original sin. Original sin implies a state of separation from Christ, and that excludes the possibility of the vision of God for those who die in that state” (HS 3).

“Hope of Salvation” in many places affirms the reality of original sin and the necessity of baptism. “Sacramental baptism is necessary because it is the ordinary means through which a person shares the beneficial affects of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (HS 10). The key phrase is “ordinary means.” In cases of urgency or necessity, God often provides extraordinary means to accomplish his will. Though water baptism is the ordinary means by which God transmits sanctifying grace, the Church teaches that there are other ways. The realities of baptism of blood and baptism of desire are affirmed by the Catechism (CCC 1258). Citing Gaudium et Spes, the Catechism also explains that “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved” (CCC 1260). It is in this same context that the Catechism offers us the “hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism” (CCC 1261).

None of this, however, can be understood to imply that baptism is not necessary, for the Catechism states, “The Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude . . . God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacrament” (CCC 1257).

The necessity of baptism is echoed by the ITC. “What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament” (HS 103). Sr. Butler, in the above-cited interview, puts it bluntly. “If somebody like Fr. Richard McBrien supposes that the ITC document rejects the doctrine of original sin, this is of course a mistake.” Elsewhere in the interview, she comments, “[W]e dare to hope that these infants will be saved by some extra-sacramental gift of Christ . . . We are very clear that the ordinary means of salvation is baptism, and that infants should be baptized; Catholic parents have a serious obligation.”

The conclusions of the ITC are nothing new. The Catechism tells us that it is reasonable to hope that God provides a way of salvation for infants who die without being baptized. It is a hope rooted in Christ, who instructed that we must be like children to enter the kingdom of God and said, “Let the children come to me” (Mark 10:14-15). “Hope of Salvation” simply provides possible theological reasons for this hope. The ITC readily admits that “these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge” (HS 102).

What we do know for certain is this: God has a plan. God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful. God is love. We can rest assured that whatever plan God has established for infants who die without baptism, it is more just, more merciful, and more loving than whatever we may imagine, not less.

Hope for Our Simon

It was a Tuesday afternoon in May. I was home from work, watching our three small children while my wife, fifteen weeks pregnant, went for a scheduled doctor’s appointment, then to do some grocery shopping without the kids in tow. I assumed she would be gone for a while, so I was surprised to see her pull into the driveway earlier than expected. As I walked down the driveway to help her bring in the groceries, her gaze met mine. I knew from one look that something was wrong. Really wrong.

She started to cry, so I put my arms around her. That’s when she told me. “They can’t find a heartbeat.” The next several hours were a blur. Lots of tears. Phone calls to our parents. Talking to our kids. More tears. The trip to the hospital. One more ultrasound, just to be sure. The inducement of labor. Lots of prayers. And the final delivery of our small son, whom we named Simon. His umbilical cord had been wrapped multiple times around his neck, depriving his brain of oxygen. “It just sometimes happens,” the nursing staff told us.

We are blessed to have as our pastor a very orthodox and very compassionate priest. He came to the hospital and prayed with us. The doctor who delivered our other children, also a devout Catholic, prayed with us, as well. Of course the subject of baptism came up. There was simply nothing we could do. But I desperately wanted baptism for my son. What bothered me the most about his untimely death was that I never had the opportunity to bring him into the faith, to provide for his salvation.

I knew my catechism. I knew that the Church simply didn’t know what the fate of children like Simon would be. Perhaps because of this, I quickly grew tired of the assurances offered as attempts at consolation. “He’s in heaven now,” we were told by well meaning friends. Sentiments like that rang empty. How can you be so sure of that, I thought, when the Church herself has no such assurances? I cringed whenever I was told that “God needed another angel.” God needs nothing outside of himself. And wherever he is in eternity, my son is a human being, not an angel.

