Monthly Archives: January 2014

How much common ground is there between Protestants and Catholics on the subject of the forgiveness of sins? Sad to say, not a whole heck of a lot. It’s an awkward, unwieldy topic, basically because all the many and various Protestant denominations have failed to get their act together and find common ground amongst themselves on this subject! It is impossible to discuss “the Protestant view” on the forgiveness of sins, since there really isn’t one – there are many. Your beliefs as a Protestant on the subject of the forgiveness of sins basically hinge on what you personally have chosen to believe.

So, let’s begin by talking about what Protestants rejected in order to get themselves into this state of disarray. First of all, they rejected the pretty obvious sense of John 20:19-23

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

Hmm…. Jesus was making His first appearance to His assembled apostles after His Resurrection. Speaking to them, the first thing He says is, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What is Jesus doing here? According to Catholics, He is instituting a sacrament. He is giving His Spirit-filled apostles the authority to hear confessions and declare those sins either forgiven or not forgiven. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” In rejecting this pretty obvious understanding of the text, most Protestant denominations have been forced to claim that Jesus is breathing the Holy Spirit upon His disciples and telling them to preach the Good News of forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – a great thing to preach, clearly, but just as clearly NOT what Jesus is saying here: “”If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” This dovetails with Jesus’ earlier promise to the apostles: “”Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18). While we have no New Testament examples of Christians making their confession to a priest, we do have St. Paul’s declaration that “”All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Quite clearly, from the beginning, Christians understood the importance of the confession of sins. The 1st-century “church manual” known as the Didache instructed believers:

Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.

If first-century Christians believed that confession to a priest was not necessary, why the instruction to “confess your sins in church?” Christians were following the command of St. James to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” We see in the book of Acts that believers made public confessions: “Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.” Sins were confessed publicly in the early Church, with absolution given by a priest only after a period of penance. This caused repentant sinners a great deal of discomfort, as one would imagine. The Catholic bishop of Lyons, St. Irenaeus, wrote in 180 A.D. about a practice long established, one which a heretically-influenced group of women neglected to their peril:

Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing themselves from the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses.

Tertullian describes a 2nd-century process of confession so unpleasantly public that many avoided it, yet he deemed it necessary in order to obtain absolution:

This act, which is more usually expressed and commonly spoken of under a Greek name, is ἐξομολόγησις, whereby we confess our sins to the Lord, not indeed as if He were ignorant of them, but inasmuch as by confession satisfaction is settled, of confession repentance is born; by repentance God is appeased. And thus exomologesis (confession) is a discipline for man’s prostration and humiliation, enjoining a demeanor calculated to move mercy. With regard also to the very dress and food, it commands (the penitent) to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed; moreover, to know no food and drink but such as is plain—not for the stomach’s sake, to wit, but the soul’s; for the most part, however, to feed prayers on fastings, to groan, to weep and make outcries unto the Lord your God; to bow before the feet of the presbyters, and kneel to God’s dear ones; to enjoin on all the brethren to be ambassadors to bear his deprecatory supplication (before God). All this exomologesis (does), that it may enhance repentance; may honor God by its fear of the (incurred) danger; may, by itself pronouncing against the sinner, stand in the stead of God’s indignation, and by temporal mortification (I will not say frustrate, but) expunge eternal punishments. Therefore, while it abases the man, it raises him; while it covers him with squalor, it renders him more clean; while it accuses, it excuses; while it condemns, it absolves. The less quarter you give yourself, the more (believe me) will God give you.

Yet most men either shun this work, as being a public exposure of themselves, or else defer it from day to day. I presume (as being) more mindful of modesty than of salvation; just like men who, having contracted some malady in the more private parts of the body, avoid the privity of physicians, and so perish with their own bashfulness. It is intolerable, forsooth, to modesty to make satisfaction to the offended Lord! To be restored to its forfeited salvation! Truly you are honorable in your modesty; bearing an open forehead for sinning, but an abashed one for deprecating! I give no place to bashfulness when I am a gainer by its loss; when itself in some son exhorts the man, saying, Respect not me; it is better that I perish through you, i.e. than you through me. At all events, the time when (if ever) its danger is serious, is when it is a butt for jeering speech in the presence of insulters, where one man raises himself on his neighbor’s ruin, where there is upward clambering over the prostrate. But among brethren and fellow-servants, where there is common hope, fear, joy, grief, suffering, because there is a common Spirit from a common Lord and Father, why do you think these brothers to be anything other than yourself? Why flee from the partners of your own mischances, as from such as will derisively cheer them? The body cannot feel gladness at the trouble of any one member, (1 Cor 12:26) it must necessarily join with one consent in the grief, and in laboring for the remedy. In a company of two is the church; but the church is Christ. When, then, you cast yourself at the brethren’s knees, you are handling Christ, you are entreating Christ. In like manner, when they shed tears over you, it is Christ who suffers, Christ who prays the Father for mercy. What a son asks is ever easily obtained. Grand indeed is the reward of modesty, which the concealment of our fault promises us! To wit, if we do hide somewhat from the knowledge of man, shall we equally conceal it from God? Are the judgment of men and the knowledge of God so put upon a par? Is it better to be damned in secret than absolved in public? But you say, It is a miserable thing thus to come to exomologesis: yes, for evil does bring to misery; but where repentance is to be made, the misery ceases, because it is turned into something salutary. Miserable it is to be cut, and cauterized, and racked with the pungency of some (medicinal) powder: still, the things which heal by unpleasant means do, by the benefit of the cure, excuse their own offensiveness, and make present injury bearable for the sake of the advantage to supervene.

Early bishops write along the same lines – there is no doubt in their minds that sins must be confessed to the Church and that priests have the authority to forgive or refuse to forgive sins:

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your Royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles. . . and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command. St. Hippolytus of Rome, 215 A.D.

The Apostle [Paul] likewise bears witness and says: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord “[I Cor. 11:27]. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest . . . they do violence to his body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him. … Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . I beseech you, brethren; let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord. St. Cyprian of Carthage, 251 A.D.

Just as a man is enlightened by the Holy Spirit when he is baptized by a priest, so he who confesses his sins with a repentant heart obtains their remission from the priest. St. Athanasius, c. 350 A.D.

