Story is to be read as story: a narrative that seeks to tell us something. Ancient storytellers didn’t share our modern preference for the historical event: Truth remains true whether it occurred in time or not. It’s a mark of our mortal self-absorption that we’re partial to what happens in history and reluctant to contemplate what belongs to eternity. The Genesis writers were collectors and arrangers of stories already being told in the oral tradition of Israel. They didn’t erase the seams of their sources but allowed them to stand side by side to enhance understanding through the appreciation of truth’s complexity. We see traces of these collections in the discrepancies, repetitions, and variant points of view. Here are a few of the truths these storytellers hoped to assert and preserve:
1. God is the ultimate source of everything, and therefore God alone is to be worshipped.
2. The sad history of humanity is that we steadily refuse to worship God alone.
3. God’s word is an event: When God speaks, things happen.
4. Humanity is also given the task of naming reality and sharing in dominion over reality.
5. God creates the world by establishing order out of confusion—literally cosmos from chaos in the Greek rendering. God calls this original order “good” and “right.”
6. Sin contradicts the divine will. It’s the choice we make for chaos that is neither good nor right.
7. Our freedom to choose makes us “like parent, like child.” It’s the basis of our relationship with God and lifts us above all other creatures.
8. Our choice against God’s will leads to the alienation from God that is the burden of sin. We carry this burden through history until God fully restores our relationship.
It would be pretty hard to get more truth from a story than that!
• "God's Beloved Creation" by Elizabeth Johnson (America 184 no. 13:8-12)
• “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation,” message of Pope John Paul II for the World Day of Peace, 1990,
• Collegeville Bible Commentary Old Testament Volume 2: Genesis by Pauline A. Viviano (Liturgical Press, 1985)
• Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers by John J. Scullion (Liturgical Press, 1992)
• And God Said What? An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms by Margaret Nutting Ralph (Paulist Press, 2003)
Pope John Paul II wrote several apostolic letters on the subject, the last in 1994, To the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis). Here you find a summary of the traditional argument. Fundamentally it is not admissible to ordain women because: 1. The example of Christ was to choose only men; 2. the constant practice of the church has imitated Christ; 3. the constant teaching authority that excludes women is in accordance with God’s plan for the church. While the church recognizes “the greatness of the mission” to which women are called, “of capital importance” for the “renewal and humanization of society,” the pope concludes: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
• The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church by Sara Butler, M.S.B.T. (Hillenbrand Books, 2006)
• Woman at the Altar: The Ordination of Women in the Roman Catholic Church by Lavinia Byrne (Continuum, 1999)
Why does just about every generation make changes? To serve the community of faith. Some developments are fundamental, as when the Greek liturgy shifted into Latin in the 4th century, leaving only the Kyrie behind; Latin had become the language of the marketplace. The Mass entered the vernacular in 1970, acknowledging that a dead language might not be the best choice for a living celebration. Those offended by the appearance of guitars (a vehicle for rock music!) in church in the 1960s should be reminded that others were similarly horrified when the organ first entered the building in the 700s, replacing stringed instruments. Organs had previously had a vulgar association with gladiatorial combat.
Some changes simplify: The expert advisors at the Second Vatican Council eliminated repetitious gestures and prayers. Other changes clarify: Host and chalice were elevated in the 13th century to emphasize the consecration. Customs change: We no longer bless oil, cheese, and olives after the Eucharistic Prayer as they did in the 3rd century. For most of church history the community handed over food and livestock at the offering; by the 12th century they were encouraged to bring money.
Parts of the Mass predate Christianity: singing psalms, swinging incense, and the use of “Amen,” “Alleluia,” and “Let us pray” are rooted in Jewish prayer. By the 2nd century, scripture, the homily, and petitions of the people were standard. Yet the homily disappeared by the 8th century, as did the Prayer of the Faithful by the 1500s. While the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Eucharistic Prayer, and many dialogues (like “The Lord be with you” and “Lift up your hearts”) were in place by the 4th century, other familiar elements like praying for the dead weren’t regular until the 8th century. Kneeling for the Eucharistic Prayer started in the 13th century. Before Vatican II, only 1 percent of the Old Testament and 17 percent of the New were heard at Mass. Now 14 percent of the Old and 71 percent of the New Testament are proclaimed.
• Resources on the new Roman Missal
• At the Supper of the Lamb: A Pastoral and Theological Commentary on the Mass by Paul Turner (Liturgy Training Publications, 2011)
• From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist by Edward Foley (Liturgical Press, 2008)
Discerning religious life is one thing—deciding with which community to live that calling can be quite another! In the United States alone there are over 400 religious communities of women! It can be confusing, but there is a way through it.
Sometimes the call to religious life and a particular community are one and the same. Very early in my discernment, for example, I knew that the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters were for me. As I spent time with them I knew I was “home” and that my vocation was as much to I.H.M. as it was to religious life. Other people feel a call to religious life and then further along in their discernment they begin to consider within which community that call will become incarnate.
Here’s a bit of an analogy to consider. Think about what it’s like when a person wants to get married. Do they need to check every available potential spouse? Thankfully, no! What do they do? They get to know people, befriend them, and sooner or later they hit it off with someone and that may be the beginning of a life-long commitment.
In religious life it is a similar situation because you need to be in relationship with sisters, or brothers for men discerning a vocation, in order to know what they are like and see if there’s a good connection. You can certainly read about them online and in brochures, but to truly know a community you have to know the members. You need to develop real relationships with them as individuals and as a community. You need to immerse yourself in their life and spirituality and at the same time open your life to them.
What are some things you might look for in finding a congregation that fits? First and foremost it is important that the community have a healthy sense of Catholic faith, community, ministry, and spirituality. These will be expressed and emphasized in many different ways, but that they are there is essential.
On a more personal level, take a look at how the community resonates with you. Does the community feel like “home” to you? Can you be fully yourself when you are with the community and as you envision your life with them? Do your values sync up with theirs? Do you feel a sense of joy, of “lightness” when you are with them? These are all questions to carry with you as you are with sisters or brothers, as you pray and discern, and as you talk with spiritual mentors and trusted friends.
My prayers are with you as you deepen your connections with God and with sisters.
Editor’s note: Another good way to sort through all the community possibilities is to take the VISION VocationNetwork Match!
Yes. Church teaching about Purgatory was made official as early as the 15th-century Council of Florence and endorsed again at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Here’s the gist of it: “Purgation” is not a punishment. It’s an option granted by God’s mercy for which we should be very grateful. Occurring after death and before heaven (not between heaven and hell—purgation’s only available to those guaranteed salvation), it’s a “condition” more than a “place” in which the soul is prepared for the perfection of God’s presence.
This teaching emerges from long tradition based on several scriptural ideas. First, Jesus named blasphemy against the Holy Spirit an unpardonable sin “both in this age and in the age to come.” That presupposes there is an age to come in which other sins might be forgiven. Second, the biblical practice of praying for the dead indicates that the fate of “those who go before us” can be influenced to their advantage. Other passages speak to the possibility of making reparation for the sins of others through good works. Taken together these ideas framed the church’s understanding of a time of purgation for those who need it due to their own lack of readiness for the total experience of perfect divine love.
The Council of Florence noted that the church is composed of three kinds of citizens: “wayfaring pilgrims” (the living); those who have died and are being purified; and those who are “in glory” with the Triune God. The glorified ones or saints intercede for the good of the pilgrim church on earth. In the same way we pilgrims can intercede for those in Purgatory for their good. It’s a sort of economy of grace that flows from one member to another.
Members of the pilgrim church are in a position to make choices about their fate; citizens of Purgatory, having passed beyond volition and not yet one with the will of God, can do nothing for themselves. Their passivity makes them vulnerable in their need, which is why God offers the remarkable gift of purgation to remove whatever obstacle remains to receiving the vision of eternal beauty ahead. The mystic Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), sensing herself united to the experience of souls in Purgatory for a time, wrote movingly of how the “joyful souls” would choose purgation 1,000 times over, knowing it will deliver them to God’s embrace. That our prayers might speed them to this joyful union is a tremendous idea.
• Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1030-1032
• The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), nos. 49-50
• Fire of Love! Understanding Purgatory by Saint Catherine of Genoa (Sophia Institute Press, 1996)
• Purgation and Purgatory: The Spiritual Dialogue by Saint Catherine of Genoa (Paulist Press, 1979)
If you were to put this question to a church scholar, the weight of centuries of writings by popes and councils, saints and church doctors would fall on your head. Happily you’re asking a humble catechist. So let me say the most persuasive argument for me comes by way of Saint Ephrem, a songwriter of 4th-century Syria, who penned a little tune about the Eucharist:
“He called the bread his living body
and he filled it with himself and his Spirit.
He who eats it with faith,
eats Fire and Spirit.”
As we share in the Mass regularly we become “fire-eaters” by Ephrem’s standards. When Jesus said “do this in memory of me,” he didn’t ask to be remembered in a sentimental way. The Eucharist isn’t a locket to wear around our necks. We become what we eat. We participate in the life of Christ, Body and Blood, Spirit and Fire! In a cold, cruel world, why visit the fire now and then when you can become the fire and bring its warmth and light to everyone you meet?
But we don’t become fire-eaters simply by showing up. The Second Vatican Council, in its document the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, states the matter with all due urgency: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ . . . is their right and duty by reason of their baptism” (no.14). Full, conscious, and active participation involves more than singing, praying responses, and receiving communion. It requires an ever-deepening understanding of the mystery we’re entering. Like any relationship, you don’t get that on the first date or by fading on and off the scene.
Our celebration fosters genuine relationship since “it is Christ who speaks” in the scripture proclaimed at Mass, Pope John Paul reminds us in his apostolic letter Dies Domini (no. 39). In his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia he also writes: "The church was born of the Paschal Mystery. For this very reason the Eucharist . . . stands at the centre of the church's life" (no. 3). It also has a cosmic dimension: “Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world" (no. 8). Don’t miss it.
The rosary is a method of prayer, not a mandate. It doesn’t hold the weight of a precept of the church, like the one that obliges Catholics to gather for Mass each Sunday. Like the Stations of the Cross, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, or daily scripture reading, I think of it as an offering of the church: a way to grow closer to God and the divine mysteries.
So what’s to be gained by this particular prayer form? The rosary supplies a healthy appreciation of Mary’s role in Catholic identity: the whole-souled human response to God's invitation that she embodies so beautifully. Mary is the realization of our vocation to “be church.” She is what we must become. Mary shows us how discipleship is done. But she’s not to be confused with a celestial celebrity. She's better than that. She's the one who assures us that saying yes to God, fully and completely, is possible. Her story and her destiny shine a light on human potential in relationship to God. We, too, yearn to become “full of grace.”
The rosary offers a unique view of the gospels through the heart of the woman from Nazareth. Mary was the first to ponder the greatest events of salvation history. Through her eyes, we reflect on these moments of joy, light, sorrow, and glory and learn to appreciate life’s sacred dimensions. Birth and death, joy and grief, expectation and loss are not only details of our humanity but mysteries connected to sin and grace. We reclaim all the hours of our experience as holy when we pass these simple beads through our hands.
The rosary multiplies the avenues of prayer. It's Scripture meditation, petition, song of praise, and instruction in the faith all at once. Pope Pius XII called it a "compendium of the entire gospel" presented in jewel-like cameos. Blessed John Henry Newman declared that the rosary provides us with a way of "holding in our hands all that we believe." Silence and vocal prayer are the rosary’s alternating energies. If we race through it, we miss the graced encounter that lurks between the beads. Pope John Paul II declared that a "rosary personality" is a witness against violence, injustice, arrogance, and intolerance in any form. In which case we might hope more folks will take up the practice of the rosary.
• The Rosary: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow, and Glory by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2003)
• The Rosary Prayer by Prayer: How and Why We Pray the Christ-Centered Rosary of the Blessed Mother by Mary K. Doyle (ACTA Publications, 2006)
What we call the Saturday evening Mass is technically a “vigil Mass.” Vigil comes from the Latin word to “keep watch.” The prayer candles in church are known as “vigil lights” for the same reason: They symbolically keep watch over our prayer intentions. Christians are “vigilant”—always watching—for the Day of the Lord, a reminder that every Sunday of the year is a little Easter, as the early Fathers of the Church noted.
Holy Saturday night inaugurates “the mother of all vigils” at nightfall with the lighting of the Easter fire and the sharing of the light of Christ from the paschal candle. Darkness is a necessary component of the Easter Vigil because the coming of Christ’s light dispels it. Vigils sprang up before many great feasts of the church, including Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and the eight feasts of the apostles, Saint John the Baptist, All Saints, and, curiously, the feast of Saint Lawrence.
The weekly vigil Mass accompanied the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, acknowledging the pastoral needs of workers and others who cannot keep the Sunday obligation. Pope John Paul II noted in 1998: “Because the faithful are obliged to attend Mass unless there is a grave impediment, pastors have the corresponding duty to offer to everyone the real possibility of fulfilling the precept. . . . From a liturgical point of view, in fact, holy days begin with First Vespers. Consequently, the liturgy of what is sometimes called the ‘Vigil Mass’ is in effect the ‘festive’ Mass of Sunday.”
Many ancient cultures perceived a “day” as lasting from sundown to sundown, including our Jewish ancestors. This perspective is recognized in the Creation story, in which “evening came, and morning followed—the first day.” Perhaps from the desire to distinguish between the Hebrew Sabbath on Saturday and the Lord’s Day on Sunday, the Hebrew day is not mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which notes only the canonical permission to celebrate the vigil Mass (CCC 2180). The permission itself can be found in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which states that “the precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day” (canon 1248). This canon gives the most direct answer to “why” by legitimating the practice. The rationale of “why” is justified by the primacy of the Easter Vigil in our liturgical life.
• Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31
• Dies Domini, "On Keeping the Lord's Day Holy," Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, 1998
• The Lord's Day: Reflections on Dies Domini by Bill Huebsch (Twenty-Third Publications)
It can be challenging to know what to do with feelings of being called to religious life when you are younger than the typical minimum age requirements to enter a community. What should you do? What is God saying to you? How could this possibly be for real?
You are not alone in feeling this way, and there is no doubt in my mind that God is calling you into deeper relationship. That is very exciting and also probably a bit scary because it can be tough to know what to do, especially because most religious communities require that a candidate for membership be at least 18 years old—and it’s also tough when your friends and classmates might not be thinking the same thing!
I am glad to hear that you are a friend of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She is a very good companion for you during this time because she herself desired to become a Carmelite nun even though she was too young to formally enter. But Thérèse did not take “too young” as the end of the story. She followed through on the calling she felt. Writes Father James Martin, S.J. on the blog In All Things in honor of the feast day of Thérèse:
“Faced with the sad prospect of having to wait until the age of 16 to enter the monastery, an adolescent Thérèse travels to Rome with her father to petition the pope for a special dispensation to enter earlier. Her request is granted a few months later by the local bishop, and Thérèse enters the ‘Carmel’ on April 9, 1888, at age 15.”
What is important is not necessarily how Thérèse followed through on her calling but that she followed through. As we follow in the footsteps of Thérèse and other saints, we are called to take their stories to heart and prayerfully consider how their stories can illuminate our own. One of the biggest messages in Thérèse’s story is that she didn’t give up even though others would say it was impossible or foolish or childish of her to think she could be called to become a nun.
So what are some steps that you can take in order to be faithful to the calling you feel? You don’t have to petition the pope to get moving on responding to God’s call! Here are a few resources to help get you going:
• “Four steps to hearing your call” by Sister Anita Louise Lowe, O.S.B.
• “How to become a Catholic nun” by A Nun’s Life Ministry
• “Nine ways to open up God's will for you” by Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R
So keep on the path of Saint Thérèse by pursuing your calling, praying, seeking counsel from others, and exploring how you can most fully be yourself in God.
