Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Hanukkah

Dear Theophilus,

I know it’s a couple of days late, but I wanted to wish you a Happy Hanukkah. Growing up, I had always thought that Hanukkah was the Jewish answer to Christmas, however, an article at American Catholic Blog (read it here) taught me that there is so much more to the Festival of Lights that is of importance to us as Catholics today.

Firstly, although as Catholics we are not called to celebrate Jewish feasts, we should get to know them if not simply for the reason that Christ was Jewish and these feasts would have played an important role in his own life. Since Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of scripture, understanding Jewish Festivals will help us understand our own Christianity. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians:

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons or Sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Col. 2:16-17)

The tradition of Hanukkah itself is instituted in scripture in the First Book of Maccabees when the Temple was cleansed and rededicated after the Maccabeen revolt:

Then they offered incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand and these gave light to the temple. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar shall be observed with joy and gladness for eight days. (1 Macc. 4:50,56,59)

To understand the relevance of this Jewish festival for us as Catholics today, we need to understand the context of the temple rededication after the Maccabeen revolt. The Maccabees were a group of orthodox Jews who took on the Hellenised establishment. They wanted to see a return to spiritual tradition and a more pure form of Jewish practices to please Yahweh.

What does this mean to us? All we need to do is take a look around us this Advent season. As the coming of our Lord in Saviour in human form fast approaches, Christ’s birth is symbolized more by a man in dressed in red than a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Instead of bring gifts to the Christ Child, we spend endless hours making up wish-lists to give to others, ensuring our every desire is satisfied.

Although a Holocaust survivor recently ensured me that Hanukkah has become just as commercial as Christmas, we should take a lesson from the Maccabees, who foreshadowed the Light of Christ in rededicating the Temple (which Christ embodied himself), and return to a purer celebration of the spirit of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

Dear Theophilus,

This past Sunday Pope Benedict XVI signed the documents that will lead to the canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. Although we have become quite used to saints being recognized during the pontificates of both Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II, this one is quite special, as Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha will become the first Aboriginal Canadian saint.

You can read about this announcement on the National Post’s religion blog Holy Post, as well as more about Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha here.

With the canonization last year of St. Brother André de Montréal and the now promised canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, there has been an increased sense of the sacred among Canadian Catholics. Along with this new found sacredness, there is a sense of pride that Canadians have added to the life of the Catholic Church in a special way we usually think of as reserved for Europeans.

In this Advent season, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the baby Jesus, let us use this announcement to focus our hearts on the Word that dwells among us.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Rome Sweet Home

Dear Theophilus,

I’m currently reading Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s conversion story Rome Sweet Home. The further I get into their journey to the Catholic faith, the more I begin to realize that this is a book that all Catholics need to read. Unlike many theological works, the Hahn’s story is accessible to all readers and offers an excellent insight into what Catholics believe and why, as well as their relationship with their Protestant brethren.

There are a few things that surprise me in Scott and Kimberly story. First and foremost is the hate Fundamentalist Protestants have for the Catholic Church, much of which, according to Scott’s testimony, is unfounded. Personally, I have never come across the passionate hatred Fundamentalist Christians have for the Catholic Church, so I find it hard to understand why it exists, but exist it does. Because Scott Hahn was once one of those Fundamentalists, his story of conversion is a compelling glimpse at how to debunk their arguments.

The Hahn’s perspective on the Protestant-Catholic debate is also a unique one, as both hold Masters Degrees in theology from Protestant universities, while Scott also holds a doctorate from a Catholic institution. As they take the reader on a voyage through their conversion, they show how Catholic doctrine is based firmly on the scriptural foundations that Protestants hold so dear. This journey helps us cradle-Catholics to understand a faith that we have simply come to know as true through living our lives.

A compelling read, Rome Sweet Home expresses the joy Catholics feel in the Eucharist and the other dimensions of their faith in words that many of us have trouble finding. Not only does this story give Catholics the answers to the penetrating questions Protestants have learned to ask to throw doubt on dogma, it also helps heighten the Catholic experience of the Mass, the rosary and other doctrinal practices.

Rome Sweet Home is a must read for Catholics on the journey of deepening their faith.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fulton Sheen was Right

Dear Theophilus,

In trying to keep up to date with what’s going on in the world, I usually click to the websites of major daily newspapers. I’m often tempted to see what other interwebs have to say about a particular article, so after reading I’ll scroll down to the comments section. Sometimes I find these comments comical, and at other times I find them infuriating.

Recently, many of these articles have been focused on Catholic beliefs as they pertain to issues our society is currently facing: abortion, euthanasia or homosexuality. Reading the comments posted by other readers, I’ve come to realise how right Fulton Sheen was when he said:

“There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.” (Foreword to Radio Replies Vol. 1, (1938) page ix)

It’s quite sad that most of the people taking issue with Catholic teachings can’t even tell you exactly what it is the Catholic Church teaches. In some ways it isn’t their fault, as the article will only allude to Catholic doctrine without actually stating what that doctrine is. Still, they find it is their place to attack a Catholic position that they know nothing about.