It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries [i.e. the Sacraments] is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Mt 3:6]; but in Acts they confessed to the Apostles, by whom also all were baptized [Acts 19:18]. St. Basil the Great, c. 370 A.D.

But what was impossible was made possible by God, who gave us so great a grace. It seemed likewise impossible for sins to be forgiven through penance; yet Christ granted even this to His Apostles, and by His Apostles it has been transmitted to the offices of priest. St. Ambrose, c. 380 A.D.

Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.” Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding: but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? “Whose sins you shall forgive,” he says, “they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Mt 10:40; Jn 20:21-23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven. St. John Chrysostom, 387 A.D.

Let this be in the heart of the penitent: when you hear a man confessing his sins, he has already come to life again; when you hear a man lay bare his conscience in confessing, he has already come forth from the sepulchre; but he is not yet unbound. When is he unbound? By whom is he unbound? “Whatever you loose on earth,” He says, “shall be loosed also in heaven” [Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23]. Rightly is the loosing of sins able to be given by the Church… St. Augustine of Hippo, c. 420 A.D.

As any Protestant who’s tried it will tell you, the problems associated with public confession of sins in a church setting are legion. Yet it is impossible to make the case that the early Christians believed that when they confessed their sins, it was between them and God – the Church was meant to be involved. Gradually, private confession to one member of the Body, the priest, became the norm – understandable, since he was the one who could give absolution. That certainly made confession a whole lot less scary. Yet, the children of the Reformation still objected to the arrangement. They were a very independent lot, and had no intention of confessing their sins to any human being. They insisted that the Church butt out. Having rejected the pretty obvious sense of John 20:19-23, Protestants went on to come up with their own definitions of sin – which only compounded the problem. The prevailing Protestant understanding of sin is expressed in the Westminster Confession:

As there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.

For most Protestants, all sins are equal, and equally deserving of damnation – put in Catholic terms, they view all sins as mortal. There are, however, Christians who have decided that all sins committed after placing one’s faith in Christ are pretty much venial and of no real consequence in the grand scheme of things. In other words, the concept of mortal versus venial sin has been lost in the Protestant world. Both the view that all sins “deserve damnation,” and the view that no sins do, are a departure from the teaching of Scripture and from the understanding of the early Christians. The Catholic Church derives its theology of mortal vs. venial sin from 1 John 5:16-17:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and He shall give life to him, to those committing sin not leading to death.
There is a sin leading to death. I am not saying he should ask for that kind. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin that does not lead to death.

The Catholic understanding of these verses helps to make sense of several remarks St. John makes in that same letter, remarks which, taken out of context, have spawned some pretty weird theologies of sin. In 1 John 3:9 and in 5:18, the saint makes the bold claim that “no one who is born of God sins.” However, in 1 John 1:8 and 1:10, he appears to contradict himself by suggesting that “if we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and making God a liar”! Why the confusion? St. John is referring on the one hand to mortal sins and to the fact that those in a state of grace avoid them, and on the other hand to venial sins which no person alive can claim that he or she does not commit. In 1 John 5:16-17, St. John discusses the case of a Christian who has committed a venial sin; his fellow Christians can effectively pray that God will forgive this sin. John makes a point, however, of calling attention to the other kind of sin – mortal sin. Don’t expect that God will forgive your brother’s mortal sins simply because you have prayed for him, John writes. The forgiveness of mortal sins comes through the sacrament of penance. St. Augustine elaborated on this teaching:

I do not tell you that you will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What has the Prayer? “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which you must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom you have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. In three ways then are sins remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance; yet God does not remit sins but to the baptized. The very sins which He remits first, He remits not but to the baptized. When? When they are baptized. The sins which are after remitted upon prayer, upon penance, to whom He remits, it is to the baptized that He remits. St. Augustine of Hippo

Having rejected the doctrine of mortal vs. venial sins, Protestants have wandered into a morass of their own making. The belief that all sin is equally grave makes many of the Protestant aberrations in doctrine not only possible, but theologically necessary – imputed righteousness and the forgiveness of all sins, past, present and future upon a one-time declaration of faith come to mind. Evangelicals such as I once was tend to take sin quite lightly. Many other Protestants, however, groan under the weight of their sins – not because they believe that God cannot forgive sin, but because they fear that these besetting sins are proof that they are not among the “elect,” that they never were “saved” to begin with. To use a familiar example, the Protestant approach to sin is a lot like the American approach to health insurance – just pick the plan that you can afford, the one that seems to suit your situation, and hope for the best.

God wants something better for His children.

At Jesus’ first appearance to His assembled disciples after His Resurrection, He was manifesting Himself to some pretty frightened men. They were frightened for a very good reason; all except John had abandoned Jesus in His hour of need. Had He risen from the dead to have His revenge? Quite the opposite – He came to forgive them. “Peace be with you!” was His greeting. Jesus conferred upon those forgiven men the priestly ministry of reconciliation, and they of all people could say that they understood the importance of certainty regarding the forgiveness of sins. Through the Church’s certain understanding of the reality and the gravity of sin, her clear teaching, and her God-given ability to offer of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, she passes on that certainty to her children. Because of Jesus’ promise in John 20:23, she teaches our hearts to rejoice at the words of the Prayer of Absolution: “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of Your Son, You have reconciled the world to Yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Rightly is the loosing of sins able to be given by the Church.


On the memorial of St. John Bosco

Deo omnis gloria!

We interrupt the series on “Common Ground” to bring you – the memorial of my patron saint!

St. Thomas Aquinas is a big-name saint. His name is known even to Protestants, who sometimes like to claim him as their own (which, considering what he taught, is a real stretch). Most people who admire St. Thomas admire him as a theologian and a philosopher. I have to admit, though, I took him as my patron nearly 11 years ago not out of admiration for his great writings, but because I had a sneaking suspicion that he might have prayed me into the Church. He was the first Catholic saint I really had anything to do with. As an Evangelical, I wrote a 21-page paper on his rebuttal of the “double-truth” heresy proposed by the adherents of the Muslim philosopher, Averroes, and by the end of the paper, I was in awe. Most Thomas Aquinas fans rave about his theology or his philosophy – not me. I was, and I remain, in awe of Thomas’ saintly life.

