The Gift of Faith

November 17th, 2010

I recently received this question via email: “Does everyone receive the gift of faith? Why or why not?”

I think this is a most timely topic to consider, especially with Christmas just around the corner. (I actually heard Christmas music while driving home from Fargo yesterday!) What follows is my response to the questioner. I welcome others” comments and insights on this subject.

“If we mean by ‘faith’ an explicit belief in the person and teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ, then clearly not everyone has received the gift of faith. That’s why the Church’s perennial mission is evangelization–to offer the gift of faith to all men and women. All of us play a role in that effort.

“And while we cannot judge the state of individual souls, it would also seem that there are those who have been invited, but have rejected the invitation (cf. Lk. 14:15-24).

“While I cannot pretend to know ‘God’s thoughts’ on this, as my thoughts are not His thoughts and my ways are not His ways, I would like to offer a couple observations that shed light on this crucial issue.

“First, faith is very much a personal gift. We all are called to answer for ourselves Our Lord’s question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mt. 16:15). If someone were to offer us a $100 bill, no strings attached, we might wonder why others weren’t given a similar offer, but at the end of the day we still have to accept or reject the offer that was personally made to us.

“Second, God wills that all be saved and come to the knowledge of truth (1 Tim. 2:4). The ordinary way that this occurs is through the gift of faith received at Baptism. However, God does not place limits on Himself. He is all good and willed the existence of every man and woman who has ever lived. So, the Church holds out the possibility of salvation to all those who have not knowingly and willingly rejected Him. In that regard, perhaps the parable of the talents is useful. As Catholics we have been given 10 talents, so more is expected of us. However, those who were given only 5 or 2 or even just 1 talent will be judged worthy to enter our heavenly Father’s kingdom if he or she fruitfully uses whatever talents they were given.

“How God works with those who do not have faith is a mystery that’s beyond us in this life, but surely we know that a person is better off with faith and with all the graces that derive from being a faithful disciple of Christ. Indeed, we were made for life with God as Christ’s brothers and sisters, so using our ‘10 talents’ well involves our inviting those around us to the wonderful life of grace that God has in store for us in this life and in the next.”

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November 14th, 2010

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Other Gospels?

November 12th, 2010

Today, the day after the Pope released his new apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini on the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church (which will surely be discussed here in future posts), I thought I would tackle a question on the Bible:

A couple Catholic school teachers recently asked me how much weight we should give, if any, to the “other gospels” out there, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Usually when I’m asked about “apocryphal” works, it’s in connection with defending the authenticity of the so-called “deuterocanonical” books of the Old Testament, which truly are part of the Bible.

Now, however, instead of explaining why certain Old Testament books are in, I’m being asked why certain alleged New Testament books are out. [more]

First, let’s be clear that the four Gospels that the Church does accept as “canonical” (i.e., part of the Bible) the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As such, we accept that they are inspired by God and thus free from error. Here’s what Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation had to say about them: 

“It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our Savior.

“The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John [citing St. Irenaeus].

“Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1)” (nos. 18-19).

All that is well and good, but what about the dozens of “other gospels” that the Church considers apocryphal? For that matter, what does “apocryphal” mean in this context?

Generally, “apocrypha” refers to writings that, under the guise of divine inspiration, approximate the style and content of biblical books. One common feature is that they purport to have the authority of a patriarch or prophet (Old Testament) or apostle (New Testament) as a means of demonstrating their credibility.

The Church, which defined the New Testament canon in the early centuries of Christian history, rejected these pseudo-gospels as lacking authenticity and reliability, thus determining that these books should not be considered part of the Bible.

Some apocryphal gospels seem to represent sincere attempts to supplement what we know about the hidden life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, which receives but sparse attention in the canonical Gospels. However, these works contain pious fabrications and legends that are not the “Gospel truth.”

Most of the better-known non-canonical gospels, though, were produced by the various branches or schools of Gnosticism, a heresy that flourished in the second and third centuries. These spurious gospels are unreliable historically and theologically, despite their popularity these days in religious fiction (e.g., The Da Vinci Code) and among some heterodox pop theologians. These pseudo-gospels were written long after the “real” Gospels and were never considered canonical, in part because of their decidedly anti-Christian character.

