Questions Catholics Ask

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More questions...and responses

Why does the priest talk after the readings at Mass?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 29, December 2009 Categories: 

If all the priest does is "talk" after the readings, we're in big trouble! Regrettably, there will always be clergy who are less gifted or improperly prepared for the task of proclamation. The result is yammering, which leads to boredom, impatience, and questions like this one from the assembly, I'm afraid. So let's get the terms right. The priest (or deacon) is not supposed to talk, give a speech, teach, or even offer a sermon at this time in the Mass. What we're supposed to hear is a homily.

So the question we're really asking is: What's a homily and why do we have one? The word is rooted in the ancient word for "conversation." A homily isn't merely a conversation between the preacher and us but between the scripture we've just heard and the world we live in. Think of it as a call-and-response, like others we hear at Mass. For example, when the priest says, "The Lord be with you!" we reply, "and also with you!" If the Lord isn't with somebody when the call goes out, the conversation stops right there. The call must find its response or there's no real communication.

In the same way the scripture passages proclaimed at Mass (not simply "read," if your local lectors are doing their job) are best understood as a call awaiting our response. God's word is alive, the Bible says. But not alive on the page—it's alive in those who hear the word of God and keep it! It takes some reflection, of course, for us to appreciate how to live out the word we hear proclaimed each week. So that's where the homilist comes in. It's the job of the one who gives the homily to build a bridge between the ancient word of God and the modern world in which we live and move and have our being.

While a sermon can be a moral teaching on any issue of the preacher's choosing, the homilist must remain anchored to the readings, which are preselected for each week of the church year in a book called the lectionary. That can be challenging, but it does ensure that we hear from a wide range of scripture passages each year—not simply the preacher's particular themes of interest or expertise. The homiletic method means both homilist and assembly must grow together as we participate in the conversation God is having with us today.

Scripture
Nehemiah 8:1-12; Luke 4:16-21; 11:27-28; Acts 17:28; Hebrew 4:12

Online resource
Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly from the U.S. Catholic bishops

Books
Once Upon a Gospel: Inspiring Homilies and Insightful Reflections
by William J. Bausch (Twenty-Third Publications, 2008)
The Practical Preacher: Handy Hints for Hesitant Homilists
by Paul Edwards (Liturgical Press, 1994)

Is being divorced an obstacle to religious life?

Posted by:   🕔 Wednesday 16, December 2009 Categories: 

I was married and am now divorced. I recently decided to become a Catholic. Because my marriage wasn't in the church, can I still be a nun? I want to see if this course is right for me. Where can I start?

Thank you for your questions. Let's start with the first one: entering religious life having been married and divorced outside of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church generally respects the marriage vows of people regardless of their religious affiliation; every marriage is considered a promise unto death. Given that you are in the process of becoming a Catholic, I would recommend that you talk with the people who are leading the classes at your parish about your concern. They will be able to assist you in contacting the appropriate church tribunal to determine whether or not the marriage is recognized and what steps, if any, need to be taken.

The process of becoming a Catholic and of working with a tribunal can take some time. In addition, the church generally requires a waiting time (e.g., 2 years) before entering religious life for persons who are converts to the Catholic faith. The journey of becoming a nun can take minimally 5 years.

At this point I would begin by talking with the folks at your parish. Second, it is important that you get to know what being a nun is really like. Each religious community (e.g., Dominican, Loretto, Franciscan) is like a family and as such has its own unique way of expressing and living its mission. Some nuns and sisters live a more contemplative, cloistered life while others live a more active life in ministry. Both kinds of life are rooted in prayer and living the gospel. It's important to spend time seeing what you are attracted to and what God may be calling you to. I've got a number of suggestions on how to get started becoming a Catholic nun on my website. Spend time especially with the suggestions around prayer and getting to know sisters. Your parish will be able to help you locate religious communities in your area.

Blessings as you continue your journey into the Catholic faith and as you explore how God is calling you.

