podcast episode 3: the last things

In 2008, during a Holy Week RCIA retreat, I led a reflection on The Last Things — death, judgment, heaven and hell. Rather than diving right into a discussion of things ultimate, I decided to provide some context, and some of that context came from C.S. Lewis. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis observes that “we are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

podcast episode 2: the meaning of communion

Screen Shot 2020-06-20 at 3.06.30 PMreceiving_communionOne of the hot-button issues of our time is: Should Holy Communion be given to political candidates who publicly favor abortion? Many Catholic Americans have a tendency to frame this question in a merely legal or disciplinary way. Very few seem to ask the sacramental and theological question: What does receiving the Eucharist express? Once I frame the question in this way, I can hardly say that the Bible is silent on the matter. Saint Paul speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 11. And I think the tradition is clear that receiving Communion expresses a communion with Christ and with his Bodya union of heart and mind on essential matters.

When a Catholic serving in public office clearly opposes the Church’s teaching, he makes himself incapable of receiving the Eucharist for what it isa life-giving union with Christ’s body, a giving and a receiving that one participates in without reserve. For such a Catholic, receiving the Eucharist could be considered a kind of spiritual contraception. He engages in the act without intending to express the very meaning of the act. In effect, he uses Christ’s Body rather than receiving that Body for all that it is.

It’s common knowledge that those who reject the Church’s teaching authority often do so as a result of the Church’s teaching about artificial contraception. It seems to me that this is no accident. Contraception is an act by which we give ourselves permission not to respect the other, but instead to use the other in the service of our own interests. It might be a mutually agreed-upon use of each other, but it is use nonetheless. When we contracept in married life, holding back our fertility or rejecting the fertility of our spouse, it damages marital communion, because it interferes with our vocation to be a gift to our spouse and to receive our spouse as a gift in all the dimensions of their being. And when we engage in spiritual contraception by receiving Communion unworthily, holding back our assent to the deposit of faith preserved by the Church, it damages our communion with Christ’s body. We begin to relate to the Church simply in terms of how She might benefit us, and we cease to pay attention to how we might serve Her.

A public servant who is Catholic is just thata servant. It’s a noble calling and a beautiful witness when lived authentically. The more deeply I come to appreciate the faith, the more I recognize that the service of the common good is sustained and nourished by a vibrant Catholic faith. It is the Church who fosters the awareness that in every person we discover an image of Christ, that Christ gave His very life for every human being, and that we are called to revere every life even when it costs us dearly to do so. We must not cease to remind ourselves that our leader in the faith sacrificed His very life for the well-being and redemption of every human life.

Our true adherence to the Church does not make us partisan in our attitudes, as though we had joined some club which only respects its own members. Rather, our life in the heart of the Church opens our heart to every human person, regardless of creed, ethnicity or any other distinguishing characteristic.

To be Catholic is to love and to defend humanity as such: Children on either side of the birth canal are truly human. The lives of our African-American brothers and sisters are truly human. The lives of undocumented immigrants are truly human, as are the lives of displaced Uighur Muslims in China. The lives of forgotten elderly and the homeless in our own neighborhoods are truly human. The lives of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are truly human. The disabled in mind and body are truly human. The lives of our enemies and those with whom we engage on Facebook are truly human. Rioters are truly human, as are police and politicians and drug lords and money launderers. And our own life also is truly human, in all of its beauty and its brokenness.

Failing to see the humanity and the dignity of other people diminishes our own humanity, because it robs us of the beauty both of being a gift to others and of receiving others as gift. A kind of blindness can set in.

The gift of the Eucharist can help restore our vision as it is a sacrament not only of communion with God, but also of communion with our neighbor. Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the interplay of the two dimensions of communion eloquently in his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est. Here’s an extended passage from that letter:

Love of neighbor… in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus… consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. Here we see the necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbor which the First Letter of John speaks of with such insistence. If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties,” then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper,” but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbor from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Part of the miracle of the Eucharist, when I consider it personally, is the astonishing fact that it reveals that even I have been invited into the embrace of the love that made the universe. Who am I to receive such a gift? And who am I to hesitate even a moment in desiring to share that unmerited gift with others?