I stand in awe of the St. Thomas who, according to one story told about him, looked out the window to catch a glimpse of the “flying cow” his fellow seminarian swore was in the sky. Pulling his head back in the window to the guffaws of the other students, St. Thomas told the prankster, “I am not so simple-minded as to believe that cows can fly. I had rather believe that, however, than that a man of God could tell a lie.

I stand in awe of the St. Thomas who was so in love with holy obedience that he patiently accepted any correction and obeyed any order given him.

I stand in awe of the St. Thomas of whom it was written, “When consecrating at Mass, he would be overcome by such intensity of devotion as to be dissolved in tears, utterly absorbed in its mysteries and nourished with its fruits.”

I stand in awe of the St. Thomas who composed the hymns we know as “Pange Lingua,” “Tantum Ergo,” “O Salutaris Hostia,” “Panis Angelicus” and “Adoro Te Devote” in an attempt to express the depths of his love for Christ Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.

I stand in awe of the St. Thomas to whom the Lord Himself is reported to have said, “Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas; what reward wouldst thou have?” To which St. Thomas replied, “Nothing but Thyself, Lord.”

The litany of St. Thomas Aquinas best describes, I think, the traits that I admire with the phrase “silently eloquent.” While St. Thomas seems to be best remembered for his brilliance and his scholarly achievements, it is the silent eloquence of his holy life that draws me to him. I am so proud to call him my patron.

St. Thomas, pray for us!

Lord, have mercy on us.

Christ, have mercy on us.

Lord, have mercy on us. Christ hear us.

Christ, graciously hear us.

God the Father of heaven,

Have mercy on us.

God the Son, Redeemer of the world,

Have mercy on us.

God the Holy Spirit,

Have mercy on us.

Holy Trinity, one God,

Have mercy on us.

Holy Mary,

Pray for us!

Glorious Mother of the King of kings,

Pray for us!

St. Thomas,

Pray for us!

Worthy child of the Queen of Virgins,

Pray for us!

St. Thomas most chaste,

Pray for us!

St. Thomas most patient,

Pray for us!

Prodigy of science,

Pray for us!

Silently eloquent,

Pray for us!

Reproach of the ambitious,

Pray for us!

Lover of that life which is hidden with Christ in God,

Pray for us!

Fragrant flower in the garden of St. Dominic,

Pray for us!

Glory of the Friars Preachers,

Pray for us!

Illumined from on high,

Pray for us!

Oracle of the Church,

Pray for us!

Incomparable scribe of the God-Man,

Pray for us!

Perfect in the school of His Cross,

Pray for us!

Model of perfect obedience,

Pray for us!

Endowed with the true spirit of holy poverty,

Pray for us!

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,

Spare us, O Lord.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,

Graciously hear us, O Lord.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,

Have mercy on us.

What have I in heaven, or what do I desire on earth?

That you are the God of my heart, and my portion forever.

Let us pray: O God, who ordained that St. Thomas should enlighten your Church, grant that through his prayers we may practice what he taught.

Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


On the memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas

Deo omnis gloria!

There’s a brand-new conversion story on Why I’m Catholic – FINALLY!

Richard Morgan was raised in a Congregationalist church, and converted to Mormonism as a teenager, even serving as a Mormon missionary. He eventually became disillusioned with the LDS belief system and embraced life as a committed atheist.

“What a relief it was to discover my real problem: I was a default position atheist. That discovery came through reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. That truly was an experience of sweet relief.

I had become worn out and frustrated by my fruitless search for God.”

Now he’s Catholic.

If you need yet another example of the incredible work of God the Holy Spirit, check out Richard’s conversion story on Why I’m Catholic!

Do Catholics and Protestants share common ground on the subject of prayer? Certainly!  After all, both groups pray often and fervently, both pray to God in Jesus’ Name, and both expect that God will hear and answer their prayers. Some Protestants have the misconception that Catholics somehow can’t pray directly to God but are taught to go through a priest, or through Mary or the other saints. Considering how often Catholics pray the Our Father, that’s kind of hard to claim with a straight face. Read Church history! Read the lives of the saints! Visit a Catholic Mass! Any one of those would disabuse a skeptic of such a silly notion. Every Catholic who goes to confession is required to pray directly to God:

My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong

and failing to do good, I have sinned against You whom I should love above

all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more,

and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and

died for us. In His name, my God, have mercy.

Yet, this example illustrates a difference between Evangelical and Catholic approaches to prayer. Those who consider themselves Evangelical Protestants wouldn’t be caught dead reciting a formula prayer like the above-cited Act of Contrition. Why not? Because Jesus forbade it!

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Mt 6:7 (KJV)

Evangelicals have concluded, based on this verse in the Gospel of Matthew, that memorizing a prayer and reciting it, or reading a prayer aloud out of a book, is the “vain repetition” that Jesus warned against. Yet the words of more modern Protestant Bible translations make clear that this wasn’t what Jesus was warning against at all:

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans…. (NIV)

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do…. (ESV)

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do…. (NASB)

In other words, Jesus forbade “babbling,” “empty phrases,” and “meaningless repetition” – hardly what a Catholic is doing when he prays for forgiveness using the deeply meaningful words of the Act of Contrition. After all, Evangelicals understand the concept of “praying the Psalms,” clearly a highly meaningful practice. Someone could thoughtlessly recite Psalm 23, but that does not make the practice of praying the Psalms equivalent to “babbling” – it just means that someone could turn it into babbling if they weren’t careful. Evangelicals want to find some kind of blanket condemnation of the Catholic practice of reciting pre-written prayers (explaining that reciting psalms as a form of prayer is fine because it’s SCRIPTURE, while reciting anything else is dead Catholic ritual), but the fact is that anyone, Catholic or Protestant, can pray without sincerity or fervor, thereby making their prayers – pre-written or spontaneous – empty babbling. I know that, as an Evangelical, whenever I was called upon to pray in front of a group, it was my practice to “heap up empty phrases” with a vengeance! I was so self-conscious when praying aloud that all I could think to do was string together a plethora of pious platitudes and finish things off “in Jesus’ Name, Amen.” No one condemned my pious platitudes, because I wasn’t reading any of them off a piece of paper. I was, however, reciting from memory Protestant catch phrases like “Dear God, we just want to praise You, Lord, and give You thanks,” and “I really just want to pray, Lord, that you would really just touch someone here in a special way right now, Jesus” which in the churches I attended passed for spontaneity. My prayers under those circumstances meant pretty close to nothing. Contrast that performance with Catholic me, leading the Litany of the Most Sacred Heart now on First Fridays. I pray with deep love as I read the words – the litany is pre-written, I don’t have to come up with beautiful-sounding phrases, the focus isn’t on me, and I can forget myself and pray with all my heart:

Heart of Jesus, in Whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, have mercy on us!