If these people really wanted to know what the Catholic Church teaches on these contentious issues, I think they would be surprised, not only with Catholic doctrine, but also with the ease with which they could find it. Any Catholic teaching can be found in under a minute, first by searching out an online searchable catechism (the Knights of Columbus catechism is my favourite) and then by searching the actual subject. The best part of the catechism is that it will also give scripture references to support Catholic teaching.

Do I bother to try to correct the misconceptions I come across. Regretfully: no. Frankly, there are too many of them, and I wonder if any comment I could make would do nothing more than create a knee-jerk reaction on their part. I think it’s probably best that they practice the free will God gave them to search out the Truth on their own.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent Renewal of Faith and Works

Dear Theophilus,

Advent is a wonderful time of renewal. As the great feast of Christmas approaches, many people who have lost their way are moved to return to the Church. Captivated by the pageantry and mystery of the Word Incarnate they find their faith restored.

To our Protestant brethren who preach the philosophy of sole fide, this restored faith alone is enough to attain the Lord’s promised salvation. To support their errant doctrine, Protestants will inevitably turn to biblical sources:

But my just one shall live by faith ... (Heb. 10:38)


But without faith it is impossible to please him (God) ... (Heb. 11:6)

It is interesting that these quotes are taken in isolation from the rest of St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. The idea that St. Paul is trying to convey through his epistle is that faith is needed if one wants to approach God.

Much like the often quoted “Man shall not live by bread alone…” (Mt. 4:4), he cannot be saved by faith alone. The Lord tells us, and the Catholic Church teaches, that both faith and good works are the true path to salvation. As St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (1 Cor. 13:2)

As wonderful as the great faith renewal of Advent is, we need to couple it with good deeds if we really want to make ourselves worth of coming face to face with the Word Incarnate in the infant Jesus. It is not simply enough to start attending Mass regularly this Advent and Christmas season (although it’s a great start), this renewed faith must move us to the good works God calls us to do. It could be as small as holding the door for somebody or a small donation to the poor box. Over time you will find that both your faith and Christian good works growing in importance in your life.

This Advent season, how will you renew your faith and good works?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent Joy

Dear Theophilus,

This third week of Advent we lit a pink candle to remind us of the joyful hope we have for the coming of Jesus Christ. But do we really understand the joy we will experience when we come face to face with our Lord Incarnate?

To even begin to glimpse the joy God offers through salvation we need to recognize the moments of pure joy we experience here on earth. Although material possessions can make our lives more comfortable, those moments of pure joy in knowing the rightness of God’s plan are fleeting. Personally, I can think of only 3 moments when I have experienced joy.

The first was my wedding day. Standing at the altar, as I watch my soon-to-be wife walking down the aisle I was overcome by an intense tranquility. Amid all of the craziness a wedding day brings, at that precise moment I felt just how right our marriage is. Our union is what God had meant to be.

I didn’t experience that feeling of rightness again for another 8 years, until I held my adoptive son for the very first time. We had been praying for a long time to have a family, and had finally listened to God’s call to adoption. When my wife put our son into my arms, I once again experienced the pure joy of knowing that this was what God saw was right in the world.

My final experience of joy happens from time to time as I read scripture at Mass. It doesn’t happen every time, but there are moments when I feel the Holy Spirit take over and I become no more than a hollow reed through which God proclaims his Word. As I listen to the Word proclaimed by my own voice, there is a deep sense that this is a part of God’s divine plan.

Having had these experiences, then, I’ve come to know joy not as a result of material satisfaction, but rather in an understanding of God’s plan; a rightness in the world. If these moments of joy can be so moving, then how powerful and intense will be the joyful experience when I meet the Word Incarnate in Christ Jesus? It’s this looking forward that is the joyful hope of Advent.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Judge and be Judged

Dear Theophilus,

I’ve had a hard time lately not being judgemental. Time and again I find myself needing to check my spiritual ego and arrogance when it comes to the piety of others. Whether it’s tourists’ behaviour at a pilgrimage site, the way fellow parishioners dress on Sundays or the entitlement non-practicing Catholics feel towards the sacraments; I often bite my tongue and try to lead by example rather than cause a commotion by calling their actions into question.

Each time this happens, two Gospel quotes come to mind:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Mt. 7:1-2)


Jesus said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” … When they heard it, they went away… and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (Jn. 8:7, 9-11)

Because we are human, and therefore sinners, we need to remember that it is not our place to judge others; only God alone can do that. This does not excuse earthly sin, nor should we condone sin because we cannot judge other. As Jesus did in the story of the adulterer that was brought before him, we are called to forgive the sinner while still abhorring the sin.