What's the difference between catechesis and evangelization?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 15, December 2009 Categories: Mission & Evangelization
We've got a lot of big words in our religious vocabulary. Each one is quite specific in the territory it covers. Catechesis is basically religious education. It's rooted in the Greek word for "echo," and its intent is to nurture the Christian life through imitation in word and deed. Obviously catechesis involves learning the "faith facts" that enable us to speak meaningfully about what we believe.

But catechesis is not only about transferring information from one generation of the church to the next. We need to echo the faith of our mothers and fathers in a spirit that is awakened, nourished, and developed. That is why we've heard so much in recent years about "whole community catechesis" and "adult faith formation." Religious ed isn't only for children anymore, and it goes far beyond religion class and sacramental preparation. Catechesis is a lifelong process that seeks to deepen the echo of faith so that it reverberates through every corridor of our lives, relationships, and decision-making.

Catechesis is important, but it can't go anywhere without the work of evangelization. This word also has Greek origins and means "proclaiming good news." Where Christianity is concerned, that good news is contained in the gospel. We should recall that, just as catechesis doesn't mean memorizing rote facts about faith, evangelization isn't the same as shouting scripture verses to passersby in hopes that the gospel will "take" in their hearts. We can think of evangelization as creating the spark that ignites the fire and catechesis as the work of tending the flame once it's established.

Regretfully, some folks who practice religion their whole lives long were never properly evangelized and so their faith remains unenlivened and burdensome, all obligation and very little illumination. In the same way it's possible to really hear the good news of Jesus and believe it—but lack the follow-up of catechesis and so remain like spiritual children, immature in understanding. When they work hand in hand, however, evangelization and catechesis can make saints out of us, bringing us to faith and then to holiness, inch by inch.

Scripture
Luke 1:1-4; 4:16-21; John 1:1-18; 3:16-21; Romans 10:6-15; James 2:14-18; 1 John 1:1-4; 2:12-17

Online resources
Article from VISION magazine: "Ten great things about being Catholic" by Alice Camille
Pope Paul VI's Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi)

Books
Days of Deepening Friendship: For the Woman Who Wants Authentic Life with God by Vinita Hampton Wright (Loyola Press, 2009)
God for Grownups by Virginia Smith (Thomas More, 2002)

Didn't Saint Paul write all the letters attributed to him?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 02, December 2009 Categories: Scripture

For everybody who didn't get the memo: Biblical authorship is tricky. It can't compare to contemporary authorship, defined against forgery and plagiarism—and in favor of copyrights and royalties. Scripture writers didn't claim rights over their work. They didn't seek fame or a livelihood for their efforts. Ancient writers sought to establish the mantle of authority, rather than authorship, for what they set down. So they often wrote under the auspices of existing schools of thought. To the ancients that was not skullduggery; that was how it was done. The contemporary filmmaker who pays "homage" to earlier directors that contributed to his or her vision is invoking a similar liberty.

In the Old Testament, scholars presume four schools of writers contributed to the five books of the Bible commonly known as the "Law of Moses." The authority of Moses is invoked, but even the rabbis don't hold that Moses penned Genesis through Deuteronomy. In the same way, three generations are believed to have contributed to the Book of Isaiah—one being the 8th-century B.C. prophet himself, whose scroll was extended by later students and admirers. Many Hebrew texts were added to or edited by later compilers in this way. But it's in the New Testament that authorship gets really interesting.

Saint Paul was the first contributor to what would be known one day as the New Testament. He wrote a generation before there were gospels, so his early witness to Christian beliefs and practices is quite valuable. Most Catholic and many Protestant scholars hold at least seven of the 14 letters attributed to Paul to be authentically his: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Romans, and Philemon. If you read them in that order, you get the style, personality, theology, and viewpoint of a single unique letter-writer.