Heart of Jesus, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Divinity, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, in whom the Father is well pleased, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, of whose fullness we have all received, have mercy on us.

Litany – there’s another Catholic vocab word that gives Evangelicals the willies. Surely there are few things more unbiblical than a litany!

1 Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!

For His mercy endures forever.

2 Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!

For His mercy endures forever.

3 Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!

For His mercy endures forever:

4 To Him who alone does great wonders,

For His mercy endures forever;

5 To Him who by wisdom made the heavens,

For His mercy endures forever;

6 To Him who laid out the earth above the waters,

For His mercy endures forever….

That’s a litany found smack-dab in the middle of the Bible: Psalm 136, all 26 glorious responsorial verses. There’s nothing unbiblical about a litany, and there’s nothing unbiblical about pre-written prayers! You see, Evangelicals – who pray the Lord’s Prayer seldom to never (I was appalled to find out that my young children, who attended a Baptist academy and were memorizing all kinds of Bible verses, couldn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer with me) – tend to gloss over Jesus’ response when His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray:

And He said to them, When you pray, say:

Our Father, Who art in Heaven

Hallowed be Thy Name!

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Luke 11:1-4

Our differing perspectives on prayer can be addressed by answering this one question: Why did the disciples even ask Jesus to teach them to pray? And why did Jesus humor them by giving them the Lord’s Prayer?

From a Protestant perspective this really makes little sense. If you prize spontaneity in prayer above all else, you would think that Jesus would have answered along these lines:

“Verily I say unto you, there is no right nor wrong when you pray. Speak simply and from the heart. Lay before the Father your needs, and your Father who is in Heaven will answer you, but be always careful to remember to give Him thanks and praise.”

That’s what a properly “Evangelical” Jesus would say. Yet strangely, when the disciples asked Jesus to “teach them to pray, as John the Baptist taught his disciples,” Jesus complied by giving them a prayer to recite. Could this mean that rote prayers have an essential place in our Christian training?

No question about it! There are several reasons why pre-written prayers are necessary and desirable:

First of all, pre-written prayers squelch the temptation to put on a performance. In a Protestant setting, whoever prays publicly is put in the position of “performing” – beautifully worded “spontaneous” prayers make a performance successful. In a Catholic setting, the words are already in place, and whoever prays them is not thereby drawing attention to himself – the focus is on the words of the prayer. Well-written, clearly expressed sentiments in a pre-written prayer can be a real aid to those praying along, since they need not attempt to decipher what the pray-er may have been getting at in a poorly thought-out, rambling prayer. Gossip, a constant hazard in an Evangelical prayer environment, is avoided altogether. (“And Lord, we just want to pray for those who didn’t show up tonight….”)

A second reason pre-written prayers are a great idea is because they provide a framework for growth. When we pray the Our Father with sincerity, those of us who are intent upon reminding our Father that we need our daily bread are also compelled to ask Him to forgive us, which brings to mind our sins – something we may have neglected to bother about in our concern over our earthly needs. We must then also ask ourselves if there is anyone whom we have not forgiven – something we might rather forget. In other words, pre-written prayers challenge us to step off our own little hamster wheel of “I need! I want! Oh, please! Oh, please! Oh, please!” They compel us to turn our thoughts towards God’s interests. We need that.

The third reason is evident in the giving of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus is teaching his disciples. Pre-written prayers are meant to teach us. When you recite the Our Father, you are being taught theological principles; each recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is a learning opportunity: God’s will is our ultimate good, and our goal must be to see to it that His will is done here in our lives just as it is done in Heaven. That may mean that our requests will not be answered as we would hope, yet God is the Giver of all good things; He is the One we must go to for our needs. We must forgive those who have hurt us – no ifs, ands or buts. Otherwise, God will not forgive us. We must realize that we may be tempted to be unfaithful; we need to ask God to deliver us, and not rely on our willpower alone. Each of these issues is something that we may question (indeed, there are whole Protestant denominations that question whether one must actually forgive in order to be forgiven, or whether a true believer can fall into serious sin). In reciting the Our Father, and every other pre-written prayer of the Church, we are taught certain truths of the Faith.

The Litany of Humility is an excellent example of prayer as a framework for growth and a learning opportunity. Imagine a person who realizes that she lacks humility. She will spontaneously pray, “Jesus, I am so proud! Help me to be humble!!” This is a very good prayer! But in reciting the Litany, she will come to an entirely new perspective on what she’s up against and whence her help comes:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus!

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That, in the opinion of the world, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

This prayer is not merely a petition for assistance – praying it actually begins the process of making us humble, and the last line is a powerful guard against pride concerning our own spiritual accomplishments. How often we fail to grow in humility because as soon as we make a tiny bit of progress, we are overcome by a sense of pride at how humble we have become! Just make me as holy as You want me to be, Jesus – then make everyone else even holier….

I never would have thought to pray like that!

That’s what written prayers can accomplish, provided that they are used properly and not as magical incantations or “empty phrases.” Written prayers will take your spiritual life to a whole new level if you let them. And that’s the take-away here for Evangelicals – you have to let them!


On the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Deo omnis gloria!

