Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Imitating Christ by Meeting our Dominical Obligation

Dear Theophilus, 

This past weekend I was going through my notebook from the Catholic teacher education course I took last summer when I came across a quote from one of the instructors I had written down: 

No where in the Bible does Jesus say to us that we must go to Mass every Sunday or go to confession at least once a year. 

This is a very bold statement with even bolder implications, especially when given by a person with some academic authority in front of a room of impressionable young teachers. I distinctly remember twitching in my seat, but at the time I had no way of countering this statement. To be honest, when I racked my brain, I couldn’t find an answer that could have suitably swayed the argument towards an acceptance of our dominical obligation. 

That was, until my pastor made a very profound observation on the Gospel during his homily this past weekend. 

The Gospel story from Luke is a well known one. It recounts Jesus’ return to Nazareth at the start of his ministry, as the people are beginning to learn of his teaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee. It wasn’t Jesus’ reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and his subsequent announcement that he is the Christ foretold by the prophet that struck me as Father expounded the Gospel in his homily. Instead, it was Father pointing out the significance of a seemingly insignificant line that caught my attention: 

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. (Lk 4:16) 

As was his custom. In other words, Jesus was in the habit of keeping the Fourth Commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. (cf. Ex 20:8) Although he is the Christ, himself, the living Temple of the Lord our God, Jesus, in the humbleness of his humanity, did the Father’s will and went to synagogue on Saturday (or, as a Christian equivalent, he went to church on Sunday). 

As the saying goes – actions speak louder than words; and through his actions, Christ was telling us that we need to meet our dominical obligation to deepen our relationship with him by becoming an imitation of him. 

As the beautiful expression of St. Augustine states: “Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Our entire existence is one that is meant to bring us back to the Lord. What more beautiful way is there to bring restfulness to our hearts, than by becoming one with the Lord in thought and action. 

Although Christ never commanded us: Thou shalt go to Mass on Sunday, he definitely showed us by example that we should. Since he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom; then we too should make it our custom to go to church on the Sabbath day.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Putting on our Sunday Best

Dear Theophilus,

When it comes to special occasions, we’re often told that we need to dress in our Sunday Best. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if Sunday Best is still what people take it to mean. As I take a look around the congregation on Sunday mornings, the fashion styles run the gamut from backyard comfortable and weekend lounging to business casual and almost semi-formal.

I’ve also noticed (these are my own observations and in no way should be taken as the findings of a scientific study) a certain correlation between the age of an individual and how they dress for Mass, with younger members of the congregation dressed as though they were on their way to hang out at the mall – as though they had negotiated their clothing choice with their parents in exchange for attending Mass. It seems, however, that the casual dress code seems to continue into young adulthood for those who choose to continue going to Mass on their own. A second observation, and it’s been made to me by parishioners in this demographic, is that members of the congregation who have recently arrived in Canada or are first-generation have a tendency to dress truly in their Sunday Best for Mass.

The beauty of Catholicism is that they are there in the pew, accepted by God for who they are and the love they bring for Him. All are welcome at the Lord’s table, and all who ask will be nourished.

But do we truly understand the nourishment we’re asking for, and do we truly understand the table the Lord has invited us to?

How many of us, when we’re invited to a dinner party or go out to a high-end restaurant, take the time to primp and preen, paying special attention to our appearance? We tell ourselves that it’s a special occasion, and that we need to look the part to be able to enjoy the whole experience. Although the meal may be the focal point, but our preparation for the meal, inside and out, heightens our expectations and delights in taking part in such a special occasion.

How much more special is the meal we are called to each Sunday? How sacred is the beautiful gift of the Eucharist to us? How should we prepare ourselves to meet Christ at His table?

The Body of Christ is the only food in creation that does not become absorbed by the one eating it; it is the person partaking of the Body of Christ that is absorbed by him. In the Eucharist, Christ is not humbling himself to become food for us; rather, he is elevating us to himself so that in eating his flesh we can become more like him. How very lucky we are to receive an invitation to this banquet.

