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Quick Q and A on the Trinity

TrinityQ. This past Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Why is this doctrine so important?

A. There are many reasons, but most prominent among them is this: it’s who God is. God is a Trinity of Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is actually God’s “name”. In the Scriptures, one’s name defines a person’s identity.

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus urges his followers to “(g)o therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt 28:19-20, emphasis mine).

Notice Jesus says, “name”, not “names”. There are not three Gods here; there is one God, but three divine Persons within the Godhead. Their essence – what they are, essentially, is divine. Divinity is what they are “made of”, so to speak. In the case of Jesus, of course, who was the divine Logos from all eternity, he “wedded” a human nature to his preexisting divine nature at the moment of the Incarnation.

Q. So many still find the Trinity difficult to understand or believe in.

A. I’ve got two pieces of news for you, which may be surprising: first, one must believe in the Trinity to hold the Catholic faith. It is a truth revealed by God. On a somewhat practical level, if you have the question of God wrong, you’ll never get anything else right about the faith. To use a management term, it’s a “top-down” process.

Secondly, don’t worry if you don’t completely understand the Trinity, because no one does. That’s right – no saint or theologian – not even the great St Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” – has ever claimed that they fully understood the Trinity. In fact, if they had claimed that they did, they would have been guilty of heresy. Why?

If you could completely understand the Trinity, that would mean that you were greater than God, which is obviously not the case. Your finite, created mind, however intelligent it may be, cannot comprehend God in his infinity. However, that does not mean that we can’t know anything about the Trinity.

One can know something is true without being able to perfectly understand or explain it: for example, I know electricity works: I flip the switch, and the room lights up. Can I explain it? No. I don’t know how the energy moves throughout the circuitry, etc. I just know the truth of electricity, that it works. In the same way, we can be certain about whatever God chooses to reveal about himself, even if we can’t fully comprehend it – and what he has revealed is that he is a Trinity of persons.

Pentecost Primer

Pentecost2

Q. This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. Could you explain its background?

A. When Pentecost arrives each year in the liturgical calendar, most Christians immediately think of the dramatic gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the Church, Peter’s impassioned preaching, and the mass conversion occasioned by this event, as recorded in Acts 2.

Many people are surprised to learn that the feast of Pentecost did not originate at this time. It has its roots in the Old Testament period. It’s actually one of the great Jewish festivals in the liturgical cycles of Israel’s worship. It was during this feast that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to believers in Jesus the Messiah.

Q. Was the festival of Pentecost known by another name during the Old Covenant period? What was its original purpose?

A. This feast was also called the feast of Weeks. It arrived seven weeks after the festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread came to an end. The name “Pentecost” is a Greek word that refers to the fifty-day period (Lev 23:15-22; Deut 16:9-12).

What the festival of Weeks/Pentecost celebrated was the great wheat and barley harvest that took place in the summertime (Lev 23:10-15). The Hebrews has different names for the months of the year at that time, but this took place roughly at the end of April and the beginning of May.

Q. How can we relate the Old Covenant feast of Pentecost to that of the New?

A. There is much that could be said here, but let me focus on just a few points. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as a new and greater Moses. Just as Moses dispenses the Spirit on his elders (Num 11:11-29), Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to his Apostles (Jn 20:19-23, which is the Gospel reading for today).

Weeks/Pentecost was also linked in the Jewish tradition with the covenant made to Noah, which sheds light on how the Holy Spirit was gifted to humanity as a whole (Acts 2:5-11). Pentecost also, of course, is a celebration of the “first fruits” of the grain harvest, given by God. Jesus often spoke in agricultural parables of the world as a “field of souls”. Those early believers in Christ were indeed part of the “first fruits” of people harvested from the world, to belong to God for all eternity.

Quick Q and A on the Feast of St Joseph

JMJQ. March 19 is always the Solemnity of St Joseph, so why is it being celebrated today, March 20?

A. Because March 19 fell on a Sunday this year, this feast day was superseded by the Third Sunday of Lent. The Solemnity of Saint Joseph was thus moved to the following day this year.

Q. When did this feast originate in the Church?

A. Saint Joseph’s feast can trace its beginnings to the 15th century. It became a feast of the Universal Church (which is another way of referring to the Catholic Church as a whole) in 1621.

Q. Is it true that Saint Joseph is the patron saint of the Universal Church?

A. Yes. In 1847, Pope Saint Pius IX named Saint Joseph patron over the whole Church. He is also the primary patron saint of Canada and many other countries. Pope John XXIII, in the 20th century, included Saint Joseph’s name in Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon). Greater and greater honor has been shown to Saint Joseph over time, as, over the course of centuries, the Church has come to a deeper understanding of the role and importance of Saint Joseph in God’s plan of salvation, and in God’s family.

