Monthly Archives: September 2013

I often wonder if some people who stumble across this blog aren’t tempted to believe that I might be presenting a caricature of Evangelical Protestantism. As I have stated before, when I write about the Protestantism I left behind, I write about once-saved/always-saved, nondenominational churches and charismatic assemblies: Bible-alone churches. I’m really not qualified to discuss things from the perspective of a former Lutheran or former Reformed Presbyterian, since I was neither. I did attend Presbyterian churches when I lived in Taiwan, but those churches were led by lay-preachers who delivered a gospel indistinguishable from the one preached at nondenominational churches of my acquaintance in the U.S. My only exposure to real Lutheranism or Presbyterianism would have come from visiting my college friend’s Lutheran church, where I was exposed to Ash Wednesday, and from the one Lutheran and two Presbyterian pastors who, with a Baptist, co-pastored the church I attended right after marrying my Baptist husband – pastors who, because of the extreme ecumenical nature of the church, were not in a position to teach any distinctively Lutheran or Presbyterian notions – once again, it was a lowest-common-denominator kind of Christianity.

I’m sure, though, that to some Protestants it would seem that I am caricaturing Evangelicalism, twisting it out of shape to make it appear grotesque and unappealing, distorting its features. I beg to differ.

Every single church I attended as a Protestant was filled with Bible-believing Christians, good people, sincere people. I have never attended a liberal, Bible-reinterpreting church. Yet the Bible-believing doctrine that I was taught in those Bible-believing churches of my acquaintance varied from church to church. Over the course of the first 45 years of my life I attended churches that told me I had to experience the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and speak in tongues, and other churches derided that notion as holy-rollerism. Some of my pastors preached that I could lose my salvation, and others preached that I could not. The theology taught by certain radio preachers (such as D. James Kennedy) on the local Baptist station ran counter to the theology taught by other radio preachers (such as Adrian Rogers).

I really did think that my Christian beliefs were the same as the beliefs of the first-century followers of Christ, despite the fact that I had attended churches that taught that I could lose my salvation and churches that taught that that was impossible. No matter which Protestant church I attended, I believed that what I was taught was exactly what the first Christians believed. Every Protestant church I attended really did believe that all conservative Protestants agree on “the Essentials.”

I really was baptized twice. This is not unheard of. Sadly, there are folks who get baptized three and four times, because they fear that their first baptism didn’t “work,” just as I feared that my first baptism had been invalid since it had been an infant baptism in my mother’s Methodist church.

The thriving church I attended as a child really did vanish off the face of the earth when the leadership felt “led by the Lord” to hand the church building back to the denomination and meet in informal “home church” settings, in imitation of what they believed the early church looked like.

Our Baptist church really did hold “prophecy conferences” in which various self-proclaimed “prophecy experts” proposed versions of the End Times that conflicted with those of other self-proclaimed “prophecy experts.”

We really did say “Now, we KNOW that Paul did NOT mean ‘continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ when he wrote ‘continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.'”

We really did use 1 John 5:13 to “prove” that true believers could know that they were saved with no chance of losing their salvation (AKA “you can know that you know that you know that you know…”)

I really have attended churches where the pastor was voted into office by the congregation based on his agreement with THEIR interpretation of the Word of God.

I really do know Evangelicals who believe that Mother Teresa most likely wasn’t saved because she was working her way to Heaven.

My former church’s newspaper really did cast doubt on whether we’ll see John Paul II in Heaven, given that he taught “false doctrine.”

Young Earth Creationism really was taught to my kids at their Baptist Academy.

My son’s Bible teacher really did tell the class that she never talks to Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock on her door, because she is afraid that they will deceive her with their false doctrine and lead her away from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, causing her to be damned, and then explained that if that happened and she did fall away, then she had never really been saved to begin with.

I really have met people here in town who believe that the King James Version of the Bible is inspired and inerrant.

When we became Catholic, Baptist friends really did wonder how we could convert to the beliefs of a religious system that burned Martin Luther at the stake.

I really did attend a charismatic healing meeting in which several people were “healed” of leg-length discrepancy.

My mother’s charismatic friend really did teach people “how to prophesy.”

My mother really did believe that lay Catholics are kept in the dark about the real, secret doctrines of the Catholic Church.

My point is, I don’t believe that the Bible-alone picture that I am depicting is a caricature of Protestant beliefs – I believe that nondenominational and charismatic theology are themselves a caricature of more traditional Protestant beliefs. However, in defense of my former beliefs, I would add that nondenominational and charismatic theology take traditional Protestant beliefs to their natural conclusion.

The beliefs and practices of Bible-alone Christians are the logical extension of the beliefs of the Reformers. After all, if the Reformers were right, if the Catholic Church junked up the pure Gospel with the trappings of ritual, why do away with only some rituals – why not all of them? As a nondenominational Christian, I and everyone I worshipped with was disdainful of Lutheran pastors donning robes and Reformed ministers baptizing infants and leading their congregation in the recitation of the Apostles Creed – those practices are not in the Bible! If the Reformers were right, and the Catholic Church added the traditions of men to the commandments of God, why only do away with some of those traditions? Why disavow the conclusions of only some Church Councils, like Trent – why not all the Church Councils?
If no one on this earth can come to infallible conclusions, how can you know for sure that the Council of Nicaea was orthodox while the Council of Florence was not? Why retain the Creed? Why not “no creed but Christ”?

