The words immaculate conception are not in the Bible, yet the teaching that Mary was conceived without sin carries the weight of dogma: a Greek term for “what seems right.” A dogma is considered an infallible teaching. According to the First Vatican Council (the "other" Vatican council rarely talked about), a dogma must be 1. Contained in scripture or part of post-biblical tradition; 2. Explicitly proposed as a divinely revealed belief; and 3. Issued as a solemn decree that can be later developed but not deliberately rejected without risk of heresy.
Wow. That means this teaching about Mary’s beginnings is essential to Catholic understanding. Yet none of the four gospels mentions Mary’s origins. Even her parents, Joachim and Anne, are not named. The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 trace Joseph’s line.
We get our early stories about Mary from that “post-biblical tradition” alluded to above, records of hazy origin like The Birth of Mary, the Protevangelion of James, and The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus. While these documents didn’t make the cut when the canon of scripture was set, they remain valuable windows into the way early Christians expressed their beliefs. One thing they make clear: The early church had a powerful sense that the Incarnation-event bound Jesus and his mother in a singular, physical infusion of divine grace.
That helps us appreciate why the Immaculate Conception—celebrated as a feast in the 11th century and officially introduced as dogma in 1854—still represents a very early church understanding. Theologians point to scripture passages that validate the cosmic preparation of Mary for her role: Genesis 3:15 (sin will be conquered by a woman); Luke 1:28 (Mary is favored); Luke 1:42 (Mary is blessed among women).
The 12th-century theologians Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux as well as Aquinas and Bonaventure in the 13th century voiced concern that a sinless Mary would put her outside of the need of Christ’s universal salvation. Do we really want to say she didn’t need saving? The Franciscan Duns Scotus resolved the objection by saying Christ could save in two ways: by lifting up the sinner or by preserving one from sin altogether. Mary remains the only person so far identified in the latter category.
Consider this: There was a time when your life and your mother’s were literally inseparable. For the sake of that time when Mary and Jesus shared life together in her body, why wouldn’t God prepare the way?
• Genesis 3:15; Luke 1:28, 42
• Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX’s Apostolic Constitution on the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1854
• The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), chapter 8, “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church”
• The Virgin Mary and Theology of the Body edited by Donald H. Calloway, M.I.C. (Marian Press, 2005)
• Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament edited by Bart D. Ehrman (Oxford University Press, 2003)
• Tradition and Incarnation by William L. Portier (Paulist Press, 1994)
The necessity for established, well-defined parish boundaries was identified at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) as a way to protect pastors and their communities from the harm that evolved from uncertain lines of authority and property. The original trouble was grounded in the feudal system: In earlier times the church was by no means separate from the state, as it is in most countries today. The notion of a parish with canonically (that is, by church law) protected rights and responsibilities serves to clarify what you and I “get”—and have a right to—when we join up.
Parish boundaries aren’t always geographically defined. Most are designated by territory, but they can also be defined by language, rite, ethnicity, or other elements that serve the community. For example, in large U.S. cities a French or Korean parish might serve all who speak those languages primarily. There’s also a military diocese that encompasses U.S. service folk wherever they may be, creating parishes anywhere armed forces personnel are serving. Rites in communion with Rome, like Maronites, Melkites, Ukrainians, and others, establish parishes defined less by geography than by the particular liturgy customary for those communities.
As a Catholic you may worship freely in any of these parishes or all of them if you wish. But there are advantages to registering with a particular parish—whether or not you live inside its technical boundaries—that are worth considering. A parish is defined by four basic elements.
First, it stands to serve a certain segment of the People of God. Second, it’s administered by a priest specifically charged with its sacramental care (even a parish with a nonordained administrator on-site reports to a member of the clergy who holds the official title of pastor). Third, a parish is governed by church law which outlines reciprocal rights and duties of pastor and parishioners. Finally, a parish is guaranteed a suitable site containing all that’s necessary for the Catholic spiritual life: Eucharistic equipment, baptismal font, confessional, cemetery, and a place for sacramental records to be kept. Those who register with a particular parish will have full access to all that’s necessary for Catholic identity when the time comes. Trust a former parish secretary here: Get on the books. It makes your sacramental life easier!
• 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 12:1-31; Ephesians 2:19-22; 4:1-7, 11-16
• See nos. 26-27 of Pope John Paul II's 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici
• Parishes Online lets you find websites, Mass times, and directory information for any parish or diocese in the U.S.
• Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices by Paul Wilkes (Paulist Press, 2001)
• The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism by Richard P. McBrien (HarperOne, 2008)
This is the post-Halloween question I was waiting for! It’s a good question, especially for those old enough to remember when the Trinity was defined as “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” First, the word ghost comes from the German Geist, which means “spirit.” So there is less difference between these terms than we normally ascribe. Our modern idea of ghosts, however, is so shaped by horror films and the occult that I can’t say simply: Yes, Catholicism admits the reality of ghosts. Let me take a longer route to the answer.
Catholicism teaches that we are both body and soul, or as Saint Paul says (using the Greek for these words), flesh and spirit. The soul is a “substantial and spiritual principle endowed with immortality” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. It’s substantial because it has elements of being, such as potency, stability, and the capacity to be modified. It’s spiritual in that it is immaterial and has intelligence and free will—irrespective of its relationship to a physical body. When we die, the soul separates from the body, to be reunited “at the end of the ages.”
Jesuit John Hardon in his Modern Catholic Dictionary notes that God may and does permit the souls of the dead to appear before the living when it’s suitable for our salvation. The lives of the saints are full of such apparitions. Church teaching, based in biblical tradition, warns against trying to conjure or control such spirits as occult practices routinely do. That means just say no to Ouija boards, séances, mediums, automatic writing, tarot cards, or other supernatural methods for obtaining information.
Seeking the aid of powers other than God is a deterrent to faith, does not lead to good, and can lead to harm. That is the Catholic position on the supernatural in general. Note: It is not a refutation of the existence of supernatural things, angels, demons, and “ghosts” included. In fact, because exorcism is still on the books in Catholic teaching, it would confirm rather than deny the reality of the spiritual world.
But for heaven’s sake, none of this should make you scared! Catholics believe that God alone is sovereign, and there is no power or principality equal to divine authority—Satan included. Lost souls aren’t wandering around aimlessly or even purposefully to get you. All created things must answer to God, just like you and me. The Ghost you’re most likely to engage is a Holy one.
• Deuteronomy 18:9-14; 1 Samuel 28:4-25; 2 Kings 21:6; Isaiah 3:1-3; Micah 5:11; Acts 7:51-53; 13:6-12; 16:16-24; 19:13-20
• "I believe in life everlasting," Catechism of the Catholic Church
• Our Lady of the Lost and Found: A Novel of Mary, Faith, and Friendship by Diane Schoemperlen (Penguin Books, 2001)
• Apparitions of Modern Saints by Patricia Treece (Charis Books, 2001)
“You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The man we know as Augustine of Hippo, bishop and church doctor, made this passionate declaration to God in his Confessions written in Africa in the 4th century. A prolific writer and even more famous orator, it’s no wonder he’s the patron saint of printers today: He practically kept book-makers in business in his day. Despite the fact that he wrote and talked so much, and knew everyone worth knowing in the Mediterranean world from Saints Ambrose to Jerome, some things aren’t known about Augustine. The color of his skin is debated, for example. That he was an impassioned thinker and Christian convert, however, is unquestioned.
Augustine is significant for so many reasons it’s hard to condense them. He wrote some of the earliest extended scripture commentaries and shaped our understanding of the Book Genesis, at least, irrevocably. He left an indelible mark on teachings concerning baptism, original sin, chastity, and doctrines about Jesus as well. He chased suspicious ideas around the church tirelessly—the 4th century had the lion’s share of these—and defined orthodoxy on many issues. His preaching style still affects the modern practice of this art, and his ideas about liturgy remain captivating and fresh. One begins to wonder: Is there anything about Catholicism that Augustine didn’t influence?