Indeed, the Gnostic “gospels” are not really gospels at all in the sense that Christians understand them. Christ preached a Gospel of “good news,” while Gnostics view their knowledge as something to be kept hidden. As evidenced by the lives of the early Christians, the followers of Jesus were called to be a city on a hill and a lamp on a stand (cf. Mt. 5:14-16), not a hidden cult for the intellectual elite.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the various versions of the Gospel of Thomas, among others, contain bizarre statements that at times contradict basic Christian beliefs. 

In never taking seriously these spurious writings, the Church was certainly not trying to suppress some secret text as part of a conspiracy or power struggle. It has been said that these are “the gospels the Church left behind,” but it would be more accurate to call them “the gospels that left the Church behind.” Gnostics used Jesus as a “teacher” that conformed to their beliefs. They did not recognize Him for who He was or who He claimed to be.

I’ve declined to go into specific texts of the apocryphal gospels, such as the accounts of Jesus’ animating clay pigeons for sport as a child, or His alleged denial of the reality of sin. Rather than focus on these texts, I think it’s far more important for us to meditatively study the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, through the sacred liturgy and personal prayer, rather than waste our time on counterfeits.

And now with the Pope”s new apostolic exhortation to deepen our understanding, may we come to more deeply appreciate the Christian Gospels as an endless source of spiritual insight. St. Therese of Lisieux sums up it beautifully:

“But above all it’s the Gospels that occupy my mind when I’m at prayer; my poor soul has so many needs, and yet this is the one thing needful. I’m always finding fresh lights there; hidden meanings which had meant nothing to me hitherto.”


Cloaked in Holiness

November 11th, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Martin of Tours, a fourth-century bishop and patron saint of soldiers (the last point comes in handy for All Saints” Day parties). Many people especially love St. Martin because of this story that has been handed down through the ages:

Martin was a young soldier stationed in Amiens. On a cold winter day, he noticed near the gates of the city a poor, half-naked beggar. Martin was overwhelmed with compassion for this man. He proceeded to draw his sword and he cut his woolen cloak in half. He handed half to the freezing man and he put the remaining half over his shoulders. The half he kept, known as “St. Martin”s cloak,” was preserved for many centuries as a Christian relic.

That night, Martin dreamed that he saw Jesus wearing the half mantle he had given the beggar. He heard Jesus say, “Martin, as yet only a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak.” After this incident, he immediately went to be baptized. He then hastened to Poitiers where he became a disciple of St. Hilary, one of the greatest doctors of the Church of that era, and from there he became a bishop and one of the most beloved saints in the Church.

While St. Martin’s feast is always a cause for celebration because of his holiness and Christian witness, next year”s feast will be special for yet another reason: It will take place on 11/11/11.

Time for Confession?

November 9th, 2010

I’m frequently asked how often Catholics should go to Confession. Many people just want to know the minimum requirement. In that regard, the Church provides that all Catholics who have reached the age of discretion (approximately the age of seven) are required to confess their mortal sins once a year. In addition, if one has committed a mortal sin, he or she must go to Confession before receiving Holy Communion.

While that is the minimum requirement, the Church strongly recommends frequent reception of the sacrament–even when one has not committed a mortal sin (see 1 John 5:16-17) since the previous Confession–as a means of growing in holiness (see Catechism, no. 1458). The Introduction to the Rite of Penance puts it this way:

“[T]he frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that, as we bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ, his life may be seen in us ever more clearly. In confession of this kind, penitents who accuse themselves of venial faults should try to be more closely conformed to Christ and to follow the voice of the Spirit more attentively” (no. 7).

As for what might constitute “frequent” reception of the sacrament, monthly or even weekly Confession can make a significant difference in the spiritual lives of those who hunger and thirst for holiness.

After all, Christ’s first gift to His Church after rising from the dead was the gift of Reconciliation entrusted to His Apostles and their legitimate successors (John 20:19-23), so that we may personally experience God’s mercy and peace.

How often should we go to Confession? Whenever we want to experience anew the mercy and peace of Christ.


Seeing Is Believing

November 8th, 2010

My first few days as a law student in the early 1980s were a little daunting. After all, I had seen the 1973 movie The Paper Chase a couple times and had some idea of the incredible stress involved in being a first-year law student.