The short answer: certainly not all of them. The identity of the composers of the entire Psalter, like most other questions of biblical authorship, is complex and possibly unknowable. Some 73 of the 150 psalms claim David’s authorship; a few of them are more likely to be by the historical king than others, in the view of most scholars. The Book of Psalms we have today is a compilation reflecting generations of liturgical songwriting—much like the centuries-long contributions to the hymnals we use at Mass today.
Let’s start with David. Was he a composer of psalms at all? The Bible tells us he was a shepherd, soldier, lover, and skilled player of stringed instruments. Not every musician writes their own music but in the cycle of stories about David (1 Samuel 16 through 1 Kings 2:11) he does chant a few songs: an elegy on the deaths of his troubled King Saul and friend Jonathan and another for his general Abner. Psalm 18 is also inserted into the text of 2 Samuel and attributed as “sung” by David.
We also know David danced freely and showed great interest in liturgical matters like the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and building a suitable Temple for the Lord. It’s conceivable that a man of his talents and interests might have written hymns for ritual use or at least commissioned some to be written. David’s patronage may have been enough to render him the godfather of the Book of Psalms.
Our present Book of Psalms has five divisions: Psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; and 107-150. The deliberate way these divisions and their ending doxologies parallel the five books of Moses makes scholars suspect they were imposed later when those books became available after the Babylonian exile; that includes the “footnote” after Psalm 72 that states: “The prayers of David ben Jesse are ended.”
Similarly, subtitles were later added to many psalms linking each one to an event in David’s life: Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 56-57, 59, 60, 63, and 142. Scholars view these subheadings as having little historical value. (If you’ve seen ABBA’s Mama Mia! or Across the Universe done with Beatles' tunes, you know that any group of songs can be arranged into a story with a bit of creativity.) Dating the psalms has proven rather hopeless. Psalm 29 may be the oldest, predating the monarchy of Israel. Others may be as late as the post-exilic period 500 years later.
• “From Lamentation to Jubilation: Praying the Psalms in Daily Life” by Jane Redmont
• “Praying the Psalms” by Lawrence S. Cunningham
• Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness by Nan C. Merrill (Continuum, 2007)
• Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, 2nd ed., by Walter Brueggemann (Cascade Books, 2007)
The church preserves many glorious mysteries—and some knotty other ones as well. The siblings of Jesus fit into the latter category. Eleven times the New Testament refers to brothers/sisters of Jesus. Some are named: James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. James, “the brother of the Lord,” will play a significant role in the Jerusalem church, according to the Acts of the Apostles, and is mentioned with some deference by Saint Paul. The precise number of such siblings or what became of the rest of them after Jesus’ Crucifixion is unknown.
Curiosity alone would lead us to seek more information about potential relatives of Jesus (and their descendants!). The real issue is the conflict between the church’s teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary and the possibility of a larger family. The Greek words adelphos and adelphe mean just what English does by “brother” and “sister.” That is not a generic reference to kin or cousins, as is often suggested.
The trouble lies in that Hebrew doesn’t make such fine distinctions about degrees of consanguinity: Members of the same clan were regarded broadly as brothers. James and Joses, listed above as brothers of Jesus, are called sons of another Mary later at the cross. It’s also hard to understand why Jesus would commend his own mother to one of his disciples at the cross if she had other living children who might care for her.
The church fathers proposed that Saint Joseph had had a previous marriage which provided him with children. That would make the siblings of Jesus not children by Mary at all. There is no proof for or against this theory—although a manuscript called The Infancy Gospel of James from around 150 A.D. builds on this interpretation. Like the linguistic fix, the half-sibling theory offers a way to reconcile scripture with doctrine.
Most big-gun Catholic scripture scholars (and some Protestant ones) subscribe to one of these explanations or avoid the discussion in their commentaries altogether even while addressing these verses. A few, like Jesuit Jerome Neyrey, admit simply that the New Testament authors apparently believed Jesus had brothers and sisters. If we take their word as historically accurate, that doesn’t affect the teaching about the Virgin Birth of Jesus but does emphasize his divine origins.
• Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Second Vatican Council—see Chapter 8, “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church”
• Redemptoris Mater (On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Life of the Pilgrim Church), encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II
• Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars, Raymond E. Brown, ed. (Fortress Press, 1978)
• Mary 101: Tradition and Influence by Mary Ann Zimmer (Liguori Press, 2010)
There was. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or ILP as it was known, was active from 1557 until 1966, when Pope Paul VI abolished it. By then the ILP was viewed as contradictory to the spirit of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, especially the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) which encourages dialogue between church and culture. After embracing the theological formation of the laity, Gaudium et Spes states: “But for the proper exercise of this role, the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, of thought, and of expression, tempered by humility and courage in whatever branch of study they have specialized” (no. 62). Book-banning and -burning would make this task more challenging than it already is.
The ILP originated with Pope Paul IV; it would take four centuries and a few more Pauls to undo the If a title were added to the ILP, it couldn’t be read or even possessed by a Catholic except by special permission. To be discovered with such a book meant excommunication from the church because the owner was presumed in agreement with ideas “contrary to faith or morals.”
“Forbidden” is a pretty heavy anvil to be hit with. The original ILP was so harsh that the same Paul IV who began it modified it before the year was out. The procedure itself was intended to be fair and never hasty. One bad review couldn’t get your book on the list. At least two reviewers had to evaluate negatively before it moved to the next level of consideration. Opinion wasn’t enough to denounce a book: It had to be in conflict with church teaching to receive attention.
While censorship goes against our modern grain, it’s an ancient practice. Saint Paul approves a book-burning in Acts of the Apostles, and in his letters he excoriates false teachers and doesn’t hesitate to ban them. The letters of Saints Peter and John likewise shun deceptive teaching and its promoters. It should be noted that at least two popes, Zachary (745) and Gregory IX (1231), rescued books recommended for the fire. The church also gave the ultimate thumbs up: If not for medieval monks, most secular works of antiquity would be lost to us.
With today’s economic crisis, debt is on the minds of many of us—from legislators to families to businesses across the country and beyond. While a student loan isn’t exactly a multi-trillion dollar burden, it can feel like one given post-college finances and negotiating a doable loan repayment plan.
Thinking about religious life poses additional considerations because in order to become a religious sister or brother or a nun or monk, a person may not have any debt. Discerning a life choice like religious life calls a person to be free to enter fully into a community. The church wants people in discernment to be free of undue distractions—and paying back tens of thousands of dollars is definitely a distraction!
So what’s a person to do when they feel called to religious life but have student loans to repay?
1. Don’t close the door to your vocation! Keep faithful to prayer and to exploring God’s call in your life. It’s very important that you have a spiritual director during this time to help you sort out how God is working in your life.
2. Work diligently to manage your debt and to repay it. Check in with your loan company or with a trusted financial advisor who can help you make good decisions about repayment plans, loan consolidation, debt relief, and other financial options. Start repayment as soon as possible and don’t miss a payment. Take an extra job, start a fundraiser, be creative!
3. Spend time with religious communities. There are lots of ways to be part of them. Pray with them, minister with them, learn about their life. Seek out opportunities to connect with them. You might consider becoming a volunteer or associate or oblate of the community in order to immerse yourself in their way of life and give them a chance to get to know you.
4. Check out The Laboure Society. Their mission is “to provide financial assistance and spiritual support to individuals who must resolve student loans in order to pursue their vocation to priestly and/or religious life in the Catholic Church.”
There are some religious communities that may allow you to begin the process of becoming a religious sister or brother even though you have student debt. That is more common in communities which are involved in education and/or that place a significant emphasis on a college education as important training for apostolic work. These communities work with discerners on a one-to-one basis, depending on their circumstances.
For more info on dealing with student loans, download and listen to my conversation with Sister Maxine on our Ask Sister podcast episode 41.