While Augustine has been called the most important thinker in Western Christianity and remains the elephant in the room in any modern theological debate, a lot of folks don’t remember him for his ideas at all. Augustine fascinates as a person: He was arguably a sexually promiscuous young man who contracted a bad case of religion and couldn’t get rid of it. Sexual desire and intellectual craving for knowledge were the twin demons of his life. His restless heart found repose in the mystery of God reluctantly—but not without a considerable struggle which he chose to document personally for us. “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new!” he writes in his Confessions—sounding both rueful and relieved.
The man who would become Saint Augustine was once a faithless lover, an unreliable dad, a lousy prospect for a husband, and a guy who regularly broke his mother’s heart. That he also became an irreplaceable paving stone in church thought is wonderfully encouraging for all of us who currently fall short of who we might yet be.
• Psalm 131; Jeremiah 20:7-9; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10
• Confessions by Saint Augustine (Penguin Classics, 2006)
• Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter Brown (University of California Press, 2000)
• Augustine of Hippo: A Life by Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 2010)
In most cases, yes, you can enter a religious order without a college degree. Many communities, however, will strongly encourage you to get a degree either before entering the community or while you are in formation.
There are a couple of significant reasons why religious communities often prefer persons entering to have a college degree. First, education and college life are significant experiences that expand the doorways of one’s mind and one’s life experience. We discover new ideas and ways of relating with other people, God, and the world around us. We also learn a lot about ourselves. All of that is key to being in a good space to make a life commitment in a religious community.
Second, a college education is essential to discovering and becoming skilled in our talents and gifts. As a religious you will use this training well in whatever you do in your ministry and community life. Your education can help you in a particular ministry (e.g., social work, medicine, education, pastoral care) and it can help you with community responsibilities (e.g., administration, facilitation, interpersonal relationships, and so on).
Religious communities also recognize that a college education is not always possible due to personal finances or life circumstances. There is often room to work things out, especially if a person entering has had other life experience such as a full-time job.
Get to know the religious community you hope to join and talk with their vocation director to see what the possibilities are.
Sanctuary is a biblical tradition with a noble past; let’s hope the concept has a future. Rooted in the word sancta, it means "holy space." The original idea was to offer a place of asylum for people guilty of accidental homicide. Remember, ancient culture was governed by eye-for-an-eye justice and then some. When blood was shed in one family, it was expected the perpetrator’s family would soon be in mourning, too. Nomadic life was isolated and dangerous, and justice had to come swiftly to keep predators at bay.
When the Israelites stopped wandering and went urban, however, the new congested lifestyle made that sort of retribution problematic. Killing a fellow from the next tribe over was efficient when clans lived apart and moved on regularly. But you couldn’t kill your next-door neighbor’s son and not begin an escalating spiral of murders that would consume the town. Folks living in close proximity couldn’t abide that kind of communal conflict.
So six cities of asylum were established to correspond with up-and-running shrines in Israel. (This was before the time of the Temple in Jerusalem.) Now, if your ox gored a neighbor, you could run to the nearest shrine and stay there until the case could be heard and judged by the leadership. In this way, sanctuary provided a stopgap for instinctive violence until cooler heads prevailed.
In Catholic tradition, “the right of sanctuary is rooted in the reverence for places of worship and an abhorrence of any violation of sacred space,” writes theologian Richard McBrien in his Encyclopedia of Catholicism. That implies that our modern employment of sanctuary depends on an ancient understanding of sacred space. We have to believe there are places where God’s presence is uniquely manifest or honored. In congregations that view contemporary churches more as polite gathering rooms for the morally convinced, the sense of God-space the ancients had is lost. If a place isn’t “God-haunted” in a primal way, what’s to violate, and why not cross the line?
Catholicism maintains the notion of holy ground in churches, monasteries, retreat centers, even cemeteries. Once consecrated for sacred purposes, our holy places take on a character that sets them apart from the ordinary sphere of activity. For a church leader to offer sanctuary to an endangered community is to suggest there are still lines we can’t cross, places where God’s justice remains higher than our passion for legal solutions.
• Numbers 35:9-15; Deuteronomy 19:1-13
• A TIME magazine article on churches and the “new sanctuary movement”
• This Ground Is Holy: Church Sanctuary and Central American Refugees by Ignatius Bau (Paulist Press, 1985)
• Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino (Frances Lincoln Books, 2009)
Like all parts of creation, time can be harnessed for a sacramental purpose: to direct us to the holy. The Liturgy of the Hours is a ritual that engages the sacred character of time and helps us participate in the sanctification of each day to God’s purposes. Time is holy. We’re more mindful of that as we pray the Liturgy of the Hours.
Praying throughout the day has a long history in the church. The practice is rooted in the synagogue prayer which Jesus attended regularly. Jesus teaches his followers to pray and models frequent habits of prayer. In Acts the apostles gather for daily prayer with other believers. Saint Paul urges us to pray “unceasingly.” According to the early church theologian Tertullian, by the early 200s A.D. Christians were trying to do just that. They gathered for morning and evening prayer. They supplemented these communal moments with private prayer at rising and upon retiring and in between at the third, sixth, and ninth hours. They even interrupted their sleep to pray once during the night. These hours were identified with events in the life of Jesus. The midnight prayer, for instance, reminded them that Jesus would return one day “like a thief in the night.”
That was a tiresome schedule for most people with day jobs! Eventually two forms developed: monastic prayer and cathedral prayer. Monks and cloistered nuns might continue to keep the hours described above. Most Christians gathered for morning and evening prayer (matins and vespers) daily. Other hours were optional and private as time permitted. Yet even the people’s cathedral prayer became more formalized and gradually came to be viewed as the property of clergy. Lay folk abandoned it in favor of simpler prayer styles like the rosary.
The Second Vatican Council sought to reclaim this ancient and valuable prayer for the whole church. The council reaffirmed that clergy need not be present for the faithful to gather to celebrate the Hours. Simplified (and less expensive) versions of the Liturgy of the Hours in single-volume format have made this prayer style even more inviting. Personally I consider the years I’ve spent praying the Hours the most fruitful season of my life as a person of faith. This prayer reminds me that every day is a gift from God, every hour an opportunity for grace.
• Matthew 5:44; 6:9-13; Luke 4:16; 6:28; 11:2-4; 18:1; Acts of the Apostles 2:42; 3:1; 20:36; 21:5; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
• Universalis offers the Liturgy of the Hours online
• Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours (Catholic Book Publishing, 1999)
• Practical Guide for the Liturgy of the Hours by Shirley Darcus Sullivan (Catholic Book Publishing)
• A Companion to the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning and Evening Prayer by Shirley Darcus Sullivan (Catholic Book Publishing, 2004)
Some of us know and respond instantly to a calling from God. Others, like you and me, hear God’s call gradually and sometimes over the course of many years. These “in between” times are always worthwhile as God’s call deepens within us and we grow in our understanding of ourselves and God.
You seem to be at a crossroads and ready to explore God’s call more intentionally. A first step is to get to know priests and brothers and their way of life. That can be done casually or formally, whatever works best for you at first. See how it feels to imagine yourself in their way of life and involved in their mission. It may help to learn more about the particular vocations to become a diocesan priest, a religious priest, or a religious brother. You’ll find more information about these vocations on the FAQ page of this website.
While you actively explore what it’s like to be a brother or priest, be sure to take all of these experiences to prayer. Check in with God daily, telling God of your desires, feelings, and thoughts. And don’t forget to listen! Spend time in silence, opening your heart to God. For some guidance, read through the article ”Four steps to hearing your call” by Benedictine Sister Anita Louise Lowe. You might also consider working with a spiritual director, someone who is skilled in helping people discern God’s calling in their lives.