This is true in a double sense: the Greek word that explains God’s fatherly plan for salvation history is “oikonomia” – literally, “the law of the household”. Saint Joseph had charge of God’s “family” on earth in quite a literal sense – the Holy Family of Nazareth. Joseph was the foster father of the God-Man, Jesus Christ and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And Joseph is also the protector, by his prayers in heaven, of God’s other “family” on earth, the Church, which is also referred to in the New Testament as “the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19-20). Saint Joseph’s intercession is powerful indeed – we should learn to take more advantage of his help in our daily lives.

With the exception of Our Lady, there is no greater saint in Heaven than Saint Joseph. In her autobiography, Saint Teresa of Avila wrote: “To other saints, Our Lord seems to have given power to help us in some special necessity, but to this glorious saint (I know by my experience), he has given the power to help us in all things. Our Lord would have us understand that, as he was subject to Joseph on earth – Saint Joseph, bearing the title of his father and being his guardian, could command him – so now Our Lord in heaven grants all his petitions.”

Saint Joseph, pray for us!

Cardinal Burke Responds to “Amoris Laetitia”

Cardinal Burke

Q. I am very confused about the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) issued by Pope Francis. I’ve been reading a lot of articles online that say that the Pope is changing Church teaching on marriage. Is this true?

A. In a word, no. The Pope did not (and cannot) change Church teaching on faith (what we believe) and morals (how we live). In fact, Pope Francis makes it very clear in Amoris Laetitia (hereafter abbreviated as AL) that he is not speaking infallibly. Nor is the exhortation even to be regarded as an official document of the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Church). He is merely offering his own personal opinion and reflection on the work of the recent Synods of bishops on the family (AL 3).

In fact, AL upholds Church teaching on marriage, and condemns many societal evils, such as abortion, euthanasia, and “gender ideologies” that are cancers in the culture.

Q. Fair enough. But there are some who believe that the document calls for a change – not in the Church’s teaching, but in “pastoral practice” – specifically, that civilly divorced and remarried Catholics ought to be allowed to receive Holy Communion. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was a participant in the Synods on the family, has written an article in response to this idea. What did he say?

A. The article, which is well worth reading, can be found on the website of the National Catholic Register. Cardinal Burke notes that one can never validly “divorce” Catholic teaching from its application in pastoral practice.

He writes, “I remember the discussion which surrounded the publication of the conversations between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Jean Guitton in 1967. The concern was the danger that the faithful would confuse the Pope’s personal reflections with official Church teaching. While the Roman Pontiff has personal reflections which are interesting and can be inspiring, the Church must be ever attentive to point out that their publication is a personal act and not an exercise of the Papal Magisterium. Otherwise, those who do not understand the distinction, or do not want to understand it, will present such reflections and even anecdotal remarks of the Pope as declarations of a change in the Church’s teaching, to the great confusion of the faithful. Such confusion is harmful to the faithful and weakens the witness of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world.”

Cardinal Burke goes on to say:

“Over more than 40 years of priestly life and ministry, during 21 of which I have served as a bishop, I have known numerous other couples in an irregular union for whom I or my brother priests have had pastoral care. Even though their suffering would be clear to any compassionate soul, I have seen ever more clearly over the years that the first sign of respect and love for them is to speak the truth to them with love. In that way, the Church’s teaching is not something which further wounds them but, in truth, frees them for the love of God and their neighbor.

“It may be helpful to illustrate one example of the need to interpret the text of Amoris Laetitia with the key of the magisterium. There is frequent reference in the document to the ‘ideal’ of marriage. Such a description of marriage can be misleading. It could lead the reader to think of marriage as an eternal idea to which, in the changing historical circumstances, man and woman more or less conform. But Christian marriage is not an idea; it is a sacrament which confers the grace upon a man and woman to live in faithful, permanent and procreative love of each other. Every Christian couple who validly marry receive, from the moment of their consent, the grace to live the love which they pledge to each other.

“Because we all suffer the effects of original sin and because the world in which we live advocates a completely different understanding of marriage, the married suffer temptations to betray the objective reality of their love. But Christ always gives the grace for them to remain faithful to that love until death. The only thing that can limit them in their faithful response is their failure to respond to the grace given them in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. In other words, their struggle is not with some idea imposed upon them by the Church. Their struggle is with the forces which would lead them to betray the reality of Christ’s life within them.”

