Tim Tebow, the Philippines, and the Catholic Church

Just a couple of nights ago, I returned home from teaching the Bible Study class at St Justin Martyr, and, exhausted, flopped down to watch the end of the national championship game for U.S. college football. The University of Florida Gators, led by quarterback Tim Tebow, last year’s Heisman winner, defeated the University of Oklahoma Sooners. 

Tebow, a devout Evangelical Christian, wore eyeblack with “John 3:16” written across it in white letters (see photo). From all accounts, Tebow is sincere in his beliefs. He was actually born in the Philippines, where his parents are missionaries. They run, among other things, an orphanage. Tim himself often travels there to help out and preach to the kids there about Jesus Christ.

The only problem is, he’s defeating his own purpose.

No doubt most of his “converts” are Catholics. The Philippines, as most are aware, is a heavily Catholic country. During my Evangelical years, my own pastor and his family would travel to the Philippines and conduct crusades. I still possess a coffee mug he brought home for me. It says, “Reaching and touching Filipinos for Christ”. My wife (whose parents were born in the Philippines) and I still laugh about that mug. But we could just as easily shed tears. That’s because, as sincere and as well-intentioned as my pastor – and Tebow – are, they are sincerely wrong.

Unaware that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ and is the true Church, they, in convincing Filipinos to leave it, are unwittingly drawing them further from the touch of Christ.

And sadly, because some Filipinos (like many Catholics everywhere) are not well grounded in the reasons for their faith, they’re easy pickins’ for these movements.

If only they and their would-be evangelizers would heed the words of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (c. 107 AD), echoing the words of Jesus in John 6:

Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God … They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the very same flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes. 

It is by the Eucharist, safeguarded in the Catholic Church, that we are physically reached and touched by Christ himself.

Saint Josemaria and the Infant Christ

During these final days of the Christmas season, and particularly today, when so many throughout the world are celebrating the Epiphany, I thought I’d share with you this video clip. It’s a window into the devotion of Saint Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, to the Infant Jesus. From the Opus Dei website, www.opusdei.ca: 

As a young priest, St. Josemaría was especially fond of a small statue of the Infant Jesus. He would hold the Child in his arms, sing and even dance with it. “I’m glad to see you as a small Child,” he would say, “because it makes me feel you need me.” 

Watch the clip: Saint Josemaria and the Infant Jesus

Mary, Mother of God

Today is not only New Year’s Day, but also the feast of Mary, Mother of God. It’s one of only two Holy Days of Obligation for Canadian Catholics other than Sundays (the other being Christmas).

The dogma of Mary being the Theotokos, or God-bearer was formally defined by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. Ephesus, many believe, was the city in which Mary lived after Christ gave her into the care of the Apostle John at the foot of the cross (see John 19:25-27). The definition needed to be made because of the heresy of Nestorius, a renegade bishop who had been denying the unity of the two natures, divine and human, in the one divine Person of Christ. Under his view, Mary only gave birth to the human Jesus, not the divine Son of God.

But Mary did not birth a nature, but a person. When the bishops in Ephesus formally promulgated the truth that Mary is the Mother of God, the people were so exultant that they carried the bishops aloft on their shoulders in a jubilant torchlight procession through the town!

Despite all this, the doctrine often comes under heavy fire from non-Catholics who misunderstand it. Many believe that we Catholics worship Mary as some sort of a goddess. But the Mother of God is in no way God the Mother. Mary is a creature, like you and I, although she is far more exalted than any creature, even the angels. For, although the angels always behold the face opf God, Mary contained in her womb he whom the universe could not contain. God made his dwelling within her, and she was not consumed (this is why the burning bush of Exodus has been seen as an Old Testament type or prefigurement of Mary).

Common sense alone would dictate to any orthodox Christian that Mary is the Mother of God. After all, Jesus is God, and Mary is his mother. Put two and two together…

Scripture, as well, teaches this truth. Matthew 1:23 says, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” -which means, ‘God with us'” (NIV). The Virgin Mary’s son is none other than God the Son.

It may surprise people to know that the original Protestant, Martin Luther, and another key leader in the Protestant movement, John Calvin, also held firmly to this doctrine, although their spiritual progeny have largely abandoned it:

Luther: “She is rightly called not only the mother of the man, but also the Mother of God … It is certain that Mary is the Mother of the real and true God” (Martin Luther’s Works, English translation edited by J. Pelikan [Concordia: St. Louis], volume 24, 107).

Calvin: “Elizabeth called Mary Mother of the Lord, because the unity of the person in the two natures of Christ was such that she could have said that the mortal man engendered in the womb of Mary was at the same time the eternal God” (John Calvin, Calvini Opera [Braunshweig-Berlin, 1863-1900], Volume 45, 35).

