Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

29 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Marital Matters

The Catholic Church's matrimonial regulations are not currently listed as a precept, but that doesn't make them less binding for the individual who strives to live up to the Name.

This blog elsewhere features reflections on the "canonical form" of marriage.  In sum: A Catholic observes the proper form for the Sacrament of Matrimony when he or she marries in the presence of a duly-authorized priest or deacon in the presence of two witnesses.

A Catholic observes the proper "matter" for sacramental marriage when he exchanges marital consent with a baptized woman (she, with a baptized man).  One has to be suitable matter for sacramental marriage: to be baptized*; to be "of age" to offer matrimonial consent; to be free of any previously existing bond or any other impediment to marriage; to possess sufficient maturity and understanding of what marriage entails; and to choose what marriage entails, with this specific individual, setting aside now and forever all other possibilities.

*An unbaptized person cannot confer the sacrament of marriage upon his or her spouse; with permission, necessary for the sake of the baptized Catholic and obtainable through the agency of the priest/deacon preparing the couple, he or she may enter into a valid--but not sacramental--covenant of marriage with a baptized person.

"Marital consent" aims to "establish...a partnership of the whole of life...which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring" (can. 1055).  The "whole of life" suggests the essential properties of marriage: unity and indissolubility--"together, forever."

In the selection of a mate (as opposed to "falling in love," which sounds more like slipping on a banana peel, which I've never seen in my whole, short life), observant Catholics give due consideration to the individual with whom they are daring to enter into such a relationship.
  • Does this person share the Church's vision of matrimonial consent, which, not incidentally, is my vision too?
  • Do I know the Church's vision of matrimonial consent, and do I in fact consent to it (not expecting flawlessness, but radically depending on God's grace in order to offer free and informed consent)?
  • Do I know my future spouse long enough, well enough, to know if he or she knows and chooses sacramental marriage according to the Catholic Church?
  • Do I know myself well enough to know if I know and choose sacramental marriage according to the Catholic Church?  This last question takes a lifetime to answer, and yet a certain firm knowledge ought to be in place by the time one is intentionally "playing the field."
The exchange of vows is first moment in the establishment of a valid matrimonial covenant: the second moment is the initial conjugal act "which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh" (can. 1061§1).  A marriage is humanly indissoluble when the parties attest to their consent both publicly (vows) and privately (intercourse).

The 1983 Code of Canon Law mentions in passing that the conjugal act must be performed humano modo, "in a human fashion."  How else?  Modesty forbids a development of this topic; popular songs have treated various alternate modes that have crept into the practice of our species.  But these modes only (if at all) approximate the embodiment of total, faithful, permanent, exclusive, and fruitful love that are a sign of Christ's covenant with His Bride, the Church.  Sacramental marriage is not the only, but certainly the optimal and divinely ordained, context for this act.  Outside of this context, sex runs the risk of devolving into lesser, animalistic expressions of lust and power.

Perhaps a segment from paragraph 49 of Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) would illustrate "a human manner":
This love is an eminently human one since it is directed from one person to another through an affection of the will; it involves the good of the whole person, and therefore can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity, ennobling these expressions as special ingredients and signs of the friendship distinctive of marriage. This love God has judged worthy of special gifts, healing, perfecting and exalting gifts of grace and of charity. Such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves, a gift providing itself by gentle affection and by deed, such love pervades the whole of their lives: indeed by its busy generosity it grows better and grows greater. Therefore it far excels mere erotic inclination, which, selfishly pursued, soon enough fades wretchedly away.
This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the appropriate enterprise of matrimony. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a ready will. Sealed by mutual faithfulness and hallowed above all by Christ's sacrament, this love remains steadfastly true in body and in mind, in bright days or dark. It will never be profaned by adultery or divorce. Firmly established by the Lord, the unity of marriage will radiate from the equal personal dignity of wife and husband, a dignity acknowledged by mutual and total love. The constant fulfillment of the duties of this Christian vocation demands notable virtue. For this reason, strengthened by grace for holiness of life, the couple will painstakingly cultivate and pray for steadiness of love, large heartedness and the spirit of sacrifice.
Authentic conjugal love will be more highly prized, and wholesome public opinion created about it if Christian couples give outstanding witness to faithfulness and harmony in their love, and to their concern for educating their children also, if they do their part in bringing about the needed cultural, psychological and social renewal on behalf of marriage and the family. Especially in the heart of their own families, young people should be aptly and seasonably instructed in the dignity, duty and work of married love. Trained thus in the cultivation of chastity, they will be able at a suitable age to enter a marriage of their own after an honorable courtship.
The last paragraph suggests that suitable preparation for sacramental marriage begins not "at least six months before the desired wedding date," but upon reaching the age of reason.  This preparation depends on diligent spouses/parents who are striving for holiness.  But parish priests (and, by extension, dioceses) are obliged to foster worthy supplements for the Domestic Church, to wit:
  1. "Preaching, catechesis adapted to minors, youth, and adults, and even the use of instruments of social communication, by which the Christian faithful are instructed about the meaning of Christian marriage and about the function of Christian spouses and parents;
  2. "Personal preparation to enter marriage, which disposes the spouses to the holiness and duties of their new state;
  3. "A fruitful liturgical celebration of marriage which is to show that the spouses signify and share in the mystery of the unity and fruitful love between Christ and the Church;
  4. "Help offered to those who are married, so that faithfully preserving and protecting the conjugal covenant, they daily come to lead holier and fuller lives in their family" (Canon 1063)
It may seem self-evident, but legal language has to stipulate it: "It is for the local ordinary to take care that such assistance is organized fittingly, after he has also heard men and women proven by experience and expertise if it seems opportune" (Canon 1064).  "IF"?!  If it's experience and expertise you want, I sure as hail can't offer it, except as a parish priest who has been preparing couples for nearly ten years.  I suppose that makes for a certain experience and expertise.  I know that our parish has many long- and well-married couples who qualify.  We've been aiming to form a "Marriage Enrichment Team" for that very purpose, but it hasn't taken off yet.  