Three other letters are routinely classified as Deutero-Pauline. This means they reflect Paul's ideas but also reveal another hand, perhaps a student of his. The Deutero-Pauline letters are: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians. Three more letters are hotly debated but widely regarded as non-Pauline. These are the so-called Pastoral Letters: Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy. A 14th letter once credited to Paul, Hebrews, is now universally regarded as by another author.

Truth is truth, no matter who says it. Because the authorship of Paul's letters was debated even by the church fathers, who nonetheless put them in the Bible, we might honor their assessment that the words are God-inspired, even if their author sometimes remains a mystery.

Scripture
The Pauline letters are best read chronologically: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Romans, Philemon, 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy. Read the Acts of the Apostles for background.

Online resource
A historical introduction to the Pauline Epistles

Books
How to Read the Bible
by Richard Holloway (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007)
Paul the Letter-Writer by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P. (Liturgical Press, 1995)

Are we supposed to believe in angels and demons in the 21st century?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 16, November 2009 Categories: 
Having seen the film adaptation of Dan Brown's novel Angels and Demons, I'd say many folks find themselves in his camp: believing that good and evil reside in the hearts of people, which is plenty to deal with. It's tough to distinguish between these spirits, because evil would hardly be successful unless it were disguised as good. Dragging a supernatural element into the complex moral one might only muddy the waters of human culpability. So what does the church say about beings celestial and infernal?

Angels come first in the discussion, because they literally came first. God made only one kind of purely spiritual being. Unlike mortals, created at a belated stage of the story, angels are incorporeal, immortal creatures. But like us they received the gift of free will and could choose once: to serve or not serve God.

Traditions from outside scripture (but hinted at in many biblical passages) tell us how the decision unfolded. Most angels chose to serve. One, however, refused and drew others to join the revolt against God: by definition, the revolt against goodness. Hell came into existence as the end result of choosing to absent oneself from God's presence and good purpose.

So Satan and his demons are in fact angels, though we know them better as "devils." Their existence is geared to associate human beings with revolt against God. Meanwhile the heavenly host is dedicated to God's service in a variety of ways. Some serve celestially in the divine liturgy, offering endless praise and glory to God. Others serve as messengers, guardians, and protectors for the sake of humanity. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam the teachings and traditions about angels are fairly consistent and complementary.

When Jesus proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God, he accompanies and ratifies this proclamation by casting out demons. Demons know who Jesus is, and they flee from his presence. That reminds us we have no reason to fear the demonic if we associate ourselves with God's presence and purpose revealed in Jesus.

Two things to keep in mind regarding angels and demons: 1. We are freer than they are because we can freely choose to serve or not serve God continually throughout our lives. 2. Because we are free, we can never blame "the devil" for anything we do. What we make of each decision is up to us.

Scripture
Book of Tobit; Job 1:1-2:10; Isaiah 6:1-8; Daniel 3; Matthew 1:18-2:23; Luke 1:5-38; Hebrews 1:1-2:18; Book of Revelation

Online resource
"Angels" by Father Paul Turner

Books
A Catalogue of Angels: The Heavenly, the Fallen, and the Holy Ones Among Us by Vinita Hampton Wright (Paraclete Press, 2006)
The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church by Jean Danielou, S.J. (Sophia Institute Press, 2009)

Who are the saints and why do we pray to them?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 02, November 2009 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Liturgy
Sports figures, comic book heroes, and celebrities are huge in the popular imagination. Why? Because they do things most of us can't and wish we could. In this regard saints ought to be considered totally cool. What's even better about saints is that they do things the rest of could and would be doing—if only we made the singular decision to join their ranks.

Saints don't come from a cookie-cutter mold. Some attain this status by virtuous living and others for surrendering to a brave and holy death. Some were saint-like from childhood (see the lives of Prince Casimir of Poland, Catherine of Siena, or Maria Goretti). Others were knaves for quite a while first (check out Augustine, Pope Callistus I, and Bernard of Corleone).