Martin Luther believed that Mary was a sinless, perpetual virgin and that she was the Mother of God. Today’s Lutheranism rejects the former assertions, but still agrees with the latter. Bible-alone Protestants reject the second doctrine as well, with the understanding that Martin Luther set out to strip the Church of the barnacles of tradition, the prime example of a barnacle being the “unbiblical” doctrine of the Theotokos. In this sense nondenominational Christians see themselves as the true descendants and heirs of the Reformation, bringing the “purge” to its proper completion.

Why do things half-way?

I suspect that members of traditional Protestant denominations would listen to my story and explain to me that as a Bible-alone Christian I had fallen prey to “solo” Scriptura, a caricature of what they view as the biblical doctrine of sola Scriptura. Protestants such as I once was who take the Bible as their sole authority are twisting the doctrines of the Reformers, they would tell me. The Reformers actually taught that the Bible is the highest authority, but that the “church” also functions as an authority. Therefore, no true Christian can, for example, reject the Nicene Creed, crafted by the church, on the grounds that it was produced by men and is not found in the Bible. Got it?

As a Bible-alone Christian, my answer would have been, “Which part of Martin Luther’s declaration at Worms don’t you understand?”

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

No, Bible-alone Christians emphatically don’t “get it.” According to Luther’s own words, Bible-alone Christians are the true heirs of the Reformation. Away with your creeds and councils! Just give me Jesus!

It is often noted that as you age, your features may become something of a caricature of your younger face. When the youthful bloom fades from your cheeks, your sharp nose looks even pointier. Your hairline recedes, making your ears look larger. This is exactly what has happened as Protestantism has aged. As Bible-alone Christians have taken the ideas of the arch-Reformer to their legitimate conclusion, the face of Protestantism has changed. It is not attractive, with all of its scars and pits of seemingly endless division. While mainline denominations try to distance themselves from Bible-alone Christians, the family resemblance is unmistakable. The rebellious rejection of the legitimate authority of the Church is ever-present, whether it is traced genteelly on the features of those who claim to submit to the “church,” (a church of their own creation), or drawn in harsher lines on the visage of those who reject every authority on Earth outside of their own fallible interpretation of Scripture. Like it or not, admit it or not, Bible-alone Christians are the spittin’ image of their spiritual forbears. Photoshop was invented for just such a reason.


On the memorial of St. Jerome

Deo omnis gloria!

I believe I have mentioned before on this blog that I can’t sing. I have a wimpy little voice that doesn’t carry, won’t go up high and won’t go down very low, either. I guess I could be described most politely as an alto. Yet so often in my life I seem to be expected to sing the soprano part and hit those high notes. When you’ve got a miscellaneous group of people singing together, like at Mass, there really is only one part, and women (that would be me) are expected to sing soprano.

Not a huge problem – just don’t sit directly in front of me and you’ll be fine. I know some of the other ladies can’t hit those high notes, either. Probably a lot of the guys have trouble with the low ones. We do the best we can.

Sometimes even those in the choir struggle. Not being choir material, I have always been grateful to those who sacrifice their time to attend choir practice, learn their part, and stand up there on Sunday mornings to assist folks like me in praising the Lord in song. I’ve noticed, of course, that some choirs are better than others. The choir we assembled to sing at the funeral of our beloved deacon was topnotch. Some of our Sunday morning choirs haven’t been all that great, but considering that the best voices are divided between two Sunday masses as well as the vigil, that’s to be expected. Most choir members aren’t professionals, and some of them may be not-particularly-gifted folks who just like to sing.

Which is fine with me – I’m not really in a position to criticize. The only time I have a gripe concerning less-than-stellar singing is when the cantor steps up to the microphone to lead the congregation in the Psalm. At that point I get a little finicky, because the Psalm is part of the proclamation of God’s word, as much a part of it as the Old Testament reading, the New Testament reading and the Holy Gospel read to us by the priest. The cantor at that point isn’t just making a joyful noise unto the Lord – he or she is proclaiming the Bible to us in song.

So we need to be able to understand it.

The problem is, though, that those Psalms are very hard to sing. Some cantors do a better job than others. There tend to be a lot of flat notes, missed beats and just off-key, off-tempo singing in general. My pet peeve is when the cantor doesn’t know the part and mumbles, sputters and mutters his or her way through the Psalm, leaving the assembled to wonder what exactly that was all about….

Could I do a better job? Yes and no. I could stand up there better prepared than some cantors I have heard. But I certainly couldn’t sing better than they – quite the contrary. You just can’t take an alto, give her what basically amounts to a soprano part, and expect her to distinguish herself vocally.

Yet, sadly, that’s just what I’ve been asked to do in life. As a Christian, I’ve been asked to go out into the world and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in what I say and in what I do. We’ve all been told that our life may be the only Bible certain people ever read, so our proclamation had better be pretty darn clear; otherwise, it’s like standing up before the congregation at Mass and butchering the Psalm. Huh? What?? That Christian message is jibberish!

Making the task more daunting is the fact that when I proclaim the Good News, I’ve been asked to sing the soprano part, and I can’t hit those high notes! My rendition of the Song of Forgiveness, for example, can sound worse than a cat yowling romantic notions in the middle of a hot summer night. How does it go again?? I don’t really know all the words yet. And when it comes to high C – showing love to those who have offended me – well, I just can’t sing that high. My rendition of the Song threatens to dissolve into a sorry performance.