So we need to prepare. We need to make ready our minds, our hearts and our bodies to receive the Eucharist. And knowing what a wonderful supper we are invited to, should we not present ourselves to our gracious host, our Lord and God, in our Sunday Best?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rediscover Catholicism Revisited

Dear Theophilus,

Just before Christmas I posted a list of my marginalia from Matthew Kelly’s book, Rediscover Catholicism. A number of people let me know that they enjoyed this peek into the wonderful insights Kelly has to offer, but that it left them wanting a more indepth treatment of Kelly’s ideas. I’ve been meditating on this for a while, and I hope these few thoughts will help. At the end of the day, however, what ever I have to say is no replacement for reading Rediscover Catholicism yourself to glean your own profound faith enrichment.

Rediscover Catholicism opens with a short story that really hits home with regards to the importance of the Mass. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, as it would ruin the impact that it has on how one approaches the Mass. Only the hardest of hearts wouldn’t be touched by Matthew Kelly’s storytelling expertise, and it will leave you with a deeper appreciation and reverence for the sacrifice of the Mass, as well as an increased conviction to not only make your dominical obligation, but also to get to Mass more often.

Matthew Kelly then goes on to aptly describe what ills society today and then expound on how Catholicism offers the only valid response to this with its very counter-cultural way of life.

Kelly sees society’s problem as being three-fold: individualism, hedonism and minimalism; with the three being interrelated. As these ideas are developed in Rediscover Catholicism it’s amazing at how evident these exist subtly in society without our really even noticing. Quite correctly, Kelly remarks that we have become a society of individuals instead of a community. From the time we are born in the western world, we are told that we can become whatever we want to be; that we are entitled to success. This individualistic tendency in society then slips quite neatly into Kelly’s second ill of society – hedonism. In today’s secular driven society, everything we do seems to be geared towards our own personal pleasure. If it doesn’t bring us pleasure, especially physical, then it isn’t worth our time. It’s this question of what is worth our time that brings us to Kelly’s third and final societal ill of western secularism: minimalism. With technology racing to make our lives easier, we look to put in the least amount of effort to get the greatest amount of pleasure. It’s funny how all three – individualism, hedonism and minimalism – fit so well together in the society we have created for ourselves.

So, the question then is, how does Matthew Kelly propose that our Catholic faith can help us counter this secular movement of individualism, hedonism and minimalism? In parts 2 and 3 of Rediscover Catholicism he invites, even challenges, us to lean an Authentic Life as the Best-Version of ourselves, supported by the Seven Pillars of Catholic Spirituality.

According to Kelly, the Authentic Life that we are called by God to lead is our very own. In a world where we are bombarded with messages that we are less than the ideal; in a consumerist society where success is equated with certain styles and behaviours; in a world where personal joy is dictated to us by the mass-media; taking joy from simply being yourself is a revolutionary notion. Although many of us aspire to be like the images we see on our screens (phone, computer, television and film), Kelly points out, however, that it’s the people most comfortable in their own skin, most authentic to themselves, being the best-version of themselves that they can possibly be, that are changing the world for the better. And it ain’t easy. Throughout Rediscover Catholicism Kelly singles out examples from a variety of walks of life of people making a difference through perseverance and determination.

Are we up to the challenge?

Before we build ourselves up; before we can start becoming an authentic, best-version of ourselves; we need to strip away our secular tendencies of individualism, hedonism and minimalism. This seems a daunting task, running against society’s accepted current of thought, so this is exactly when we need to lean most upon the Seven Pillars of our Catholic faith for support.

Matthew Kelly lists these Seven Pillars of Catholic spirituality as: Confession, Daily Prayer, The Mass, The Bible, Fasting, Spiritual Reading and the Rosary. From my own experience I c an attest that they provide a valid path to meet the secular world head on, but that they also need to be incorporated into our spiritual life gradually, otherwise we risk overwhelming ourselves and being tempted to once again fall into the world’s minimalist trap.

Reworking the ideas Kelly puts forward would involve more time and space than this blog permits. However, to give you, dear Theophilus, some idea of how our Catholic spirituality can help us be counter-cultural in today’s world, I’ll relate some of my own experiences in searching to be an authentic best-version of myself since reading Rediscover Catholicism (just remember that I’m taking this journey gradually, that I may be at a different stage of the journey than you, and that what works for me, may not be what’s right for you to become the best-version of yourself).