Simon’s funeral Mass was held on that Friday. It was a small service, attended by family and a few friends. Our priest gave a very comforting homily, and he ended by sharing with us that he had been praying his Liturgy of the Hours immediately before the funeral. The antiphon for the midmorning reading that day happened to be adapted from Luke 24:34: “The Lord is risen, alleluia. He has appeared to Simon, alleluia.”

Of course those words were not written in reference to our Simon. Nevertheless, my heart leapt in my chest when I heard them. For our priest expressed the prayer that Christ would somehow make himself present to our little son, in a way known only to him. This is the position of the International Theological Commission: that it is reasonable to “hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the Church” (HS 103).

Our pastor offered no empty assurances. No, he gave us something much greater than that. He gave us hope.

An Excerpt from “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized

“The idea of limbo, which the Church has used for many centuries to designate the destiny of infants who die without baptism, has no clear foundation in revelation even though it has long been used in traditional theological teaching. Moreover, the notion that infants who die without baptism are deprived of the beatific vision, which has for so long been regarded as the common doctrine of the Church, gives rise to numerous pastoral problems, so much so that many pastors of souls have asked for a deeper reflection on the ways of salvation.

The necessary reconsideration of the theological issues cannot ignore the tragic consequences of original sin. Original sin implies a state of separation from Christ, and that excludes the possibility of the vision of God for those who die in that state . . .

However, with regard to the salvation of those who die without baptism, the word of God says little or nothing. It is therefore necessary to interpret the reticence of Scripture on this issue in the light of texts concerning the universal plan of salvation and the ways of salvation. In short, the problem both for theology and for pastoral care is how to safeguard and reconcile two sets of biblical affirmations: those concerning God’s universal salvific will (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4) and those regarding the necessity of baptism as the way of being freed from sin and conformed to Christ (cf. Mark 16:16; Matt. 28:18-19).

. . . [W]hile knowing that the normal way to achieve salvation in Christ is by Baptism in re, the Church hopes that there may be other ways to achieve the same end. Because, by his Incarnation, the Son of God “in a certain way united himself” with every human being, and because Christ died for all and all are in fact “called to one and the same destiny, which is divine,” the Church believes that “the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery.”

Love, & the glorious mystery of God’s love for each of us,
Matthew

Hope to Die: The Body as Sacrament

(Ed. sacrament = a visible sign of God’s grace.)

St. Athanasius explains:

‘What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew His image in mankind? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.’
-Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 39–41

Zoe/Ζωή, in many ways, is the ultimate gift of the Incarnation. It is the ultimate reason for the Incarnation. It’s the why behind Jesus coming. But, unlike the new dignity all bodies take on through the Incarnation, zoe/Ζωή isn’t imparted to all people automatically. It’s imparted through Baptism.

In Baptism, we are born anew, receiving what Adam lost—the gift of divine life—into our souls once more. It’s easy to dismiss Baptism as a mere symbol, but when you understand the difference between bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή and between physical death and spiritual death, it becomes clear that the Sacrament of Baptism is more than figurative or symbolic. There is an ontological reality to our resurrection.

In the waters of Baptism, we die and rise by being united to Christ’s resurrected body. The divine life is restored to us so that the newly baptized person is more resurrected than Lazarus was. Lazarus got his natural, physical life back after four days. But in Baptism, we get our supernatural and divine life back, the life that Adam lost in the very beginning of time.

Baptism makes it possible for us to live the life for which God made us—a life that is more than natural—that is, in fact, supernatural. It also makes it possible for us to live a more fully human life, to enter more deeply into those things that make this earthly life worth living and have richer, more intimate connections with family and friends.

But Baptism doesn’t just affect our souls; it affects our bodies, too.

In all the sacraments, sanctifying grace—God’s own life— comes to us through our bodies. In Baptism, in Confirmation, in Marriage, in Holy Orders, and above all, in the Eucharist, God’s life enters into these bodies of ours through matter—water, wine, oil, a bishop’s hands, a spouse’s body— restoring the divine life that was lost by Adam and strengthening it within us. That grace divinizes our bodies. It makes them holy. It makes them temples. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16.