Luther actually supported in his writings every Marian dogma held by the Catholic Church – not only her Divine Maternity, but her Perpetual Virginity, Immaculate Conception and the Assumption (the latter two not even formally defined until after Luther’s death). Calvin was also a staunch believer in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, reserving some of his most vitriolic comments for those foolish enough not to believe the doctrine.

The Cost of Christmas

Today is, of course, Boxing Day, December 26. And while some are running off to the malls for bargains, others are adding up the damage and realizing just how much Christmas can cost them!

And so are we Catholics, but for a different reason.

Today is the feast of St. Stephen, the Deacon  – the first martyr of Jesus Christ. I’ve always found it fascinating that his feast day immediately follows Christmas. It is as if Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom and through the liturgical calendar, is giving us a sober reminder after the great Feast that there is a cost to Christianity, to being a believer in Christ. It will cost you everything, even your very life – one way or another. No less an authority than Christ himself affirmed it: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”. It can meen a dramatic martyrdom like Stephen’s. But for most of us it will mean the hidden martyrdom of everyday death to self in order to stay alive in Christ.

But there is a far greater cost to not being a Catholic Christian. For rejecting Christ comes with a cost that one truly cannot afford to pay. It means a life lived apart from the Author of life, disconnected from ultimate Reality, devoid of the forgiveness of sins, and, if the situation persists, an eternity in which one will never, ever see God’s face.

Because he remained faithful to the end, Stephen did see God, and beholds that Beatific Vision now, and forevermore: “Look! I see heaven opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”. If we are faithful to the end, so will we.

Postscript: Recognize who’s in the background of the painting above? Acts tells us that those who killed Stephen “laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul”. Saul, persecutor of the early Church, was there, an accessory to Stephen’s martyrdom. As Stephen prayed for his executioners, just as his Master did, one must think that that prayer was especially efficacious. As the Church has always taught: if it were not for Stephen’s prayer, Saul would have never become Saint Paul. In this Pauline year, let us always remember that no one is beyond God’s saving grace – that everyone can (and should) become a saint.

Another View of Christmas

Merry Christmas!

Only two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, include accounts of the Nativity and childhood of our Lord. John’s gospel has a pre-infancy narrative (to put it mildly), focusing on the pre-incarnate, eternal Christ, God from all eternity before he took flesh from the womb of the Virgin. Mark also omits this material, although the incipit (opening words) of his gospel contain perhaps the most arresting Christmas message of all:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

With this short sentence, Mark has immediately captured the attention of the entire world, both Jew and Gentile. It’s like a slap in the face, or a dousing with ice-cold water. To paraphrase Saint Paul, first for the Jew: Jesus is the Christ. And Christ is, of course, not Jesus’ last name, but the Greek form of Messiah.

Then for the Gentile: Jesus is the “Son of God”. Mark’s gospel was originally addressed to Rome, and what stands behind it is the eyewitness testimony to Christ’s life of Peter, the Church’s first pope, martyred in the Eternal City. But “Son of God” did not mean to the first-century readers of the gospel what it means to many today. For the Romans, the only “Son of God” they knew of was the emperor. Julius Caesar, the first of the Caesars, was postumously declared to be a god. Every Caesar afterwards, from Augustus on (who reigned as Emperor when Christ was born), was declared to be the divine “Son of God” and “Universal Savior of Human Life”. Many ancient Roman inscriptions have been uncovered to this effect. Even Augustus’ birthday was declared to be “the birthday of the god”.

Moreover, each time Rome won a military victory, or a new Emperor took the throne, it was published throughout the empire as “Good News”. In fact, the very reason why Jesus was derided in his passion by the Roman soldiers the way he was (the purple robe, the crown of thorns as opposed to a garland of laurel, and the mock homage paid to him – “Hail, King of the Jews!”) was to imitate, in jest, the coronation ceremony of the emperor (“Hail, Caesar!”). Little did they know what sort of King they were dealing with.

This why Mark’s very first sentence was a challenge to the entire world, both Jew and Gentile alike. “In your face, Caesar!” is how one scholar describes it. To us, we who have heard the life of Christ so often that it almost seems routine, the first verse of Mark can seem trite. But when we read it through the eyes of a first-century subject of the Roman Empire, it is bracing.