Editors' note: The National Religious Vocation Conference is sponsoring a study funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, currently underway, to examine the debt problem more thoroughly. Project completion is scheduled for late fall. We will keep you abreast of study updates and results as they become available.
Listing the 14 works of mercy is easy; appreciating their breadth takes time. Let’s begin with the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, and bury the dead. Where do these come from? Six derive from the Final Judgment teaching in the Gospel of Matthew: “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.” The seventh work is grounded in traditional Hebrew respect for the body.
Feeding the hungry goes beyond soup kitchens to the level of economic reform. Satisfying thirst includes the politics of water rights and the ecology of preserving seas and rivers. Clothing the naked involves respecting the dignity of the poor as well as surrendering your cast-off attire. Visiting the imprisoned recognizes many kinds of captivity: domestic violence, sexism, racism, educational impoverishment. Sheltering the homeless includes welcoming the marginalized and lobbying for affordable housing. Visiting the sick expands to creating access for the disabled and inviting the infirm elderly into the greater community. Burying the dead can include pardoning those who injured us long ago.
The spiritual works of mercy are next: admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, and pray for the living and the dead. These teachings are gathered from the New Testament and 2 Maccabees in Hebrew scripture. This eclectic list was compiled later than the first to balance the temporal (worldly) and spiritual obligations we owe each other. Saint Augustine of Hippo recorded both lists in 421 C.E.; perhaps he was promoting what was already within Christian tradition.
While Jesus obliges all Christians to practice corporal works of mercy, some of the spiritual works are not binding until we’re spiritually mature enough to undertake them. We can all comfort the sad and must forgive trespasses and pray “unceasingly” for the needs of others, living and deceased. Bearing wrongs patiently takes practice, but we can begin at once to achieve some. But correcting sinners, teaching the ignorant, and counseling the hesitant are best left to those more advanced in Christian virtue and knowledge. Mercy has been called the meeting ground of love and justice. In works of mercy, compassion ascends to the level of service.
• The works of mercy in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
• Works of Mercy by Fritz Eichenberg, edited by Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books, 2004)
• The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism, 2nd ed., by James F. Keenan, S.J. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008)
If we take as our example the lives of the saints who were ordained and/or members of religious orders, there's no cookie-cutter approach to vocations. Some exhibited great piety as children and entered consecrated life in their youth. Others were dissolute until a late conversion propelled them directly into their mission. The road you and I take to fulfilling our baptismal call will follow its own rhythms. However long it takes and whatever we bring to it, we trust God will use us for divine purposes.
With that in mind, here are some practical criteria to consider in your discernment. If you're a lifelong practicing Catholic who "presided" at Necco-wafer Masses in childhood or wore rosary beads dangling from your skirt button in imitation of the sisters at school, the seeds of vocation may have been expressing themselves in you playfully for a long time. After a few decades of absorbing sacraments and deepening virtuous practices, it may seem that the call to consecrated or ordained life is new when it's really as old as your baptism.
I generally caution new Catholics, however, not to leap directly from the Easter Rites of Initiation into a deeper form of commitment for at least a year, and certainly not without a dedicated spiritual director to walk them through the discernment process.
Which brings us to the next point: Discernment is never a solitary pursuit. The church is the umpire when it comes to vocations. Until a church official deems it a strike or a foul, so to speak, it's not on the board. Along with spiritual direction, periods of retreat and pastoral counsel accompany the average journey into a church vocation.
Both seminaries and religious communities require a period of testing and evaluation before they admit candidates. The ensuing process of academic study and/or community formation are themselves additional phases of discernment on both sides, properly understood. Even short discernment processes, therefore, are technically long ones. And there are no losers in this process, because whatever the verdict, what you learn about the nature of your call is not wasted.
• The Art of Discernment: Making Good Decisions in Your World of Choices by Stefan Kiechle, S.J. (Ave Maria Press, 2005)
• The Meaning of Vocation by Pope John Paul II (Scepter, 1999)
• Still Called By Name: Why I Love Being a Priest by Dominic Grassi (Loyola Press, 2003)
Definitions are always the easiest part of an explanation, so let’s start with those. Celibacy is the perpetual renunciation of marriage for the sake of the reign of God. Religious orders of men and women normally embrace the celibate lifestyle as part of their vows or promises. It is the way of life practiced by those called to priestly ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. Although a married man may be ordained to the permanent diaconate, deacons may not marry after their ordination takes place, even upon the death of a spouse.
Chastity is a much broader term. It is the virtue that directs human sexuality toward its proper purpose. As such, while relatively few people adopt celibacy as a voluntary lifestyle, all of us are expected to practice chastity. Insofar as it defines the proper use of our sexuality, chastity differs according to our station in life. The single person is expected to refrain from sexual activity, just as the married person is to be faithful and singular in their sexual expression. The celibate person, as “single for the Kingdom,” exercises chastity like any other unmarried person. Chastity celebrates the church’s understanding of the gift of our sexuality as the binding force that draws couples together and creates a secure and nurturing environment for the family.
By contrast, the unchaste person invites chaos and suffering upon themselves and others. Unchastity jeopardizes the welfare of children, injures our capacity for fidelity, and opens wounds in marriages that frequently lead to their destruction. Unchastity for the celibate invites a misuse of power in relationships as well as imperiling the confidence of the community of faith.
Because chastity is a mandatory principle for Christians and celibacy a voluntary one, it helps to appreciate this virtue in its context. It is one of the twelve traditional fruits of the Holy Spirit along with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, and self-control. If we demonstrate any of these fruits, we’ll find our way to chastity quite naturally.
• Galatians 5:16-26 (the older, Vulgate translation says it best); Matthew 19:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:8-17, 25-40 (caution: Saint Paul was expecting an imminent Second Coming of Jesus, as he makes clear)
• What is the Point of Being a Christian? by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. (Burns and Oates/Continuum, 2005), especially chapter 5: “The Body Electric”
• Sex, Love & You: Making the Right Decision by Tom Lickona and Judy Lickona with William Boudreau, M.D. (rev. ed., Ave Maria Press, 2003)
Full disclosure here: I’m a vegetarian myself, and not because I don’t like bacon; it’s because I read a compelling argument in a book years ago by Anglican bishop John V. Taylor entitled Enough Is Enough. Though out of print today, it convinced me that the raising of beef cattle at the current staggering quantities is an unjust use of land and resources in a limited world. Also, reading about contemporary pig- and chicken-farming practices made me rethink, from an ecological standpoint, what the things we eat and the way we eat them mean to the water supply and the overall quality of life for nearby humans and animals. In the end, it was information from the Center for Science in the Public Interest forced me to recognize that a meat-burdened diet was no good for me—never mind the planet or my fellow creatures.
This accumulated knowledge comes down to a matter of justice, which is a Catholic concern. If we overtax our natural resources at the expense of our poor neighbors, requiring them to grow feed for our animals when that activity deprives them of the land to grow crops to sustain themselves, and if this same obsession is needlessly cruel to animals and is actually detrimental to our own health, then we are doing something immoral.
What does the Bible have to say? The original arrangement, according to Genesis, follows a vegetarian code. God says in Genesis 1:29-30: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food.” That is pretty specific, as the planetary diet goes. Creatures are to eat nonsentient life forms. If it’s aware, it ought not to be consumed.
But the dietary code changes, if you follow the story line. By Genesis 9, after Noah survives the flood and rescues the animal kingdom from extinction, God acknowledges that the world is different. Fear of humanity and its dominance is now decreed for all animals. “Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat: I give them all to you as I did the green plants.” Only flesh with its lifeblood still in it is remained under the ban (Genesis 9:3-4).
In an age where our preference for meat threatens the welfare of our less fortunate sisters and brothers, it is debatable whether our daily burger is a morally acceptable indulgence.
Editor’s note: Roman Catholic teaching on animals is part of the church’s overall doctrine on “respect for the integrity of creation,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (see nos. 2415-2418). Animals are God’s creatures and so “by their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.” Like all creation, including inanimate nature, animals are “destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.”