In the meantime, there's always...the a source of...experience and expertise.  People have witnessed the Zsa Zsa Gabors, Britney Spearses, and Kardashians and conclude easily enough that "that's not how marriage is supposed to look," but they still may lack an authentic picture.  This will be more and more the case with every passing year.  We sorely need living witnesses of the proper form and matter for sacramental marriage, people of Christian (especially Catholic) stock who are willing to share their victories and struggles with regard to marital totality of investment, fidelity, and openness to new life.

+ + + + +

Here is an FAQ page on Marriage, courtesy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

23 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Church Contribution

The fifth precept ("You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church") means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability. (CCC 2043)
The Catechism refers the reader to Canon 222§1, which provides the reasons for material support: "so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of ministers."

To paraphrase former Speaker of the House Thomas P. ("Tip") O'Neill who naturally spoke of politics, "All religion is local."  My examination of this fifth precept is also local.

The operating budget of any parish heavily depends on the contributions of parishioners.  Oftentimes we experience, and always we appreciate, the generosity of visitors; but it's the crew who steers the foundering vessel through the quotidian tumult.  Considering the low percentage of parishioners who go to Mass regularly among the parishioners "on the books," we cannot help but acknowledge that a relative few people supply nearly the whole parish income.

That's not fair.

Now I don't claim to know what each participating member is able to give.  It's a personal decision, but that doesn't mean that other people can't make suggestions, especially when those suggestions are based on their own experience.

The practice of "tithing" is rooted in the story of Abram and Melchizedek in Gen 14:18ff.  After  rescuing his nephew and company in a battle, Abram brought the king of Salem "a tenth of everything" he had collected in the spoils.  Melchizedek was a precursor of the tribe of Levi, Israel's priestly tribe, which received all its material support from the tithes of the Israelites (cf. Num 18:21; Heb 7:5).

The priestly practice of depending on the people was also an act of dependence upon the Lord.  "Will they (He) provide for us?"  They will, if they take seriously the Lord's command to sanctify the Lord's Day in His holy dwelling place and if they present a just offering with gratitude for the Lord's providential care for their lives.  In this and many other human affairs, God "relies" on us human beings as secondary agents of Providence (CCC 306-308).
Three relevant winners from CCC 306-308:
God grants his creatures...the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan. (306)
God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors.  Though often unconscious collaborators with God's will, they can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers, and their sufferings. (307)
Drawn from nothingness by God's power, wisdom, and goodness, [the creature] can do nothing if it is cut off from its origin, for "without a Creator the creature vanishes" (Gaudium et Spes 36§3).  Still less can a creature attain its ultimate end without the help of God's grace. (308)
Contribution to the Church and other worthy causes is for everyone an act of faith, that, when it comes to my life, God "is not dead, nor doth He sleep."  But at the same time, by our many and varied contributions, we become part of the answer to others' prayers.

One-tenth has long been understood as a standard of sacrificial generosity.  Whether we distribute our offering entirely to our parish, or among several recipients, is a personal decision; but this author suggests caution against overextending oneself so that many recipients benefit little.

Your parish ought to be high on the list, because the parish is the "precinct" of pastoral care.  Priests celebrate the holy and life-giving Sacraments, preach the Gospel, and offer themselves for your spiritual needs.  The hired workers of the parish (e.g. secretaries, maintenance personnel) keep the facilities in good working order, so that the physical plant is sound and presentable, and so that services divine and human can be provided.  If the parish participates in a school, the parish likely subsidizes a considerable amount of the school's operating budget.  Everyone has expenses, and our good people enable the household of faith to cover its own.

Moreover, the parish helps to provide for people who need a financial boost.  St. Vincent De Paul Societies, Knights of Columbus, and other organizations help local residents.  Parishioners offer non-perishable foods for direct distribution to parishioners and to local pantries.  Holy Guardian Angels Parish also supports Mary's Shelter and Mary's Home, refuges for women who are pregnant or have young children.  These charitable endeavors are distinct from the ordinary expenses that your weekly contributions offset.