In every single baptized person who is not in a state of mortal sin, God lives. He dwells within us. All human life is sacred because it is a gift from God and because man is made in the image of God. But the bodies of the baptized have a holiness that comes from the sanctifying grace abiding within them. As C. S. Lewis once remarked in his famous lecture, “The Weight of Glory”:

‘Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way [as the Blessed Sacrament], for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.’
-C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 19.

Importantly, the holiness of the baptized body doesn’t end with death. Grace continues to linger in the bodies and bones of those united to Christ. That’s why Catholic cemeteries are considered holy ground. The bodies of the baptized are buried there. And those bodies are the seed of the resurrected body.

Jesus promises to transform our resurrected bodies, to glorify them, to deify them. “As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust,” writes St. Paul, “and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:48–49).

This promise of resurrection is our hope. It is that on which we stake our life. It is what enables us, as Christians, to face death with courage and joy.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Baptism

Introducing the Church Fathers

Your Protestant friend has may have never heard of the Church Fathers (I certainly hadn’t when I was a Protestant). These were faithful and influential Christians teachers, pastors, and leaders who taught and defended the Faith from the late first century through the sixth. Many, though not all, are considered saints by the Catholic Church.

Given the impasse some Protestants face about how to interpret the Bible on baptism, it makes sense to start with that topic and bring in other evidence. And though your friend may not know much about the Fathers, he will likely be favorably disposed to hearing what the early Christians believed, since (especially with the Fathers of the first couple of centuries) there wouldn’t have been much time for the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to have been corrupted. So, what did these early Christians have to say about baptism?

The Church Fathers on Baptism

Start by sharing with your friend what St. Justin Martyr wrote about baptismal regeneration in the middle of the second century:

“I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.

They then are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water….The reason for this we have received from the apostles.

And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”

Notice how Justin explains that baptismal regeneration remits our sins but also reveals that this teaching was received from the apostles. Justin was born around the time of the St. John’s death, so many Christians of his era still had living memories of the apostles themselves.

Another great Church Father from the second century who witnessed to the truth of baptismal regeneration was St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, a disciple of St. Polycarp who himself was a disciple of St. John. Irenaeus pulls no punches in pointing out that to deny baptism’s regenerating effects is to renounce the entire Christian faith.

“And when we come to refute them [i.e. those heretics], we shall show in its fitting-place, that this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith.”

This is only a small selection. Both of these saints wrote even more about baptismal regeneration, as did other Church Fathers and early Christians in the second century. Once we get to the third century, the writings that support baptismal regeneration multiply. This early Christian witness to baptismal regeneration is unanimous. If this teaching were heretical and contradicted the apostles, you would expect at least a few leaders in the early Church to have stood up in protest of it, but not a single one does—or even offers an alternative interpretation for the relevant verses.

Present this historical evidence to your friend and give him time to respond. But be careful: the Church Fathers are Catholic to the core, and their writings contain many teachings that simply aren’t reconcilable with Protestant doctrine. You’ll want to introduce them to your friend gently and give him time to absorb the evidence they provide for the Catholic Church.

Some Protestants put little stock into what ancient Christians wrote, unless it is explicitly contained in the New Testament itself, so your friend may simply dismiss these writings. He may propose that they’re forgeries or that they represent a misleading sample of what the early Christians. You can patiently explain that even Protestant historians accept these works as genuine and as representative of what was being taught in the early Church. It’s not totally impossible that they represent a minority view, that other early Christians were teaching doctrines in agreement with modern Protestantism, but the simple fact is there’s no existing evidence that there were.”

Love, and new life & joy through baptism,
Matthew

Glamour of evil

In the Fox television series, of which I am a HUGE fan/geek/nerd, “Sleepy Hollow”, witches use a power known as “glamour” to disguise their true appearance, age, and other things they want to hide. This is a much older understanding and sense of the word glamour, here used in that sense in the Catholic baptismal promises below. Sir Walter Scott (1797-1826) wrote, defining the use of the word glamour, “the magic power of imposing on the eyesight of spectators, so that the appearance of an object shall be totally different from the reality.”

Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God’s Children?
I do.

Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?
I do.

Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?
I do.

Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth?
I do.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
Who was Born of the Virgin Mary,
was crucified, died, and was buried,
rose from the dead,
and is now seated at the Right Hand of the Father?
I do.

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints,
the Forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body,
and Life everlasting?
I do.

God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
has given us a New Birth by water and the Holy Spirit,
and forgiven our sins.

May God also keep us faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ
forever and ever.

Amen.

-by Stephen Sparrow, who writes from New Zealand. He is semi-retired and reads (and writes) for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Sigrid Undset, Dante Alighieri and St Therese of Lisieux. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined a family wood working business, retiring from it in 2001. He is married with five adult children. His other interests include fishing, hiking, photography and natural history, especially New Zealand botany and ornithology.

“Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) is recognized as one of the most important American writers of this century. In her short life, Flannery O’Connor left a small and precious body of writing in which the voices of displaced persons affirm the grace of God in the grotesqueries of the world.

Born Mary Flannery O’Connor in Savannah in 1925, she spent a serene childhood there, although a series of displacements lay ahead in her growing years. Her family were staunch Roman Catholics, a small religious minority in the South. Even as a child in parochial school, she was aware of being regarded as somehow different, although Savannah was where most Georgia Catholics lived at that time. In her mature years as a writer, many of her artistic contemporaries regarded any kind of orthodoxy as freakish, but she never lost her vital connection to her faith and her Church, and never lost the courage of her convictions, whether as a Catholic or an artist.

Her brief literary career was a race against time. The symptoms of lupus appeared just as she was finishing her first novel, Wise Blood. The disease progressed with occasional remissions. But, in fact it was only restrained by a medication that simultaneously damaged her bone structure. Aware of the fragility of her existence, she wrote and revised with tireless intensity. But two collections of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge, and a second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, were all she was able to finish. The Fitzgeralds posthumously published her occasional prose in a collection entitled Mystery & Manners. Some years later Sally Fitzgerald edited and published a selection of her celebrated letters under the title, The Habit of Being. Unfortunately, Flannery O’Connor’s work did not receive its highest honors until after her death, but her reputation has grown steadily and, today, she is everywhere recognized as one of the most important American writers of this century.

During her most creative years, also the years of her physical decline, she lived on a family farm outside Milledgeville, attended by a great flock of peacocks she loved to raise. She was a warmly receptive person who maintained her sharp sense of humor despite poor health. She died in Milledgeville in 1964 and is buried there near her father. Toward the end of her life she wrote:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Her shocking message was, and is, Behold, the dwelling of God is with men!

(Excerpted from the short biography of Flannery O’Connor on the Georgia Women of Achievement web site)

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During an interview granted to Jubilee Magazine, Flannery O’Connor was reminded of something she had once written to the effect that the creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ. The interviewer then asked how this related to her work as a writer? O’Connor replied, “I’m a born Catholic and death has always been brother to my imagination. I can’t imagine a story that doesn’t properly end in it or in its foreshadowings.”


Flannery O’Connor
(1925-1964)

“I can’t imagine a story that doesn’t properly end in it or in its foreshadowings.”1 Flannery O’Connor was faithful to her own dictum and out of her two published collections of short stories twelve of the twenty end in death, and, of her two novels one begins with death and the other ends in it, and each also features a murder. Untimely death, or its foreshadowing, is the eschatological theme underlying most of O’Connor’s fiction, which, for the Christian, means that the last four things are: death, judgement, heaven and hell.