One of the parishes here in town recently got a new priest, an amazing baritone with a voice worthy of a Broadway show. He loves to sing, and his voice is so big that he doesn’t even need a microphone. I have noticed that the singing at that parish has improved immensely since his arrival, because his booming voice just sweeps everyone else’s efforts along before it. Suddenly, parishioners who didn’t even bother to open the hymnal are singing along with Father. He makes you feel like you can sing.

That’s the secret.

I can’t hit those high notes; it’s true. But Christ, Who forgave from the Cross those who had nailed Him to it, sings with me and through me. This is no Milli Vanilli performance – I’m not lip-synching. I have to forgive. But He is not only the Singer – He is the Song, and when I make an effort to sing it, it takes on His life. Just like the cantor proclaiming the word of God in song, I am proclaiming the love of God with my life. I need to practice; I need to learn the words – but I never need worry about hitting notes that are simply out of my vocal range. He doesn’t ask me to do what I can’t do. I just need to get up on that stage, take up my mike, and sing with Him.

High C? Not in this lifetime. But it’s Him the world is supposed to be listening to, anyway.


On the memorial of St. Marie Thérèse Couderc

Deo omnis gloria!

Modern-day heretics have fallen on hard times. All the really good heresies are taken – you can invent some new kind of science fiction religion like Scientology (snort), but heretically speaking, the best you can do is to reinvent the ancient wheel. When 21st-century Evangelical pastors go rogue and deny the existence or the eternity of hell, they are stepping into a heretical tradition that goes back at least to the 3rd century. The Catholic Church has condemned this view as being contradictory to both Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The writings of the Church Fathers of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries make clear the traditional Christian understanding of hell:

Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him. St. Ignatius of Antioch, early 2nd century

We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire. St. Justin Martyr, mid 2nd century

Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven,, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess’ to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send ‘spiritual wickednesses,’ and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning of their Christian course, and others from the date of their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, late 2nd century

All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked. Yet, it would be better for them if they were not deathless. For they are punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire. Since they do not die, it is impossible for them to have an end put to their misery. St. Clement of Alexandria, early 3rd century

The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in
eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life. St. Cyprian of Carthage, mid 3rd century

…if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, mid 4th century

Of course, the “traditional Christian understanding” of anything isn’t really of interest to your average Evangelical pastor – if it were, he couldn’t comfortably remain an Evangelical pastor, since traditionally Christians have believed in the Real Presence, the necessity of final perseverance, baptismal regeneration, Purgatory, the veneration of saints, etc., all of which he as an Evangelical rejects. “The Bible alone” is the yardstick by which all of his beliefs are measured. Jesus did happen to mention hell once or twice, though:

His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Mt 3:12

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Mt. 5:22

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Mt 10:28

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Mt 13:41-42

… throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Mt 13:50

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. Mt 18: 8-9

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Mt 23:33

Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels …’ Mt 25:41

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. Mk 9:43

A lot depends, though, on how you choose to take Jesus’ words. Did He mean for His teachings on hell to be taken literally? Should we not rather understand them figuratively? How did His followers understand the doctrine of hell?

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…. 2 Thess 1:5-9

…God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…. 2 Pet 2:4

These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. Jude 12-13

And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name. Rev 14:11

And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. Rev 19:20

And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Rev 20:10

But the dirge of eternal torment strikes some people as distinctly off-key. Are we to believe that an unfathomably merciful God, a God Who is Love, will allow people to suffer eternally? What about the verses that appear to claim that all people will be saved?

“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19).

“as one trespass led to condemnation for all people, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people” (Rom. 5:18). Like Jesus’ statement,

“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

To advocates of universalism (the belief that all will be saved in the end), there may be a hell, but whether or not anyone actually goes there is the question. Even if some folks do end up in hell, in the end they will get out. Picture hell as a version of Purgatory, if you will, only less pleasant. Those who reject God in this life will be tormented until they have been punished sufficiently for their sins – and then admitted to eternal bliss. Proponents of the annihilation theory, on the other hand, believe that those who rebel against God will cease to exist, rather than suffer for all eternity. Either way, while the flames of hell may be eternal, there’s no reason to believe that one’s suffering might be. After all, they ask, how can the Good News be good if it boils down to “Believe in Jesus or God will send you to hell to suffer forever”?

Jesus did seem to dwell on the topic of hell, though; it was presumably important to Him to warn His listeners concerning the reality of what He Himself referred to as “everlasting fire.” So how to understand these verses?

Protestants have been arguing over the “plain meaning” of Scripture since about 5 minutes after Luther nailed his Theses to the door. Where can they turn if a brother will not understand Scripture the way they understand Scripture? One Evangelical website attempts to straighten universalists out by referring them back to the decisions of Church councils:

Universalism was taught by Origen (185-254 A.D.) but was declared heresy by the Council of Constantinople in 543 A.D. It became popular again in the 19th century and is gaining traction in many Christian circles today.

How exactly does that statement strengthen the Evangelical argument against universalism? Many Church councils made many declarations which are rejected lock, stock and barrel by Evangelical Protestants – the declaration of Mary as the Mother of God by the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. comes to mind. Since when do the pronouncements of Church councils carry any weight with Evangelicals? Evangelicals referring heretics back to the Church councils is like a rebellious teenager insisting that his siblings shut up and do what Mom says. In an Evangelical context, you are stepping outside your own self-imposed boundaries if you call upon the decisions of Church councils as proof that your understanding of Scripture is correct. You can’t reject the conclusions of the councils when they disagree with your “Bible alone” conclusions, and then trot them out to make others behave.

So, how are Catholics in a better position? Protestants don’t have a corner on universalist teachings; there are Catholics who have questioned the existence and the eternal nature of hell just as persuasively.