We cannot forget the Church's missionary activity.  "Charity begins at home, but can't stay at home forever."  Efforts exist on a diocesan and national level for the ongoing proclamation of the Gospel in other countries and parts of our own country that cannot easily support themselves.  "Operation Rice Bowl" was started in this diocese by Msgr. Robert J. Coll, one of our now retired priests.  Our school children participate in an initiative called the "Missionary Childhood Association" (formerly the "Holy Childhood Association") that raises funds every year.  Older Catholics may recall the practice of "saving pagan babies" with the quarters they saved as school children.  A kinder, gentler Church eschews such nomenclature in favor of bringing spiritual and material sustenance to the most vulnerable of God's precious poor.

Canon 222§2: "[The Christian faithful] are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources."  Whom and what you assist outside of the parochial context is a matter of conscience.  Moreover, we never neglect personal justice in the name of social justice: remember (as Fulton Sheen did) how Judas spurned a sinful woman's offering in the insincere interest of "helping the poor," and remember how Jesus approved the woman's regard for Him as appropriate for the moment--yes, because He Is Who He Is, but also because Whoever is in front of us deserves our attention.

21 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Fasting and Abstinence

The fourth precept ("You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church") ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepares us for the liturgical feasts and helps us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.  (CCC 2043)
Here the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops elucidate the national regulations for fasting and abstinence.  An amplified summary:

  • "Abstinence" (refraining from eating meat and products containing meat--broth base, gravy, etc.) is binding on Ash Wednesday, on all Fridays of Lent, and Good Friday.
  • "Fasting" (eating one full meal and two smaller meals that do not equal a full meal) is binding on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  It is recommended, if possible, to continue the fast begun on Good Friday all the way to the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night.
  • Fridays during the year remain penitential days to honor the Lord's passion and death.  Abstinence from meat is the standard Friday practice.  Currently, however, Americans are permitted to substitute another suitable penance of their own choosing.
Canon 1253 supports the third point: "The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast."
Church historians and ascetical theologians could treat the history of fasting and abstinence better than I could; but I do know (from the attestation of older Catholics) that Friday abstinence was the norm until perhaps the 1960s or 70s; in addition, there were other fasting days such as Ember Days.  In various times and places in Church history, Advent had a penitential tone marked by fasting.

Judaism and Orthodox Christianity continue to observe fasting practices that surpass the mandatory practices of Catholicism, both in nature and extent.  Orthodox Christians fast, as Catholics do, in order to "gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh," as one priest notes in a comprehensive and illustrative article.  In this and many other dimensions of Orthodox Christianity, I sense a profound unity with the West--if not in terms of terminology or practice, then definitely of theory.  One Catholic author who seems to enjoy the good things of life has profited much from roundly adopting the Orthodox fast, and believes that a renewed "Catechesis of Fasting" would profit Latin-Rite Catholics (q.v.), even if we Latins are more adept at adapting than adopting.  Much of traditional Catholicism's education on fasting has favored the purpose of self-discipline for virtue (as opposed to self-improvement for its own sake).  In the process we undoubtedly, and acutely, realize our human weakness.  We do well to consider the Orthodox perspective for its joy--an aspect usually lost on the West.

Some have opined that the purpose of fasting is not primarily to discipline the will for a greater resistance of temptation (although it does), or to foster spiritual growth in us (which strangely enough can become a matter of pride!), but rather to reveal the profound need to depend on divine mercy in the likely event of failure to maintain the discipline.  I believe I read this in an article concerning the practice of "giving up" something for Lent...

...AHA!  Here it is!  In his criticism of an article by an evangelical Christian, a local Orthodox priest by the name of Fr. Andrew S. Damick reminds his readers that a faster's goals of self-improvement and self-realization-as-sinner are indeed secondary to what we might call the objective objective: to dispose oneself, body and soul, to divine grace so that we may become, as the first Bishop of Rome puts it, "partakers in the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4).  Making room for grace inevitably involves the uprooting of vice; but that is as much God's activity as ours.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen keenly contrasted fasting with dieting, the latter being a cherished practice among moderns.  Dieting often involves the improvement of one's physical appearance and self-esteem, often in order to look more attractive to one's spouse or paramour, actual or potential.  The improvement of one's "numbers" (e.g., body weight, cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar) is another, praiseworthy, objective for the dieter.  When Lent comes around, however, people sometimes adopt their Lenten disciplines with ill-fitting and self-centered motives.  In the interest of purifying one's motives for ascesis (discipline), one may want to adopt different  disciplines such as refraining from the television or computer, and/or "doing a good turn daily," implementing the virtues that our families, workplaces, and schools sorely need.