Sunday Scriptures: John 21 & The Papacy

John 21

Q. This Sunday’s Gospel is taken from John 21. Does this chapter have any implications for the papacy?

A. Other texts, like Matthew 16, are often cited in this regard, but John 21 has one of the strongest proofs for the ongoing role of the office of Peter in the universal Church. Even non-Catholic scholars recognize this.

Q. Does the miraculous catch of fish in this chapter have anything to do with the Petrine office?

A. Fishing, of course, wasn’t just the former trade of the apostles; it represents their evangelistic mission of being “fishers of men”. The unbroken net conveys the unity of the one Catholic (universal) Church. Elsewhere, when Jesus provides a miraculous draught of fish, the nets begin to break from the strain; here, the nets are intact. Peter, dragging the net ashore, evokes his leadership in bringing the Church safely home to Christ, even to the shores of Heaven itself.

Interestingly, although the catch was so big that the disciples struggled to bring the nets aboard, almost sinking their boat, Peter now easily drags the net ashore all by himself. The Greek verb in the original text that is used to describe Peter’s dragging of the net is the same one used by Jesus in John 12:32. This is where Jesus says that, as he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself.

Q. Why does the text mention specifically that 153 fish were caught?

A. By far, the most puzzling aspect of the passage is the reference to the 153 fish. First of all, this is an authentic eyewitness detail. On a secondary level, many commentators have proffered various theories to explain what this number might symbolize (John’s Gospel functions on “two levels” – there is often a secondary, “heavenly” meaning to earthly events). Most of these interpretations suggest the idea of the universality or completeness of the catch.

So, to sum up: we have Peter, alone, dragging the unbroken net of a universal catch to the shores of heaven. This is clearly a reference to his position as leader of the Church on earth.

When you add to all of this the threefold charge of Jesus to Peter (“Feed my Sheep”) that immediately follows, the picture is complete. Peter is singularly (in the original Greek text) given this responsibility to shepherd the universal Church. Keep in mind also that this event is recounted in the same Gospel in which Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd” (John 10). Before his Ascension, Jesus here reaffirms Peter’s unique leadership position, passing the earthly reins of the Church to him.

Q and A: Third Sunday of Lent

Lent2

Q. Today’s readings have a common theme: the absolute need to repent of sin, but also God’s abundant mercy for those who do. Would you agree?

A. That’s true. Psalm 103, the Responsorial Psalm from today’s readings, reminds us that “The Lord is kind and merciful”. One of the greatest mercies God provides for us is to “tell it like it is” – to explain reality to us, and warn us of the consequences of not repenting.

This is why St. Paul, in the second reading from 1 Corinthians 10, speaks about members of the Old Testament people of God who did not make it from Egypt to the promised land of Israel. Tragically, these people were “struck down” in the desert because they were not pleasing to the Lord. This was despite the fact that “all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ.”

Q. How does this apply to Catholics today?

A. The same dangers and consequences of unrepentance face the modern-day people of God. Like the Israelites of the Exodus generation, Catholics can sometimes view their baptism as a sort of “lifetime membership card” for Heaven. They frequent the communion lines, but not the queue for the confessional. They “all eat the same spiritual food, and all drink the same spiritual drink – the Christ” in the Eucharist. But they run the same risk that the Israelites did – of being “struck down” in the journey through the wilderness of this life, and not making it to the true promised land of Heaven. The reason is that they feel no need to repent of their sin. Just being “Catholic in name only”, they feel, will be enough to get them “in”. But God is not mocked.

Q. How can we avoid this trap?

A. By sincere repentance, and producing the fruit of the Kingdom in their lives. God will always forgive the one who truly is sorry for their sin, and who desires to change. This is why Jesus reminds us that “God is no respecter of persons”. This means that he judges everyone by the same, objective standard. As Jesus said in today’s Gospel, speaking of people who had died tragically in his time, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”.

Jesus then tells a parable about a fruitless fig tree. The owner wants to cut it down, but the “gardener”, who represents Christ, pleads with him to give him more time to “fertilize” it. After one more year, if the tree is still fruitless, the owner can cut it down.

We are like those trees. Christ has given us all the “fertilizer” we need to grow and bear fruit that will last. The scriptures, the sacraments, the teaching of the Church, the community of faith – all the conditions necessary for growth. We never know how much time we have left before we face eternity. Let us not waste this Lent. Who knows? It may be the last one we ever have. Let us truly repent and produce the fruit of the Kingdom in our lives, that we may share in the joy of the resurrection harvest.

Your (Spiritual) New Year’s Resolutions Checkup

Q. At this time of year, people are trying to fulfill all of their New Year’s resolutions. Should Catholics make any special resolutions of their own?