My textbooks were so thick that I needed to make two or three trips to carry them from the bookstore to my car. My professors were just as intimidating as John Houseman’s character in the movie. What had I gotten myself into? [more]

Early on, though, the dean of the law school gave the new students a very helpful pep talk. He advised us not to get bogged down with all the specific cases and statutes we would be studying. The goal wasn’t so much that we would memorize everything, but rather that we learn to “think like lawyers.” Once we saw the big picture, we could confidently go and look up particular points of law as needed.

I think this practical wisdom carries over to the spiritual life. When it comes to our faith, we must learn to “think like Catholics.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church has “summarized” Church teaching in 2,865 paragraphs with thousands of citations to Scripture and various other sources, so there’s enough material to last us a lifetime. Yet, the key is not only learning the specifics of our faith, which indeed is very important, but also to continually develop an authentically Catholic worldview and vision that coherently brings everything together. But how do we understand this “Catholic vision”?

I think most of us have encountered “3-D” movies in which we had to wear special glasses to see the film the way it was intended to be seen. We’d miss crucial elements of the movie if we tried to watch it without the special glasses. Similarly, I’m very sensitive to my granddaughter’s grabbing my bifocals. I know how dependent I am on my glasses to clearly see the physical reality around me.

When it comes to our faith, instead of “3-D” glasses or bifocals, we need an authentically Catholic lens–the lens of faith–to see the fullness of reality with its natural and supernatural components. Faith empowers us to see the divine amidst the human. Jesus is not simply a good man, but the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Scripture is not simply a collection of ancient human writings, but also truly the work of the Holy Spirit. And the Church is not merely a human institution, but also the Mystical Body of Christ and the means of salvation for the whole world.

We know from experience that our vision is blurry and limited. The Church teaches that since the fall of Adam and Eve, we have difficulty discerning what is true and good. Faith isn’t “Catholic spin,” but corrective lenses that compensate for the effects of original sin, until we are able to see our Lord face to face (1 Cor 13:12)–what has been traditionally called the beatific “vision.”

And if we have corrective lenses, shouldn’t we wear them? Shouldn’t we allow our faith to give us greater clarity in every aspect of our lives?

Faith is very challenging today. It takes a strong faith to acknowledge an “apostolic” Church if the “apostle” in our midst fails in his duties. It takes a strong faith to accept a “holy” Church when we’re constantly confronted with the sins of her members (not to mention our own).

Faith involves accepting–without “seeing”–the lordship of Jesus Christ. It requires the virtue of docility, or the ability and willingness to be formed and nurtured by the Church. It’s more than simply looking at the Church from the outside; it entails stepping inside and becoming part of the Family of God.

In this light, we see that faith isn’t merely a one-time, all-or-nothing proposition, but a continual call to an ever-deepening commitment to Our Lord. Surely all of us can and must believe everything that God has revealed through Christ and His Church with greater understanding, conviction, and joy. With the Apostles, we do well to beg the Lord to “increase our faith” (Lk 17:5).

But even prior to that, we must make our own the words of blind Bartimaeus to Jesus: “Master, I want to see” (Mk. 10:51).

An Inconvenient Faith

November 7th, 2010

“What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors” (2 Macc. 7:2).

The foregoing quote, from today”s Mass, is from one of the seven brothers who were tortured and killed in succession because they would not act against their religious beliefs.

We know that to deliberately choose to do evil separates us from God, such that we risk damnation if we don”t turn back to Him. Do we really believe that? Very often we act as if we don”t. We”re not faced with torture and death like the young men in Second Maccabees. For us, oftentimes it”s simply a matter of convenience.  We”ll believe so long as our faith doesn’2012-04-24 18:33:26′t challenge or inconvenience us in any way. However, once the faith calls us not to do something we”re inclined to do, then it must give way to what we want. 

Am I willing to stake my life on the Gospel? My answer speaks to how “real” my faith actually is.

Christian Defense (Not Defensive Christians)

November 5th, 2010

In the ongoing debates on same-sex marriage, gay activists have tried to sell the public–with some success–on the unsubstantiated claim that homosexuality is a genetically determined condition that is fixed and permanent.

Yet, before making the leap to societal recognition of a “right” to homosexual acts and institutions that support them, gay activists must still confront the reality that their goals are extremely offensive to most people of faith.

The Law of Moses condemned in strongest terms a man lying with a man as with a woman, and all religions that honor Moses as a prophet–Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism–have held homosexual acts to be sinful. Traditional Christian groups up to the present day, notably the Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestantism, have retained these core moral beliefs, which are rooted in the nature of man and woman and God’s plan for marriage.