Admittedly, participating in the sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) is one of the hardest things to do. That said, once you get into the practice of making a good and regular confession, there is nothing more liberating. The trick is getting yourself back in the confessional (yes, you have to go, it’s not something that can be done personally on your sofa – more on that as the subject of another blog post). Once you find the spiritual rejuvenation of making confession, the next challenge is making a good confession. To do this I’m continually looking for and redeveloping my examination of conscience – those questions I ask myself before going to confession, making an honest evaluation of how I’m doing as a sinner. I find 5 minutes isn’t enough for this, and spend most of the day reflecting on what I need to confess before entering the confessional. What I’ve found happening over the months that I’ve been doing this is that I automatically make a small examination of conscience before making a decision on how to act in many different circumstances – and there are times I find I catch the sin long before it happens, helping me to be a much better version of myself and a better witness to Christ in the world.

Daily Prayer

I’ve written before about how I’ve started spending 10 minutes of silence every morning in front of the Blessed Sacrament as a way to start my day, laying all of my fears and challenges at the feet of Christ. I’m lucky that I have this opportunity. In the 2 months that I’ve been doing this, I find I can meet the problems of the day with a certain serenity, knowing that God, through the Holy Spirit, will guide my heart and mind. What I’ve been finding recently is that my daily conversation with God is lasting longer than the prescribed 10 minutes without me realizing that the time is passing.

The Mass

Matthew Kelly ponders rhetorically on the fanatical devotion that orthodox Muslims would show if they believed that they could touch and receive Allah in the Eucharist. When you think about it that way, you begin to wonder why Catholics seem take the Mass for granted. Heightening your knowledge and understanding of the Eucharist is one way to deepen your love for the Mass, but there is so much more to the Mass that simply receiving the Eucharist (otherwise the Mass would resemble more of a drive-thru as the faithful line up to receive their weekly offering). The liturgy of the word is just as deep as the liturgy of the Eucharist, and calls for a similar kind of approach and reverence. Preparing my mind for the readings ahead of time (reading the scripture selections before Mass) and searching for a personal meaning in scripture also helps me to ‘Go forth and proclaim the Good News’ once the Mass is over. Between preparing for and going forth from the Mass, the Mass has become a week-long event instead of just a Sunday’s hour-long obligation.

Spiritual Reading

I have a confession to make. Outside of the readings at Mass, I’m not in the habit of reading scripture on a regular basis. This said, I do come into contact with scripture through my other readings. To deepen our knowledge and understanding of our Catholic faith we need to feed it with books on the faith. This isn’t a call to dig deep into theological tomes, again, you will want to start gradually (Rediscover Catholicism would be a great place to start). There are many books on diverse themes in a variety of styles that there is something for everyone (I would suggest perusing what’s on offer at Catholic Chapter House). If reading isn’t your style, ask your cable television provider about subscribing to Salt & Light or EWTN, or the surf the web to sites like CatholicMinistryTV.

The Rosary

When I needed help getting my prayer life started, I found the Rosary to be a great tool. It’s portable, so you can pray it anywhere (for me, it’s while I’m walking the dog), but it also gives you a strong catechism based framework from which to meditate on the beauty of God’s love. I find the repetitive nature of the Rosary allows me to focus on the mysteries presented each day, as well as to focus on any petitions I might have for friends, family or the world. Keeping these petitions in mind, along with my knowledge of God’s love, I find I interact with the world in a much more loving way than I did before.

The insights Kelly shares in Rediscover Catholicism are profound. His perception as to how Catholicism in its sheer simplicity can play a vital role in righting society shakes our current secular belief system to its core. By identifying how Catholicism can help us become an authentic best-version of ourselves, not only can we rejuvenate our faith in Catholic spirituality, we will also strengthen our resolve to help society become the best-version of itself.