Our calling, therefore, is not to play the role of judge, but rather to help ourselves and others to avoid judgement. The line between the two is fine, and the path of righteousness we are called to walk is a precarious one; as we too will be held accountable for our sins on the last day.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Salvation Entitlement

Dear Theophilus,

Reading Scott Hahn's Reasons to Believe, I recently came across a sentence that struck me as oddly summing up contemporary western society:

"Many people today think that salvation is something that God owes us."

For generations we've told our children that they can be whatever they want, achieve whatever they want and have whatever they want; so long as they work hard for it. This has been the case, until recently; those who have worked hard have reaped the benefits of their efforts. In fact, we've worked so hard and done so well, there is little more for us to achieve in this world. With our material needs being more than satisfied, it has been my experience as an educator, that the youth of today (and to some extent their parents) that the world owes them their creature comforts and luxuries.

According to Scott Hahn, this sense of entitlement has flowed over into our spiritual life.

Although God wants nothing more than our salvation, He wants us to want our salvation as much as He does. "For he wishes to give eternal life to all those who seek salvation by patience in well-doing." (Rom 2:6-7)

In fact, there is no guarantee that God will grant us his salvation; He may in fact deny it unless we profess the Kingdom of God to the world:

So every one who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before me, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Mt. 10:32-33)

Like any thing in life, we cannot take the Lord's salvation for granted. The same way a parent wants to give their child an allowance, they want their child to work for it so that it will be that much more appreciated. The money will always be there, just like the parent's love; and the child will learn not to take either for granted. So it is with God. His love and salvation will always be offered to us; but by working for it, His saving touch will be all the more sweeter.

Monday, December 5, 2011

An Advent People

Dear Theophilus,

Listening to St. Mark's Gospel this past Sunday, I realized just how much Easter imagery there is in the Advent and Nativity stories. The Gospel story was one I know well, that of St. John the Baptist and his ministry leading up to the baptism of our Lord. The lines that really caught my attention were these:

"And he preached, saying, 'After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.'" (Mark 1:7)

There was nothing new here. I had heard these words of the Baptist a hundred times over. Of course when some of his contemporaries saw him as the long awaited Messiah, John knew to point them towards Jesus; the one who is mightier than all of the prophets, God himself incarnate.

What struck me was the Easter parallel that came to mind. Although St. John the Baptist, and none of us for that matter, would ever dream of being worthy to untie the Lord's sandals, during the Last Supper he humbled himself to wash the feet of his disciples - the master becoming the servant. It's little wonder then, that when St. Peter realized what was happening, that Christ was cleansing him of his sins, he asked Jesus to not only wash his feet, but his head and body as well.

If our Saviour can stoop so low as to serve us by washing our feet; what servitude of our Lord and of each other are we called to? And do we answer?

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Conundrum of Catholic Education

Dear Theophilus,

I recently asked my catholic high school religion class a question that I already knew the answer to. I asked for a show of hands of how many students did not meet their dominical obligation. Once I explained that dominical obligation meant going to Mass on Sunday, 16 of 20 hands went up to say they didn’t go to Mass regularly. After 16 years of teaching in publicly funded catholic schools, I wasn’t surprised; just saddened.

The problem that I’ve noticed over the years is that parents see the publicly funded catholic school system as a way of getting their kids to church without having to take an hour out of their precious weekend. In essence, our catholic schools have become the Catholic Church for the majority of Catholics. Keeping this in mind, Msgr. Denis Murphy has correctly written that catholic educators are expected to talk about God on a daily basis.

As sad as this situation is, it is not the conundrum facing catholic educators of good conscience. The catch 22 of catholic educators is that we are expected to provide the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist at school mass, to students who are no longer in communion with the Catholic Church. By bringing these children who are not practising their faith (often by no fault of their own) to the Eucharist, we are asking them to commit a far graver sin than the one they are already committing.

What can be done to avoid this conundrum?

Many archdioceses have taken sacramental formation out of the schools, making it once again the responsibility of the parish. It’s funny, in a sad sort of way, the number of parents who complain to the school that they didn’t know that First Communion catechism classes were coming up; yet these classes have been announced for months from the pulpit. This ensures that children who attend mass regularly will be better informed about sacrament preparation. Some pastors have also been known not to say a school Mass, preferring to have Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament instead.

In the end, it is the parents’ responsibility to form their children in good faith habits. This is the promise they made at the child’s baptism. The catholic school system (public or private) is an important piece to that formation, but it should be in a supportive role of both church and home. Faced with such numbers of non-Mass attendance, however, it is the responsibility of the catholic educator to seize any teaching moment to help steer these children back into communion with the Church.