Clearly, then, traditional Christianity stands squarely in the way of the gay rights movement and specifically of the push for same-sex marriage. So what”s the strategy for overcoming this roadblock? [more]

Gay activists tend to take two contradictory approaches to this problem, depending on their own set of religious beliefs of lack thereof.

On the one hand, there are gay activists who make no bones about rejecting Jesus Christ. They have conducted a major campaign to link religious disapproval of homosexual behavior with violence against persons with same-sex attractions, equating it to racism and racial violence. Every chance they get they use inflammatory words such as discrimination, intolerance, bigotry, hate, and homophobia in referring to those who assert, especially on religious grounds, that homosexual acts are contrary to God’s law. Their implication is clear: Such religious zealots are the cause of anti-gay violence.

Of course, the fact is that those who commit acts of violence against persons with same-sex attractions are virtually never churchgoers. Christianity strongly condemns violence against persons with same-sex attractions.  Interesting, the cold facts are that persons who engage in homosexual behavior are more likely to suffer violence from gays and lesbians than from others (a 1998 American Bar Association Journal article estimates the prevalence of domestic violence among homosexual couples themselves to be 25 to 33%).

In addition, “organized religion” is frequently presented as the oppressive majority, while the homosexual community casts itself in the role of oppressed minority, thus equating the “gay rights” movement to the civil rights movement or other more respectable and compelling causes. For a very recent example of this “victimhood” approach, see this article on the homosexual community’s attendance at an annual memorial service for Holocaust victims.

Other gay activists with some religious or even Christian sensibilities take a completely different tack. They take the position that the Bible and enlightened Christian morality really doesn’t condemn homosexual activity on the part of homosexuals engaged in faithful, committed relationships. The biblical arguments they use are obviously flawed, but they are enough to appeal to more liberal Christian groups who want to justify the behavior, a la Bishop Gene Robinson of the American Episcopal Church.

And even among churches and denominations that have held the line on the official teaching, we have seen the inroads of gay activists and dissenting theologians sowing seeds of doubt and confusion. One frequently hears, for example, that contrary to Church teaching (cf. Catechism, no. 2357), the sin of Sodom was not homosexual activity but merely inhospitality.

What does the New Testament really say? Here is an illustration, drawn from my previous “Straight Talk” post:

“Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

First, note that there are actually two words in the Greek that are combined to form the word “homosexuals” in the above translation: malakoi (literally, “effeminate males who play the sexual role of females”) and arsenokoitai (literally, “males who take other males to bed”). Despite persistent attempts to relativize or explain away this passage, what St. Paul is saying is beyond reasonable dispute, and it’s entirely consistent with other biblical passages on the subject and two millennia of Christian teaching.

Second, St. Paul is writing here to baptized Christians, some of whom used to engage in one or more of these serious sins. Even though they have now been washed, they are still prone to commit these sins and, if they want to inherit the kingdom, they must not return to such sinful ways.

So, those who engage in homosexual acts are expected to walk away from that lifestyle, and in fact people even in St. Paul’s time were apparently able to do it, with God’s grace. Surely it can be a long, difficult road that can at times involve relapse, but contrary to the modern line that some people are just born that way and unable to restrain themselves, it is indeed possible and necessary to decisively turn away from such a lifestyle.

Finally, there are many sins listed in this passage. While we might not experience predominant same-sex attractions ourselves, we are inclined to a host of other sins, and for each of us the first priority must be to turn away from those sinful areas of our lives.

Still, there is good reason to single out homosexuality for special mention. While many forms of immoral conduct are rampant today, they are nonetheless considered wrong and utterly to be avoided. We don’t celebrate “drunk driving month.” We’re not required to give our employees sensitivity training so that they can be more understanding of the internal conflicts of adulterers. When we condemn corporate crime we’re not called “greedophobes.” We don’t congratulate sneak thieves who “come out of the closet.”

When it comes to homosexuality, though, we are getting bullied and tricked into moving from decriminalization to societal recognition and institutional legitimacy.

As St. Paul wrote, we must not be deceived. Committed Christians hold the key–not only when it comes to playing defense against social engineering, but even more when it comes to proclaiming the truth about human nature and, even more, leading others to the fullness of life in Christ.