Friday, January 18, 2013

On the Catholic Church and Homosexuality

Dear Theophilus, 
From time to time I find myself attending an education workshop outside of my school. In one of the rooms where these workshops are held there’s a poster of a cute baby with the slogan Homosexuality is not a choice. Each time I’m in the room I’m sorely tempted to add a post-it note stating: No, but homosexual acts are! I get the marketing behind the poster – who doesn’t love babies, and if you’re passing judgement against homosexuals, then you’re passing judgement against this innocent. So, according to this poster, if I’m against homosexual activity, I must also be anti-baby. 
What bothers me most about the whole thing is that I’ll be (and have been) shouted down as judgmental if I try to explain the Catholic Church’s position regarding homosexuality, and those on the other side won’t even take the time to try to understand Catholic teaching. Unfortunately for the dialogue, from everything I’ve read, the Catholic Church is NOT homophobic. 
In today’s information age, in fact, there really is no excuse not to know the counterpoint to your argument to be able to formulate a strong foundation for your own. For many, however, the urge is to taint the Catholic Church as homophobic without looking at exactly what the Catholic Church teaches with regards to homosexuals and homosexuality. A quick search of an online catechism tells us forthrightly that the Catholic teaching on homosexuals is as follows: 
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. (CCC 2358) 
In a more cotemporary language, the YOUCAT restates this teaching: 
God created man as male and female and destined them for each other in a bodily way as well. The Church accepts without reservation those who experience homosexual feelings. They (persons who experience homosexual feelings) should not be unjustly discriminated against because of that. At the same time, the Church declares that all homosexual relations I any form are contrary to the order of creation. (YOUCAT 415) 
In a similar vein, in its document Respecting Difference, written to deal with bullying in Ontario schools (and particularly homophobia), the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association states: 
The Roman Catholic faith views all people as children of God. Thus, respect is due to everyone irrespective of their race, gender, age, stage of development, disability, sexual orientation (same-sex or opposite-sex attraction), gender identity, class or religion. The Catholic faith stands resolutely against injustice including injustice in interpersonal relationships such as those typified by bullying. The scourge of bullying in education and in society must be resisted in Catholic schools who see bullying as completely unacceptable. (Respecting Difference, p. 7) 
I find it hard to believe that there can be any misinterpretation from any of these 3 quotes. People of a same-sex attraction or homosexual feelings are to be loved and cared for – valued for the talents that they bring to society. 
What Respecting Difference states so well with regards to Catholic teaching and the differentiation between homosexuals and homosexual activity is this: 
Respecting difference does not mean insisting that another person share our views. Being “tolerant” of another person does not mean accepting that what he or she says is correct or immune from moral evaluation and criticism. (Respecting Difference, p. 5) 
So, although we are called to be loving and tolerant of homosexuals, inviting them into our prayer community, what the Catholic Church cannot be tolerant of (and nor should the rest of society) is the acceptance of homosexual activity as a societal norm. When then Canadian Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau argued his case to decriminalize homosexual activity in 1967 he famously stated, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” (CBC interview – Dec. 21, 1967) In many ways I would argue to the contrary, that the bedrooms of the nation should not be foisted upon the state – which seems to be exactly what is happening these days. 
These teachings against homosexual activity are not something the Catholic Church or the Pope have dreamt up recently as a reaction to a hostile interest group. This teaching goes back over 2,000 years of developing sacred tradition and is strongly rooted in sacred scripture: 
So God created mankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”(Gen 1:27-28) 
As well as, 
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Lev 18:22) 
To be certain, the words found in both scripture and the Catechism – abomination, deviant and disordered - can seem very harsh, especially if when we think of people we love who have homosexual feelings – colleagues, friends and family. What tends to be forgotten, however, is that these words are being used to describe the actions and not the person. In using such language to describe homosexual activities, the Church isn’t trying to attack individuals personally, but rather actions that are detrimental to the common good of humanity, and with good reason. 
Male and female he created them. Both men and women are created in the image of God, and both have an important role to play in creation. Spiritually and physically men and women were created to compliment each other for the furthering of God’s Kingdom, through the propagation of humanity, and their unique instruction and witness born within the family. Imagine for a moment that all marital unions were of a homosexual nature; what would happen to the human race within a generation? and if they did have children, how would these families find a nurturing balance with the complimentary tendencies of both male and female missing from their family structure (the difficulties of which are documented here). It’s in defense of this natural state of humanity that the Catholic Church defies the individualistic urges of a minority in support of the true notion of family being one man and one woman to the exclusion of homosexual activity.
There is a reason why lying with a male as with a woman is an abomination, not only is it unnatural in that it does not lead to the procreation of humanity, it is also medically detrimental to those who partake in such homosexual activities. As I wrote above, male and female are created complimentary to each other, their bodies fashioned for the divine call to procreation. On the other hand, it is a simple fact of nature that certain body parts were not created to receive other body parts, the physically damaging effects of such homosexual activity being well documented in the medical community. It’s in keeping this in mind that the Catholic Church can state with certainty: 
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved. (CCC 2357) 
Advocates of homosexuality will cry foul that Catholic teachings are denying them the right to act upon natural and intrinsic tendencies which they were born with. To this I would counter argue that the Church calls us all to practice our sexuality with the creative restraint with which God intends it. As heterosexuals, if we were all to act upon our base urges to procreate as much as possible with as many partners as possible outside of the singular male and female union created by God, we too would run many of the health risks faced by active homosexuals. As well, wouldn’t others dare to judge in such a role, pushing us to the margins of society.  
We are all called to carry our sexual crosses. Are some more difficult to bear than others – yes, but this is the beauty of the creation of unique individuals in the image of God. And this is why the Catholic Church can give the following directions with regards to homosexuals (yet much the same direction could be given to heterosexuals): 
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. (CCC 2359) 
If we look at all of these Catholic teachings (CCC 2357-2359, YOUCAT 415 and Respecting Difference to name just a few), then how can we not see that the Catholic Church is not homophobic, but rather a church that calls all humanity to itself with prayers of support and guidance.
As members of humanity we are all sinners in need of God’s saving grace. We are fortunate as Catholic Christians, regardless of race, heritage or sexual orientation, to be able to receive God’s saving grace through the sacrament of Reconciliation (confession).