A. Yes, we as Catholics should indeed make some specific resolutions. But, before we talk about that, we need to look at a much bigger problem. According to the latest research, only 8% of New Year’s resolutions are kept. That’s a staggering 92% failure rate! Many people make resolutions to do with bettering their health, their financial lives (say, getting out of debt), or improving a relationship in their lives.

The problem lies with the fact that these “resolutions” are usually far too vague – and that is one reason they fail. For example, “I resolve to lose weight this year”. You can almost guarantee that won’t happen.

Q. So, what do you propose, then?

A. It’s better to speak not of resolutions, but goals. And they need to be specific. For example, “I will lose 10 pounds by March 31”. That is specific goal, with a deadline attached to it. Now, you simply need to figure out the action steps needed to get there.

Q. I see. Obviously, we need to apply the same mind-set to our spiritual lives, right?

A. Exactly. People make goals for all kinds of relationships in their lives – with others, and with themselves. But the most important relationship we have in our lives is with God. And we can’t simply “drift” and leave this relationship to chance. What is our game plan? How are we going to take the next step in our relationship with Christ? How are we going to become saints, as he has called us to do?

Q. What are some specific goals Catholics can aim for?

A. Well, it’s tough to make general comments on this, because each person is at a different stage in their relationship with Christ. But there are some specific goals that would benefit everyone. Here are “seven habits” (to borrow a phrase from Stephen Covey) which we can all, with a little effort, inculcate into our lives:

  1. Making a morning offering, dedicating one’s day to God, and doing a brief (2 minutes) examination of conscience at night (asking, “What have I done well? What didn’t I do well? What can I do better tomorrow, with God’s help?”).
  2. Daily prayer. Beginners should start with 5 minutes in the AM, and 5 minutes in the PM, eventually working towards 15 minutes for each session (with the ultimate goal of 30 minutes for each).
  3. Attending at least one daily Mass outside of our Sunday obligation. It is amazing what a difference this makes in one’s spiritual life.
  4. Reading the New Testament for 5 minutes a day.
  5. Reading another spiritual book for 10 minutes a day (this can be done on the train, or whenever one can fit it into one’s schedule). Many saints have been made through reading!
  6. Praying the rosary and the Angelus daily.
  7. Going to confession at least once/month (with the ultimate goal of going weekly).

As with any relationship, it takes some time and effort. We won’t always execute the plan perfectly, but, if we truly want to improve our relationship with Jesus Christ, we will.

How are your own spiritual goals coming along so far this year? Share this post and your experiences on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or LinkedIn!

Sunday Scriptures: Christ the King

 

Q. This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. Can you explain how this relates to the second reading, which is taken from the Book of Revelation?

A. In the Old Testament, the Kings of Israel (think of David and Solomon) and the priests of Israel (think of someone like Caiaphas, the High Priest who condemned Jesus to death, along with Pilate), were different individuals with different roles. In fact, the Essenes (the Jewish sect that lived, among other places, at Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls) expected two different Messiahs to come: a Priestly Messiah, and a Kingly Messiah. They actually expected the Kingly Messiah to wage war against Rome, and that he would personally slay “The King of the Kittim” (the Roman Emperor himself) in the final battle.

Jesus radically combines (and redefines) the roles of King and Priest in his own person. In fact, Jesus is both Priest and Victim, the sacrifice and the one who offers it: “Jesus Christ is the faithful witness” (Revelation 1:5). The word “witness” in the original Greek text means “martyr” – one who offers one’s life for God. Unlike the Kingly Messiah envisioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus does not attempt to kill the Roman official, Pilate, but instead allows himself to be killed as a sacrifice for sin. This is why Jesus says to Pilate (as we read in today’s Gospel): “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36).

Jesus is indeed King – not just over Israel, but over all nations: “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5). Jesus received this kingship from God the Father, which is why Revelation says that “he is coming amid the clouds” (Revelation 1:7). This is actually a reference to today’s first reading from the Old Testament Book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14), which speaks of “one like a son of man” (remember, “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favourite self-designation on the Gospels), “coming with the clouds of heaven” to receive “dominion, glory, and kingship” from “the Ancient of Days” (God the Father). The Daniel text says that “all peoples, nations, and languages serve him”. This will indeed be fulfilled at Jesus’ Second Advent.

Q. How can we apply these truths to our lives today?

A. Today’s second reading reminds us that Jesus “has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). By virtue of our baptism, we all share in Christ’s “offices” of King and Priest. And we must exercise these offices the way Jesus did: we don’t “Lord it over people”, but rather lay down our lives for others by serving them as Jesus did. Everything we do – in our spiritual life, our work, our relationships, and in sharing our faith – must be united by this concept of serving God and others. This is our priestly sacrifice for God. And in Jesus’ Kingdom, “to serve is to reign.”