Catholics have the teaching Magisterium of the Church. Church teaching is informed by the words of the Old and the New Testament, the writings of the early Church Fathers, the decisions of Church councils, and the teachings of the popes, as well as the theological understanding of the saints down through the ages. The last paragraph of the Athanasian Creed (c. early 6th century), for example, proclaims the eternity of hell:

He shall come to judge the living and the dead; at His coming all men have to arise again with their bodies and will render an account of their own deeds: and those who have done good, will go into life everlasting, but those who have done evil, into eternal fire.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had this to say about those consigned to hell:

All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ..

St. Thomas Aquinas also wrote that hell exists and will last eternally:

Scripture repeatedly tells us that the punishment of hell is everlasting. For instance, St. Matthew says that “the wicked shall go into everlasting punishment.” As reward is measured to meet merit, so punishment is measured to meet guilt. But the guilt of mortal sin is the guilt of completely rejecting God and offending him whose majesty is infinite. The guilt of such a sin deserves unending punishment.

Pope Benedict XII discussed the Beatific Vision in his Benedictus Deus (1336); he had this to say about punishment in hell:

Moreover we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into hell immediately after death and there suffer the pain of hell.

As Avery Cardinal Dulles summed it up: “The constant teaching of the Catholic Church supports the idea that there are two classes: the saved and the damned.” In addition to that “constant teaching,” when the eternal nature of punishment in hell is called into question Catholics can quote from a more recent pope, Blessed John Paul II:

God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely, can unfortunately choose to reject His love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself forever from joyful communion with Him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life “hell”.

In a theological sense however, hell is something else: it is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life.

Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt 25:46).

No mincing of theological concepts there. According to Blessed John Paul, those punished in hell are punished eternally. His successor, Benedict XVI, was equally forthright:

Jesus came to tell us that He wants us all in heaven and that hell, of which so little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to His love.

No surprise, then, that the Catechism speaks bluntly of hell:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love Him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against Him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from Him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are His brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that He “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that He will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with Him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”: Father, accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen.

And there’s the answer to the question “how can the Good News be good if it boils down to ‘Believe in Jesus or God will send you to hell to suffer forever'”?

He who does not love remains in death. 1 Jn 3:14

The truth is that we are all dead in our sins with no hope of Heaven. The Good News is that there’s a way out of that condition. There is an escape from eternal death: Him!
You don’t have to go to hell! But you will if you don’t follow the Way out….

So when Father Errant assures your congregation that they can stop worrying – there’s probably no hell, and if there is a hell nobody’s in it, and if somebody is actually in it, he’ll get out sooner or later, ask Father which part of “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell” he doesn’t understand. The existence of hell and its eternity are dogmas of the Faith. The Magisterium does not teach us to believe that Jesus was wasting His breath warning that you might end up in hell when, in reality, God is too much of a cosmic softie to allow that eventuality to occur. To teach otherwise is to lead the faithful astray.

And make sure you pray for Father Errant, that God may grant that he not be among those to whom St. Pio, whose feast we celebrate today, was referring when he quipped:

They’ll believe in hell when they get there.


On the memorial of St. Pio of Pietrelcina

Deo omnis gloria!

I was born in New York state, but I grew up in Arizona back in the days when every non-Native American who lived there came from somewhere else. As a near-native Arizonan I knew all the desert survival techniques – they were taught to us in school and by the local media. Don’t camp in a dry wash. Don’t drive off on a scenic tour of the desert without notifying people where you’re going (this was in the pre-cell-phone era when such foolishness could end very badly). Always carry water with you. Stay away from Gila monsters. Don’t let your kids eat oleander leaves. Don’t put your shoes on until you’ve cautiously uprighted them and knocked any critters out. Every year accidents would befall snowbirds because they didn’t seem to realize that they weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto – they were in the Arizona DESERT. The newbs!

And then, I moved back East.

I’ll never forget the day I came home with a little bouquet of wildflowers I’d picked for my daughter. More botanically savvy than I, she saw the pretty leaves I’d used to fill out the bouquet and screamed, because I was handing her a bouquet graced with the lovely fall foliage of poison ivy.

My son nearly hurt himself laughing. He was born in Virginia.

So, who knew?? I thought the leaves made a nice background for the flowers! How could anything that attractive be poison ivy??

But it is true that a lot of things, like poison ivy in its autumnal glory, are attractive and at the same time something you definitely want to stay away from. Everyone who lives in my part of the country has to learn to watch out for poison ivy; you don’t want to tangle with it.

Some Christians view pleasure in the same light as poison ivy – you don’t want to tangle with it! It may seem fun, but it’ll come back to bite you in the rear! Doesn’t the Bible itself warn against pleasure? Even something as innocuous as taking a nap is lambasted in the book of Proverbs:

A little sleep, a little slumber,

a little folding of the hands to rest,

and poverty will come upon you like a robber,

and want like an armed man!

And look at the New Testament! The prime example is the apostle Paul, a man who by his own admission was no stranger to suffering!

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.

And yet this same man who suffered so much confessed that “I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage!” You would think that that would hardly be necessary after all he’d been through, but he knew that indulging your senses puts you on the slippery slope to hell!