Friday, January 11, 2013

Engaging Fully in Mass

Dear Theophilus, 

I recently wrote about how the call of Vatican II to for the faithful to participate fully andactively in the liturgy has been misunderstood as a call for the laity to take over the role of ordained clergy during the Mass. The misguided perception is that to be fully engaged in the Mass, on must be physically involved in every action that takes place during the liturgy – especially the focal point of the consecration. As many have rightfully pointed out to me, it is possible to be fully engaged and participate actively in the Mass without being the ordained minister leading, even when attending the pre-consular Latin Mass.

This got me to thinking of some ways that I use to get the most out of Mass every Sunday. These are practices that I do to help prepare my heart, mind and soul to receive the Lord in the Eucharist, and I would hope that they are helpful to you. That said, they might not be for everybody, and others may have other suggestions – I’d love to hear them in the hopes that they will help my own on-going journey with the Eucharist. 

Engaging in the Mass begins happening long before we slip into the pew. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a bit of a neurosis regarding punctuality and get a little worked up if things aren’t flowing like a Swiss train schedule. The Sunday’s where we’re running late and peel into the church parking lot on 2 wheels, I find it takes me until the sign of peace before I’m even remotely ready to participate properly in the Mass. By starting my day in a prayerful state and maintaining it until the opening hymn, I’m much more disposed to being open to the Word of God and the saving grace of the Eucharist. 

I never know if I’ll be reading at Mass on Sundays (I generally check the schedule on the fly) so I read through the Mass readings – including the psalm and gospel, while eating breakfast. I find this helps me understand the scripture while it’s read at Mass, whether I’m the scheduled lector or not. Even if you don’t have the time to go over the readings ahead of time, listen attentively, read along in your missalette or close your eyes to limit distractions. I always try to take one thing away from each reading – a phrase or an idea to meditate on. Regardless if the priest focusses on this idea during the homily, I find this helps me to focus on the readings and gives me a reason to dwell  on sacred scripture before, during and after Mass. 

The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian Life.” (Lumen gentium 11) As such, receiving Christ in the Eucharist should not only be the highlight of our Mass, but of our lives. As Matthew Kelly so rightly puts it in Rediscover Catholicism –if Muslims believed that they could receive Allah in the Eucharist, just imagine what they would endure to receive the Eucharist each week. As Catholics, we too should have that passion. What can you do to heighten your experience in the reception of the Eucharist? Get to know Christ through this sacrament. It was only in deepening my own knowledge and understanding of the Eucharist (read about it here) that I found my heart begin to burn when receiving the Body and blood of Christ; my chest physically drawn towards the Tabernacle. 