Recall, too, that the Catechism mentions freedom of heart as a positive reason for ecclesial and personal disciplines.  I want to be able to put down something I dearly cherish: for example, the cup of coffee that frequently...currently...sits by my side.  I might have been in the seminary for two or three years when a retreat master suggested giving up coffee (temporarily or permanently) as an ascetical strategy.  It didn't perk me up.  That exchange has been percolating in my mind for all these years because it awakened me to my profound attachment to certain practices and substances.  (That, too, is a good motive of fasting.)  I have since made various life changes for various reasons, but coffee abides with me.  For how much longer, I don't know; but if my mentors suggested it to me, I wouldn't resist as much as I did 15-20 years ago.
"...But not yet!"
I sincerely hope that we Catholics--the Reverend Blogger foremost among them--can recover a genuine appreciation for the value of sacrifice, which is manifested above all in repentance for sin and charity toward neighbor.  Perhaps we can return to fasting with creativity and ingenuity, moved by the willingness to surpass the expected minimum (as the Precepts of the Church prescribe) toward ever greater lengths, "for our good and for the good of all His holy Church."

17 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Easter Duty

I wish to thank blogger Lisa M. Hendey of for her kind promotion of my recent post on the precept on Mass attendance.  It was, in turn, picked up by Elizabeth Scalia, blogger known as "The Anchoress" and editor of the Catholic portal at, for which I am equally grateful.  One of my readers has urged me not to "forget the little people."  Fear not: I will forever be one of the little people, both in the blogosphere and on planet earth (I am barely under 5'4", and, to quote one of my favorites, Woody Allen: "The only thing standing between me and greatness is me.")

Our registration form for new parishioners has a space for them to answer whether they have made their "Easter Duty."  Most registrants have to ask our secretary what that means.  (No longer can we presume knowledge of this and many other Church teachings and practices.)  Some of them, in fact, have made their Easter Duty and then some; others have not.  To quell any confusion about the matter:
The third precept ("You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season") guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord's Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy." (CCC 2042; can. 920)
In my father's last several years, he and I had some rather interesting conversations about religion.  This one most often comes to mind: Dad, a product of the schola antiqua (old school), asked me why so many people were in line for Holy Communion while so few queued for Confession.  "Every week we had to go."  I hear that often from the older set.  Priests tell of the days when three of them would be hearing Confessions for an hour and a half on a Saturday afternoon--when many parishes had two or three assistants!

One wonders whether little attention was paid to the distinction between mortal and venial sin (reviewed in the last post), to the effect that every misstep risked a descent to the Hell of Damnation, or at least a near-eternity in Purgatory.  Of course, I cannot say that for sure, since I wasn't around yet.  Nor can I affirm that people were more conscientious (even if to a fault) back then.  Judging by the attested numbers, relatively few people considered themselves fit to partake in the Eucharist; and those who did, approached with extreme caution.
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom features a dialogue between the priest and the faithful in which the priest, facing the people, lifts up the Holy Gifts (the Eucharist) and proclaims, "Holy Things to the holy!"  To which the people respond, "One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.  Amen."  Throughout the entire Liturgy the priest and people implore God to make them worthy.  The Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite, which has been shaved with Occam's Razor, saves the declaration of unworthiness for the Moment of Truth ("Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter..."), although our participation in the rite presumes (without being presumptuous) our unworthiness, as well as God's power to purify us and His intention and desire to do so.
Does it mean that the pendulum has swung because nowadays seemingly everyone approaches the Altar?  We cannot, of course, presume that everyone who approaches weekly, approaches weakly; but perhaps some do fail to "examine themselves before eating the bread and drinking the cup," failing to "discern the body of Christ," with the infelicitous result of "eating and drinking judgment upon themselves" (1 Cor 11:28-29).  In other words, we do ourselves great harm by receiving Communion when we fail to acknowledge Christ's Real Presence or when we are deliberately retaining serious sin.  It's the spiritual equivalent of drinking battery acid; but if it burns, it may move us to repentance.
The Truth.

Also the Truth.
If there is any accuracy to the statistics concerning belief in the Real Presence (cf. this study of the former and this more comprehensive CARA study), the relevance of the "Easter Duty" swiftly wanes.  Let's not be concerned solely about whether people receive Communion once a year; rather, about whether people attend Mass more than once or twice a year!  Repeated action reinforces belief: put more technically, "Orthopraxis breeds Orthodoxy."

For the present, the precept remains in force.  Presuming one attends Mass on the Lord's Day and Holy Days of Obligation; presuming one celebrates the Sacrament of Penance at least whenever necessary and possible (i.e., whenever one is conscious of grave sin and whenever a duly-authorized priest is at hand); one ought to receive the Eucharist at least during the Easter Season.  These may be ponderous presumptions, but they nonetheless pertain to practical Catholics.  As for merely theoretical Catholics, how shall they be convinced to make the leap toward an impassioned practice nourished by sound doctrine?

Lest this post devolve any further into a diatribe or a hand-wringing endeavor, we do well to remember the centrality of Easter, the Day of Resurrection.  It is the feast of feasts.  It renews our Christian identity as persons incorporated into Christ's Mystical Body, sealed by His promised Holy Spirit.  In light of this blessed reality we love God and obey His commandments; the Church becomes more than an incidental component of our lives or even a wonderful place to keep in touch with people of like minds and interests.