Technically, you make the register of saints by undergoing a process known as canonization, which includes a thorough examination of the life and circumstances of the person under consideration. Dying for the faith (martyrdom) is the quickest route into the canon of saints, and posthumous miracles credited to your intercession always help, though they've not always been strictly necessary.

But for every saint who makes the official canon there are thousands and thousands of holy people who fly under the radar of each generation, living and dying in equally astonishing measures of grace. What it comes down to is that canonized saints are held up as examples of virtuous living for the whole church, but the saints of God are more numerous still.

So does that mean you can pray to your kindly departed grandmother? That depends on a sound understanding of how we interact with saints of any kind. Despite what you may have seen or heard, Catholics don't worship saints. Worship and adoration are reserved for God alone in the Persons of the Trinity. What we offer saints is veneration: due honors for their achievements in grace. (Mary, the Mother of God, gets a higher veneration called hyperdulia, but even she is not a candidate for worship.)

We also seek the intercession of saints: their spiritual assistance. Saint Dominic consoled his brothers at his death by reminding them: "Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life." If your grandmother were a holy woman in life, she'd probably agree with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who declared: "I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth."

Scripture
Matthew 5:1-12; 16:24-25; 2 Corinthians 13:11-12; Ephesians 1

Online resource
Saint of the Day

Books
Sister Wendy's Book of Saints by Wendy Beckett (Loyola Press, 1998)
Holy Simplicity: The Little Way of Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and Thérèse of Lisieux by Joel Schorn (Servant Books, 2008)
God's Doorkeepers: Padre Pio, Solanus Casey, and André Bessette
by Joel Schorn (Servant Books, 2006)

How does a religious community start?

Posted by:   🕔 Friday 23, October 2009 Categories: 
. . . And how do they decide what rules they'll live by?

Every religious community finds its origins in the Holy Spirit, who inspires a person or group to begin a new mission in the world. The community, like all religious communities, strives to live the gospel but does so in the particular way the Spirit is calling it. That unique or particular way might be expressed in a variety of ways:

  • How they live (e.g., in a monastery, in the inner city, in large groups or small),
  • How they prayer (e.g., using the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius or following the spirituality of Saint Teresa of Avila), or
  • How they minister (e.g., educating migrant workers, advocating for the dignity of all human life).
Every religious community must have a rule of life, that is, a defined way of life that articulates its charism (that original inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and is also congruent with the nature of religious life as outlined by the church. Within this rule of life, the members of the community, in consultation with other religious communities and with the church, describe their spirituality, community life, and ministry.

Why pray for the dead?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 15, October 2009 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Liturgy

The Catholic position on praying for the dead stands on two other doctrines: the teachings on purgatory and the communion of saints. First, purgatory. It's best described as a condition—not a place—between death and heaven. Notice that it's not between heaven and hell, as many folks presume. There's no chance that a person in need of preliminary purification can ever be lost. If a person were lost, they'd already be in hell.

The church teaches that remarkably few people are so holy that they can attain heaven in one leap or so irreconcilably evil that they wind up straight in hell. The deliberate choice to turn from God and grace and not to look back is rarely made, and in any case it's not for us to judge. So what's left for us is to pray for all who go before us in death, especially those known to us personally.

Our belief in the communion of saints is an acknowledgment that death doesn't break the bonds of our relationship to one another. The holy ones are praying for us, and we are praying for the less-than-holy-ones still working out the details of their journey to total union with God. Because God is love, anything unloving has to be left behind for that union to take place. In the "economy of salvation," the currency we use to assist our friends is prayer.

Praying for the dead means more than only saying prayers for them. It can include offering a Mass for their sake, giving alms in their name, or any good work performed for their intention. And should we do these things for bad people, even really bad ones who may have hurt us? Those folks more than any others need our help! Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to bless those who injure us. Certainly we can bless others in death as well as in life.

Praying for the dead is an ancient practice. The Jewish community was doing it two centuries before Christ, as evidenced in the Second Book of Maccabees. Inscriptions in the catacombs of the first five centuries, not to mention ancient liturgies of the church, testify that early Christians fervently followed this practice. Those who have gone before us need our prayers. And someday we will likely need prayers ourselves.