Like I said before, these are my simple and humble ways to approach the Mass to get the most out of this beautiful spiritual experience. Yours might be different, and as a unique creation of God it should be. I would be grateful to hear of how others approach the Mass, as I’m continually evolving on my journey home to God.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What is Full and Active Participation in the Liturgy?

Dear Theophilus,

Lately I’ve come to enjoy reading The Eye of the Tiber. This light-hearted blog takes a look at some of the more un-Catholic activities that seem to bubble to the surface from time to time in the Catholic Church. Some might find The Eye of the Tiber to be a bit churlish, and others a bit childish, but I find it’s in putting things into the silly extreme that we can put them into their proper perspective.

In a recent post The Eye of the Tiber, tongue firmly planted in cheek, told of how a congregation rushed forward to the bewilderment of a visiting priest to participate in the consecration of the Eucharist. Apparently, to be able to participate fully and actively in the liturgy, members of this fictional parish encircle the altar during the Eucharistic prayer, stretching out their hands over the bread and wine at the moment of consecration as though they are concelebrating with the priest.

Unfortunately, many people perceive this as the only way to participate fully and actively in the Mass – by being directly involved in every moment. I’ve heard people complain that only the priest and a few of his favourites “do everything” at Mass while everybody else just sits there and watches. This is often accompanied with head scratching and the puzzled query: Wasn’t Vatican II supposed to change all of this?

In short, Yes – The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) does call the faithful to become full and active participants in the liturgy by stating:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work. (SC 14)

With zeal and patience, pastors of souls must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful, and also their active participation in the liturgy both internally and externally, taking into account their age and condition, their way of life, and standard of religious culture. By so doing, pastors will be fulfilling one of the chief duties of a faithful dispenser of the mysteries of God; and in this matter they must lead their flock not only in word but also by example. (SC 19)

And this did open the door to more lay participation in the Mass, most notably in the roles of lector and extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. The problem, however, is that many people seemed to have stopped reading the document at this point, interpreting Sacrosanctum Concilium to mean that the laity would be welcome to take over the roles reserved by sacred scripture and tradition for the clergy.

Reading a little further we recall that, as the Church, we are called to be the body of Christ on earth, and that, in the same way that our temporal bodies are made of many parts, each with its unique function, it is the same with the spiritual body of Christ – the Catholic Church. We are all unique, individual parts of the body of Christ – each with our own special function (vocation) within the Church. Just as our toes cannot perform the same function as our mouths, nor our lungs as our stomachs or brains; a lector is not called to perform the role of a cantor; nor an usher that of a priest, bishop or pope. Everybody has an indispensible role to play in the proper functioning of the Church, and each needs to participate fully and actively in their role for the Catholic Church to fulfill its mission of bringing God’s Word to the world.

The bishops of Vatican II recognized this when they continued to state in Sacrosanctum Concilium:
Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.
Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation. (SC 26)
Followed more importantly by:

In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy. (SC 28)

I think this second paragraph from Sacrosanctum Concilium is probably the most important (and the most looked over). It distinctly states that everyone must participate as far as their office (role) in the liturgy calls for. In other words, it’s perfectly fine to be a simple member of the congregation, as long as we participate fully and actively as a member of the congregation, engaging ourselves by listening attentively to the Word of God, responding to the common prayers and allowing God to engage in us through his Son, Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist.

It’s when we worry too much about fulfilling the offices of others in the Mass as opposed to those that pertain to our office or rank that the wheels seem to fall off and the Mass and its participants no longer resemble themselves.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Theotokos - Mary the Mother of God

Dear Theophilus,

On January 1st we celebrate the Feast of Mary the Mother of God. This is one of the most beautiful feasts of the liturgical calendar, but for our Protestant brothers in Christ, also one of the most contentious. 

Although their arguments are many, I find that Protestant arguments with the Feast of Mary Mother of God can be summarized as two-fold: firstly, how can a human, Mary of Nazareth, be considered the mother of God our Creator? and secondly, if Catholics are Christian, isn’t it blasphemous to set aside a day to worship someone other than Jesus Christ? 