And like all of creation, God cares for animals, and so human beings should as well. Human treatment of animals cannot be separated from moral considerations; it involves responsibilities as well as rights. Human dominion over nature must also include stewardship. So, the Catechism says, “It is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.”
But there are limits: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.” The bottom line: You may use, but don’t abuse.
• All-creatures.org: Working for a Peaceful World for Humans, Animals, and the Environment
A timely question, give that some folks have been predicting the coming of Judgment Day, a.k.a the Apocalypse or End of the Word, lately. That is nothing new of course.
Hebrew prophets warned of the “day of the Lord, the great and terrible day” (Joel 3:4) as early as the 8th century B.C. Jesus didn’t deny the reality of a final reckoning. The gospel evangelists detail several end-time scenarios. Saint Paul certainly anticipated that Jesus would come again and put an end to the world’s nonsense and infamy. Later epistle writers continued to predict an expiration date for human history that included a final evaluation, and the last book in the Christian Bible, Revelation or the Apocalypse, is a long meditation on how good and evil will be ultimately discerned and treated accordingly.
The first thing to remember: No one can anticipate future events, Jesus said, because even he was not given the knowledge of the day or the hour of judgment (Matthew 24:36). So that settles all present and future debates for Christians. Anyone who claims to know the day is kidding themselves or swindling the rest of us.
The second biblical point is that the primary purpose of the Day of the Lord seems to be judgment, not destruction: God will one day hold humanity in general and Israel in particular accountable for its actions. By Israel the prophets referred originally to the community of Israelites, not the modern nation. The New Testament, however, speaks of a New Jerusalem and a “reconstituted Israel,” as biblical scholars put it, composed of all who believe in the true God, whether Jew or Gentile. Destruction is only part of divine judgment to the extent that our actions warrant it or draw it down.
Another part of judgment is that some of us, presumably, will benefit from this process. The “sheep,” as they’re known in the Gospel of Matthew, will actually have a good day on the Day of the Lord because they will find themselves justified and rewarded rather than condemned.
That brings us to the most important idea to keep in mind about Judgment Day: Those who are doing what they should be doing now have nothing to fear later. Matthew provides the J. D. checklist: feed the hungry, give the thirsty water, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned (see Matthew 25:31-46). The church supplies a handy list of “things to do while waiting for the end-times,” known as spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
• Isaiah 2:4, 11; 13:9-13; Joel 2:1-14; 3; Amos 5:18-20; 8:9-12; the Book of Zephaniah; Malachi 3:19-24; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 17:24-37; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 3:10-15; Philippians 1:6, 10; 2:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; 2 Peter 3; the Book of Revelation
• “An Introduction to the Interpretation of Apocalyptic Literature” © by John W. Carter
• What Are They Saying About New Testament Apocalyptic? by Scott M. Lewis (Paulist Press, 2004)
• What Are They Saying About Paul and the End of Time? by Joseph Plevnik (Paulist Press, 2009)
Sometimes one of the most challenging steps in pursuing a vocation to consecrated life is telling those we love! I waited months before telling my parents because I knew they’d have a lot of questions for me and I wasn’t sure how or if I’d be able to answer them. I was also afraid they would disapprove or think it was a crazy idea or some “fad” that I was going through.
As for me, I knew it was a crazy idea, and at the same time I knew it was something I felt drawn to explore! So I gave myself the space and time to explore religious life—what it is, how it’s grown over the years, and what it would be like to envision myself as a Catholic sister. I had tons of questions and needed time to feel my way around and be OK with the idea that was slowly breaking into reality.
At some point it’s time to tell your parents and the ones you love. You’ll know when it’s right—or it will slip out of its own accord. Of course they’ll have a lot of questions. You did, too, remember? Often they’ll have to go through a process similar to what you experienced: getting over the initial newness of the idea (“newness” is a gentle way to say what for me was pure shock), learning about what your vocation actually involves (“you mean that you’ll still be able to come for a family dinner once in a while”), and then envisioning you in that way of life (“my baby’s becoming a nun!”). So while it’s tough for you to be with them in all of that because you’ve got lots of questions yourself, hang in there and give it some time.
One of the most helpful things for me was to have my parents meet a couple of the nuns from the community I was joining. It gave them a chance to see what I.H.M. Sisters were really like, to see that they were normal, healthy women who weren’t going to brainwash me or lock me up in a cell someplace never to be seen again. It also helped for me to realize that my parents loved me so dearly that they would ask the hard and uncomfortable questions and that they simply wanted the best for me. So be sure to listen to and engage their concerns, objections, questions, and ideas. You’ll find them very instructive and helpful in your discernment.
Depending on where parents or loved ones are coming from, they may not always be able to support you. There can be many reasons why, and these sometimes have little to do with you. Some women and men have had to make the difficult choice to pursue their calling even with no support or even outright objections from their parents. During these times it’s important to have others who can be there to support and encourage you. And having a spiritual director is very helpful during this time to assist you in sorting out how you will peacefully be in the midst of growing in these relationships.
The key word is believe. The doctrine of the Incarnation is a belief, not a piece of evidence. No one can prove to you that Jesus is "one in being with the Father," and if they say they can, you ought to cross to the other side of the street.
The term "Son of God" is key to the Christian theology of Incarnation. In Hebrew scripture, "son of God" denotes a person with a special relationship to God. In the New Testament the term describes the unique relationship of Jesus to God. In the Jewish sense, then, angels are sons of God. So are the whole people of Israel and the king of the nation. Finally, Jews post-biblically began to refer to the anticipated Messiah as son of God. None of these Jewish usages implied a divine nature, only a privileged relationship.
In Christian usage the title is first applied to Jesus because he saw himself that way. God is his Father: It's repeated often enough that we might just as easily say Jesus saw himself as God's son. But did he mean "son" in the Jewish sense or the later Christian doctrine? We don't know. Clearly the gospel writers and Saint Paul used the title after Jesus' resurrection appearances to say something more about Jesus than anyone had claimed before.
Here's a brief rundown of how the term evolved for early Christians. First, they understood that Jesus views himself as the "Son in whom [God] is well pleased"—as testified by a heavenly voice at the accounts of his baptism and Transfiguration.
Next, they saw Jesus as the anticipated Messiah; as good Jews they used "son of God" for that awaited figure.
Third, as the church moved into the Gentile world, concepts like "messiah" began to lose their meaning. The world outside Judaism wasn't waiting for a saving hero. But the pagan world did employ "son of God" to refer to heavenly beings of various sorts. The term was a better fit to describe what Christians meant by Jesus.
As the church fathers mined scripture in search of understanding, they drew together traditions of prophecy, Wisdom, and Divine Word (the Logos) to see Jesus as sharing in the divinity of God both before his human birth and afterwards. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 Jesus was declared begotten of God before time began and "one in being with the Father."
• Genesis 6:2; Exodus 4:22; Deuteronomy 32:8; 2 Samuel 7:14; Job 1:6; Psalm 2:7; Jeremiah 31:9; Hosea 11:1; Matthew 5:45; 7:21;11:25-27; 16:16; 26:63; Mark 1:1; 14:36, 61; Luke 10:21-22; John 1:1-18; 11:27; 20:31; Romans 1:3-4; Galatians 4:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; Hebrews 1:2-4
• Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), Second Vatican Council, 1965 (especially no. 4)
• The Reality of Jesus: An Essay on Christology by Dermot A. Lane (Paulist Press, 1977)
• Tradition and Incarnation: Foundations of Christian Theology by William L. Portier (Paulist Press, 1994)
Although ubiquitous now, the image known as Divine Mercy is a relative newcomer on the Catholic devotional scene. It originated with Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), Poland’s “Apostle of the Divine Mercy.” With only three years of formal education, Maria Faustina was hired as a domestic servant while a teenager. But the “bright lights” she’d seen in prayer from a young age continued during her employment, eventually drawing her toward religious life. Entering the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Maria Faustina served as cook, gardener, and doorkeeper—jobs reserved for the humblest members of a community. For the next half dozen years she continued to experience visions, prophecies, and “internal stigmata”: a spiritual sharing in Christ’s sufferings with no physical mark.