Jesus of Nazareth is no one less than God the Son who became flesh, who suffered and died and rose from the dead in the flesh, for our redemption.  He instituted the Church as the secure conduit of His  grace.  The Holy and Divine Liturgy is the source and summit of who we are and how we conduct ourselves as members of Christ's Body.  Therefore, while we live, we approach at least as often as commanded, in order that His command become our wish.

16 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Annual Confession

The second precept ("You shall confess your sins at least once a year") ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism's work of conversion and forgiveness.  (CCC 2042)
The relevant canon (989) in the 1983 Code of Canon Law reads: "After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year" (Canon Law Society of America, 1988 trans.)  The Catechism's omission of "grave" sins is curious.

Age of discretion: As far as I am aware, most parish religious education programs introduce children to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in second grade, or about the age of seven.  By that time in our lives we have begun to understand the concept of disobeying rules, even if the rationale of those rules is yet unclear; we certainly know when we have angered or disappointed our parents, grandparents, babysitters, and teachers!  In those early years we begin to learn that we have options and therefore must make choices: to act or not to act, to act this way or that.  That's "discretion," from the Latin discernere, which means "to separate, distinguish between" (cf. discreet; see "discernment").

The faithful: The Christifideles are all the baptized who have not consciously and freely separated themselves from the Mystical Body of Christ.  That's one way of looking at it; more positively put, one "stays close," remains part of the Body through visible acts of faith such as attending Mass, as well as daily acts of prayer, sacrifice, and charity.  "The faithful" obviously aren't "the perfect": with that standard, our churches would be completely empty!  The fideles act fideliter, faithfully; that is, in accord with their regenerated, Christian nature.  Regularly engaging in the constructive discipline of making a good sacramental Confession is just how we roll.

Once a year is regular, I suppose, but really, is it enough?  I go about once a month.  Others go every week or two, others four or five times a year.  It may be hard to find a priest or to find the time, but "where there's a will, there's a way."  To those who say, "How can I commit any sins?  I don't go anywhere," I can attest that I don't have to move a muscle to entertain a bad thought.  People sure can find a way to sin, oftentimes never having to leave a room but just as oftentimes walking a mile for a Camel!

A good Confession is:
  1. Preceded by an honest and thorough examination of conscience against the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, Precepts of the Church, etc;
  2. Motivated by at least "imperfect" contrition (fearing/despising the punishment our sins are due, in this life and/or the next, but better motivated by "perfect contrition" (dreading the thought of having offended a loving God whom we love);
  3. Conducted with earnestness and without excuses, omitting no mortal sins, specifying as well as possible the number of mortal sins; and
  4. Followed by prompt penance: recitation of prescribed prayers, amendment of behaviors, restoration of property or reputations.
Grave, mortal, really big: Whether one makes an annual, semi-annual, monthly, or daily Confession, one is obliged to confess only "mortal," i.e., serious sins.   If I were a "man-on-the-street" reporter, not only would I administer "exit polls" to people who have stopped going to Mass or have left the Catholic Church, I would also ask people if they could distinguish venial from mortal sin and give examples.
(When some people first heard the word "catechesis," they thought the person was saying, "cease and desist," so that's what just they did.)
Paragraph 1855 of the Catechism lays down the fundamental distinction:
"Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.  Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it."   
What, pray tell, are the characteristics of mortal sin?

  1. The object of choice is grave matter: a literal violation of one of the Ten Commandments; gravity also takes note of the relationship between the offender and the offended.  The closer the relationship (e.g. parent-child vs. complete strangers), the greater the disadvantage of one party (e.g. taking advantage of a simpleminded person), the more serious the offense.
  2. The agent knows full well that the choice involves a serious violation of God's law.  Pretended ignorance is inexcusable.  You can fool some people, but "God is not mocked" (Gal 6:7).  That was a seminary staple: "It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission."  Easier to receive, more like it.  Unintentional ignorance may eliminate culpability (responsibility in God's sight), but one ought to seek to know the truth in case of doubt.
  3. The agent gives complete consent to the choice.  One cannot sin by accident (I love it when kids claim they "accidentally" kicked or pushed their siblings--but how else does one feel when one's actions have unforeseen or unintended consequences: think of the drunk driver guilty of vehicular manslaughter!), or in the absence of real options.  Stubbornness ("hardness of heart," biblically speaking)--choosing with gusto--exacerbates the voluntary nature of the choice.  In a great many cases, the person acts out of weakness more than malice: external force and internal pressures (e.g. uncontrollable emotions, especially in addictive or pathological situations) can diminish responsibility.  People gain great freedom, but also great responsibility, when they learn they don't have to act on the first thought that occurs to them!
If any of these conditions is lacking, the agent has not committed a mortal sin.  This is where mentioning relevant circumstances can be helpful in Confession (e.g. "I missed Mass on the holyday because I was sick.  I didn't even go to the hairdresser!").