Another avenue for discerning God’s call is to engage in some form of ministry. Become a catechist at your parish, volunteer as at a hospice, advocate for those in need as a board member or in your job, spend your vacation time on a service trip.
And if you are doing these things, and still feel drawn to become a priest or brother, then get in touch with the vocation director of your local diocese (for diocesan priesthood) or in the religious community with whom you feel most at home. It may simply be time to go for it!
My prayers are with you as you move more deeply into God’s calling to you.
Some people ask this question less diplomatically: What good is prayer? What does prayer do? One thing I’ve found helpful to consider is what prayer is not: It’s not the coin you put in the celestial gumball machine that gives you a return on your investment in kind. Prayer is neither payment in advance for services rendered nor is it divine bribery. God will not say: OK, already—25 rosaries is enough! You get the vintage muscle car!
Yet Jesus does use the image of a harried judge entreated by a widow about her cause so long and earnestly that he gives in for fear she might get violent. If even the hard-hearted judge caves in to just demands, won’t God be even more likely to attend to ours? This sounds good in a parable. Still, most of us can remember having prayed quite hard for things we didn’t get.
The 6th-century mystic John Climacus was no stranger to this problem. “When requests are made to God and are not immediately answered, the reason may be one of the following: either that the petition is premature, or because it has been made unworthily . . . or because, if granted, it would lead to conceit, or because negligence and carelessness would result.”
Bede the Venerable, 7th-century Doctor of the Church, agrees at least that timing is a factor: “It also sometimes happens that we seek things entirely related to salvation with our eager petitions and devoted actions, yet . . . the result of our petition is postponed to some future time.” He notes that we’ve all been praying “Thy kingdom come” for quite a while, yet no one has yet to have the kingdom delivered at the end of the prayer. It will come “at the proper time,” he concludes
In the 12th-century the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux probably offered the most popular answer: “[God] will give either what we ask, or what he knows to be more profitable to us.” This echoes the prayer of Jesus in the garden: “If it be your will, let this cup pass; still, not my will, but yours be done.”
I’ve been praying for 35 years for a reconciling of hearts between two people I love very much. One of them died two years ago without the healing ever taking place. Yet I haven’t stopped praying for their reconciliation. Because I believe they both need it, now more than ever. I leave it to God to work out the details.
• Matthew 6:5-13; 7:7–11; Luke 11:1-13; 18:1-14; 22:39-46; John 11:41-42; 15:7; 16:26 (see also 2 Maccabees 12:38-46)
• From Saint Augustine's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount
• Prayer by Joyce Rupp (Orbis Books, 2007)
• Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris (Mariner Books, 2001)
• Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom (Paulist Press, 1970)
I love sports, in particular running. As a sister, would I have to give that up? –Rachel W.
I adore sports as well and am dying to find a local roller derby club that will take on a nun with questionable skating skills! Many of we religious enjoy sports whether as players or spectators. In my IHM congregation, for example, we have a sister who is in a basketball league, another who runs weekly, and many who are cyclists at all levels. In addition we have annual Michigan vs. Ohio State tailgating parties where being a spectator can become a full contact sport!
In many if not all religious communities, there is a place for sports and exercise. The degree to which that is possible varies across communities depending on their mission and customs. Engaging in most kinds of sport is not only good for one’s health but for one’s spirit as well. We recognize that God speaks to us in a variety of ways, including the “languages” that are most native to us—for you it sounds as if running may be that kind of language (check out a blog post I wrote on cycling and meditation).
So there is a very real way that a sport like running can be incorporated into your life of prayer as a sister. There’s also the possibility that it can be a form of ministry, too. Some of the sisters belonging to the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love have turned running into a way to help children deal with behavioral issues and improve their school work.
I encourage you to keep running and explore how this gift can help you in your own spiritual journey, as well as help others.
Salvation is the one big idea in the Bible. Without it you’ve got just another large dusty book from antiquity. Salvation history traces the pattern of events in human history that reveal God’s saving plan. The “Reader’s Digest” version would be something like this: God’s covenant with Abraham; Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; the giving of the Law to Moses; Israel's entry into the Promised Land; the monarchy of King David; and the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation history culminates in the New Creation awaiting us at the end of time.
What we mean by salvation is another matter. The Hebrew term for it denotes “to make wide or sufficient.” Unrestricted passage is the result: liberation from obstacle or impediment. Sin constricts human possibilities and God makes them wide and free again. When we say “our God is the God who saves,” we’re saying human liberation in a sinful world is only possible through divine intervention.
Early saving events in scripture are mostly military or political. Above all they’re physical: God saves folks from tangible dangers. That sets up the expectation that the God who delivered us yesterday will rescue us tomorrow, if need be. Salvation is not a dead fact but a living proposition. In time, biblical salvation takes on a spiritual aspect as well. We need saving not only from national enemies and seraph serpents but from the consequences of our own choices. Salvation comes to imply the rescue of the whole person, body and spirit. Ultimately, what we need is to be ransomed from death—so God extends the divine rescue all the way to the tomb.
Theologians say salvation is from something and for something. We’re saved from sin and death and for eternal life with God. The opposite of being rescued, of course, is drowning, perishing, being lost. In the wilderness of human choices leading in all directions, we can appreciate how we might wander so far that the only hope of rescue is a helicopter from above dangling its rope ladder over our heads. God’s saving power arrives in human history not unlike that helicopter. Once we understand that, it’s easy to see that all of human history is salvation history—even the parts that never made it into the Bible.
• Psalm 51; Isaiah 65:17-25; Jeremiah 17:14; 31:31-34; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Luke 1:68-79; 9:24; John 3:16-21; Acts. 16:30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:8-10
• Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), November 21, 1964
• “The Nature of Our Salvation in Christ: Salvation as Participation and Divinisation” by Damien Casey
• What Are They Saying About the Universal Salvific Will of God? by Josephine Lombardi (Paulist Press, 2008)
• Salvation Is from the Jews (John 4:22): Saving Grace in Judaism and Messianic Hope in Christianity by Aaron Milavec (Liturgical Press, 2007)
In this question we put two dogmas together: belief in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Assumption and in the virgin birth of Jesus. We might add the Immaculate Conception of Mary, because a discussion of one of these touches on them all. Theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. calls these dogmas “prophecy in the midst of the history of suffering.” Prophetic statements are matters of faith and not available for scientific validation.
Nor do these dogmas necessarily spring from the record of scripture. Chapter-and-verse proof-texts for the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception in particular are unsatisfying because neither event is covered in the New Testament. The Assumption was formally declared (“promulgated”) as dogma in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, but that doesn’t mean the church has only recently taught it.
The early church fathers don’t address the matter of Mary’s departure from this world, but possibly as early as the 3rd century the tradition of Mary’s “transitus” recounted her bodily reception into heaven. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and even some Anglicans hold some version of the Assumption in their traditions; Roman Catholicism does not define whether Mary “fell asleep” or “died” before her body was taken up.
The theological argument for the Assumption is one of “fittingness.” Mary is the Ark of God’s new covenant in Christ. She was preserved from sin for this end (her Immaculate Conception) and should not undergo the corruption of death (see Romans 6:23 on the wages of sin). Her body, given over to God’s purposes in the divine plan of salvation, became a vessel too sacred to be discarded or forgotten afterwards. Scholastic thinkers like Aquinas and Bonaventure used the Latin phrase “potuit, voluit, fecit” to sum up the idea: God “could do it, willed it, and did it.”