Do Catholics and Protestants agree about the sanctity of life? Tough question. First of all, let’s make abundantly clear the Catholic position on abortion. That really shouldn’t be necessary; doesn’t all the world know that the Catholic Church opposes abortion? Ah, but there are Catholics, and then there are Catholics. A group called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice has produced a video on the subject of “The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics.” Their website claims that “Catholic teachings on issues related to reproductive health and rights are far more nuanced than the hierarchy acknowledges.” You get the drift – this is the rock that pro-abortion politicians crawl out from under. Going on the assumption that Catholic teaching can CHANGE, the group attempts to prove that because there are Catholic theologians who dissent from Catholic teaching (yes, Dan Maguire, we’re talking about you), Catholic teaching is “far more nuanced than the hierarchy acknowledges.” In these circles no one seems to have caught on to the fact that “majority rules” doesn’t cut it as far as Catholic dogma is concerned; the Church professes certain truths to be revealedThat’s why Catholic teaching can’t change. That’s why no matter how many dissenting Catholic theologians a news network can find to say that abortion actually is okay – it’s not. The Catechism couldn’t be any clearer on the subject:

Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.

Catholic history couldn’t be any clearer on the subject:

“You shall not kill”: “There are two ways, a way of life and a way of death; there is a great difference between them… In accordance with the precept of the teaching: you shall not kill … you shall not put a child to death by abortion nor kill it once it is born … The way of death is this: … they show no compassion for the poor, they do not suffer with the suffering, they do not acknowledge their Creator, they kill their children and by abortion cause God’s creatures to perish; they drive away the needy, oppress the suffering, they are advocates of the rich and unjust judges of the poor; they are filled with every sin. May you be able to stay ever apart, o children, from all these sins!”. Didache, 1st century

Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born. Epistle of Barnabas, 2nd century

How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God s for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. But we are in all things always alike and the same, submitting ourselves to reason, and not ruling over it. Athenagorus, 2nd century

“Women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceived, since they would not, on account of relatives and excess wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person. See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!” St. Hippolytus of Rome, 3rd century

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed. Tertullian, 3rd century

She who has intentionally destroyed [the fetus] is subject to the penalty corresponding to a homicide. For us, there is no scrutinizing between the formed and unformed [fetus]; here truly justice is made not only for the unborn but also with reference to the person who is attentive only to himself/herself since so many women generally die for this very reason. St. Basil, 4th century

You may see many women widows before wedded, who try to conceal their miserable fall by a lying garb. Unless they are betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants, they walk abroad with tripping feet and heads in the air. Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. St. Jerome, 5th century

No woman should take drugs for purposes of abortion, nor should she kill her children that have been conceived or are already born. If anyone does this, she should know that before Christ’s tribunal she will have to plead her case in the presence of those she has killed. St. Caesarius, 6th century

Pope Paul VI couldn’t have been any clearer on the subject:

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. Gaudium et Spes

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith couldn’t have been any clearer on the subject:

The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life. Donum Vitae, 1987

Blessed John Paul II couldn’t have been any clearer on the subject:

Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, “from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and … modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the program of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time-a rather lengthy time-to find its place and to be in a position to act”. Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide “a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?”.

Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life”. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae

Pope Benedict XVI couldn’t have been any clearer on the subject:

“The fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other right, is the right to life itself. This is true of life from the moment of conception until its natural end. Abortion, consequently, cannot be a human right — it is the very opposite. It is a deep wound in society.”

And don’t listen to the MSM – Pope Francis couldn’t have been any clearer on the subject:

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. … Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.

That last part certainly bears repeating: “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations’. It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”

So which part of this aren’t dissident Catholic theologians understanding? The big secret they want to let you in on is that up until the 20th century, no one could be scientifically sure when life actually began in the womb, and because of that there were Catholic theologians who suggested that it might be possible to abort a fetus if that fetus were not yet “alive.” Please note, the official teaching of the Church concerning the evil of abortion never changed despite this. Of course, science now tells us that life begins at conception, so it’s a moot point. As Papa Francesco said as clearly as he possibly could: the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question.

End of discussion.

Let’s migrate over to the never-ending discussion on the Protestant side of the issue.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America does not oppose abortion; the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod does. The United Methodist Church can’t seem to decide what it believes, and supports the right of each woman to choose abortion if she sees fit. The Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, and the Quakers support abortion rights, as do the Episcopalians. The Presbyterian Church (USA) styles itself “pro-choice.” The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America are all pro-life. As a rule of thumb, anyone who calls himself an Evangelical will be pro-life; Evangelicals are Catholics’ greatest allies in the fight against abortion. They were about 20 years late to the party, but Catholics couldn’t be happier to have them on our side! Of course, pro-life Protestants have muddied the waters with their embrace of contraception – they tout it as the great remedy to abortion. What they don’t realize is that behind the Catholic opposition to contraception as well as to abortion lies an even larger issue – the sanctity of life. In the absence of a coherent Protestant Theology of Life, it is no wonder that a number of Protestant pro-life leaders have converted to Catholicism, Randall Terry, Lila Rose, Norma McCorvey, the Rev. Paul Schenck, and Bryan Kemper among them. Explaining his conversion, Kemper wrote, “Another concern of mine that has been eating at me for many years was teachings on pro-life issues and contraception. I have actually followed the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception since 1993 and have been trying to bring this truth to Protestants. There is only one Church that has been consistent from the time of Christ to today on the teaching of pro-life issues and contraception. Before 1930 there was never a single Christian church in history to accept any form of contraception, and today the Catholic Church is the only one that absolutely has kept this Christian truth.” As Reverend Schenck (now a Catholic priest) put it, “The pro-life movement drew me toward reunion with the Catholic Church… I saw that coherent moral theology, Christian unity and spiritual authority were essential to success.” You see, the Catholic Church knows what she believes, and why; she has the authority vested in her by her Divine Spouse to teach that truth, and the faithful are united when they adhere to her teaching.

End of discussion.

Is there common ground between Protestants and Catholics on the subject of the sanctity of human life? Plenty – but there could be much, much more. As Protestants put more effort into developing a “coherent moral theology,” as Fr. Schenk put it, the Catholic position will begin to make more sense to them. Catholics need to learn to articulate the truth of Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae, along with the beauty of Bl. John Paul’s Theology of the Body, and begin discussing these with our siblings in Christ. Truth and beauty are a one-two punch! When Protestants become convinced of these ideals, Christians can truly present a united face to the world on life issues, and the world will sit up and take notice.