This is why one of the most important persons mentioned in Mark’s gospel is the Roman Centurion who stood by the cross of the dying Jesus. After years of serving Caesar, he is moved by Christ’s death, and realizes, “Truly, this man is the Son of God” (Mark 15:39, emphasis mine). Jesus is the true divine Son of God, not Caesar. He is the true Universal Savior of Human Life. It is the day of his birth that is “the birthday of the God”. And it is he who deserves our allegiance, this Christmas and always. Merry Christmas, and may God bless you.

Postscript: The image selected for this post, Lorenzo Lotto’s Nativity, contains a crucifix in the background. Fitting, for the shadow of Calvary hung even over Bethlehem. The Nativity of Christ is the Christmas gift given. The Crucifixion is the gift torn open. The Eucharist is the gift received.

“Quantum” and the True Solace

(My article in Catholic Insight‘s December issue.)

James Bond is film’s most enduring character. Now in his 22nd official movie, agent 007’s latest celluloid adventure is called Quantum of Solace. The title is borrowed from a heretofore little-known Bond short story by creator Ian Fleming. 

It’s a double entendre: “Quantum” is the nefarious terrorist organization Bond battles in the film. A quantum is also defined as “a share or portion”. Bond is searching for his piece of peace, his own “quantum of solace”, following the events of the last installment, the superior Casino Royale (2006).

Quantum of Solace is an incredibly stylish film, and moves along at a much quicker pace than its predecessor – in fact, it’s the shortest Bond film in history, whereas Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, was the longest. The added time did allow for proper character development. But Quantum‘s director, Marc Forster, had a different vision for his film – he wanted it to be faster – in his words, “like a bullet”.

Royale was a reboot of the series, where we discovered, along with new Bond actor Daniel Craig, how Bond becomes Bond, the British Secret Service agent with the license to kill. He also falls in love with the beauteous Vesper Lynd, who, forced to betray him and overwhelmed by guilt, commits suicide. Quantum picks up the storyline as Bond seeks revenge on those responsible.

At one point in Royale, Bond says to Vesper, “Do what I do for long enough, and there won’t be any soul left to save”. For love of her, he actually resigns from Her Majesty’s Secret Service until Vesper’s death. In Quantum, Bond gets back to the business of spying – and losing his soul – with a vengeance. This occurs in four ways:

Bond is saturated with sex, but never finds True Love. After losing Vesper, Bond (perhaps brokenhearted) reverts to his old, philandering ways in Quantum with fetching fellow agent Strawberry Fields. Her name – and “crude” fate – recalls Bond girls of the ‘60s, one of several nods to early 007 films. Vesper once chided him, “You think of women as disposable pleasures”. Clearly, Bond has not read Humanae Vitae, also from the ‘60s. He has yet to overcome lust, or discover that the self-gift of matrimonial sexual love points toward the Trinity itself – an eternal exchange of love. Only in light of the God who is Love will Bond discover the love he truly desires.

Bond is immersed in intelligence, but never knows Truth. Ethical dilemmas abound in Quantum. The CIA is in bed, so to speak, with the baddies, and so are the Brits. Bond’s boss/den mother, M (Judi Dench) is told by a British official that “If we only did business with good people, we’d have no one left to trade with”. Rene Mathis mentions to Bond that “When one is young, right and wrong are easy. When you’re older, it gets harder to tell”. Perhaps Pilate was thinking the same thing when deciding what to do with Jesus. When he asked Christ, “What is truth?” Truth itself was looking back at him. Today, like us, Bond has to battle more than dictators. He has to deal with what Pope Benedict called “the dictatorship of relativism”.  

Bond is drawn to beauty, but never apprehends the Beautiful. From Tom Ford suits to Aston Martins, from exotic locales to fetching femme fatales, Bond has a taste for the finer things in life. But his keen powers of observation never notice what Fr. Thomas Dubay dubs “the evidential power of beauty” – that beautiful things point to the beautiful God who made them – and him.

Bond is merciless without finding Mercy. The ‘blunt instrument” of the last film is armed with razor-sharp, and lethal, hand-to-hand combat skills, courtesy of the stunt team from the Bourne trilogy. Regrettably, like those films, Quantum suffers from hard-to-follow quick cuts in the action, most of which involves Bond taking full advantage of his license to kill. But Bond, at a key moment, unexpectedly spares an adversary’s life. Why? To prove a point to M, or so he can sleep at night? Perhaps he heeded Mathis’ advice: “Vesper gave everything for you. Forgive her. Forgive yourself”. Has 007 learned mercy? We shall see. But we must learn it – from our divine teacher, Christ, who truly gave everything for us, so we could forgive and be forgiven. As a fictional character, Bond can’t really discover this. Only we can experience Jesus, the Prince of Peace, our true Quantum of Solace.