Meditation and a Clean Conscience

November 4th, 2010

This fall Pope Benedict is giving a series of Wednesday audiences on women and their contributions to the Church, with a particular emphasis on their holiness and teaching.

In yesterday”s address, the Holy Father focused on the life of Marguerite d”Oingt, a French Carthusian nun who lived at the turn of the 14th century. He noted that while the life of a medieval mystic might seem irrelevant at first glance, her spiritual journey contains many lessons for people today.

I point this one out in particular because the Holy Father stressed Marguerite”s insistence on daily meditation on God”s infinite love for us [more]as the means of our transformation in Christ. He said that she “invites us to meditate daily on the life of sorrow and love of Jesus and of His mother, Mary. Here is our hope, the meaning of our existence.”

Pope Benedict magnificently summarized her message this way:

“Rubbish is not only on different streets of the world. There is rubbish also in our consciences and in our souls. Only the light of the Lord, His strength, and His love is what cleanses us, purifies us, showing us the right path.”

Doesn”t this speak to the renewal of our minds that St. Paul discusses in Romans 12:2:

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

There are many ways that conscience can and does “get dirty.” That”s the problem. Marguerite d’2012-04-24 18:33:32′Oingt”s prescription of daily meditation points us toward the solution.

On a lighter note, at the end of yesterday”s address the Holy Father greeted in English a contingent of pilgrims from Pittsburgh and gave them his apostolic blessing. It was the least he could do after their beloved Steelers were hammered by the Saints last Sunday!

Martin the Charitable

November 3rd, 2010

Today the universal Church celebrates the feast of St. Martin de Porres, one of my family”s favorite Dominican saints. He lived in Peru at the turn of the sixteenth century, born of a Spanish father and a Black mother, and lived a remarkable life as a lay brother devoted to the poor and the sick.

Many stories attest to St. Martín”s exceptional piety. Sometimes he was surrounded by a bright light when he prayed, while other times he levitated off the floor of the chapel in a state of ecstasy. He lived for days on bread and water, and undertook other severe penances. Martín was said to be capable of bilocation (being in two places at once–wouldn”t that come in handy!), and individuals from both Africa and Mexico swore that they had encountered him in their home villages even though he was never known to have left Lima. Patients under his care spoke on several occasions of his having walked through locked doors in order to render medical help–help which sometimes produced miraculous results. [more]

Here”s what Pope John XXIII said at St. Martin”s canonization in 1962, which is found in the Office of Readings for today:

The example of Martin’s life is ample evidence that we can strive for holiness and salvation as Christ Jesus has shown us: first, by loving God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and second, by loving your neighbor as yourself.

When Martin had come to realize that Christ Jesus suffered for us and that he carried our sins on his body to the cross, he would meditate with remarkable ardor and affection about Christ on the cross. He had an exceptional love for the great sacrament of the Eucharist and often spent long hours in prayer before the blessed sacrament. His desire was to receive the sacrament in Communion as often as he could.

Saint Martin, always obedient and inspired by his divine teacher, dealt with his brothers and with that profound love which comes from pure faith and humility of spirit. He loved men and because he honestly looked on them as God’s children and as his own brothers and sisters. Such was his humility that he loved them even more than himself, and considered them to be better and more righteous than he was.

He did not blame others for their shortcomings. Certain that he deserved more severe punishment for his sins than others did, he would overlook their worst offenses. He was tireless in his efforts to reform the criminal, and he would sit up with the sick to bring them comfort. For the poor he would provide food, clothing and medicine. He did all he could to care for poor farmhands, blacks, and mulattoes who were looked down upon as slaves, the dregs of society in their time. Common people responded by calling him, “Martin the charitable.”

The virtuous example and even the conversation of this saintly man exerted a powerful influence in drawing men to religion.  It is remarkable how even today his influence can still come us toward the things of heaven.  Sad to say, not all of us understand these spiritual values as well as we should, nor do we give them a proper place in our lives.  Many of us, in fact, strongly attracted by sin, may look upon these values as of little moment, even something of a nuisance, or we ignore them altogether.  It is deeply rewarding for men striving for salvation to follow in Christ”s footsteps and to obey God’2012-04-24 18:33:33′s commandments.  If only everyone could learn this lesson from the example that Martin gave us.

For a recent photo of “St. Martin de Porres,” check out my Facebook wall at!/profile.php?id=1075165711