Let’s get that discussion started!


On the memorial of Bl. László Batthyány-Strattmann

Deo omnis gloria!


Christ embracing St. Bernard

Do Evangelical Protestants and Catholics agree on the necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? This concept forms the basis of all that Evangelicals say and do. Unless a person enters into a personal relationship with God, that person cannot be saved – Evangelicals are convinced of that. And that’s why they’re are so worried about Catholics, because they’re sure that Catholicism is about ritual and working one’s way to Heaven. Believing that the concept of a God with Whom one can have a personal relationship is utterly foreign to Catholicism, they are eager, and indeed they are even taught in many Evangelical churches to seek out Catholics with an eye towards leading them out of the Church. They have been told that inside the Catholic religious system there is simply no place for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Is there common ground between Evangelicals and Catholics on the subject of the necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus? Catholics have always advocated this kind of personal relationship! Rather than argue this point, I’m going to let a few Catholics speak for themselves:

“O Jesus, draw my heart within Thy Breast,

That it may be by Thee alone possessed.

O Love, in that sweet pain it would find rest,

In that entrancing sorrow would be blest,

And lose itself in joy upon Thy Breast.”

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

For yourselves, be strengthened in the Lord Jesus Christ, and may He dwell always in your hearts. For a heart empty of Christ is like a husk empty of grain: borne away on the winds, blown this way and that by temptation; whereas the grain of corn, even though the wind blow, will not be carried away by it, since it has weight, and in the same way the heart in which Christ dwells is made firm, so that though temptation beat down on it and buffet it, still it will not be swept hither and thither or be blown away. Say then, and say in your hearts: Let others cling to whom they will, as for me, it is good for me to cling to my God (Ps 73:28); and again: My soul hath clung close to Thee (Ps 63:8).” Bl. Jordan of Saxony (1190-1237)

“Dear God, what can I give to come to possess You? … O Lord, I already know Your answer. ‘Give me yourself,’ You say, ‘and I will give you Myself. Give Me your mind and you will have Me in your mind. Keep all your possessions, but only give Me your soul. I have heard enough of your words; I do not need your works; only give Me yourself, forever.” St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231)

“Pierce, O most Sweet Lord Jesus, my inmost soul with the most joyous and healthful wound of Thy love, with true, serene, and most holy apostolic charity, that my soul may ever languish and melt with love and longing for Thee, that it may yearn for Thee and faint for Thy courts, and long to be dissolved and to be with Thee.” St. Bonaventure (1221-1274)

“O Sacred Heart of Jesus, fountain of eternal life, Your Heart is a glowing furnace of Love. You are my refuge and my sanctuary. O my adorable and loving Savior, consume my heart with the burning fire with which Yours is aflamed. Pour down on my soul those graces which flow from Your love. Let my heart be united with Yours. Let my will be conformed to Yours in all things. May Your Will be the rule of all my desires and actions. Amen.” St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1302)

“If, Lord, Thy love for me is strong

As this which binds me unto thee,

What holds me from thee Lord so long,

What holds thee Lord so long from me?

O soul, what then desirest thou?

Lord, I would see thee, who thus choose thee.

What fears can yet assail thee now?

All that I fear is but lose thee.

Love’s whole possession I entreat,

Lord, make my soul thine own abode,

And I will build a nest so sweet

It may not be too poor for God.

A soul in God hidden from sin,

What more desires for thee remain,

Save but to love again,

And all on flame with love within,

Love on, and turn to love again.”

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

“Ah Jesus! Who will give me the grace to be one spirit with thee! At last, Lord, rejecting the multiplicity of creatures, I desire thine only unity! O God, thou art the only one and only unity necessary for my soul! Alas! dear love of my heart, unite my poor one soul, to thy one singular goodness! Ah! thou art wholly mine, when shall I be wholly thine? The adamant draws and unites iron unto it; O Lord, my lover, be my draw-heart, clasp, press and unite my heart for ever unto thy fatherly breast! Ah! since I am made for thee, why am I not in thee? Swallow up, as a single drop, this spirit which thou hast bestowed upon me, into the sea of thy goodness from whence it proceeds. Ah Lord! seeing that thy heart loves me, why does it not force me to itself, since I truly will it? Draw me, and I will run after thy drawings, to cast myself into thy fatherly arms, to leave them no more for ever and ever. Amen..” St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622)

“Oh Jesus, my Love, may my heart be consumed in loving You; make me humble and holy; give me childlike simplicity; transform me into Your holy love. O Jesus, life of my life, joy of my soul, God of my heart, accept my heart as an altar, on which I will sacrifice to You the gold of ardent charity, the incense of continual, humble and fervent prayer, and the myrrh of constant sacrifices!” St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775)

“If you desire to delight the loving heart of your God, be careful to speak to Him as often as you are able, and with the fullest confidence that He will not disdain to answer and speak with you in return. He does not, indeed, make Himself heard in any voice that reaches your ears, but in a voice that your heart can well perceive, when you withdraw from converse with creatures, to occupy yourself in conversing with your God alone: ‘I will lead her into the wilderness and I will speak to her heart.’ He will then speak to you by such inspirations, such interior lights, such manifestations of His goodness, such sweet touches in your heart, such tokens of forgiveness, such experience of peace, such hopes of heaven, such rejoicings within you, such sweetness of His grace, such loving and close embraces, – in a word, such voices of love, as are well understood by those souls whom He loves and who seek for nothing but Himself alone.” St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696- 1787)

“He welcomes you at any hour of the day or night. His Love never knows rest. He is always most gentle towards you. When you visit Him, He forgets your sins and speaks only of His joy, His tenderness, and His Love. By the reception He gives to you, one would think He has need of you to make Him happy.” St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868)

Dear Lord, help me to spread Thy fragrance everywhere I go.

Flood my soul with Thy spirit and life.

Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of Thine.

Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Thy presence in my soul.

Let them look up and see no longer me but only Thee, O Lord!

Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shinest; so to shine as to be a light to others.