Scripture
2 Maccabees 12:38-46; Luke 6:27-36, 37-42

Online resource
Father Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I. on "Praying for the Dead"

Book
Praying for the Dead: A Holy and Pious Thought by Michael Miller (Our Sunday Visitor: 1994)

Pamphlet
Praying for the Dead (Catholic Truth Society, 2008)

Dealing with stage fright

Posted by:   🕔 Tuesday 29, September 2009 Categories: 
I have thought about becoming a priest but I cannot stand in front of a large group and speak. What other vocations are there for me?

In the few words you've written, it's clear that God is already beginning to nudge you and call you to a deeper way of relating to and serving God. How to respond and express this sense of call can often be a challenge because there are so many ways of living our vocation.

I encourage you to rethink the possibility that God might be calling you to become a priest. Put aside your fear or inability to speak in front of large groups and focus instead on what you sense God is saying to you and on the kinds of life and ministry that attract you. Trust me, I am not dismissing the "standing-up-in-front-of-large-groups" issue. It's one that I personally struggle with all the time. Even though my ministry is largely online and via writing, it seems I always end up teaching a workshop or leading a retreat. Initially the idea of speaking in front of any group large or small terrified me. But over time I realized that I so loved the stuff I was speaking about and so wanted to help and encourage others that my inability and fear receded to the background (not completely gone, but not stopping me either).

One of my best friends in all of this was and remains the prophet Jeremiah. Read and pray on these words:

"Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.' Then I said, 'Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.' But the Lord said to me, 'Do not say, "I am only a boy"; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.' Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, 'Now I have put my words in your mouth' " (Jeremiah 1:4-9).

No matter how you choose to express your call from God, you will be called (more times than any of us care to admit) to move beyond your comfort zone and become an open vessel for God's work to be done. Remember, as Saint Paul often reminds us, our weakness—our inability, our fear—is an opportunity for the grace of God to fill us and be communicated to others.

Who are the "Doctors of the Church"?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 29, September 2009 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

Most of us know there are Doctors of the Church, and also Church Fathers. But we tend to confuse them. Of course the Doctors didn't practice medicine (although Albert the Great, doctor of science, probably could have) anymore than the Fathers necessarily had children (although celibacy wasn't enforced universally in the period of the Fathers, roughly encompassing the first seven centuries of the church).

Doctors of the Church are always canonized saints. They're also defined by three criteria: eminent learning, a high degree of sanctity, and proclamation by a pope or council. Their naming is not an infallible decision and doesn't presume their writings are totally free from error. No martyrs are on the list, because a Doctor's primary significance is as a confessor of the faith. This is why martyrs like Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Cyprian (shoo-ins otherwise) didn't make the cut.

Presently there are 33 Doctors, although the number held at eight for many centuries. Originally four Doctors were celebrated in the Western church: Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome. Three were revered in the East—John Chrysostom, Basil, and Gregory Nazianzus—with Athanasius added later to balance the account between West and East. These two groupings were often depicted in church art, holding books to illustrate their teaching role.

In the 16th century a Dominican pope made Thomas Aquinas, also a Dominican, a new Doctor. The next pope, a Franciscan, retaliated by giving the title to Bonaventure, a fellow Franciscan. This reopened the category for nominees so that four were added in the 18th century, nine in the 19th, and ten more in the 20th, including three women since 1970: Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

For the record, to date there are five Benedictines; three each of Carmelites, Dominicans, and Franciscans; two Jesuits; and one Redemptorist among the Doctors. The importance of the Doctors' office has not changed in 20 centuries. Each reveals, through his or her unique achievements in apologetics and homiletics, history and education, science and art, music and poetry, catechesis and mysticism, morality and spirituality, another avenue of grace for the whole church.