Do the best you can to remember your sins.  If you remember something later, there is no need to rush back in.  You can mention it the next time.  This is another good reason for going more than once a year.

As I said above, one need not mention venial sins, but many penitents find a certain comfort in doing so--the assurance of God's forgiveness and strength against future temptations.  I need all the help I can get.

A priest yelled at 1962...You wouldn't let a case of food poisoning keep you from eating at every McDonalds, or every fast food restaurant, or eating at all!

Your first meal could only go so far in nourishing your body.  You had to eat again.  Conversion, like sin, is a lifetime endeavor.

I can confess directly to God.  Sure, we can!  This question brought to mind a news article from last January when Pope Benedict XVI visited a prison in Italy.  He fielded questions from the prisoners, including this very confessional concern:
Gianni, another inmate, asked the pope why he had to go to confession for pardon instead of just getting on his knees and asking God for forgiveness. “Naturally, if you get on your knees and, with real love for God, pray that God forgive you, he will,” the pope said. But sin doesn’t disturb only the relationship between an individual and God, he said, it harms the community of the church and wider society. The sacrament of reconciliation “is the great gift by which, through confession, I can free myself from this and can receive real forgiveness, including in the sense of a full readmission into the community of the living church,” he said. 
Human beings are societal by nature, yet it seems we can tend just as strongly, when we wish, toward individualism.  This is not necessarily a problem, provided we can keep our centrifugal and centripetal  tendencies in balance.  But we do nothing in a vacuum...except suck.  Personal sin is never "private," especially insofar as we must continue to be involved in our family and occupational efforts when we are "in sin."  How can the choices we make in seclusion not somehow seep into our dealings with others?

In the same vein, our movement toward repentance and change occurs in a larger context.  "It takes a village to raise a child," especially as the child stumbles on her journey to ambulation.  The Church is always, in her every public and personal prayer, longing for people's conversion.

Stop fighting.  Go to Confession.  At least once a year, but thrice is nice.

11 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": The Lord's Day Observance

The first precept ("You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor") requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days. (CCC 2042)
The Jewish sabbath commemorates (1) the account of God's seventh-day rest from the work of creation (cf. Ex 20:11), as well as (2) the Lord's act of redeeming Israel from Egyptian slavery (cf. Dt 5:15).  It goes from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.  Liturgically speaking, this fact accounts for the permission for Saturday evening Masses that anticipate the Sunday celebration.  These began to take place in the mid to late 1960s (although some dioceses such as Philadelphia forbade it until the 1980s).

Sunday is the "Christian Sabbath," the day on which we celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Jesus' Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Glorification for the redemption of mankind.  For that reason every Sunday is a "little Easter," an oasis of renewal for the people of God amid the desert of everyday life.  No matter what has transpired throughout the week, we know that the Lord's Day is coming: the opportunity to "confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help" (Heb 4:16).  Although the Catholic Church offers divine refreshment in the form of Mass each day, a great many people are unable to attend because of work and other concerns--thus building up the tensions that, it is hoped, Holy Mass helps to offset.

The greater Reading area is blessed to have a number of parishes close to each other, and the times of daily Mass vary: 6:30am, 7am, 7:30am, 8am, Noon, and occasionally 6 or 7pm.  Saturday Vigil Masses range from 4pm to 6pm in half-hour increments.  Some people would gladly attend Mass during the week if they knew when it was held, and if it were convenient to attend (nearby, at the optimal time, not too long, etc.).  Personal convenience plays a major role in much decision-making.  This is no personal judgment on anyone.  I recognize that praying Mass pertains to my priestly vocation (colloquially speaking, "It's my job"), and I would hope that, if I were not a priest, I too would commit to attending Mass often during the week.