Perhaps a more humanly compelling argument arose in the wake of the 20th century’s two brutal world wars. Pius XII surveyed the ghastly indignities suffered by the human body in recent memory and saw an opportunity to teach emphatically that God cares what happens to our mortal flesh. Mary’s exalted destiny may bring “clearly to the notice of all persons” the destiny of our bodies and souls. You and I are also vessels of divine life too precious to God to forget.
• Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, Defining the Dogma of the Assumption
• Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Continuum, 2003)
• Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion by Hilda Graef and Thomas A. Thompson (Christian Classics, 2009)
• Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective by Jaroslav Pelikan, David Flusser, and Justin Lang (Fortress Press, 2005).
• Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale University Press, 1996)
• Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin (Yale University Press, 2010)
Music is a wonderful gift whether you are a composer or performer or listener. Let me first encourage you to think about your music. What kind of messages does it send? Are the lyrics gospel-affirming? In what ways does your music build you up into a person of God or allow you to speak a word of encouragement to others? Music does not have to be “religious” to do that; it just has to be real and touch the soul.
Second, as you think about beginning the process of entering a religious community or seminary, know that you will have to make some sacrifices. Some formation programs may have greater limits than others which will affect how you can express yourself musically. But that does not mean abandoning things completely. The process of formation can be an opportunity to come to a new appreciation of your music and perhaps even a new or enhanced expression of your music. As you grow in your vocation, you may find a ministry or form of prayer that incorporates music.
And you may find others in your community who share your love of music. Speaking to the vocation director or other members of the community will help you with specifics about how music is a part of the life and mission of the community.
Finally, remember that the God who fostered your love of music is the same God who calls you to pursue your vocation.
I admit, being let loose in a sacristy the first time can be like wandering through a costume department in Hollywood. Vestments can be ornate, fabulous, regal—not to mention incredibly heavy, depending on the period they were designed. But what’s most important to recognize is that when first adopted they were a costlier form of the same basic garb worn by the general population.
Ancient Hebrews wore a tunic, gathered with a sash, and a turban. Wool was the primary fabric, but priestly garments were mostly woven of linen and decorated with gold thread and yarns of violet, purple, and scarlet. In addition, high priests wore an overlying robe, squarish, with a hole in the middle to drape over the head, trimmed at the hem in bells and yarn pomegranates. On his head he wore a miter (pointed hat).
When the first Jewish Christians gathered for worship, they assembled in homes and wore no distinguishing clothing. But after the legalization of Christianity in the late 3rd century, formal public worship raised the visibility of the presider and so, too, his vesture. Still, the clothing worn by the presider resembled secular apparel.
First came the alb, a white tunic worn as an undergarment in all social classes. A ropelike cincture held the alb in place around the hips. Next was the chasuble, a more colorful poncho-like covering. Over that was the scarf known as the stole, which may have been a symbol of authoritative office. Then came the dalmatic, a more formal alb worn in the imperial court and reserved for the use of bishops and the deacons who served with them. To the bishop was also reserved the wearing of the miter.
After the 7th century secular fashions advanced, strangely enough, as a result of barbarian invasions which brought down the Empire in the West. But church vesture remained the same, now oddly out of step with what everyone else was wearing. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s inaugurated a return to simplicity in vestments, recommending that their beauty derive from “material and design” rather than “lavish ornamentation” (say good-bye to bells and pomegranates!). The continued use of vestments links our celebrations with those of previous generations and enhances the dignity of our assembly—as dressing in “our Sunday best” always has.
• Exodus 28, 29, and 39; Leviticus 8; Ezekiel 44:15-19
• General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 335-347
• The Symbols of the Church by Maurice Dilasser (Liturgical Press, 1999)
• The Mass and Vestments of the Catholic Church, Liturgical, Doctrinal, Historical, and Archaeological by John Walsh (General Books LLC, 2010; pay-to-download site)
I love this question. It reminds me of TIME magazine’s famous 1966 cover: “Is God dead?” It’s a hopeful question because it doesn’t presume the answer—which is a good way to approach the realm of mystery.
Some people say they can’t embrace biblical faith because miracles seem so irrational. Others believe precisely because of the “proof” miracles provide. Neither position would make sense to biblical people, who viewed all natural phenomena as God’s personal activity. “Supernatural” events had no place in their understanding. Hebrew scripture doesn’t use the word miracle but speaks of signs, wonders, and mighty deeds that demonstrate God’s authority in the universe. The New Testament uses Greek words for these same concepts, as well as “works”: the particular activity of God and Jesus.
Three major clusters of what we call miracles are found in scripture. First, there’s the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Second, the stories about Elijah and Elisha describe a dynamic duo of wonderworkers. Finally, the power demonstrated by Jesus and the apostles in the early church compose the Christian miracles. The pattern in all these stories is the same: A problem emerges, a miracle solves it, the miracle is confirmed.
Theologians handle the subject of miracles a little differently. They view the miraculous as an aspect of divine revelation and name three foundational miracles by which all other claims must be tested: Creation, Exodus, and Resurrection. Creation provides the original “Wow!” of wonder. That anything exists at all is because God chooses it to be. Exodus communicates God’s desire to save us come hell or, literally, high water. Resurrection is the final transformation of Creation, confirming that God loves us and has the authority to “renew the face of the earth.”
Would theologians say miracles have occurred since the time of Jesus? Emphatically yes. The signs of God’s power to save and transform us and our world are all around us—for those with eyes to see. And if we’re having trouble seeing the wow!—well, as Jesus once suggested, we might not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead (Luke 16: 31).
• Genesis 1; Exodus 3-15; 1 Kings 17-2 Kings 13; Matthew 12:-22-28; 16:1-4; Luke 16:19-31; John 6:25-40; Romans 15:18-21; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; 2 Corinthians 12:12
• “Miracles: Signs of God’s Presence” by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.
• Miracles by C. S. Lewis (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001)
• The Healing Touch of Mary: Real-Life Stories from Those Touched by Mary by Cheri Lomonte (ACTA/Divine Impressions, 2006)
• God’s Doorkeepers: Padre Pio, Solanus Casey, and André Bessette by Joel Schorn (Servant Books, 2006)
A spiritual director is a wonderful companion on your life’s journey. Whether you are discerning your vocation or want to tune in to how God is moving in your life, a spiritual director can help you along the way. There are a number of things to consider when looking for a spiritual director.
First, think about the reasons why you are drawn to spiritual direction. What are some of the spiritual or life questions that are on your mind and in your heart? What are some of the significant landmarks of your faith journey?
Second, what are important characteristics of a spiritual director that attract you? Do you prefer a female or male director, someone from your own faith tradition, someone with a sense of humor or familiarity with a particular spirituality or culture?
Third, check out the spiritual directors in your area. Start by asking around and seeing if a leader at your parish or a school chaplain can recommend any spiritual directors. You can also contact local retreat centers. Most will have certified spiritual directors on staff. Attending a retreat led by a spiritual director can be a good way to see if you are comfortable with a person before making a one-on-one appointment. You might also check with local theology schools or religious communities to see if they have a list of spiritual directors. A good resource is Spiritual Directors International which has a “Seek and Find” guide as well as a number of resources on spiritual direction and discernment.
Fourth, meet with a few different spiritual directors. Spiritual directors expect that you will need time to decide if the relationship is a good “fit.” Feel free to ask them questions about how they do spiritual direction, what they think about prayer, and what they find helpful when in discernment. Pay attention to how you feel when talking with the spiritual director and listen to how the Spirit is leading you.
For more suggestions on finding a spiritual director, see Finding a Spiritual Director on the Spiritual Directors International website.
Recently Sister Julie was asked about suggestions for a meaningful gift to someone making their final vows as a member of religious community. She actually gets asked this question a lot and has a page on her website devoted to this topic.