The first question, where Mary’s ability to be the Mother of God, as in her ability to take part in the conception of and give birth to God was dealt with at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The council decreed that Mary is Theotokos – literally, The One who gives birth to God, but it’s much easier to say Mother of God – since her son, Jesus, is in one person both human and divine, man and God. This doctrine of Christ’s divine and human natures residing in one flesh can be found most eloquently stated at the beginning of John’s Gospel: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:1-3, 14) 

From John’s Gospel we can come to understand that God the Creator from Genesis, The Word, took on human form, becoming human flesh; and thus in Christ Jesus we have both the divine and human dwelling within the same being. With the Nativity being one of the first biblical stories most Christians learn, any Christian, regardless of denomination, will tell you that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary – in other words, Mary is the Mother of Jesus. If, as Christians, we are to deny that Mary is the Mother of God, since Christ is both man and God, wouldn’t this also be a denial of Christ’s divinity. 

As far as Mary’s ability to conceive God within her womb, we need only look to words spoken by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation: 

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35) 

Again, if we deny that Mary carried and gave birth to God – Theotokos/Mother of God – then we are denying Christ’s very own divinity. 

With regards to the second question of why Catholic’s would set aside a day to worship Mary instead of Jesus (or other saints for that matter) shows an understanding of Catholicism and the Mass that is quite erroneous. Although a treatment of how Catholics worship God through the Mass would be much too long for this blog, I will try to briefly expound upon how Catholics look to the saints, and to Mary the Mother of God in particular, for guidance and help in their quest to become one with the Creator. 

Time and again we hear of Protestants calling Catholics Mary Worshippers based primarily on the recitation of the Hail Mary. I find this amusing since so many Protestants who base their faith on Sola Scriptura (solely on scripture, and usually a very literal interpretation) cannot see that the first half of the prayer: 

Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed are you among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. 

 is based directly on the Gospel of Luke 1:26-31,42: 

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus 

Followed by her cousin, Elizabeth’s exhortation: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 

By reciting these lines, Catholics are merely repeating the Lord’s message to Mary as it was presented by the angel Gabriel. Many times when I murmur this prayer, it's in reverent awe that our Creator God would have the confidence to use the lowliness of humanity in his plans for salvation. I look to Mary, frightened in the angel’s presence, and in wonderment of her courageous Yes to God, I wonder at what plan God has in store for me, and if I would have the same courage as a scared young girl did over 2,000 years ago.  

In his quintessential Confessions, St. Augustine so wisely teaches us to pray: God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you. As Christians we are on a journey to reunite our hearts with the Lord, and like on most journeys, we’ll tend to get lost from time to time, so we need to ask directions. Really, who better is there to ask for directions to find Christ from, than his mother, Mary? This is exactly what we do in the second half of the Hail Mary: 

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

We acknowledge that we are sinners, and that we need all the help we can get on our journey towards God, so we ask Mary to pray for us, much the same way would ask a friend to pray for us during difficult times. If the prayers of a living friend (also a sinner) are helpful, then just imagine the power of Mary, the Mother of God’s prayers. And if we listen hard enough, she answers them quite succinctly: 

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) 

These words, spoken by Mary at the wedding at Cana, could have been spoken as much for us today as they were for the servants at the wedding who provided the jars of water that allowed Christ to perform his first miracle.  

If we too do whatever he tells us, then Christ can also work miracles with what we provide him. I’m sure it won’t be easy, as neither was finding 120 to 180 gallons of water on the spot in a desert country; but like the wine that was drawn from the 6 stone jars, I’m sure the quality of the product will be beyond our imagination. 

Finally, I find the beauty in the celebration of the feast of Mary Mother of God, in the sheer simplicity that Mary understood her roll, and ours, is to continually point towards the Father through her Son. Whether it was saying yes to God’s will at the Annunciation, or directing others to do Christ’s will at the wedding feast at Cana, Mary continually shows us what it means to offer yourself in total worship to God. 

I think this can be summed up with one line from the gospel reading for this great feast day: 

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19) 

We need to be more like Mary, treasuring the Word of God through scripture and revelation, pondering them in our hearts to better understand his will for us.