Humanae Vitae: A Buried Treasure Conference

I was invited to speak at the Humanae Vitae: A Buried Treasure Conference held at the University of Toronto on Saturday, November 15. Despite the dreary weather, approximately 400 people jammed into the Sam Sorbara Auditorium, with over 200 people being turned away, either at the door or by phone, who were looking for tickets! I can’t lie – they certainly weren’t there to see me! 

The other speakers included such luminaries as Ottawa’s Archbishop Terence Prendergrast, our very own Archbishop Thomas Collins, Father Thomas Lynch, Director of Priests for Life Canada, musician Mark Mallett, and Dr. Maria Kraw, who spoke on the medical dangers of contraception. 

The phenomenal crowd was proof that the message of Humanae Vitae is still fresh, even in our day – in fact, it’s needed now more than ever. My topic was the Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II. Appropriately so, because JPII viewed the TOB as the full flowering of Humanae Vitae.

It really felt like a family event for me – Archbishop Prendergrast was formerly Archbishop of Halifax, where I used to live. Of course, Archbishop Collins is my spiritual father now. Fr. Lynch reconciled me to the Church in ’04, hearing my confession. Dr. Kraw was my wife’s roommate in university. It’s like six degrees of Kevin Bacon!

(Hat tip to Jenny Beraun for the photo of yours truly, preaching up a storm!)

Proving Purgatory

(Here’s my latest article, from Catholic Insight magazine’s November issue.)

November sees two familiar events in the liturgical year for Catholics – All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2). We pray for the latter, that they might join ranks of the former. That’s because All Souls’ Day is largely about helping the holy souls in purgatory attain the Beatific Vision of heaven.

Lost, a popular ABC television program, was once thought to be about purgatory. The story centres around a plane crash on a mysterious, supernatural island. Many of the survivors attempt to “atone” in some way for past sins. Although this theory about the enigmatic show’s meaning has since been discredited by its creators, it sparked a new interest in the actual reality of purgatory for many. 

But what exactly is purgatory? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). One thing it is not is a “second chance” for those condemned to hell after death: “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031). 

But even the very existence of purgatory, like the strange island of Lost, is highly dubious to many non-Catholics. Protestants view the idea as an unbiblical “invention” of the Catholic Church. Can their objection be sustained?

Many claim that since the word “purgatory” is not found anywhere in Scripture, that is sufficient proof of its non-existence. The word “Trinity” does not appear in Scripture either, but that does not mean that the doctrine is not taught therein. In fact, all  Christians believe that it is, implicitly. The question really is, is the concept of purgatory scriptural?

The Old Testament says this of Judas Maccabeus: “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…it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc. 12:43–45). It is not necessary to pray for those already in heaven. As for people in hell, no amount of prayer can extract them (cf. Luke 16:19-31). There must be an intermediate state where those who are destined for heaven, yet still bound in some sense to sin, can be purified. 

Of course, 2 Maccabees does not appear in the Protestant biblical canon. One of the reasons it was removed from their Bibles is that the very “Catholic” doctrine of praying for the deceased who may be in purgatory is so clearly stated here. At the very least, this pericope highlights the fact that our Jewish forbears believed in such a doctrine. It was not “invented” by later Catholics.

In Matthew 12:32, Jesus himself refers to sin that “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come”. This implies, along with 2 Maccabees, that the temporal punishment due to sin can be expiated after death. 

Saint Paul writes about one whose work is tested by God in the “Day” of judgment and is found wanting: “he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). No one “suffers loss” in heaven – in fact, no one suffers at all there! Yet, this passage cannot refer to hell, either, for salvation does not occur there. This has to do with a purifying state.

The Book of Hebrews is startlingly clear: “Strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). If no one will see the Lord unless they are holy, what happens to those not fully sanctified before death? They may be forgiven sinners in a state of grace, but they may not yet have attained the Christian perfection of a Mother Teresa, either. 

God will complete his sanctifying work in his people, even if it occurs after death, in purgatory, making us capable to whistand the Beatific Vision. Consider the words of Revelation: “nothing unclean shall enter” the heavenly city (21:27). God must remove the imperfections in our soul and complete any temporal punishment due to sin (the eternal guilt having been forgiven) for us to dwell in his holy temple. 

Scripture, along with the teaching of the Church, is clear: the one who “invented” purgatory is none other than God himself. He saw to it – so we could one day see him.

Most Excellent Theophilus

I recently came across a very interesting blog by Lee Thomas Dahn. It’s called Most Excellent Theophilus, and astute bibliophiles will recognize the name Theophilus immediately. Theophilus, of course, was the addressee of Luke the Evangelist’s 2-part series, The Gospel According to Luke, and The Acts of the Apostles – both of which became part of the New Testament canon. 