In 1931 Sister Faustina had a vision unparalleled by those that had gone before: She saw Jesus clothed in white, one hand raised in blessing, the other at his breast. From his body two radiant streams flowed, one red, the other pale. Faustina felt called to recreate this image with the signature “Jesus, I trust in you.” Her spiritual director procured an artist to reproduce what she saw in her vision. Pope John Paul II canonized Faustina in 2000 and established the Second Sunday of the Easter season as Divine Mercy Sunday in accordance with her revelation, heightening the familiarity of this image.
In the gospel for this same Sunday, the Octave (eighth day) of the Easter celebration, Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to disciples who had so recently deserted their Lord in his darkest hour—a gift brimming with mercy when you think about it. An additional reading for this feast reminds us of “the water and the blood” that flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross. The beams of red and white light radiating in the Divine Mercy image are thought to be reminders of these signs. The white light recalls the water of baptism, which by the mercy of God redeems us from original sin. The red light represents the cup of the Eucharist, Christ’s blood shed for our redemption.
On Divine Mercy Sunday we recall how the compassion of God restores us to life through these sacramental actions. What was once revealed to a humble Polish nun in this benevolent image remains a moving portrait of the ever-present mercy of God, radiating relentlessly from the heart of Christ.
• How to recite the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy
• Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (Marian Press, 2003)
• Faustina, Saint for Our Times: A Personal Look at Her Life, Spirituality, and Legacy by George Kosicki, C.S.B. (Marian Press, 2010)
• John Paul II: The Great Mercy Pope by George Kosicki, C.S.B. (Marian Press, 2006)
• The Chaplet of Divine Mercy in Song [audio CD], the Marian Helpers and others (Marian Press, 2005)
Although Catholics are known for their obligatory holy days (such as All Saints’ Day or the Feast of the Assumption), some of the most significant events on the church calendar come with no obligation attached. Among these are the ones that come at the end of Holy Week known as the Triduum, a Latin term meaning “a space of three days.”
The biblical significance of three consecutive days is that of gestation and rebirth: Think Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish and how it changes his mind about his mission. The ancients viewed three as a perfect number: totality epitomized by the prime alliance of the Trinity. No wonder Saint Paul identifies a trinity of virtues—faith, hope, and love—as the essence of Christian living.
In the Easter Triduum we who put our hope in Christ celebrate our rebirth into eternal life. The Triduum is comprised of three commemorative events celebrated as a single act of liturgy continued over three days: the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion, and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening. In common usage, however, the Masses of Easter Sunday are included as an extension of the Triduum commemoration.
Throughout these high holy days we first recall the events of the Last Supper: the institution of the Eucharist as well as its obligation of discipleship, ritualized by the washing of feet. Enough Eucharistic bread is consecrated on Holy Thursday to last until the third day when we celebrate the Easter Vigil. The tabernacle is then emptied of its precious contents, reserved elsewhere with proper adoration. The Table of the Lord is also stripped bare.
At the Good Friday service the Passion of Jesus is recounted from the Gospel of John and the cross is venerated in a special way by the whole assembly: kissing, touching, bowing. The reserved Eucharist is distributed but no Mass is celebrated on the day we recall the Crucifixion.
After dark on the third day we light the fire of Easter and proclaim “Christ our Light” with a magnificent extended scriptural reading of the highlights of salvation history, culminating with the gospel account of the Resurrection. On this joyful night the church receives new members in the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and first Eucharist. During the Vigil we also welcome Christian candidates for full communion with the Catholic Church. The big word of the evening says it all: Alleluia!
• Three Holy Days: A Lenten Series on the Easter Triduum from Nativity Catholic Church, Longwood, Florida
• What Every Catholic Needs to Know About Lent, Triduum, and Easter: A Parish Guide to the Paschal Season by Kevin McGloin (Resource Publications, 2001)
• These Sacred Days: Walking With Jesus through the Sacred Triduum by Brother Richard Contino, O.S.F. (St. Pauls, 2008)
The simple answer to your question is: Yes, a person who is a member of a religious community or order can transfer to another community or order. Here are a few other considerations that arise with this question.
First, if the person happens to still be in first (or temporary) vows or is not yet vowed, she or he can leave freely because they are not yet full members of the community. Such leaving, however, is undertaken with much discernment, prayer, and conversation. The person must also faithfully tend to any responsibilities and relationships that have been established.
Second, the decision of a full member, someone who has professed final vows, to leave her or his community and, in some cases, join another community is a serious situation. This process is not engaged in lightly and is a time of great discernment, prayer, and conversation for both the individual and the community. After all, final vows means for life, not “for as long as I feel like it” or “’till something better comes along.” That being said, serious reasons do arise when a person can legitimately no longer live as a member of a particular community. These reasons are for the person and the leadership of the community to discern and are later witnessed by Rome for the valid dispensation from vows or transfer of vows.
Third, no religious community wants a person to feel “stuck” with them. On the contrary, religious communities want the very best for their members—to be free to love and serve God and God’s mission with other women or men who share the same vision. The community is built on real relationships and is not simply a structure within which one lives out one’s commitment for better or for worse. The pain of one member who feels “stuck” affects the whole of the community and must be tended to if the community and the individual are to be healthy and vibrant.
The Deadlies were chosen by committee, but we’ll get to that shortly. Pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust are more formally known as the “capital” sins. In Latin caput means “head”: These sins were deemed to be at the head of all other failures. Entertain these “source sins” and you were kaput.
Ancient Eastern monks launched the trend of vice lists. Becaue perfecting their spiritual lives was all they had to do, cataloguing what not to do was helpful. The 4th-century Egyptian monk Evagrius Ponticus defined eight bad attitudes that led to sin. Not long after, another monk, John Cassian, took the concept to the West, and his list resembles the one we now use—though he retained eight vices. In the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great decided a vice list would be useful outside monastic circles and he’s the one who dubbed them "capital" sins. But he still kept eight: “Vainglory” in his opinion being distinct from “pride.” Twelfth-century theologian Peter Lombard incorporated Pope Gregory’s list into his work. When Thomas Aquinas read Lombard in the 13th century, he decided to tidy up the tally and reduced it to the present seven.
Would this list ever have become more than a theologian’s ideal catalogue of errors if not for the Fourth Lateran Council? Possibly not. In 1215 this council mandated annual confession of mortal sins, putting forth the so-called “Easter duty” of confession followed by reception of communion once a year during the Easter season. Because life everlasting depended on it, anxious parishioners wanted guidance in making a worthy confession. They were directed to the Ten Commandments and the Seven “Deadly” (Mortal) Sins.
Artists took up the task of familiarizing the citizenry—many of whom were illiterate—with the list. Frescoes and canvases terrifyingly conveyed the ugliness of these vices and their just punishments. Chaucer incorporated the Deadly Sins in his Canterbury Tales and Dante defined the tiers of purgatory with them.
While his seven social may not come trippingly off the tongue, Pope Benedict XVI undertook a rewriting of the Deadly Sins for the modern world: environmental destruction, genetic manipulation, obscene wealth, creating poverty, drug trafficking, immoral use of science, and violations of fundamental human rights.
• The Capital Sins: Seven Obstacles to Life and Love Gerard P. Weber (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1997)
• “The Seven Deadly Sins” series from Oxford University Press
Jean-Paul Sartre once claimed, “Hell is other people.” But he was a philosopher, not a theologian. He also didn’t know some of the heavenly people I do. Witty and notorious Oscar Wilde declared more objectively, “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” Shakespeare seemed to agree with him in The Tempest: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” Civil War General William T. Sherman was briefest: “War is hell,” while church father Saint John Chrysostom was perhaps the most provocative: “Hell is paved with priests’ skulls.”