Q and A on Spiritual Reading

Q. What exactly is spiritual reading?

A. Spiritual reading is something every Christian should do on a daily basis. This is really something different than Scripture reading, which also ought to be done daily. Just as we make sure our bodies receive daily nutrition through food, we must feed our souls through various means. Reading is one of those means.

In reading, sometimes it is easier to concentrate on the message than it is when one is listening to a talk or watching a video. Usually reading is done by oneself, in a relatively quiet place, free from distractions. The message can often more easily “sink in”.

Spiritual reading is also not the same as reading in order to study the faith, although that is paramount as well. It is about improving the soul’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Very often, our spiritual reading provides “fuel” for our prayer, as we take note of things that strike us or speak specifically to us.

One way to look at spiritual reading is as a type of spiritual direction. In salvation history, God has always mandated that we be guided by others. Saint Paul had a supernatural encounter with Christ, but Jesus still commanded him to go and seek further direction from another man, Ananias, rather than revealing everything to Paul directly, although Jesus could have easily done so (Acts 9).

Of course, nothing can replace that one-on-one conversation in person with a director who you can open your soul to, and who can help you find the will of God in your particular situation. In spiritual reading, God uses a wise guide who knows the path to speak to you through the words you are reading.

Q. How much time should be allocated for this?

A. Spending about 10 minutes or so is a good target for spiritual reading. Spending about 5 minutes per day reading the New Testament would be ideal. Reading the Old Testament is obviously important as well, as it is God’s Word and God speaks through it as much today as ever. However, Christians simply must be familiar with the New Testament in order to understand their faith and explain it to others in their lives who question or doubt the truth of Catholicism. At times, it may be advisable to use the Old Testament for daily spiritual reading, while still keeping up with one’s New Testament reading.

Q. Where should I start? What books should I be looking for?

A. Father C.J. McCloskey has developed a Catholic lifetime reading plan, which can be found in various places online, including here:

http://www.catholicity.com/mccloskey/readingplan.html

Not all the books on this list are classified for spiritual reading – some are for study, some are for historical and cultural formation, but many are earmarked specifically as spiritual reading. Your spiritual director or a wise priest can help you select a book that might be best for you to begin with, or you can start the adventure by picking the one that looks most interesting to you. The important thing, as with most things, is simply to start!

Second Sunday of Advent: “The beginning of the Good News”

Q. Can you tell us about the significance of this Sunday’s Gospel reading?

A. For this Second Sunday in Advent, the Gospel reading is from Chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel. Mark does not have an infancy narrative in his Gospel, but rather, gets right into the action of Jesus’ public ministry. His incipit (introductory statement) is as follows: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). This may seem like a very basic declaration to us, as we read Mark approximately 2000 years after it was written. But, make no mistake, with this one line, Mark has instantly captured the attention of the entire world, Jew and Gentile alike.

Q. How is this so?

A. For the Jewish reader, Mark has declared Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah. The word “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name! It is the English translation of the Greek word Christos, which in turn is a translation of the Hebrew word Meschiach (“Messiah”).

The Gentile world would have been arrested in particular by the statement that Jesus is “the Son of God”. The Roman Emperors were called “God”, “Son of God”, “God from God”, and “Universal Savior of Human Life”, among other exalted titles. Their victories were hailed as “Good News” throughout the Empire. We know this from archaeological inscriptions that have been uncovered in Roman cities. These were displayed publicly because they were things that citizens of the Empire were expected to know and believe.

Q. Is there, then, special significance to the Roman centurion’s confession of faith in Mark 15?

A. You are quite right, and this links Jesus’ Passion back to Mark’s incipit. When the centurion, assisting in Jesus’ crucifixion, witnesses the manner in which he dies and the portents that surround it, he is overwhelmed. He exclaims, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39, emphasis mine).

The most powerful person in the world was the Emperor of Rome, the Caesar. The most powerless person in the world was a victim of crucifixion. Beaten, scourged, naked – utterly forsaken. Crucifixion was so horrific that it was illegal for Roman citizens to be executed in this manner. Jesus, as a Galilean Jew, was afforded no such courtesy.

But the centurion was given an amazing grace. He recognized that his boss, the Emperor, on his Roman throne, was not the “Universal Savior of Human Life” and the “Son of God”. The seemingly powerless Jesus, on the “throne” of his cross, truly was. The centurion changes his allegiance from Tiberias to Jesus, and places all of his hope in the Lord. Mark invites his readers, and you and me, to do the same.