In her acclaimed short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, O’Connor makes spectacular use of violent death to highlight this theme. The story is about a vacationing family murdered by a trio of psychopaths, and right from the beginning it is filled with portents of doom. First, we witness the manipulative grandmother lecturing her apathetic son on the dangers of heading in the same direction (Florida) as this “Misfit…aloose from the Federal Pen.” She tries unsuccessfully to gain his attention by saying, “‘Now look here, Bailey, see here, read this,’ and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head.” The grandmother has another destination in mind. She would like them all to visit East Tennessee, which the children have never visited, rather than Florida where they have previously vacationed. For their part, the children bicker openly with their grandmother and disparage her to each other, while their father ignores them all, being absorbed by the daily newspaper’s sport section. Meantime, his homely looking wife just sits on the sofa saying nothing as she spoon feeds the baby. The decision to head for Florida stands, and next morning the family get in the car and commence their journey. As they leave Atlanta and drive into the countryside, O’Connor tells us, “the trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.” The trees stand impassively but even the meanest the worst of them sparkle, symbolising the wilderness of good and evil the family is about to enter; a very Dantesque2 image. But, it’s not just the trees that sparkle; so too do the people the family encounter. Even in the Misfit leader of the killers an infinitesimal spark of goodness shows fleetingly right at the end of the story, and this comparison with “mean” trees that sparkle illustrates the uniquely sacramental view of life O’Connor portrays through her fiction.

To get quickly to the crux of the story, we’ll only skim through the remaining portents of doom. O’Connor tells us that in the car the grandmother is dressed meticulously so that “anybody seeing her dead on the highway would know that she was a lady.” The family is not long on the journey when they pass a cotton field with five or six graves in it. “The family burying ground…that belonged to the plantation,” the Grandmother announces, and the children ask what happened to the plantation. “Gone with the wind,” the old lady tells them. They stop for a break at Red Sammy Butt’s barbecue stand and learn in passing how several days earlier, Butt’s was ripped off by three men who filled their car with gas and took off without paying. A short time later we find ourselves with the family traveling along a winding dirt road in search of an old mansion remembered by the Grandmother. The children, in an unruly display, have forced Bailey, against his better judgment, to seek out the place. The last thing Bailey wants is a detour on a dirt road and so before agreeing to search for the mansion, he warns his passengers, “this is the one and only time…we’re going to stop.” Prophetic words indeed. A short time later the Grandmother’s cat panics and springs from its basket in the back, distracting the driver, and the car crashes off the road landing right side up in a ditch. The family emerge from the partly wrecked vehicle and count the cost. The only real injury is the mother’s broken arm.

The crash has been witnessed by the Misfit and within a short time he and his two sidekicks arrive on the scene. The Grandmother makes the mistake of admitting that she recognises the Misfit and he in turn orders his sidekicks to take the mother, father and children into the woods and execute them. Left alone with the Misfit the Grandmother attempts to talk him out of killing her. She prattles on about prayer and Jesus and attempts to bribe him with all the money she’s got, causing the Misfit to respond, “there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.” And on the subject of Jesus he continues, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” However, the Grandmother can’t stop prattling on until quite suddenly her head clears and she realises that both she and the Misfit are connected. They are both children of God. “Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children,” she says and reaches out and touches him on the shoulder, and the Misfit retaliates by jumping up and shooting her. She had unwittingly told him the one thing he didn’t want to hear and paid for it with her life. She had touched a raw nerve and reminded the Misfit of his kinship and, by inference, his duty to all other human beings. Immediately afterward when one of his sidekicks talks about the fun they just had, the Misfit, realising the pointlessness of their actions, tells him to shut up and says, “It’s no real pleasure in life.” For the Misfit, it is the first stage on the journey of repentance. Writing about this encounter later, O’Connor said that, “The story is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action, which set the world off balance for him.”3