Ministry comes in two parts, according to Saint Paul: gifts (charismata, which originate with the Holy Spirit) and service (diakonia, the service we offer to God and others). Obviously we can’t control who gets the gifts, which include prophecy, teaching, healing, and leadership, among others. But who gets to serve is easy: We all do, each according to our station in life and in the church.
Deacons have been serving in their unique way since the generation after Jesus. Their originally independent office faded after the first few centuries as the role of priests and bishops expanded and became more formalized. After that period and until the Second Vatican Council, the diaconate was simply one of four transitional stepping stones to priesthood: acolyte, lector, deacon, priest. The permanent diaconate, as an independent office, was restored to the church by Pope Paul VI in 1967. That makes it seem like a “new” position and it’s why a lot of us are unsure what deacons do.
So first, an outline of deacons and their territory. The distinction between transitional and permanent diaconate remains: One is a stage toward priesthood, the other an arrival at a final position. Those training for the permanent diaconate may be celibate or married men over the age of 35—if married, the wife must agree to her husband’s ordination and participate in his training. After the proper theological and pastoral training, one is ordained a deacon. This makes him a sharer in the teaching authority of the church. If the local bishop allows, he may preach. His liturgical responsibilities include baptizing, distributing Holy Communion (including and especially to the dying), presiding at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, officiating at marriages, presiding at funerals and burials, and leading worship (but not the Mass, which is reserved to the priesthood).
In addition, deacons have led the community especially in ministry to the disadvantaged. Theological arguments have been advanced in favor of expanding their ministry to the sick to include anointing and hearing confessions. The precedent of history has also been used to argue for expanding candidacy to include women. At present no action has been taken on these recommendations.
• Isaiah 42:1-7; Matthew 20:25-28; 25:31-46; Luke 22:27; John 13:1-17; Acts 6:1-6; Romans 16:1-2; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Ephesians 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 3:8-10, 13
• The Emerging Diaconate: Servant Leaders in a Servant Church by William T. Ditewig (Paulist Press, 2007)
• Deacons and the Church by Owen F. Cummings (Paulist Press, 2004)
Our ideas about prayer often keep us from recognizing it as more than something we do. At heart, prayer is better understood as something that overtakes and envelopes us—not unlike our experience of love. In the celebration of the Mass, our longing for God is answered by the self-gift of God in the Eucharist. This makes the Mass the highest and most perfect prayer.
In the Bible, God’s people demonstrate their longing for God in praise, thanksgiving, intercession, and blessing. These forms of prayer are present in the Mass. In fact, the word Eucharist means “thanksgiving,” and the central part of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer, is one of thanks and praise. We offer “asking” prayers at the time of the General Intercessions but we also pray for the living and the dead during the Eucharistic Prayer. In addition, we pray penitentially for our common sinfulness at the start of Mass and receive a blessing at the end. Catholics begin and end prayer with the Sign of the Cross, and the Mass begins and ends with this sign of blessing.
It would be a misperception to view the Mass as prayer only in the sense that it’s full of prayers. The entire liturgy is a “sacrifice of praise” offered in the gift of our time, presence, and mindfulness. (A friend of mine notes that her praying begins on the way to church, as she hopes for a parking place!)
Liturgy means “public work”: It’s the prayer we offer together as the community of faith. It is also the source of all personal prayer, contemplation, and meditation. Our public prayer includes readings from our most sacred books: the Hebrew Law, prophets, and writings as well as the gospels and letters of the early church. The readings are followed by an exhortation known as the homily. Although “the talk in the middle” can seem like a break in the action, it should fit seamlessly with the rest. The homily helps us contemplate the relationship between God’s story and ours as we move to consummate that relationship in the Eucharist.
• Exodus 15:1-18; Psalms 8, 19, 100; Luke 1:46-55; Acts 2:42-47; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 14:26; Ephesians 1:12; Colossians 3:16-17; 1 Peter 2:9: Revelation 19:1-10
• “Praying the Mass” by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
Church social teaching emphasizes respect for the dignity of every person. For this reason Catholics are obliged to consider the common good in their decision-making. I don’t make decisions based solely on what’s best for me, but what’s best for the human family. “The common good is the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1906). If that sounds like a huge responsibility, then you’re hearing it right.
Advancing the common good in the modern world involves five principles: defending the sanctity of human life; strengthening families; providing for the disadvantaged; welcoming the immigrant; and protecting the environment. Sometimes these principles seem to collide: What do we do when what’s good for one threatens the interests of another?
The most serious moral imperative is always to protect the basic right to life, which makes direct assaults on life and human dignity unjustifiable under any conditions. These assaults include but are not exhausted by abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, genocide, torture, racism, imprudent resorting to war, targeting noncombatants, human cloning, and destruction of embryos in genetic testing.
Other Catholic goals less familiarly chanted include providing assistance to families raising children, especially by ensuring quality education, guaranteeing living wages, addressing hunger, encouraging debt relief, widening health care, ending discrimination, promoting religious freedom, pursuing peace, and caring for creation as a whole. If we really are a “human family,” then taking care of the family should be our highest concern.
• Deuteronomy 24:17-22; Jeremiah 22:1-5, 13-17; Zechariah 7:9-14; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:16-21; 10:25-37; John 13:34-35; James 2:14-17
• Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II, 1993
• “Thinking Ethically: A Framework for Moral Decision Making,” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University
When you join a religious order, you make a life commitment to become part of a community. That means that the mission and life of the community become your primary way of living for and with God. What you actually do (your job, or ministry, or career) is “filtered” through this life commitment, just as when you marry, your significant decisions (and even insignificant ones!) are considered with your spouse and in light of your relationship.
So when thinking about what you might do as a religious priest, sister, nun, or brother, you must take into consideration not only your own gifts, talents, and passion but also what is good for your community. You need input from other members of the community to get a sense of the common good and how a job possibility or career path might further the community’s mission. In doing this kind of discernment (both personal and communal) you are also tending to what is good for you, too.
That’s the long way of saying that if you are looking into an active community, then yes, you can have a job or career. If you are looking into a contemplative community, then your primary ministry is going to be prayer.
The testimony of eyewitnesses, not necessarily apostles, was valued in compiling the Christian record. It becomes tricky, though, because New Testament materials weren't definitively selected until the 4th century. That's a long way from the generation of eyewitnesses and required sifting through hearsay, because many texts were not initially attributed to anyone. Authorship, therefore, was not as important as authority. Who wrote the testimony wasn't as critical as who was discerned as the original source.
Take Mark. His name didn't appear in the gospel later attributed to him. And who is "Mark" anyway? Not one of the 12 apostles. Paul had a companion John Mark mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and several letters. Another Mark is described as close to Peter in the First Letter of Peter. It's possible this is the same person, in which case his testimony derives from an eyewitness and another early source.
Matthew's gospel followed, employing Mark heavily (55 percent of Matthew comes from Mark) and sharing another unknown source (25 percent) with Luke. But who combined these sources with additional material for the final version is uncertain. The apostle Matthew, a.k.a Levi the tax collector, is unlikely. Why would an apostle copy from a non-eyewitness rather than write from memory? Also, this gospel is quite rabbinical in style. A former rabbi or scribe was most likely the final compiler. He may have taken the unique material (20 percent) from sayings attributed to the apostle Matthew.
Luke borrowed from Mark (over 40 percent) and shared material with Matthew. But 35 percent of Luke came from somewhere else. The biblical Luke was a Syrian physician converted by Paul, so at best his story comes to us thirdhand. Even Paul was not a first-generation apostle. Scholars are divided as to whether this Luke was responsible for both Luke and Acts; the arguments are intriguing either way.