The light O Lord will be all from Thee; none of it will be mine;

It will be Thou, shining on others through me.

Let me thus praise Thee in the way Thou dost love best, by shining on those around me.

Let me preach Thee without preaching, not by words but by my example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to Thee!’

Bl. John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

“How sweet it was, the first kiss of Jesus to my soul! Yes, it was a kiss of Love. I felt I was loved, and I too said: ‘I love Thee, I give myself to Thee forever!’ Jesus asked nothing of me, demanded no sacrifice. Already for a long time past, He and the little Therese had watched and understood one another…” St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897)

“Oh Jesus, what would have become of me, if you had not drawn me to You?…..I am Yours, Oh Jesus! ..Jesus I love Thee! Open Your heart to me; I wish to place all of my affections there. I open mine to You!” St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903)

“It is with simplicity and love, with faith and trust that I will always come to You, O Jesus! I will share everything with You, as a child with its loving mother, my joys and sorrows – in a word, everything.” St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938)

“I follow Christ: Jesus is my God, Jesus is my Spouse, Jesus is my Life, Jesus is my only Love, Jesus is my All in All, Jesus is my Everything. Because of this, I am never afraid.” Bl. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)

“It is necessary to awaken again in believers a full relationship with Christ, mankind’s only Savior. Only from a personal relationship with Jesus can an effective evangelization develop.” Bl. John Paul II (1920-2005)

“Our knowledge of Jesus is in need above all of a living experience: Another person’s testimony is certainly important, as in general the whole of our Christian life begins with the proclamation that comes to us from one or several witnesses. But we ourselves must be personally involved in an intimate and profound relationship with Jesus.” Pope Benedict XVI (1927- )

“What is the place of Jesus Christ in my priestly life? Is it a living relationship, from the disciple to the Master, from brother to brother, from the poor man to God, or is it a somewhat artificial relationship… that does not come from the heart? …Even if you lose everything in life, don’t lose this relationship with Jesus Christ! This is your victory. Go forward with this!” Pope Francis (1936- )

I rest my case.


On the memorial of St. Wulfstan

Deo omnis gloria!

Do Evangelicals and Catholics agree on the importance of worship? Are you kidding? Evangelicals are all about praise and worship; more than one Catholic has left the Catholic Church for the enthusiasm of Evangelical services. On the other hand, many Protestants are very favorably impressed by the reverence shown at Mass as Catholics worship their Lord. Yes, the importance of worship is a subject upon which Catholics and Protestants agree completely.

HOW to worship – that’s a different question entirely.

My Catholic hair stood on end when I read the Dallas Morning News columnist Mark Davis’ defense of the controversial services at his Protestant church: “Everyone is entitled to personal taste in terms of the worship they enjoy,” he opined. Hmm…, and where is this notion revealed to us in Scripture? Where does the Bible ever suggest that we have some kind of right to choose how to worship God? One passage concerning “creative worship” does come to mind:

And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Gen 4:2-8

Obviously, God is not pleased with DIY worship; He reserved the right to tell Cain and Abel how He wanted to be worshiped. Jesus pointed this out to the Samaritan woman at the well when she decided to talk theology with Him:

“Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. Jn 4:20-24

And a lot of Evangelicals, taking this passage as a condemnation of “dead liturgy,” feel that it validates their worship style as truly biblical. Those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth – that means worship with flash and sparkle, with spontaneity and creative touches! Right?

The pattern of worship running through the Old and New Testament is pretty well laid out, and there’s really no reason to believe that God has given His sons and daughters any leeway to follow their own “personal taste in terms of the worship they enjoy,” any more than He was pleased when Cain’s worship deviated from that of Abel. A good example of the order of Old Testament worship is found in the book of 2 Chronicles in chapters 5-7. King Solomon called the people to attend the dedication of the Temple. The people assembled.

1 And now Solomon must bring into the temple all the votive offerings his father David had made; silver and gold and lesser ware, all must be stored up in its treasure-chamber. 2 Then he sent for the elders of Israel, the chiefs of the tribes and the heads of clans; all must meet at Jerusalem to bring the Lord’s ark home from its resting-place in the Keep of David, which we call Sion. 3 It was on the great feast day of the seventh month that all Israel obeyed the king’s summons; 4 and when the last of the chieftains had arrived, the Levites took up the ark 5 and brought it in; the tabernacle, too, with all its equipment, and all the furniture of the sanctuary that remained still in the tabernacle, priests and Levites brought to the spot.

At the beginning, sins are dealt with. In the Old Testament context, this meant “burnt offerings.”

6 Meanwhile king Solomon, with the whole Israelite assembly, all that had gathered before the ark, offered rams and bulls; so many were the victims that there was no counting them.

God is praised in song:

11 At last the priests left the sanctuary; all of them who were present had purified themselves so as to gain admission, for as yet they had no times and manners of service planned out for them. 12 To the east of the altar stood Levites and singers, the clans of Asaph, Heman and Idithun alike, all robed in lawn, playing on their cymbals, zithers and harps; and now they had a hundred and twenty priests with them, sounding with trumpets. 13 Trumpet and voice, cymbals and flute, with all the other instruments, sounded aloud so that the noise of them could be heard far off, as they praised the Lord together; Praise the Lord, they sang, the Lord is gracious; his mercy endures for ever. And with that, the whole of the Lord’s house was wreathed in cloud; 14 lost in that cloud, the priests could not wait upon the Lord with his accustomed service; his own glory was there, filling his own house.

The people listen to Solomon declare the glory of the Lord:

1 Where the cloud is, cried Solomon, the Lord has promised to be. 2 It is true, then, the house I have built in his honour is to be, for ever, his dwelling-place. 3 With that, the king turned to bless the whole assembly; all Israel, that stood waiting there. 4 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, he said, who has fulfilled in act the promise he made to my father David. 5 So many years since he had rescued his people from Egypt, and never a city among all the tribes of Israel had he chosen to be the site of his dwelling-place or the shrine of his name, never a prince had he appointed over his people of Israel, 6 till at last he chose Jerusalem, to enshrine his name there, and David for his people’s ruler.