This precept concerns not daily Mass, but Lord's Day (Sunday or Saturday Vigil) Mass.  It's enough for many people to find or make the time for one day a week.  I often wonder: why don't Catholics attend Mass?  (I would very much appreciate true but charitable reader comments on the matter.)  For the moment, I offer a few generalized reasons/excuses:
  • Sabbath Rest.  As one CCD student told me when I was a seminarian visiting her class, "Daddy says that he works all week and wants to rest on Sundays."  The response that "God worked, too," holds no weight because He's God.  Creation was no sweat off His back; only a Word was necessary!  He "rested" as an example for us, so that we should not become exceedingly consumed with production, results, and cash flow.  Which came first: businesses having Sunday hours or shoppers engaging in Sunday commerce?  Even the good people of Alcoholics Anonymous know, "For us, material well-being always followed spiritual progress; it never preceded" ("Big Book," p. 127).
  • Children's Sporting Events/Practices.  This is quite the opposite of "rest," for it involves early rising, preparation, travel, and cool-down.  Coaches, referees, and other key players work during the week like most other people, so youth athletic organizations schedule games on the day when everyone would be more likely to have free time.  Membership on a sports team means more to most kids (and some of their parents) than membership in the parish.  Miss enough practices and/or games, and they're off the team.  Period.  The Church doesn't wield that kind of authority or influence over children, or for that matter, over adults.  Being on a sports team is "cool," while kids would sooner be caught getting sloppily kissed by Aunt Hilda than going to Mass with their family.
  • Booooooriiing (a la the horn of a ship).  In a highly stimulating world, many people (adults as well as children) don't have the attention span for the First Eucharistic Prayer or the average Homilist.  I have read that tiring sermons are a major source of popular dissatisfaction with public worship.  Choral music written by Hallmark gets old quick.  One reason to return to the "pride of place" once and still owned by Gregorian Chant would be its sheer "novelty"!  Can celebrants and their trusted advisors do anything to improve the "worship experience"?  No doubt.  Praying the words and following the rubrics with attentiveness is a good start.  Former and occasional Catholics often claim that the Church hasn't (spiritually, I presume) "fed" them, as this article attests.  Alongside a reverently celebrated Mass, sound teaching is crucial for Catholic "Asset Protection" (otherwise known as "Loss Prevention").
  • Issues.  Father McNasty bit my head off when I made a suggestion to him.  You have to have kids in the school to count for anything around here.  The Church is behind the times because of this whole contraception business, not to mention women priests and mandatory celibacy.  The Church doesn't do enough for the disabled or the unemployed.  It's all about the fancy-shmancy goblets and clothes.  People aren't real around here.  I'm in the middle of an affair.  I'm in litigation.  Why did my daughter die?  I'm depressed.  These and other points of contention harrow the hearts of untold thousands of Catholics, even though the events may have taken place decades ago.  Disappearance from the Lord's Day Mass is the first symptom of a problem.  Some will trail away gradually, others will just stop going.  Most of them won't announce their departure, because someone might try to dissuade them from leaving.
Let me know if I, as a priest, can do anything to help you.  I'll pray, for starters.

Christ did not institute the Sacred Liturgy or anything else about the Church for our entertainment or even primarily for our comfort.  It is the mystical re-presentation of His saving sacrifice upon the Cross, and the mystical banquet that unites us as members of His Body.  Having been gathered by the Holy Spirit into His fold, and having been edified by His Presence in the Scriptures and in the Holy Gifts (the Eucharist), we are sent forth from the Mass for evangelization and service.  As the two new forms of dismissal say, "Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life."  "Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord."

The second component of the Sabbath precept involves resting from "servile labor."  Blessed John Paul's apostolic letter Dies Domini ("The Lord's Day") is worth reading for its exhaustive contemplation of the sanctification of our time and efforts.  Renewed attention to personal rest, healthy recreation, care for the sick and needy among us (in whatever form), time with God, with family and friends: these are lovely ways to spend a Sabbath.  We may find that we can build little Sabbaths into each day.  We can decrease our slavish dependence on performance and production, on the adulation we earn by looking and being busy.

08 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Preliminary Reflections

Catechists (teachers of the Faith) often present Catholic doctrines in lists.  There are four cardinal virtues, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, eight beatitudes, and ten commandments.  Teachers present the lists and unpack the details of each item on the lists.  The Internet makes information readily available, so memorization doesn't seem to be advocated or necessary anymore.

Call me "old school," but I still appreciate the value of memorizing things.  Now, with these newfangled cell phones, I haven't been memorizing phone numbers in a few years; but I still can remember phone numbers I used to dial ("Dial"? What does that mean?).

In the next several posts I shall present and develop the individual items of an old, familiar list: the Precepts of the Church.  Paragraph 2041-2043 of the Catechism lists five precepts, although earlier lists contain six or seven.  I shall treat the CCC five as well as two other precepts which, for whatever reason, failed to make the cut.
(Some scholars will list the book of Joshua and perhaps even Judges among the books of the Pentateuch, thereby renaming it the "Hexateuch" or "Heptateuch"!  Whither the disparities among catechetical lists?  The best answer lies in the axiom, "Academia thrives on disagreement.")
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We can begin with the CCC glossary definition of the Precepts of the Church:
Positive laws (sometimes called commandments) made by Church authorities to guarantee for the faithful the indispensable minimum in prayer and moral effort, for the sake of their growth in love of God and neighbor.

St. Thomas Aquinas defines "law" as "a certain ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has care for the community."  Perhaps we will notice how this definition supports the precepts of the Church.

Positive laws (commandments): The Catholic Church is often stereotyped by her negative precepts.  "Thou shalt not" do...just about everything!  What can or ought we do?  Look no further!  There is infinite freedom to "live Christ."

Made by Church authorities: Members of most other earthly bodies would recognize the right and responsibility of those earthly bodies to craft liturgical, moral, and procedural rules for the sake of maintaining group identity and order.  But people so often question the Church's rights to do these same things for these same reasons.  They may fail to see Christ actively at work in the Church's teaching authority, in contrast to His more visible and acceptable presence in the discharge of corporal works of mercy.  The former makes possible the latter.