Few would attribute the last gospel directly to John, son of Zebedee. It was written very late in the 1st century, when the apostles might be presumed dead. Its authorship could be traced to a community taught by the apostle, or by another well-known Christian teacher named John in Asia Minor at the same time. Many scholars attribute the gospel and letters of John to a group rather than an individual. Ninety percent of this material is unique to the fourth gospel.
• Mark 1:1; Luke 1:1-4; John 21:20-25; Acts 1:1-2; Acts 12:12; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; 1 Peter 5:13
• “Who really wrote the gospels, and why should we care?” by Felix Just, S.J.
• Four Portraits of Jesus: Studies in the Gospels and Their Old Testament Background by Elizabeth E. Platt (Paulist Press, 2004)
• The What Are They Saying About . . . series: WATSA Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John by various authors (Paulist Press)
It is possible for a person who has converted to Catholicism to become a religious sister or brother. Many converts to Catholicism are from other Christian traditions but they may also be from other religious traditions or no tradition at all. It can take a year or several years for a person to learn about the Catholic faith and become a full member of the Catholic Church.
Typically religious communities require that a convert be Catholic for at least two years before they can formally seek entrance. That gives the person who converted time and space to live the Catholic faith in “ordinary time”—that is, everyday life with all its ups and downs and in betweens.
During the time that one is preparing to become a Catholic, usually a process that follows the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a person can certainly explore religious life and learn about sisters and brothers and their mission and way of life. It’s important, however, to tend to the calling to become Catholic, because that is its own calling from God.
When a person and a religious community are ready to begin a formal discernment with one another, there is nothing that is really different between a convert’s experience and a lifelong Catholic’s experience. It is important in so far as it is a significant landmark on our spiritual journey, and for each of us those landmarks will be different or have different meanings attached to them. And if there are areas that a new member needs more study or training in—be it Catholic theology, or pastoral care, or professional skills—the community may encourage them to pursue those.
These are good things to talk about with your spiritual director or vocation director who can help you integrate your calling to the Catholic faith with a calling to religious life or any other form of consecrated life as a Catholic person.
Original sin is not so-named in the biblical Creation story, which describes the event mythically. Obviously it’s not only about eating a piece of fruit. Rather, Genesis presents the universal experience of free choice exercised without wisdom. For God’s creatures, the wise choice is made in the direction of God’s will, ordered toward life and happiness. Only the foolish choose in deliberate opposition to God, a direction leading invariably to sorrow and death.
Although original sin seems to refer exclusively to “the first sin ever committed,” more profoundly it identifies the origin of sin as well. From what aspect of human nature does sin arise? Pride is often fingered as “the mother of all sins.” It’s the Frank Sinatra Complex: “I did it my way!” Another good description of the source of sin is disobedience, because “obedience” is rooted in the Latin word for "listening." Tune out God, the source of truth, and don’t be surprised when you’re lost in a forest of lies. As the saying goes, I’d turn back if I were you.
Lust gets tapped as the root of sin because our sexuality is such a basic, instinctual part of us that, to many ages of thinkers, that alone made it suspect. A better theological word for this idea is concupiscence, because desire tugs at us in more ways than only the sexual. Shorthand for concupiscence is “the sin of more.” No matter what we have—money, possessions, success, pleasure, leisure—it’s never enough. It’s that feeling we get after having a fantastic slice of pie that makes us reach for another—even though we’re already full. We just want to hit that sweet spot again.
That probably led the Christian writer C. S. Lewis to say, OK, maybe it really is about that piece of fruit, in his wonderful sci-fi novel Perelandra. Humanity gets a second shot at a new and sinless planet. Then an earthling tastes an amazing fruit, is completely delighted and satisfied—and immediately wants another. What part of “perfect experience” didn’t he understand?
Saint Augustine of Hippo is often cited as the inventor of the doctrine of original sin in the 4th century. The idea certainly had predecessors, but Augustine gave us the first thorough examination of conscience in his Confessions. He also gave us the prayer that helps us to appreciate why human nature is so greedy for more: “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
• Genesis 2:16-17; 3:1-24; Wisdom 2:24; Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:21-28
• Saint Augustine on the Fall, from the City of God.
• “Sex, Sin, and Salvation: What Augustine Really Said,” lecture by David G. Hunter, Ph.D.
• Original Sin: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Meanings by Tatha Wiley (Paulist Press, 2002)
• Evolution and Eden: Balancing Original Sin and Contemporary Science by Jerry D. Korsmeyer (Paulist Press, 1998)
If I had to identify one church question most vital to address in the 21st century, it would be this one. Today we inhabit a global community that is drawing ever-more closely together. It’s like the world got shrink-wrapped in a single generation and we’re all breathing the same remarkably limited and interdependent air now.
Theologians at the Second Vatican Council saw this new reality on the horizon and recognized that the church had to reexamine and clarify its interfaith stance. In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 1965) it formally opened the issue to further exploration.
Note: A “declaration” isn’t the same thing as a “dogmatic constitution,” of which the same Council produced a few. Constitutions are fairly finished documents, not to be tampered with in their essence. Declarations blaze a trail, or at least mark the trailhead, but welcome refinement and progress.
Nostra Aetate, while not a perfect document, had some remarkable things to say. It asserts unequivocally that humanity is one community with a common destiny in God. People turn to different religions in search of the same answers to questions as fundamental as: What is the purpose of life? What is good and evil? Where does suffering come from and what is its meaning? What leads to happiness? What lies beyond death?
Then the document makes its boldest claim: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (no. 2). While Christians are bound to witness to “Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6),” we should also “acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians.”
It lists, for starters, that Hindus seek the divine mystery in myth and philosophy, and practice asceticism, meditation, and confidence in God’s love. Buddhists testify to the inadequacies of the material world and that wisdom must be sought through liberation from the trap of possessions. Muslims worship the one God, see in Abraham a spiritual father, and regard Jesus as a holy man and Mary as a source of intercession. Muslims adhere to familiar practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Our shared spiritual heritage with the Jewish community is so intimate that it has spawned many additional teachings since Vatican II. Pope John Paul II called Judaism “the elder brother” of Christianity. Stay tuned as the interfaith dialogue continues!
Isaiah 66:23; John 14:6; Acts 17:26; Romans 9:4-5; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Galatians 3:7-9; Revelation 21:24
• Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) (October 28, 1965)
• What the Catholic Church Has Learnt from Interreligious Dialogue by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, M. Afr. (2006)
• The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Joan Chittister, Saadi Shakur Chishti, and Arthur Waskow (Beacon Press, 2006)
• One Earth, Many Religions by Paul F. Knitter (Orbis Books, 1995)
The Sacrament of Penance, popularly called "confession" and recently redubbed the "Rite of Reconciliation," seems to have undergone a sea change in the last generation. But the difference is form, not substance. The name "Penance" focuses on what we must do to reform our lives. "Confession" emphasizes the need to be honest about what makes such change necessary. "Reconciliation" underscores the purpose of the sacrament: to restore our friendship with God. All of these names point to the same sacramental episode, but they highlight different chapters of it, we might say.
Here are the "Five C’s" of the Rite of Reconciliation as described by Father Paul Boudreau: Conviction, Confession, Contrition, Compensation, and Correction. These steps haven’t changed no matter what you call them. The first is Conviction: I admit I've done wrong. That’s covered in the opening line of the Rite: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." You can use this formula or another suitable expression of owning the truth. Confession is how I hand over the actual matter of my responsibility: What did I do or fail to do that puts me at odds with God, others, or myself?
Contrition is next. Reciting an Act of Contrition is a time-honored way of expressing "a lively sorrow" for sin in your life. If you don't know this prayer by heart you can find it in any collection of Catholic prayers (see link below) and read it aloud at this time. Or express your regret in your own words. As you express contrition the priest offers the formula of absolution the church prescribes.
Compensation is where the priest "gives you a penance." If you stole something, you have to return it. If the offense is less tangible, you may be asked to spend time in prayer or in other ways demonstrate your good will.