This is really not the majority Christian perspective on pleasure, however. Most Christians will tell you that while pleasure isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, but neither is it Gila monsters and oleander! The Bible does forbid certain “pleasures” that we might be tempted to commit, and your parents probably added their own prohibitions to that list (I know when I was a child, punching my sister sometimes seemed very tempting, and I was sure that I would enjoy it….) Some denominations present their congregations with pre-packaged judgments on various pleasures: certain things like drinking, smoking, dancing, playing cards and non-prescription drug use are to be avoided – they might give you pleasure, but God doesn’t want you doing that kind of thing. Other pleasures, though, like your hobbies and leisure-time activities, the way you spend your discretionary income, are between you and God. As C.S. Lewis put it:

He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least – sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working.

At the far end of the spectrum, there are Christians who go all the way to the “whooping-it-up” extreme, claiming that “liberty in Christ” means that they can indulge in anything their conscience allows (years ago I worked with a Baptist pastor and his wife who preached this) as long as the Bible does not explicitly forbid it. They believe that anyone who tries to warn them that they’re causing scandal is promoting works-righteousness.

As an Evangelical, I straddled two of these positions. I certainly believed in my “liberty in Christ,” but at the same time I took seriously the Biblical warning to avoid even the appearance of sin, and would curtail my pleasures accordingly even if they did not seem sinful to me. I attended a Baptist church that taught that it was sinful to drink alcohol or to smoke cigarettes; I was convinced that they were wrong on that, but I certainly did not want to scandalize my weaker brothers, and therefore I abstained. Basically, I had two lists in my head, “Bad Pleasures” and “Good Pleasures,” and every time I was confronted with a pleasure I mentally jotted it down on either the “Sure, Why Not?” list or the “Don’t Even Think About It” list, and attempted to behave accordingly. It was a constant sifting process, with many factors to be considered. It could get tiresome and somewhat confusing, especially when everyone I knew said that something I indulged in (like a glass of wine when I went out with my students after class) was on the “You did what??” list, while something I eschewed (like watching certain TV programs) was on the “Nothing wrong with that!” list, leading me to wonder if sinful humans were actually capable of assigning pleasures to the correct list in such subjective situations. Some pleasures weren’t easy to categorize. Some things fell into a gray zone. For a Christian who wanted to do the right thing, the whole decision-making process, with all its variables, was a perpetual headache.

And then I read St. Ignatius of Loyola, and was introduced to the Catholic perspective on pleasure:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him. Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

The genius of St. Ignatius’ “First Principle and Foundation” is that it boiled my never-ending decision-making process down to an elegantly simple “one desire and choice” – to want and to choose only that which is going to assist me in praising, reverencing and serving God, that I might save my soul.


The problem with our evaluation of “pleasure” is that it focuses on the pleasure, looking it over the way we examine a product before buying it. Is it shiny? Does it sparkle? It’s so soft! Wait till the neighbors get a load of this! The “First Principle and Foundation” insists that we get our eyes off the pleasure in question and focus on the Goal, and how to get there. Imagine a man trapped in a 10-foot-deep pit with no hope of rescue. What do you suppose he is coveting? Prestige? Riches? How about an 11-foot ladder?

He is focused on the goal.

Everything on the face of the earth was created for man to help him in attaining the incomparable End for which he is created. Therefore, categorizing certain created things as “pleasures” and then sorting them onto the “Yes, and often” list or the “I would NEVER” list obscures the actual objective. The real question is, will any given thing, pleasant or unpleasant, assist me in attaining the End for which I was created? If the answer is yes, then I must make every effort to avail myself of the assistance provided by that created thing. If the answer is no, then why would I pursue it? – even something as “good” as companionship or financial security, for “we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life.” These things are “good” or “bad” not in and of themselves, but only as they serve to bring us closer to the one matchless Goal….

Probably the most frightening attribute of members of my generation is that we have become “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” This has led many of us to repudiate God altogether, because sometimes it is seriously no fun following the Crucified One. Yet many of us continue to call ourselves by His Name while indulging in a debilitating love of “legitimate” pleasures, blind to the fact that we are living like evil stewards. We have given our hearts to an idol – sweet pleasure – and it is poisoning our relationship with God.

“Does this thing conduct me closer to God?” “Will this thing smooth the path to Heaven for me?” Truly, “there are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least,” but that is not the same as saying that those things are what I, here and now, need most to bring me closer to God. What I am used to viewing as a “legitimate” pleasure may be a great big bouquet of spiritual poison ivy, and what I think of as unpleasant, something to be avoided at all costs, may be essential to my sanctification. Good stewards put everything God sends them to profitable use, because they know that in the end there will be only one pleasure – eternal and incorruptible – and they will either possess it or forfeit it permanently. Good stewards plan accordingly, and they will not be caught napping when their Master returns.


On the memorial of the Holy Korean Martyrs

Deo omnis gloria!

The Christian message has always been advertised as “the Good News,” and for very good reason. Mankind had no way to enter Heaven before the coming of the Savior. Christians are tasked with proclaiming the Good News – God loves the world so much that He sent His Son, the Messiah Jesus Christ, to die for us! Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven! He is seated at the right hand of the Father, and He is coming back again!

It doesn’t get much better than that!

But wait! There’s more! is the cry of many Evangelical churches trying to do the Good News one better. It isn’t enough just to know that you can have eternal life; you need to know that you can’t lose it….