It has become de rigeur in New Testament studies to suggest that Theophilus was a Roman nobleman or official of some sort, who was the patron bankrolling Luke’s evangelistic project. But Dahn suggests otherwise:

Theophilus was the high priest of 37-41CE. This Theophilus was the son of Annas, high priest of 6-15CE. Theophilus was brother to four other first-century high priests: Eleazar, Jonathan, Matthias, and Ananus. His brother-in-law was Caiaphas, high priest of 18-36CE. This family filled the office for 35 years between 6 and 43CE.

If this is the case, this would challenge some cherished assumptions about Luke’s work. Commentators commonly suggest that Luke was writing to a predominantly Gentile audience, being one himself (in fact, the only non-Jewish NT author). But Luke was also well acquainted with the OT, given the artful allusions to it he makes in his Gospel. It is quite possible that Luke’s work, although universal (Catholic) in scope, was of particular interest to his Hebrew audience – especially a certain man who was once High Priest.

This thesis also has great explanatory power. It explains why Luke opens his Gospel not with the Annunciation, but rather with the account of Zechariah the priest, serving in the Temple. It also sheds light on certain accounts from the life of Christ only recorded in Luke (and likely obtained through interviews with Mary herself) – for example, the relating of Jesus’ disappearance in Jerusalem at twelve years old, where he is found debating in the Temple precincts with the teachers of the law.

This incident in particular would have caused quite a sensation in the Holy City, and certainly would not have escaped the notice of Annas, Theophilus’ father, who was High Priest at the time. Theophilus likely would have heard about this from his own father’s lips – and now, Luke mentions it again to buttress his case for Christ, the true, eschatological high priest.

Dahn’s blog features a post about this passage and many others from Luke-Acts, all of them well worth reading. Here’s hoping he continues the project!

Worship God’s Way

(Another of my recent articles from Catholic Insight.) 

When I ask my Protestant friends (some of whom, sadly, are ex-Catholics) the question, “Why do you worship where you do, as opposed to somewhere else, some other congregation?” the answers vary: “I like the preaching.” “I like the music – love that contemporary Christian worship.” “I like the nursery program for my kids.” “I like the fact that it’s close to my home.” 


Yet the answers, although different, are also strangely alike – for they all have a common theme: “I”. “I like this; I prefer that. This is the worship that I like.”

But what kind of worship does God like?

Throughout salvation history, we do not see flexibility on God’s part here. God has always had a preference in these matters as well, a way he “likes” to be worshipped. In the Old Covenant, it was the temple liturgy that was central to the worshipping life of all Israel.

But what about the New Covenant? Is a multiplicity of worship forms acceptable in the New Testament Church, as my friends would believe? 

Here is how the brilliant Catholic convert Thomas Howard puts it, in his book On Being Catholic: “Christian worship did not proliferate randomly. There was a shape given to it in the beginning…it is not as though the apostolic community cast about for ingredients that might be appealing to local Jewish converts, or to Greeks, or to Scythians, Romans, Egyptians, or Parthians, least of all to that ubiquitous figure, ‘contemporary man’. No market research was brought into play. No caucuses – of youth, or of senior citizens, or of the affluent or the indigent, or of women, or of men, or of anyone else – were heard from. No theologians or reformers or charismatic leaders or prophets dictated the shape of things” (p.39). 

And the shape of things was the Mass, received “from the hands of Jesus Christ himself”, as Howard puts it.

Worship has always been a gift from the “top down”, from God to us, rather than something cooked up by us – from the “bottom up”, so to speak. I often hear complaints from fellow Catholics regarding the lack of participation or interest in the Mass by many, especially the young. As Catholics, we are “born again” in Baptism, but often many of us seem “bored again” each time we go to Mass! How do we get people more involved? The solution, according to some, is to “Protestantize” our worship with more “entertaining” elements: electric guitars, contemporary worship styles, perhaps a more informal atmosphere – you know, the stuff people “like”.

As a “Pre-16” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, this attitude is fraught with danger. In speaking of Israel’s apostasy in their worship of the golden calf, he writes: 

“The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world…Man is using God…he is placing himself above God…Worship becomes a feast the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry…self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification. (The)golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God, but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then liturgy does become pointless, just fooling around. Or still worse it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness. There is no experience of that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God” (p. 23).

The true worship, the Mass, is a gift from God. We must be educated about it in order to understand it. And we must understand it in order to appreciate it. And we will find that, in the end, we will “like” it, as God likes it, because it will set us free: “that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God”.