So what’s the church’s official word on the subject? Hell is the "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1033). That underscores that hell is a deliberate choice; no one falls into it by accident. Hell is realized immediately upon death for those who die mortally (fatally) sinful. The irrevocability of this decision is a “call to responsibility” and “to conversion” (CCC no. 1035-36) for the living. No one is predestined for condemnation, and it’s not God’s intent that anyone should perish in this way (CCC no. 1037).
What impresses me is that more folks concern themselves with hellish details than seek to learn about heaven. If hell unnerves us, there’s an easy solution: Remain on the path of love. If hell is self-chosen alienation from God, then heaven is self-selected union. God is love, so stick with love and hell becomes literally a dead subject. Because God never rejects us but aims most passionately and personally at forgiving us, we alone can reject God and choose the suffering that is the fruit of sin and pavement of hell—priests’ skulls notwithstanding.
For this reason Jesuit Father John Sachs calls hell an “anti-creation”: not the world divinely engineered and ordained “good” from the start, made of the fabric of peace and plenty, but a realm of disorder, evil, anguish, and want. If we don’t care to live in God’s world, we’re free to fashion another epitomized by God’s absence as much as creation is charged with the grandeur of Sacred Presence.
Sachs cautions against imagining heaven and hell as equal-and-opposite attractions. The gospel presents hell as an ultimate possibility and heaven as an absolute reality. The apocalyptic language used to express these realms isn’t a snapshot of their literal aspects but a means of conveying the seriousness of what we, ultimately, do with our freedom.
• “The Descent into Hell: Abandonment or a Victory over Death?” by Jerry Ryan, Commonweal, 4/11/97
• 101 Questions and Answers on the Four Last Things by Joseph T. Kelley (Paulist Press, 2006)
• What Are They Saying About the Universal Salvific Will of God? by Josephine Lombardi (Paulist Press, 2008)
The Franciscans have a long history in the church, beginning with the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and Saint Clare of Assisi (d. 1253). Over the years many Franciscan religious communities have emerged within Catholicism and beyond. In addition many people have incorporated the spirit and values of Franciscan spirituality into their own ways of life. While there’s no way to cover all aspects of Franciscanism, we can make some general distinctions.
The main categories of Franciscans are the three orders:
The first is the Order of Friars Minor which is comprised of the Observants, the Conventuals, and the Capuchins. The Observants (O.F.M.) and the Conventuals (O.F.M. Conv.) were the Franciscans of Francis’s day and later to this day. The Observants were friars who typically lived in hermitages tucked into the mountains. Conventuals were friars who felt called to follow Francis by serving people in urban areas. These friars ministered and lived together in houses (or “convents”) among the people. The Capuchins (O.F.M. Cap.) were a reform of Franciscanism in the 16th century spearheaded by Friar Matteo da Bascio who felt called to go back to a more rigorous way of Franciscan life that he saw in Saint Francis.
The second order of Franciscans are the Poor Clare nuns, communities of contemplative women founded by or in the spirit of Saint Clare of Assisi along with her good friend Francis.
The third order of Franciscans is diverse, comprising religious Franciscans (Third Order Regular), who profess public vows and live in community, and lay Franciscans (Secular Franciscan Order), single and married men and women who live a Franciscan lifestyle in their own situations and lives.
Within the above orders, you will find even more diversity of customs and traditions unique to each individual Franciscan community.
So what’s a person to do if they are attracted to the Franciscan way of life? My best advice is to get out there and explore different communities, meet friars, sisters, or nuns, and allow yourself to envision your life with them. Can you see yourself in their shoes or sandals? I also encourage you to read and experience more of the lives of Francis and Clare and other Franciscan saints and holy people. In their stories you will find pieces of your own which will help you to discern and know which Franciscan community feels most at home to you.
When I celebrate, I don’t think of it as a sacrifice, and vice versa. Ancient religious sacrifices, however, were both: part obligatory expense (which God requires), part festival (we’re right with God again!). The use of the phrase the “holy sacrifice of the Mass” is rooted in this earlier understanding.
Biblically, Jewish shrine and temple worship could be a messy affair. Because the covenant with God involved blood (circumcision, Abraham’s nocturnal pact in Genesis 15, ritual offerings of animals), the word sacrifice was not misused. But when people gather together, it’s time to party, and the good news at these events far outweighed the bad for participants. Personal and communal sin was expiated: We’re back in the black on God’s books. What better reason to eat, drink, and be merry?
By the time of Jesus, however, late Judaism had already begun to steer away from the idea that ritual sacrifice alone, or even primarily, was what God wanted. Obedience and fidelity could be symbolized by the ritual moment but should not originate or end there. The “sacrifice of praise” was pleasing to God, as were hearts uplifted and whole lives rendered to God’s service.
We might see these developments as a maturing of the spiritual life; actually, they were quite practical for a community that had known migrations, captivity, exile, and oppression. Some generations had no access to the Temple. The best they could do was raise hands, hearts, and voices to God.
The gospels tell us Jesus saw his own looming fate as an act of obedience and giving glory to God. His blood would be poured out for the sins of many, and he was “lifted up” as an offering on the cross. When Saint Paul talks about the Eucharist, he doesn’t hesitate to use sacrificial language familiar to his Jewish audience. By the 3rd century the church fathers regularly promoted the activity of the Mass as a joint sacrifice of Christ and his body, the church.
Later Protestant reformers would reject sacrificial language applied to the Eucharist because it seemed to diminish the unique action of Jesus on the cross. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1562 took pains both to affirm that the Eucharist is the “unbloody” sacrifice of that same Jesus and to clarify that his self-offering is not repeated but “made present” in every Eucharist. What better reason to celebrate?
• A Holy and Living Sacrifice: The Eucharist in Christian Perspective by Ernest Falardeau (Liturgical Press, 1996)
• The Eucharist, Our Sanctification by Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. (Liturgical Press, 1993)
Casually, they mean the same thing: the place from which readers read, cantors chant, and preachers preach. The original term for the whole thing was the Greek word ambo. When “church” evolved from being a name for the assembly to designate the special building where people gathered, architecture began to define the liturgical movements. Because the Mass comes in two parts, the Liturgy of the Word and of the Eucharist, the ambo was the place where the first part happened, and the altar was the stage for the second.
We see the vestige of the ambo design in the semicircular part of the sanctuary that juts into the assembly. The ambo pulpit was first positioned there on an elevated platform. Two staircases led to it. The subdeacon ascended from the east and, facing the altar, proclaimed the epistle. The deacon ascended from the west, facing the people, and proclaimed the gospel. Because both readings were chanted, this front area also housed the choir and was part of what today would be called the “music ministry.” Preaching was normally done from the presider’s chair.
The ambo design imitated the mountain where Moses received the Law and Jesus offered his famous Sermon. From the 4th-12th centuries this configuration was popular, leading to developments such as two ambos: an eastern one dedicated to the epistle and a western one with a permanent candle used for the gospel. Less common was the double-decker ambo with a lower station for the epistle and higher one for the gospel.
The pulpit eventually replaced the old ambo. Less ornate in decoration, it was still elevated (pulpit, by the way, means “scaffold”). The pulpit was separated from the choir and used purely for proclamation, its exalted stage viewed as the "position of the perfect.” Even during the early ambo period, acoustics were poor from the chair so some sermons were delivered from the ambo. The pulpit supported this tradition and is now usually the name for the place from which priests and deacons read the gospel and give the homily.
The lectern is a humbler development: It’s a support for a book. It may denote the stand the priest uses to prop up the sacramentary at the altar. Today, ambo and lectern are often used interchangeably to refer to the place where the readings, psalm responses, and general intercessions are proclaimed. The pulpit is generally reserved for preaching and the gospel reading.
• Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on Divine Worship
• The House of God: Church Architecture, Style and History by Edward R. Norman (Norton/Thames and Hudson, 2005)
• Repitching the Tent: Reordering the Church Building for Worship and Mission by Richard Giles (Liturgical Press, 1999)
Among the saddest chapters of church history lies a story more about an era than an event, the consequences of which divided Western Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism (Eastern Christianity had already split from the West in the Great Schism of the 14th century). Who started the Reformation is a matter of opinion: Was it Martin Luther, who in 1517 nailed to a church door 95 theses against the practice of indulgences (a practice which amounted to paying for your sins in cash rather than in penances)? Or was it centuries of papal scandals, corrupt priests, bloated church bureaucracy, and the extraordinary greed of religious leaders that preceded him?