C.S. Lewis says it succinctly in the final words of his essay The Weight of Glory:

…It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

Before this great mystery, let all mortal flesh keep silence.

Fr. Walter Ciszek: on the Eucharist

On the feast of Corpus Christi, a few thoughts from Father Walter Ciszek, SJ:

daucau monstrance

in the Nazi labor camp of Daucau, priests gathered scraps of wood to fashion a monstrance that could be used for the adoration of the Eucharist

When I reached the prison camps of Siberia, I learned to my great joy that it was possible to say Mass daily once again. In every camp, the priests and prisoners would go to great lengths, run risks willingly, just to have the consolation of this sacrament. For those who could not get to Mass, we daily consecrated hosts and arranged for the distribution of Communion to those who wished to receive. Our risk of discovery, of course, was greater in the barracks, because of the lack of privacy and the presence of informers. Most often, therefore, we said our daily Mass somewhere at the work site during the noon break. Despite this added hardship, everyone observed a strict Eucharistic fast from the night before, passing up a chance for breakfast and working all morning on an empty stomach. Yet no one complained. In small groups the prisoners would shuffle into the assigned place, and there the priest would say Mass in his working clothes, unwashed, disheveled, bundled up against the cold. We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. The intensity of devotion of both priests and prisoners made up for everything; there were no altars, candles, bells, flowers, music, snow-white linens, stained glass or the warmth that even the simplest parish church could offer. Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine. The realization of what was happening on the board, box, or stone used in the place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul. Distractions caused by the fear of discovery, which accompanied each saying of the Mass under such conditions, took nothing away from the effect that the tiny bit of bread and few drops of consecrated wine produced upon the soul.Many a time, as I folded up the handkerchief on which the body of our Lord had lain, and dried the glass or tin cup used as a chalice, the feeling of having performed something tremendously valuable for the people of this Godless country was overpowering. Just the thought of having celebrated Mass here, in this spot, made my journey to the Soviet Union and the sufferings I endured seem totally worthwhile and necessary. No other inspiration could have deepened my faith more, could have given me spiritual courage in greater abundance, than the privilege of saying Mass for these poorest and most deprived members of Christ the Good Shepherd’s flock. I was occasionally overcome with emotion for a moment as I thought of how he had found a way to follow and to feed these lost and straying sheep in this most desolate land. So I never let a day pass without saying Mass; it was my primary concern each new day. I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.

Fr. Walter J Ciszek, SJ – in He Leadeth Me

can the internet be a place for authentic dialogue?

Can the internet be a place for authentic dialogue between believers and non-believers? I’ve been thinking about that this week in the wake of some internet nastiness that you may already be familiar with.

If you’ve been reading any Catholic blogs or news in last week or two, you’ve probably come across someone commenting on the story of a science professor at the U of Minnesota – Morris, PZ Myers, who runs a popular personal “science” blog called Pharyngula (when I say popular: it is currently ranked as the 12th most popular blog in the world on Facebook).

Though many bloggers have commented on the situation, Mark Shea sums up the situation best (read his blog entry for full discussion):

PZ Myers, a washed-up academic at a third tier school who takes out his bitterness on Christians, claimed that some human toothache named Webster Cook had received death threats for stealing a Eucharist and threatening to desecrate it. Reader John Farrell repeatedly tried to get Myers to verify the “death threat” bit, but was shouted down by the throngs of Myers cultists who took the claim on faith. Myers’ then decided to blow away the last shreds of pretense that his Pharyngula blog was about science and give full vent to his demented hatred of Jesus Christ by urging his throng of equally demented followers to steal some Hosts so he could desecrate them and put the whole thing on his blog. The Catholic League got involved (rightly in my view) and Catholics, as is our custom, have been arguing about it ever since, pursuing a range of responses from complete pacificism to some rather over-the-top reactions.