Finally there's the matter of Correction. In the Act of Contrition we pray: "I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin." With God's help we're not going to repeat this behavior. To strengthen this resolve we're going to avoid places, people, and patterns that initiated this behavior in the past. These steps to restoration are valid not only in the rites of the church but in any relationship where reconciliation is needed.
Matthew 26:27-28; Luke 1:76-79; 3:3; 5:20-24, 30-32; 6:37; 7:36-50; 15:1-32; 23:34; 24:46-47
• The Forgiveness Book: A Catholic Approach by Paul Boudreau and Alice Camille (ACTA, 2008)
• Premeditated Mercy: A Spirituality of Reconciliation by Joseph Nassal (Forest of Peace/Ave Maria Press, 2000)
Discerning a vocation can be like the old adage: A watched pot never boils. I know that to be true. During my discernment when I was trying to figure out how God was calling me, I felt as if I would never get to the point of knowing for sure that God was calling me, let alone exactly to what that call was. I had some helps along the way—a spiritual director, supportive friends, and an inquisitive mind that always kept me asking questions of myself and of God. Though I felt as if I were getting nowhere, I realized later that the more I consciously tended to God and sorted through my life with all its hopes and dreams and struggles, the more I was growing into my calling. All of a sudden, so it seemed, the pot was boiling. I wasn’t exactly sure how I got there, but I felt ready to take a step towards what God was calling me.
The process was both an active one and one of simply living life. In terms of an active process I was conscious that I wanted my life to be more oriented around God. And I realized I didn’t have to wait for God to send me a big sign in the sky to act on that. The first step for me was to be more faithful to prayer. That meant praying each day and also learning about different ways to pray. I was attracted to praying with the psalms and also to silent prayer, so I tried them. I also began seeing a spiritual director, someone who could walk with me on my spiritual journey and help me to see the ways God was moving in my life. I began reading more of the saints (Saint Teresa of Avila in particular) and also, when I was finally willing to admit I might be attracted to religious life, to get to know sisters around me. I went on retreat and I tried to make concrete in my daily life the gospel that I was committed to following.
In the midst of taking these kinds of concrete steps I also kept living my life. While the discernment part of things was a real struggle for me, I was free in my “normal” life to just be. I was a grad student, so I was studying, hanging out with friends, working, and enjoying life. Over time I began to feel shifts within my own self, shifts toward feeling more like myself, feeling more alive than ever. My friends started noticing that, too. By being intentional about my discernment and also integrating it with my everyday life, I found that I had already been living into the calling that God was nudging me toward.
If you are wondering if God is nudging you in a particular direction, I encourage you to explore your life and faith and to pick up a few discernment tools. There are lots of articles dealing with discernment and prayer on this website. Look into spiritual direction and find a saint or spiritual book that speaks to you. Take action to practice and grow the values you wish to reflect in your life. And along the way trust in the God who has known you your whole life and is with you every step of your journey.
Your basic church takes its cue from the Greek origins of the word assembly and also the phrase "belonging to the Lord." If a building is consecrated to assemble the faithful for worship (those also known collectively as the church), and if the building is therefore a "house of God," then it's a church.
A cathedral, by contrast, is the particular church in which the bishop presides over worship and, by extension, over the diocese at large. Historically, cathedrals were grand works of art that took centuries to build: Those who began the construction rarely saw its completion. The cathedrals of Europe were vibrant centers of urban life and learning. Cathedrals tended to be larger than the average church, although the trend toward mega-churches in parts of the United States today have made some local cathedrals seem diminutive by comparison.
Basilicas were originally official buildings of the Roman Empire; the Greek word means "king's hall." When Christians acquired these buildings they were appropriated for Christ the King. These historical structures include four major basilicas of Rome: St. John Lateran, St. Peter's, St. Paul's Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major.
One might imagine there could be no such thing as a modern basilica by definition. But minor basilicas continue to be named according to a church's historical significance for a particular region. At present more than 1,500 basilicas encircle the globe, with four countries—Italy, France, Poland, and Spain—garnering over 100 each. Five cities enjoy more than ten basilicas, including Rome, Buenos Aires, and Krakow. Jerusalem and Paris each have five. The U.S. has 65 basilicas, including the Cathedral of St. Augustine, Florida, where the first American Catholic parish was founded; Mission Dolores in San Francisco; Sacred Heart Basilica on the campus of the University of Notre Dame; and the Baltimore cathedral.
If churches are intended to gather all the faithful to worship, chapels (sometimes called oratories) serve more specific populations. Folks stuck in airports appreciate the terminal chapel; prisons, hospitals, schools, convents, and religious houses also have chapels for their communities. Each bishop has the right to an oratory in his residence. In addition, some churches have a smaller chapel attached for daily use.
Exodus 3:4-5; Isaiah 56:6-8; Psalms 24, 42, 84, 95, 100, 122, 133; Mark 11:15-17
Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship, from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley by Richard Kieckhefer (Oxford University Press, 2008)
How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals by Richard Taylor (HiddenSpring, 2005)
Formally known as the Way of the Cross, but popularly called the Stations, this devotion emerged not from scripture but from the practice of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Since the time of Constantine, pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa ("Way of Sorrow") from Pilate's house to Golgotha, meditating on the suffering and death of Jesus. Depending on your guide this journey could include 18, 25, or as many as 37 different stops or "stations" of meditation.
For various reasons—distance, expense, and shifting political landscapes among them—it wasn't always possible for people to get to Israel. Yet the grace available in "taking up the cross" with Jesus was deemed valuable enough to seek a way to make this pilgrimage locally accessible to the faithful of Europe.
That led the Franciscans, in whose stewardship the holy sites of Jerusalem were entrusted, to franchise the Via Dolorosa in first one then several sites in Europe. "The Seven Falls of Jesus" consolidated this early Way of the Cross, three of which are preserved in our current Fourteen Stations. (Four of the meetings along the way—with Jesus' Mother, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, and the Holy Women of Jerusalem—are considered remnants of the other Falls once observed.)
By the 16th century papal support for this devotion increased the demand for Stations in monasteries, convents, and churches. They became so popular that it would be hard to find a church, chapel, or oratory today that doesn't have the Way of the Cross erected within its walls or on its grounds in the open air. Fourteen Stations became established as the standard by the 18th century, and the Stabat Mater hymn (At the Cross Her Station Keeping) has become the traditional song for public devotions.
While images of each event often accompany the Stations, they are not required. The actual Station is represented by the cross itself, to be made of wood. The image may be fashioned of any material. Some artists have added a 15th Station of the Resurrection to create theological balance; others have rewritten the Stations to represent only scripturally based events. This devotion remains a vibrant way to embrace the spirit of pilgrimage and to contemplate how to "take up the cross" where we live.
See the Passion accounts in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 18-19
www.usccb.org/nab/stations.htm (alternative Stations prayed by Pope John Paul II)
The New Stations of the Cross: The Way of the Cross According to Scripture by Megan McKenna (Image Books, 2003)
Walk with Jesus: Stations of the Cross by Henri J. M. Nouwen (Orbis Books, 1990)
The Way of the Cross with the Women of the Gospels by Sister Ruth Fox, O.S.B. (Liturgy Training Publications)
Sooner or later thoughtful people will ask this question. The Old Testament, or Hebrew scriptures, can be viewed as the spiritual history of the human race. After the first ten chapters of the Book of Genesis, this history focuses specifically on one community, the people Israel.
We follow their story through good times and bad, when they prove faithful and especially as they are spectacularly unfaithful to their destiny as the people of God. The story includes families that fail to love one another; leaders who lead their people into hellish circumstances; prophets who speak for God in an attempt to avert catastrophe; wise ones who teach the truth; and brave ones who do what's right despite the cost. In other words, it's a familiar story that recurs in every generation.