To guarantee...the indispensable minimum in prayer and moral effort: I don't know which came first: the theoretical establishment of a minimum or the practical observance of it.  Some years ago I came across a sign on a priest's desk that read, "What's the least I must do to avoid mortal sin?"  It seems mildly irreverent to put it that way, but to be honest, I'm not always eagerly advancing "from glory to glory."

Jesus' threefold interrogation of Peter (in the Greek) comes to mind.  "Simon, do you love Me [in terms of laying down your life for me]?  Not quite?  Well, do you love Me [as a friend]?" (cf. Jn 21:15-17)  If Jesus accepts from no less than His chief shepherd the love of friends in the provisional absence of sacrificial love, then I'm better off than I might think.  Of course, neither for Peter nor for me will lesser loves suffice.  Discipleship is all about disposing myself to growth in love of God and neighbor.

At the outset, the CCC reminded us: The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life.  Whether you are observing the Church's precepts won't much matter to you if you are absenting yourself from the Lord's Day assembly and not bothering to form your conscience properly.  Sincere attempts to obey the commandments and beatitudes, devotion to the Lord, to Our Lady, and to the saints: these are a "given" that, unfortunately, cannot be taken for granted in this age.

04 May 2013

On the Nature, Mission, and Operation of the Church

         Everything we have heard today concerns the nature, mission, and practices of Holy Church.  That is to say, it concerns the Trinity, and you, and me, and how we conduct ourselves.  The Church is the “sacrament of salvation”: when people want to know what salvation looks like and where it comes from, look to the Church—and see the Trinity, and you, and me, and how we conduct ourselves.  The Church is the “Mystical Body of Christ”—Jesus the Head and we the Members—fully alive with His Most Precious Blood pulsing through our veins, fully alive because we are united by the Holy Spirit of Wisdom, Power, and Love.
Hear the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council: “All men are called to this catholic unity which prefigures and promotes universal peace.  And in different ways belong to it, or are related: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation” (Lumen Gentium, 13).  That statement was made less than fifty years ago, but the roots of it are found in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, where we see the Church’s borders being opened to Gentiles (non-Jews).  This manifestation of divine mercy points to the fulfillment of Jesus’ desire for unity under the care and direction of one Shepherd.
Complete unity is, as we well know, a work in progress.  We see this in the same first reading, where the Apostles have decided (in the first Church council, held in Jerusalem) whether the Gentile converts should be forced to enter the Church through the rituals of Judaism.  In an example of genuine compromise, both sides listen to each other, consider the truth in each other’s views, be willing to hold their own views with some levity, and be willing to give up something for the sake of Christ’s peace: in this example, the Gentile converts will observe certain Jewish dietary and marriage laws, while the Jewish converts no longer are to demand circumcision.
The heavenly Jerusalem described in the second reading is the consummate model of Christ’s peace, for it comes from heaven and joins the blessed with all who await the blessing of everlasting life.  It joins Testaments Old and New.  It joins together every human division.  Our present endeavor is to assist in the bridging of every gap with openness, honesty, and willingness.  This includes the gaps between peoples, and most important, the gaps between the truth and us.  Here the Church’s magisterium, or teaching authority, leads the way—not as Truth’s master, but rather as its servant.
When it comes to the issues that are so divisive in society, it is important to remember the Church’s role of fostering peace through truth and charity.  There is the ever-present tendency to caricature people and issues, to make personal attacks and so forth—somewhat understandable because religion and politics are so important to the survival of the human community.  The Church engages in politics because politics has to do with people and the way they treat each other.  She cannot back down from the Truth of the Gospel and the Church’s teachings for the sake of human respect.  She doesn’t intend to drive people away, nor will she retain them under a false sense of unity.  We know how the Cross continues to be revealed in the many forms of human suffering, especially of the innocent; but we can’t forget the suffering that the whole Church experiences as people fall short of, and even reject, the full and splendid truth about themselves.
For this reason we ceaselessly invoke the Holy Spirit who first descended upon Mary and the Apostles, begging for a new outpouring of divine life upon the People of God—that, whatever “side” we may be on with respect to a given matter, we may attain unity and peace to be the best possible example to the world, even if our greatest success lies in demonstrating our utter dependence on God’s mercy.

BGT  1 Corinthians 9:25 πᾶς δὲ ὁ ἀγωνιζόμενος πάντα ἐγκρατεύεται, ἐκεῖνοι μὲν οὖν ἵνα φθαρτὸν στέφανον λάβωσιν, ἡμεῖς δὲ ἄφθαρτον.
1 Corinthians 9:25 Omnis autem, qui in agone contendit, ab omnibus se abstinet; et illi quidem, ut corruptibilem coronam accipiant, nos autem incorruptam.  (1Co 9:25 NOV)

(I copied these verses as a personal reminder for my marathon preparations, which begin in earnest this week (with an initial reduction in weekly mileage).  The verse reads:
Everyone who competes, denies himself everything; and these do so in order to receive a perishable crown, while we receive an imperishable one.