In the 15th and 16th centuries, few doubted church reform was necessary. But the will to make changes ran up against the power of kings and clerics who profited from abusive practices like selling church offices and indulgences. While Luther’s criticism of the church was originally confined to these indefensible practices, in time he rejected more fundamental items: papal authority, the teaching on sacraments and salvation, the Catholic priesthood and monasticism (he had once been both a priest and a monk), veneration of saints, and clerical control of biblical interpretation.
Luther wasn’t the first reformer to denounce the moral decline of church leaders, but he was the first to view the problem as a theological one, hinging on false doctrine. He provided the ammunition to take aim not simply at church personnel but the credibility of the institution itself. Fellow Germans embraced Luther’s ideas and seized church property, expelling clergy and religious who didn’t join their cleansing movement.
Meanwhile, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin were evolving a competing reformation in Switzerland. While Lutherans wanted a reformed Eucharist and Baptism, the Calvinists wanted nothing to do with old sacramental forms. When a third “Radical Reformation” movement arose (Anabaptists, who later sired Baptists and Mennonites), both Catholics and Protestants saw them as heretics. The Church of England was founded in the same period but for reasons that were more political in nature.
The Reformation movement contained the fissures of its own future fault lines. When dissatisfaction with the church is resolved by leaving it, you legitimate every future departure as well. The chief goal of “reformation” is to modify, refashion, or reanimate your subject. Change would come to Catholicism in the long run—but without its separated sisters and brothers.
• John 17:1-26; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Romans 12:3-8; 14:1-15:13; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:11-16; Philippians 2:1-4
• Texts about the Reformation and by Reformation figures
• A History of the Christian Tradition, Vol. II: Reformation to the Present by Thomas C. McGonigle and James F. Quigley (Paulist Press, 1996)
• The Great Catholic Reformers: From Gregory the Great to Dorothy Day by C. Colt Anderson (Paulist Press, 2007)
A vocation to religious life also means having the gifts, disposition, and health necessary to carry out the mission of a particular religious community. In terms of health, a person must be in good overall health, though sometimes she or he may have an illness or disability that is manageable and does not impede their engagement with the mission of the community.
In some communities—in particular active religious communities (as distinct from cloistered or monastic ones)—there may be a greater emphasis placed on health because of the sometimes physically and/or emotionally challenging ministries in which the community may be involved. I encourage you to get to know a religious community—it’s mission, members, ministries, and way of life. You’ll get a sense of how at home you feel with them. Once you have begun relating to a vocation director, or if you have a mentor in the community, talk with them about your concerns. That doesn’t have to be the first thing you tell them about yourself, but you should raise you concerns early in your discernment with them.
I also encourage you to connect with persons who’ve been where you are and to check out resources for discerners like yourself. A resource right here on this website has information about religious communities that actively welcome persons with chronic illnesses.
Discernment of spirits is as old as the church and as fresh as you and me, because anyone on the God-quest needs to know how to detect the divine fingerprint along the way. The question came up a lot in the early church: Saint Paul addresses it in letters to four different communities!
From Genesis forward the Bible contains stories of people confronting both good and evil spirits in many forms. Adam and Eve knew God and still bet wrong on the serpent. Abraham gambled more effectively when three strangers showed up at his tent. Jacob was never a God-centered chap and so had no clue what he was wrestling with that night he had his grip on an angel. Learning to tell good from evil isn’t enough, of course: King David knew better but chose poorly the night he laid eyes on Bathsheba.
Paul loves to talk about divine mysteries, but the discernment of spirits isn’t in that category for him. Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit, clearly identified by the fruits it produces, just as Jesus once said: “Each tree is known by its own fruit.” Paul spells out which fruits come from which baskets in Galatians 5. If you’re pursuing the idea of religious life, say, and the experience fills you with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” Paul would call that a validated discernment. If on the other hand you wind up with a rotten bunch of fruit—immorality, idolatry, rivalry, jealousy, acts of selfishness, factions” and so on (it’s quite a list in Galatians 5!)—chances are the proposal is in error.
Paul’s also clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that discernment of spirits is a gift some enjoy as a specialty. It’s the “many parts, one body” idea: Not all are great at everything, which is why we must be church together. If you’re the Jacob-type wrestling with anonymous spirits in the dark, by all means seek spiritual direction from someone better at discerning spirits. Blessings on the journey!
• Vocation Match: Fill out a short profile to find which of the more than 250 religious communities are compatible with you
• Biblical Catechesis on Vocations: Message of Pope John Paul II for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations (April 20, 1997)
• The Discerning Heart: Exploring the Christian Path by Wilkie W. Au and Noreen Cannon Au (Paulist Press, 2006)
• Discernment: A Path to Spiritual Awakening by Rose Mary Dougherty (Paulist Press, 2009)
For as many people who are called to religious life (sisters, nuns, monks, brothers) or to ordained life (priests, deacons) there are as many reasons why they are called to that particular way of life! Ask a religious brother or a contemplative nun or a married deacon and you’ll get a variety of responses as to why she or he chose that specific vocation. Often, however, you’ll hear common threads in their responses:
• A desire to give oneself wholeheartedly to God
• A passion for ministry and outreach
• A love of the Catholic faith
• A sense of the movement of the Holy Spirit
• A commitment to a prayerful way of life
In addition to these you’d find that each particular way of life has additional attractions—women and men in religious life are often drawn to community living as celibate persons; deacons and priests have a passion for serving within parish communities and dioceses; hermits desire solitude with God, and so on.
So there are many reasons (and sometimes it may even seem as if there’s not even a whole lot of reason!) why people become priests or hermits or sisters. But just like people who are called to marriage or single life or lay ministry, it all comes down to how the Spirit is moving in a person’s life and inviting them into a lifelong commitment to relationship with God and service to the world.
In the current political climate, every serious issue is a blood sport aimed at reelection. But it’s also true that Catholicism has now gone officially green. Pope Benedict XVI entitled his first address of 2010 If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation. That was a spin on Pope Paul VI’s signature phrase, “If you want peace, work for justice.” When you compare the two statements, you realize the pope has elevated stewardship of the planet to a work of justice!
That makes sense. Global warming, or climate change, or whatever you want to call it, has affected and will continue to harm the poor more than the rich; natural disasters and man-made ones generally do. While million-dollar homes are occasionally lost to floods and fires (think coastal California), the vast majority of the ones affected by the earth’s volatile forces are those who can’t easily restore what’s lost (witness Haiti, crushed first by an earthquake and then by cholera, or the Gulf Coast, ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and then by a very preventable oil spill).
What the pope is saying is simple. If we treat creation as God’s gift and employ nature without greedily exploiting it, our stewardship will not only earn us our survival but also a global reality that’s sustainable in peace. If, however, we take what we can get from this planet and refuse to recognize the fragile ecosystem shared by soil, water, air, and life—including our own—then those on the short end of the benefit scale will rebel, and no one will have peace.
“The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations,” the pope says. That widens our responsibility: not simply to our fellow inhabitants but to those who will inherit the earth from us. Will we offer them desertification, the pollution of rivers, the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and other perils the pope lists?
The threat to our world is not simply an ecological but a moral crisis, says the pope. If we disregard the growing number of “environmental refugees,” we will mostly certainly reap the impact of their instability and displacement. We embrace a future of conflict if we ignore “the human right to life, food, health, and development.” For these reasons green remains a year-round color for Catholics.
• Genesis 1:28; 2:15; 3:17-19; Psalm 8:4-10; Proverbs 8:22-36; Isaiah 11:6-9; Romans 8:22-23; Colossians 1:15-17
• If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation, message of Pope Benedict XVI for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2010