Prayer is offered:

12 Then Solomon stood before the Lord’s altar in full view of all Israel, and stretched out his hands. 13 In the midst of the great court he had bidden them set down a block of bronze, five cubits across either way and three feet in height; on this he mounted, and there, in the sight of all Israel, kneeling down with his hands lifted up towards heaven, he prayed. 14 Lord God of Israel, he said, thou reignest without rival in heaven and earth, making good thy merciful promises to all who follow thee with undivided hearts. 15 And thou hast not disappointed thy servant, my father David; thy act matches thy word; this day, who doubts it? 16 Do not forget, Lord God of Israel, that other promise of thine to David, that he should always have an heir to sit on the throne of Israel, would but his sons guide their steps, like David himself, as in thy presence; 17 let that promise too, Lord God of Israel, be ratified!…. 42 Lord God, do not reject my prayer, the king thou hast anointed; bethink thee of the loving designs thou hadst for thy servant David before him.

The Holy Spirit falls upon the offerings, consuming them:

Scarce had Solomon finished his praying, when fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt-sacrifice, consumed all the victims; the glory of the Lord, too, filled the temple, 2 and the priests might not enter; his own glory was there, filling his own house. 3 The fire that fell, the brightness of the Lord’s visible presence, was seen by all Israel; there on the stone pavement they fell down to earth in worship, crying, Praise the Lord, the Lord is gracious, his mercy endures for ever. 4 King and people offered their victims in the Lord’s presence; 5 the beasts king Solomon slew that day, when he and all the people dedicated the Lord’s house, were twenty-two thousand bulls and a hundred and twenty thousand rams.

Then, the feast:

6 There stood the priests at their task, and the Levites with the instruments of sacred music, that king David had given them to praise the Lord with, playing David’s own chant of everlasting mercy, while the priests led with their trumpets, and all the people stood around. 7 That day, the king must needs hallow the middle part of the court before the Lord’s house, burning there the burnt-sacrifice and the fat taken from the welcome-victims; the brazen altar he had made would not suffice for these and for the bloodless offerings too. 8 After this, king Solomon spent seven days in keeping the feast of Tabernacles, and with him a great multitude from the whole land of Israel, that stretched from the pass of Emath down to the river of Egypt; 9 and the eighth day he kept as a great holiday, after seven days given up to the temple dedication, and seven to the feast.

The people are dismissed:

10 At last, on the twenty-third day of the month, he sent the people home, rejoicing with full hearts over the mercies the Lord had shewn to David, to Solomon, and to his own people of Israel.

Okay, so the pattern demonstrated in the Old Testament is assembly, forgiveness of sins, praise, a declaration of God’s wonders, prayer, the offering of a sacrifice, feasting and dismissal.

But that’s all behind us – that’s the Old Covenant! Besides, why should we believe that this represents a pattern, and not just some random get-together?

Because the worship of the first Christians follows a similar pattern. The closest the New Testament comes to describing the worship of the first Christians is in Acts 2 where we learn that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” How this all actually played out is made more explicit in a first-century extrabiblical record of Christian worship called the Didache that instructs believers to:

Assemble on the Lord’s Day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until they have been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, “Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations.”

Assembly – forgiveness of sins – offering the sacrifice: the Eucharist. Again, circa 150 A.D. the order of Christian worship is explained to the Roman emperor by Justin Martyr.

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

In a discussion of the rite of baptism, St. Justin goes into more detail on how the newly baptized received their first Holy Communion:

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion. And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone.

Assembly, declaration of the glory of the Lord, prayers, the offering of the Sacrifice (which Justin says is the very Body and Blood of Jesus). One of these things is not like the others. What’s the common link between the Old Testament worship of 2 Chronicles, the first-century worship described in the Didache, and the second-century worship that Justin Martyr was familiar with that’s missing from Protestant worship?

The Sacrifice – and it’s missing for good reason, Protestants say. Jesus Christ is the Sacrifice, once for all! He said, “It is finished!” We can’t resacrifice Him!

And Catholics couldn’t agree more: Jesus cannot be resacrificed; as the Catechism plainly states, “the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.” When we participate in the Mass, He is not crucified anew. Hebrews assures us that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” However, the Eucharist makes possible our participation in this sacrifice as it is made present to us in our time. The bread and wine become for us the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which He commanded us to eat and drink: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” As Benedict XVI put it:

By his command to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:25), he asks us to respond to his gift and to make it sacramentally present. In these words the Lord expresses, as it were, his expectation that the Church, born of his sacrifice, will receive this gift, developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the liturgical form of the sacrament. The remembrance of his perfect gift consists not in the mere repetition of the Last Supper, but in the Eucharist itself, that is, in the radical newness of Christian worship. In this way, Jesus left us the task of entering into his ‘hour.’ ‘The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving.’ Jesus ‘draws us into himself.’ The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission,’ to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).

When we “lift up our hearts to the Lord” at Mass, God makes the gifts holy by sending down His Spirit upon them “so that they may become for us the Body and the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The worship instituted under the Old Covenant foreshadowed heavenly realities, realities in which the Church actively participates at every Mass, and the offering of the Sacrifice is the nonnegotiable component. Every Christian writing in the first millennium on the subject of the Eucharist emphasized, as St. Justin emphasized to the Roman emperor, that the Sacrifice is the actual Body and Blood of Jesus. The Reformers, lacking in faith, got creative and removed the offering of the Sacrifice from their services, spiritualizing the celebration of Holy Communion. Fervent prayer, heartfelt praise and enthusiastic singing are commendable practices that should accompany worship, but to engage in those and in some extended Bible study, and call it good, misses the point. Seriously, why do you think your church has an altar?

The Bible nowhere encourages Christians to worship God as we please. The heavenly liturgy, with “the Lamb Who was slain” as its centerpiece, was the model and guide for Old Testament worship, and even more so for New Testament worship, and worship without a sacrifice simply isn’t worship. Evangelicals, who generally try to be so careful to eschew “man-made traditions,” engage in a boatload of them every Sunday as “innovative contemporary worship” is offered wherever Evangelical churches are found. Sunday worship, folks, is just not the time to get creative.

Cain can tell you that.


On the memorial of St. Titian of Oderzo

Deo omnis gloria!