For the Misfit (or anybody for that matter) the inconvenient thing about Christianity is its all or nothing character. Christianity is either true for everybody or not true for anybody. Both stances are dogmatic. One states that Jesus Christ is God, the other denies that belief. Neither position is provable, but, if there is no such thing as a merciful God, then how can killing or murder be a crime? Isn’t murder just force? Isn’t this world merely a product of blind force? So what is the big deal? If force is supreme then surely the exercise of the greatest force would be the greatest achievement; greater by far than mercy and justice, which sit at the opposite end of the “Force” scale. If Force is supreme, then Justice is mere folly and, in conflict with Force/Natural Selection/Evolution etc, it should never have got off the ground. But first we had better define Justice. My definition is: the dignity and the freedom for each and every individual to be their unique selves. Now if Justice is really folly, there would be no moral absolutes such as the Ten Commandments and we would then have to agree with what the Misfit told the Grandmother: “If He (Christ) didn’t (raise the dead), then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”

Flannery O’Connor was familiar with the writings of Charles Pegúy, and with a deft touch she used fiction in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” to echo what Pegúy’ stated in his essay “Clio I”: “You (Christianity) have eternalised everything. You have grabbed all the values on the market. And turned them all into infinite values. And now one can no longer be sure of quiet for a single moment.” 4 O’Connor often plugged this theme in various ways in her lectures, one remark being, “Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live,”5 and in 1959 she publicly reiterated her raison d’être saying, “I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centred in our redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.”6 The whole thrust of A Good Man Is Hard To Find is consistent with these avowals.

O’Connor had a high opinion of Dante Alighieri’s writings, especially The Divine Comedy, and she could not have overlooked the aptness of the line, “As many coals produce a single heat.”7 What a superb phrase to illumine the social role of Christianity. If we turn that meaning around and imagine the fire of Christianity cooling, all hell (quite literally) breaks loose, making it plain that Christianity should not be respected merely on account of its civilising role in history, but rather the unshakeable fact exists that the social and civil advantages gained by any State from its Christian roots have accrued as a direct consequence of the Missionary Church’s main aim of saving souls.

So, what is it like to be holy? For the individual it is to increase and enhance goodness and happiness wherever he is. It is to arrive in some situation and leave it better than when he entered it. Authentic holiness is all about wholeness, which in turn is about balance in our lives the balance of sensible things and without that balance, joy and happiness become inaccessible. O’Connor touched on this when writing to Betty Hester, “Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is.”8 To shy away from holiness is to veer toward sin, but, much as we may want otherwise, we human beings are incapable of leaving the transcendental alone. We’re caught in a supernatural tug-of-war; one end of the rope is good and the other end evil. We seem to be scared that holiness might somehow make us miserable, when in fact the opposite is the case, and inevitably we feel drawn to the evil end of the rope.

Flannery O’Connor’s undoubted sympathy for the Misfit in his situation is well covered by a few lines in another letter she wrote to Hester. “We are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness,”9 and still later in the introduction to “A Memoir of Mary Ann” she wrote, “Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil. To look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction.”10

However, as noted earlier, that infinitesimal sparkle of goodness from the Misfit shows up clearly right near the end of the story. Talking of the Grandmother he says, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Note the Misfit’s use of that word good: like all of us he instinctively knows about good and evil and his comment applies to each and every one of us irrespective of gender. In other words, who would not be well behaved if there were always a loaded gun pointed at them? The threat of imminent death may be the only way some people will ever understand the deep-seated reason for being good, which is a prime aspect of the Natural Law. Such a threat surely begs the question, should people be good because of the fear of punishment or because of their love for fellow human beings? But we’re given a clue to the answer in the final line of the story where the Misfit utters those famous words showing his freely chosen change of heart, “It’s (meanness) no real pleasure in life.”

The Misfit had a rough upbringing and his behaviour had seldom conformed to the norms of middle class society. He told the Grandmother of how he had once had a “run in” with the so called Justice System (Force masquerading as Justice!), which, as everyone knows, is what governments use to tidy the frayed edges of society. The Misfit got enjoyment from hurting others because his experience of life had shown how others found enjoyment and pleasure in hurting and harming him. St Thomas Aquinas defined all evil as mistaking or misusing the means for the end.11 The Misfit did exactly that. He made enjoyment and pleasure in crime an end in itself. He thought this was his right instead of remembering that rights and duties are intertwined. His killing of someone as old and helpless as the Grandmother certainly opened his eyes and changed him and it is equally certain that the encounter changed the Grandmother as well. With one brutal stroke God’s Grace is shown to cut both ways, causing each of the protagonists to come face to face with the Mercy of God. As O’Connor said, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”12 In “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” both the Misfit and the Grandmother are portrayed (albeit covertly) as being restored to a state of grace.13 Truly, Flannery O’Connor was right when she wrote, “and the meanest of them sparkled,” because somewhere deep inside each and every one of us lies the faculty to be good; that capacity to sparkle.””