The New Testament, or Christian scriptures, can't be appreciated apart from this earlier saga. For example, Isaiah foretells the birth of a Prince of Peace; the gospels announce the birth of Jesus. Symbols or types contained in the Old are re-presented in the New (the Ark of the Covenant reveals and conceals the Divine Presence in precious materials; Mary of Nazareth bears the Son of God in her own body).
Perhaps the most compelling illustration of how the Testaments fit together is the relationship between the Creation story in Genesis and the opening of the Gospel of John. "In the beginning . . . God created the heavens and the earth," Genesis intones. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," John declares.
In both of these beginnings a world springs to life as a result of the Divine Word. In each instance God's Word assumes material form and roams about. In Genesis the glorious beginning winds up in tragic defeat as humanity falls into sin and becomes vulnerable to suffering and death. In John the rather humble beginnings of God's-Word-among-us lead to triumphant reversals: Sin is defeated and death loses its sting in redemption.
Throughout the twin stories of the Testaments we hear about God's mercy and love and the constant striving of God to rescue us from our self-inflicted misery. As the rabbis say, the whole Bible can be boiled down to four words: We sin. God saves. Those last two words transform our history into the history of salvation.
Isaiah 9:6-7 and Luke 2:1-14; Exodus 37:1-9 and Revelation 12:1-5; Genesis 1:1-31 and John 1:1-14
The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible by the Pontifical Biblical Commission
Invitation to the Old Testament and Invitation to the New Testament by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2004)
Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know by Timothy Beal (HarperOne, 2009)
While many religious communities did choose to modify their habit and many of these, with the approval of the church, eventually stopped wearing the traditional habit, others did indeed continue wearing habits. Some of these communities are active religious sisters and some are cloistered contemplative nuns.
Because each community is uniquely called by God, how they chooose to dress depends on their particular ministries, customs, and way of life. For some communities a recognizable uniform worn regularly (a habit) is not essential to their life and mission, while for others it is. A sister or nun can serve God fully and authentically in her prayer and ministry regardless of what she wears.
Taking a religious name is not a matter of whether or not one is a sister or a nun but rather of the customs of a particular community. Some communities of sisters and of nuns have the custom of using one’s baptismal name, and others the custom of taking a religious name.
The changes in customs that have taken place most noticeably since Vatican II were never made lightly but were the results of much prayer and discernment. Religious sisters and contemplative nuns are called first to faithfulness to God, even if that means that a much-loved custom no longer benefits that particular community’s God-given mission.
The poet William Stafford wrote about the spirit of reverence in which he describes this human imperative: "A great event is coming, bow down." He reflects, "And I, always looking for something anyway, / always bow down" (Things That Happen, 1970). Folks like Stafford with a highly cultivated sense of reverence know there's never a wrong time to bow, because every moment is a miracle. But it's also good to know what folks may be bowing to as they maneuver around the sacred space of Catholic churches.
First and foremost there's the altar, officially called the Table of the Lord. Because Catholic worship is centered on the celebration of the Eucharist, this table is the most important piece of furniture in the church. When entering a church it's appropriate to make a bow of the head and shoulders toward the altar. That is an act of faith in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The bow itself is an ancient symbol of surrender to a higher authority: baring the back of the neck made you vulnerable to the person before whom you subjected yourself. Bowing toward the altar whenever you cross in front of it is proper. (But if you're cleaning or decorating the church or otherwise crossing frequently, the protocol is naturally suspended.)
Later in church history it became common to reserve some part of the Eucharist in a receptacle known as the tabernacle. The tabernacle is placed variously around churches, from directly above the altar (from the days when the altar was against the wall of the sanctuary) to the present practice of reserving the Eucharist at the side of the sanctuary space or sometimes in a separate chapel entirely.
Because the tabernacle contains the consecrated Body of Christ, it—like the Table of the Lord—are reverenced with a bow or even a genuflection (going down on one knee and making the Sign of the Cross over yourself). When the tabernacle is in line with the altar or shares the same sanctuary space, it is not necessary to reverence both. The proper bow is always primarily toward the Table of the Lord. Of course you'll see folks bow toward images of Jesus, his mother Mary, favorite saints, or the cross. These are devotional gestures and not obligatory. Inside the church reverencing the altar is sufficient.
Exodus 3:4-6; Leviticus 19:30; 26:2; Psalm 86:9; Revelation 4:6-11
Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems by William Stafford (Harper & Row, 1982)
The Spiritual Life: Recognizing the Holy by Robert Fabing (Paulist Press, 2004)
The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life by Paula Huston (Loyola Press, 2003)
It can be tough to respond to a calling from God when one keeps running into obstacles in pursuing that calling. It's especially important to stay close to God during this time and if possible stay connected to a spiritual director.
You are not alone in being over 50 and sensing a calling to a form of consecrated life. We regularly receive requests for information here at VISION and on aNunsLife.org and have looked for dioceses and religious communities that are open to folks over the age of 50. There are not many because of the expectation that a person be in good overall health and capable of participating fully in the mission and ministry of the lifestyle, whether ordained or religious life.
In general I have found that contemplative religious communities are more open to older candidates, and for men that may include the possibility of ordination. Vocation directors, however, are becoming more aware of the growing group of people over 50 who are called to some form of consecrated life. Although there is little precedent in our current forms, the church does have a form of life called the Order of Widows that could be renewed and revitalized for older women and men.
For you, now, I encourage you to go more deeply into God's calling to you with a spiritual director. Also, spend time with others who are sensing a similar calling—consider visiting the Vocation Forum at aNunsLife.org which has a new forum for folks over 50.Trust that God does in fact have something in mind for you, even if at this time you keep bumping into obstacles. I will be praying with you and will continue to keep an eye out for possibilities for you.
The good news is that you don't need to convert back. Technically speaking you're still Roman Catholic. Having remained within the Christian framework these past 20 years, you haven't denounced your baptism or anything grave like that. So anytime you're ready, the Catholic Church is open to you.
It's recommended for anyone who's been away from the church for any reason, especially for many years, that you approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation before returning to full participation in the Eucharist (you may have called it Penance or Confession 20 years ago, but it's generally known as Reconciliation now).
Most parishes still have "confessions" on Saturday afternoons, but in your case you may want to call the local church and make an appointment with a priest at a time of mutual convenience. That will give you the time you need to really talk things through. Directness is the best policy here. Tell the priest you've been attending your husband's church and would like to "come home" to your own tradition. This would be a great opportunity to explore with him what your needs are in regard to religious practice.
Some larger parishes have regular support groups for Catholics who've been away to help catch you up on what may be new in church practice. These groups are variously known as Landings, Catholics Coming Home, or Re-Membering Church, among others. It can be enormously comforting not to feel alone as you resume your place in the Catholic assembly.
If your local Catholic parish doesn't have such a group, you may want to read one of the books below as you find your way. Also, if you're in an urban area, you might want to go on a "parish quest" and try sitting through a few Sunday Masses in various Catholic churches. You're coming from a "high church" Orthodox experience, and in the Roman tradition we've got everything from formal cathedral liturgies to guitar Masses. Maybe something in the middle of the road will suit you better at this time (or maybe what you're looking for is a let-your-hair-down celebration!). Either way, welcome back. Our prayers are with you as you settle in.
Romans 1:9-12; 8:28-39; 10:8-13; 11:29; 15:7
Catholics Can Come Home Again! A Guide for the Journey of Reconciliation with Inactive Catholics by Carrie Kemp (Paulist Press, 2001)
A Faith Interrupted: An Honest Conversation with Alienated Catholics by Alice Camille and Joel Schorn (Loyola Press, 2004)