Myers, who seems to have been surprised by the response, has waffled between “I was just kidding”–(Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I am only joking!” – Proverbs 26:18-19)–and promising that he shall indeed carry through on his threat. One gets the impression that both he and his followers, having nothing but contempt for Catholics, have no real grasp of the interior contours of Catholic faith and belief and therefore no grasp whatever of the hierarchy of values at work in Catholic life. A Host is a statue is a banner is a Rosary is a Bible is a scapular as far as they can tell. You get the feeling that they are genuinely surprised to find that Catholics are attaching far more importance to the descration of the Eucharist than, say, the desecration of a Rosary. They seem to have reeled a bit at the volcanic response. Now they are getting their footing and realizing this *really* ticks off Catholics and so, like eight year olds, they are enjoying being in (they think) the position of saying, “Take one step closer and I’ll torture your cat!”

…What Catholics are demanding is not that Myers and his cultish followers respect the Eucharist. We are demanding that they not invade our religious services, steal what does not belong to them, and incite others to vandalize what is ours and not theirs. We are pointing out that thugs who do this are of precisely the same caliber and guilty of exactly the same crime as somebody who paints swastikas on a synagogue.

I also like what The Curt Jester had to say, with his typical wit and grace:

As an ex-atheist I can totally understand P.Z. Myers attitude and ignorance and the only outrage he invokes in me is a turn to prayer for him. So I won’t be making any death threats, just life-after-death threats in that I am praying for him and hope to see him on day in the Beatific Vision.

I made the mistake of entering the fray for an hour or so over at PZ Myers’ blog in a follow-up post. Here’s how things started:

It’s interesting to note that a belief being described as “patently ridiculous” on this blog was held in esteem / fascinated Albert Einstein. Story here. Excerpt: “Father Groeschel recounted the story of a young priest who knocked on Einstein’s door without an appointment, just to pay a visit to the great professor. Einstein welcomed the priest stranger and insisted he tell him everything he knew about the Eucharist. Einstein was known to ask several priests to recommend all the books they could on the Eucharist, because of his fascination and respect for such an immense mystery.”
Posted by: Clayton | July 12, 2008 5:30 PM

Your Einstein story is not at all interesting. I would not be surprised if it was a bald faced lie.
Posted by: spurge | July 12, 2008 5:39 PM

And so it began. To save you the dizzying and annoying prospect of reading through the hundreds of comments, I’ve extracted the bit of conversation that I participated in. You can view it in PDF form here (it’s an 11 page document).

The upshot? I had an insight — about a day later — that I hadn’t considered before: If these people won’t as much as acknowledge a Creator, why would they give one of His creatures the time of day, let alone take them seriously enough to engage in a dialogue? Of course, there are atheists and there are rabid/ideological atheists. How to sort out the two, and engage in dialogue with the reasonable types, on the web? It’s difficult. It would be great if there were a good forum online for dialogue. Com boxes, in my experience, are not great places for dialogue. No body language, no tone of voice, no real-time back-and-forth… no agreement among participants to act civilly… no explicit commitment on the part of the bloggers to facilitate actual dialogue, etc…

I mentioned this in another post on Mark Shea’s blog, and people suggested a couple of online forums for dialogue: here and here. Now, the problem, it seems to me, is that the first site — just from a visual point-of-view — might be off-putting for a non-believer. The second boasts a banner ad reading “How to Become a Catholic,” which might not exactly help a non-believer relax and listen. If anyone knows of others, please let me know.

I’ll give C.S. Lewis the final word on this post:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

from The Weight of Glory

Deus Caritas Est

I’ve uploaded a print-friendly version of Benedict XVI’s new encyclical on Christian love—Deus Caritas Est. Like other documents on my site, it is designed in a two-column format, with footnotes rather than endnotes. You can download in PDF format here.

Here is one of my favorite passages:

Love of neighbour is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. Here we see the necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbour which the First Letter of John speaks of with such insistence. If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties,” then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper,” but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Deus Caritas Est, paragraph 18