These churches preach the once-saved/always-saved gospel; the idea that if an individual makes a sincere, one-time confession of faith, accepting Jesus as his Lord and Savior, then come hell or high water – he’s SAVED. Call it the Better-than-Good!™News. While you sometimes hear the proposition qualified with the disclaimer that the believer isn’t allowed to subsequently repudiate Christianity (if he does, all bets are off), short of in-your-face apostasy, salvation is – according to these believers – a done deal. These churches are selling tickets to Heaven, and they are cheap, cheap, cheap. The Catholic version of the gospel – the proclamation that one must not only believe and be born again, but subsequently grow in holiness and lead a life of faithful service to Christ to the end – is viewed as Bad News, a spurious gospel shackling Catholics to works-righteousness when God wants them free to revel in their eternal security.

As you can imagine, the belief that you and everyone else at your church are headed without question straight to Heaven will impact the rest of your theology. The OSAS brand of Christianity is streamlined and marvelously straightforward; Christians live in this world for the purpose of preaching the Better-than-Good!™News. Period. You need to get saved so that you can get others saved so that they can get others saved. Evangelization is the be-all and end-all of this system. The necessity of evangelization is something Protestants and Catholics can agree on, but to those who preach the Better-than-Good!™News it is an obsession. If you tend to the needs of the disadvantaged, you do it because it is the best way of evangelizing those lost souls. If you participate in the political system, you do it to create a safe civic atmosphere for evangelization. If you take an interest in those you meet, you do it with an eye on their eternal destiny, presenting them with free tickets to your church’s Halloween Hell House Evangelization Extravaganza at your earliest opportunity. Churches which preach eternal security tend to devote Wednesday evening services to the subject of the Rapture – Jesus is coming soon, very soon, certainly in our lifetime, so we must spread the word before our neighbors get left behind! Both Protestants and Catholics are familiar with the Scripture passages enjoining believers to forsake sin and live in an upright fashion. These are viewed by Catholics as reminders from a God Who insists that, after baptism, we strive to become holy as He is holy so that we can enter into His presence. If evangelization is the be-all and end-all, where’s the angle in those passages? In an OSAS context, these verses are woven right into the sales package – “Clean up your act, folks, for when unbelievers see how you live, they’ll want what you’ve got!” The Better-than-Good!™News is a product, and believers learn to pitch it.

This perspective on the gospel sells like hotcakes for several reasons, one of them being that it presents itself as a kind of goal in itself, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the journey’s end. OSAS churchgoers sing hymns like “Victory in Jesus!” emphasizing the fact that the battle has been won; it’s over – I’m saved. Those who join the system feel free to breathe a sigh of relief now that they’ve reached the end of the struggle. With God in charge of their lives, there will be no more real suffering for them, they conjecture. How can there be, with God as their co-pilot? He knows where the turbulence is; surely He will steer His children clear of it. Which is why any kind of upheaval in the life of this kind of Christian can be potentially faith-shattering. Trouble provokes questions along the lines of “Why is God allowing this to happen to me? To what purpose? This makes no sense!  If I’m suffering this much now, and God does nothing to stop it, how can I be sure that the real estate that I bought in Heaven is really on the up-and-up? Maybe it’s all too good to be true?” Sadly, tribulation can cause what was to be a flight straight to Heaven to crash-land, never to take off again.

Adherents can’t say that Scripture didn’t warn them – a king does not go to war without first counting the cost. Like it or not, there’s a war on. Christianity isn’t a daily battle – it’s a moment-by-moment conflict. It is admittedly a peculiar situation – the victory has been won (thank you, Jesus!), but the war isn’t over – not by a long shot. The battle rages; skirmishes are being fought street by street, and even house to house. The stakes are astronomically high, for losing a battle can potentially mean losing your very salvation. In OSAS churches, discussion of the actual cost of Christianity is buried deep in the fine print. It is glossed over because it’s, well, not exactly a selling point. When “success” is measured by church growth, converts need to be raked in Sunday after Sunday. The presentation of the Better-than-Good!™News is geared towards a streamlined conversion process, one in which a man can wander in off the street and five minutes later walk back out with an iron-clad guarantee of salvation, come what may. No muss, no fuss – no counting the cost.

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’

Far from being bad news, the Catholic insistence on the necessity of final perseverance is actually good news, because it is the truth. When we are born again in baptism, we become members of Christ’s very body, and as His body we lead His life on earth. Suffering and struggling against the sins that lead to spiritual death are unavoidable. Forewarned is forearmed, and a decent RCIA program will be there to forewarn potential converts. I as an Evangelical was shocked to learn that I was expected to slog through a six-month discernment period before finally being allowed to declare myself determined to be reconciled to the Church. Yet what better way to force me to count the cost? No, my salvation will not be a done deal when I enter the Church. Yes, the possibility still exists that I might choose death over life by loving my sins above all else. No, that doesn’t mean that Catholics are shackled to works-righteousness; the Church teaches (and has always taught) that we are saved by grace through faith. It does mean that we Catholics incorporate verses like Lk 12:42-46, Rom 11:19-22, 1 Cor 15:1-2, Gal 5:4, Col 1:21-23, 2 Pet 2:20-22 and Heb 3:12; 6:4-6 and 10:23-29, verses that teach that it is possible to lose one’s salvation, into our theology rather than explaining them away. And while, yes, you do have to actively participate in the conflict – working out your own salvation with fear and trembling, as St. Paul phrased it – no, you do not fight alone. Catholics joyfully proclaim the doctrine of the communion of saints: all the inhabitants of Heaven, from the Blessed Virgin and the angels on down, are committed to making sure that you are saved in the end. So, while you will have to fight, you will never fight alone.

And that is seriously Good News.


On the memorial of St. Robert Bellarmine

Deo omnis gloria!