Love,
Matthew

ENDNOTES

1. Conversations With Flannery O’Connor. Rosemary Magee, ed. Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press. 107.

2. Dantesque: from Dante Alighieri 1265-1321. Italian Poet and author of The Divine Comedy. Dante frequently used sacramental imagery.

3. “Letter to Mr. .” Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 1148.

4. Pegúy Charles 1874-1914. French Poet and Thinker. “Clio I” extract from Temporal and Eternal. English edition. Harvil Press, 1954.

5. “The Fiction Writer And His Country.” Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 805.

6. Ibid Pages 804-5

7. Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. “Paradiso.” Canto 19: line 19.

8. “Letter to A.” Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 978.

9. Ibid Page 1082

10. “A Memoir of Mary Ann.” Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 830.

11. The aspect of good is found chiefly in the end: and therefore the end stands in the relation of object to the act of the will, which is at the root of every sin. (St Thomas Aquinas: cf. Summa Theologica, 2.1.72.1, “reply to objection 1”) Put simply this states, “All evil exists in the mistaking or misusing of the means for the end.” (Hilaire Belloc: “The Cruise of The Nona.”) Flannery O’Connor studied Thomas Aquinas.

12. “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 820.

13. State of Grace: The state of being reconciled with God in His Mercy.

Mar 21, 2009 – Ego te baptizo – Εγώ βαπτίζω σε – I baptize you!

baby-baptism

(Below are some excerpts of the older rite which, in certain instances, I find more poetic/dramatic than the current one.  Please also see attached pictures.)

“Ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”  I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Priest:  “What name do you give your child?”
Parents:  “Mara Constance”
Priest:  “What do you ask of the Church of God?”
Parents:  “Faith”
Priest:  “What does Faith offer?”
Parents:  “Life everlasting”

Priest:  “If then you desire her to enter into life, teach this child to keep the commandments. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ “

Priest:  “Go forth from her, unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.”

The priest now makes the Sign of the Cross with his thumb on the child’s forehead and breast.

Priest:  “Mara Constance, receive the Sign of the Cross both upon your forehead + and also upon your heart +; take to you the faith of the heavenly precepts; and so order your life as to be, from henceforth, the temple of God.”

Priest:  “Let us pray: mercifully hear our prayers, we beseech You, O Lord; and by Your perpetual assistance keep this Your elect, Mara Constance, signed with the sign of the Lord’s cross, so that, preserving this first experience of the greatness of Your glory, she may deserve, by keeping Your commandments, to attain to the glory of life everlasting. Through Christ our Lord….”

Priest:  “Do you reject Satan?”
Parents (answering for child):  “I do reject him.”
Priest:  “And all his works?”
Parents:  “I do reject them.”
Priest:  “And all his pomps?”
Parents:  “I do reject them.”
Priest:  “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth?”
Parents:  “I do believe.”
Priest:  Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, Who was born and Who suffered?”
Parents:  “I do believe.”
Priest: “Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting?”
Parents:  “I do believe.”

Priest:  “Receive this white garment, Mara Constance.  Never let it become stained, so that when you stand before the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, you may enter into life everlasting. Amen.”

Priest:  “Receive this burning light, Mara Constance, and keep the grace of your Baptism throughout a blameless life.  Observe the commandments of God.  Then, when the Lord comes to His heavenly wedding feast, you will be able to meet Him with all the Saints in the halls of heaven, and live for ever and ever. Amen.”

Love,
Matthew