My daughter and my son were baptized at ages 10 and 8, respectively. Up until that point we had all been Protestant, and the children were educated at the Christian Academy connected with the Baptist megachurch that we attended. Like all schools, it had its good points and its bad points. Some of the teachers were superb, others less so. I was mightily pleased with the teachers in the lower grades, but one event in my daughter’s first grade class really, really upset me. I overheard the teacher telling a frightened little girl that “God will never let anything bad happen to you.”

That child was being introduced to the flat-tire fallacy, various versions of which so many Evangelical Christians buy into. God is good, right? Right! God is omnipotent, right? Right! Ergo, our perfectly good and thoroughly omnipotent God will never allow anything bad happen to one of His children! As a Christian, it has been promised to me that I will never fall victim to a scam, fail a class or get more than mildly constipated. All of my problems will be resolved to my satisfaction, and I will never, ever get a flat tire.

One version of this fallacy has developed into an entire theological outlook known as “Health and Wealth.” I have never been personally acquainted with any Health and Wealthers; although raised as an adherent of the flat-tire fallacy, I didn’t go that far. I knew that many Christians did not enjoy a privileged, upper-class lifestyle, and I could not be convinced that that was the result of a lack of faith. I did not sit around waiting for God to rig the lottery for me, nor did I believe that every gravely ill person would be restored to health if they refused to accept their illness on religious grounds. I clung to the words of Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” This I understood to mean that, yes, I would have troubles, but they would be manageable. Since dying, from my Protestant perspective, meant going straight to Heaven to spend an eternity with God, it didn’t really scare me, but I found it hard to believe that an omnipotent, loving God would allow me to suffer any serious pain for more than a day or two….

Travel was an eye-opener. After college I visited many foreign countries, and encountered Christians who had far less than I did, and yet far more. Their lack of possessions freed them from the worry over the possible loss of possessions. I began to realize that my perspective on this subject was based on self-centeredness (generally not listed as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit). The loss of possessions was not an evil to be avoided. In fact, it might turn out to be kind of a good thing….

Despite my evolving understanding of suffering in the Christian life, I did not entirely abandon the flat-tire fallacy. While by this point I understood that God might allow a little rain to fall into my existence, I believed that the amount of rain would be carefully limited. For example, while I might experience financial difficulties, nothing as drastic as a homeless shelter loomed in my future. That was back when I still watched TV, and I watched the news in horror one evening as a dear woman recounted with a huge smile how grateful she was that when she lost her home, the homeless shelter took her in.

I turned off the TV and sat there, frozen. Could God allow His children to lose their homes? For some reason, homelessness, to me, was the dividing line between what I would accept from God’s hand and what I certainly would not accept. I was convinced, as was everyone else I knew, that God would never allow anything truly bad to happen to me.

And then it hit me: Define “bad.”

I had quite a broad definition of the word “bad.” “Bad” in my book meant inconvenient, unanticipated, unpleasant, unlovely, unlucky, unhelpful, uncouth, unattractive and unbearable all rolled into one smelly package. “Bad” was whatever I didn’t like, or whatever I thought I wouldn’t like – kind of the metaphysical equivalent of Brussels sprouts. “Bad” was basically any change to my admittedly pretty-desirable status quo. In my foolishness I thought I had tied God’s hands; He couldn’t allow anything to happen to me without me screaming bloody murder.

The flat-tire fallacy at its worst can have serious consequences. Try explaining to a flat-tirer that she contracted intestinal parasites while on a missions trip – we prayed for health and safety! How could God let this happen?? The first-grade teacher telling the little girl that God will never allow her to suffer was undoubtedly just trying to quiet the child, but the comforting message was laced with spiritual arsenic. It is all too easy to abandon one’s faith when suffering comes along, if one has been taught that suffering, for the Christian, is an impossibility.

Catholics traditionally have been preserved from the flat-tire fallacy by the concept of “offering it up,” i.e., the teaching that our suffering can and should be voluntarily united to the suffering of Christ, à la Colossians 1:24.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.

This verse remains obscure in a Protestant context; it really isn’t easily reconciled with most Protestant soteriologies, and is seldom discussed. I taught a Bible study at an Evangelical college in Taiwan in the 1980s, and my students asked me to explain that verse. Stymied, I searched through every Bible commentary in the library. Being Protestant commentaries, they simply had no explanation for the theological implications of that verse. Had I been Catholic at the time, John Paul II could have straightened me out:

One can say that with the Passion of Christ all human suffering has found itself in a new situation….

The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.

The texts of the New Testament express this concept in many places. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh …. knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus”.

Saint Paul speaks of various sufferings and, in particular, of those in which the first Christians became sharers “for the sake of Christ.” These sufferings enable the recipients of that Letter to share in the work of the Redemption, accomplished through the suffering and death of the Redeemer. The eloquence of the Cross and death is, however, completed by the eloquence of the Resurrection. Man finds in the Resurrection a completely new light, which helps him to go forward through the thick darkness of humiliations, doubts, hopelessness and persecution. Therefore the Apostle will also write in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too”. Elsewhere he addresses to his recipients words of encouragement: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ”. And in the Letter to the Romans he writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.

The very participation in Christ’s suffering finds, in these apostolic expressions, as it were a twofold dimension. If one becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, this happens because Christ has opened His suffering to man, because He Himself in His redemptive suffering has become, in a certain sense, a sharer in all human sufferings. Man, discovering through faith the redemptive suffering of Christ, also discovers in it his own sufferings; he rediscovers them, through faith, enriched with a new content and new meaning.

This discovery caused Saint Paul to write particularly strong words in the Letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me: and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”. Faith enables the author of these words to know that love which led Christ to the Cross. And if He loved us in this way, suffering and dying, then with this suffering and death of His He lives in the one whom He loved in this way; He lives in the man: in Paul. And living in him-to the degree that Paul, conscious of this through faith, responds to His love with love-Christ also becomes in a particular way united to the man, to Paul, through the Cross. This union caused Paul to write, in the same Letter to the Galatians, other words as well, no less strong: “But far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”.

In the Letter to the Colossians we read the words which constitute as it were the final stage of the spiritual journey in relation to suffering: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church“. And in another Letter he asks his readers: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?”.

The next time you get a flat tire – and you will get a flat tire – remind yourself of the truth – God promised He would be with us always, and He is, to the point of being physically present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist that we receive at each Mass. He cannot not love us, and He cannot not care for us. Flat tires have something in common with all other “bad” things: they are opportunities. We can, as Job’s wife urged, “curse God” and begin to die spiritually, or we can bless the Name of the Lord and grow in Christ, uniting our sufferings to His. As Blessed John Paul put it, “Man, discovering through faith the redemptive suffering of Christ, also discovers in it his own sufferings; he rediscovers them, through faith, enriched with a new content and new meaning.” Translation: A flat tire doesn’t mean the end of the road!

A flat tire can take you places you never thought you could go – with God at the wheel.


On the memorial of St. Gabriel-Taurin Dufresse

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credits: A flat automobile tire by Ildar Sagdejev/Wikimedia Commons

Quite some time back, my director stunned me with an announcement. “The head of Department “X” is requesting that you be transferred to her department.” “She wants me?” I squeaked. “Sure looks like it,” he told me. “Wow…” was my eloquent reply.

To say that I wanted to get into Department “X” was an understatement. It had been my goal for a long time, and now it looked like it was becoming a reality. So I went back to work, and I waited.

And waited. And waited. Disturbingly, it began to look to me as if Department “X” had forgotten me. I plugged away at my longtime job, waiting and hoping, and hearing nothing.

I began to fret. Having practiced all my life, I am a consummate fretter. If Department “X” wanted me, why was I still here in my old position? It had been weeks since I was told the news; surely they would have contacted me by now if it were true. Had I misunderstood? How long was I going to have to wait? What if I waited, and waited, and nothing ever happened? Had I misunderstood??

Reason kept trying to contact me – on the fourth or fifth call, she finally got through. “What did the director say?” she whispered. “Didn’t he say that ‘Department “X” is requesting that you be transferred? How many ways are there to understand that?”

I couldn’t fight against that logic. The director’s words had been unambiguous. Seriously, if he had been trying to tell me that a change of departments was in my future, how could he have put it any more clearly?

I relaxed. And sure enough, I was soon transferred to Department “X”.

I remember that story when I read Protestant explanations of John 6: 48-69:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

Ask yourself, if Jesus was trying to tell us that we must really eat His flesh and drink His blood in the Holy Eucharist (which He elucidated in the Upper Room with the words, “This
is My body,” and “This is My blood”), how could He have expressed Himself any more clearly? He repeats over and over again, “Eat My flesh! Eat My flesh! This bread which comes down out of Heaven is My flesh – eat this bread and live!”

Sounds pretty serious – at least, his 1st-century audience thinks so. When they question Him (how can this man give us his flesh to eat?), He insists more emphatically that unless they eat His flesh, they have no life in them. He uses the same construction to phrase John 6:53 as He used in John 3:3 –

Unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

His listeners actually take His words so seriously that they are disgusted. When they naturally understand Him to be making a cannibalistic proposal, He admonishes them that “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” – eating My flesh as I stand here before you will profit nothing, but the Spirit will make possible the miraculous transformation of the bread and wine upon the altar into My very body and blood.

So at this point, with His disciples scattering because, as He puts it: “There are some of you who do not believe,” we would expect Jesus to do what He did whenever He spoke to the crowd in parables: He would dismiss those crowds, and then sit down with His disciples and explain the meaning of those parables, for “to you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.” After all, letting those folks walk off in unbelief was tantamount to allowing them to die spiritually in their rejection of Him – over a “misunderstanding”? Yet in this instance He neglected to clear up the “misunderstanding” engendered by His strong words. Instead, He asks a poignant question of His disciples: “Are you leaving Me, too?” As Jesus said, there were some who did not believe, but thanks be to God, St. Peter answered for the other apostles with his credimus: “We believe.”

Make no mistake: Jesus did not say “there are some of you who do not understand” – no, He warned them that “there are some of you who do not believe.” And that remains true to this day; there are many who do not believe His words, choosing to take them metaphorically and declare that “Eat My flesh! Drink My blood!” means “Believe in Me!” – and then serving up a sorry hash of Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and 11:23-30 (Jesus gives thanks, holds up the bread and says “This is My body – so believe in Me, you guys!” Does anyone smell a thoroughly rotten “metaphor” here??)

I can imagine Jesus asking Himself “how can I phrase this so they will understand that I plan to give them My very flesh and blood as their spiritual food and drink?”

I am the bread of life!

I am the living bread!

The bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh!

He who eats Me, he also will live because of Me!

This. Is. My. Body.

Maybe that’s why everyone in Christendom for 1,000 years believed that it literally was His body and blood that they received in Holy Communion.

This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?

It is difficult. Maybe that’s why, to this day, “there are some of you who do not believe.”


On the memorial of St. John Gabriel Perboyre

Deo omnis gloria!