Scripture
• Concerning the church's teaching office: 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 4:6-16; 6:2b-10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Online resource
The 33 Doctors of the Church

Books
The Doctors of the Church: Thirty-Three Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity by Bernard McGinn (Crossroad, 1999)
• Also see individual Doctors in the Classics of Western Spirituality series by Paulist Press

How were the books of the Bible chosen?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 16, September 2009 Categories: Scripture

Ah, the scent of conspiracy clings to this topic! It's as if once upon a time a file of scrolls marked "Potential Bible Texts" awaited discovery. Then alas! A self-appointed gang of doctrinal purists raided the place, selecting 73 approved texts. The remainder were burned, buried, or banned. From what were they trying to protect us, we wonder?

The reality is less glamorous. The Bible, like most else in the realm of organized religion, was formed by a process we call tradition. Scripturally, tradition includes the original events that inspired someone to tell the story, as well as the oral and written accounts that ensued. Each was told and retold, reworked and edited over generations until it attained its now-familiar form.

For Israelites, split into two monarchies for centuries, some stories were treasured by the northern kingdom and others by the south. Some texts were produced by dispersed Jews in foreign lands and others by those living in Israel. Around the surprisingly late year of 100 A.D. the rabbis got serious about collecting these texts and determining which should be "in" and which "out" of the accepted pool of scripture. Legends of divine intervention surrounding the formation of the Hebrew Bible abound, but chances are the process included some slogging through manuscripts and heated arguments: "Is this text really helpful to all Jews everywhere?"

The New Testament is a product of similar forces. Far-flung Christian communities compiled gospel sayings, and letters from Saint Paul and other leaders were scattered across the known world. When Peter and Paul were martyred in the mid-60s, it became more urgent to get the story of Christianity standardized. Formal gospels were written. Collections of letters were gathered. Changes and additions crept in with frequent copying. Each community doubtless had its favorites. Although new texts were circulated for a few centuries, by the year 367 Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, listed the 27 New Testament books we use today as the authorized canon. Church councils debated the contents of both testaments beyond his lifetime, but Athanasius's New Testament stuck.

In finalizing the New Testament, the criterion was simple: Earlier is better. Eyewitness testimony was favored, and texts clearly written in the second century or beyond were not seriously considered. Some texts that didn't make the cut of canonicity from both Hebrew and Christian writings are still widely available. While certainly interesting, reading them adds credibility to the selection process of tradition.

Scripture
Sirach 44:1-49:16; Hebrews 11:1-12:2; 1 John 1:1-4

Books
The Authority of the Bible: Theories of Inspiration, Revelation, and the Canon of Scripture by Robert Gnuse (Paulist Press, 1985)
The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance by Bruce M. Metzger (Oxford University Press, 1987)
Introduction to the Bible: A Catholic Guide to Studying Scripture by Stephen J. Binz (Liturgical Press, 2007)

What's the difference between saying "set" prayers and prayers in my own words?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 31, August 2009 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality

"Pray unceasingly," Saint Paul urges his fledging communities throughout his letters. But Paul never spells out precisely how to do that. He does recommend prayers of petition (asking for what we need) and thanksgiving (giving credit where credit is due). He also models, at the start and finish of every letter, his own prayers of praise and blessing. In addition Paul often quotes hymns he either wrote himself or were circulating around the early church. He advocates that "psalms, hymns, and inspired songs" be sung regularly in a spirit of gratitude.

What we can gather from this varied advice is that both spontaneous and traditional prayers played a part in the lives of early church members. If we go back even further to the time of Jesus, we can see evidence of the same. Jesus often crept off by himself to pray in deserted places or on hilltops. But he also attended more formal synagogue services and even went up to the Temple for major feasts. The prayers of Jesus recorded in the Garden of Olives at the end of his life were quite personal and spontaneous--to say nothing about passionate.

But when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, Jesus provided for their voiced need with a simple formula of prayer we know as the Our Father or the Lord's Prayer. It begins with praise ("hallowed be thy name"), invokes hope ("thy kingdom come"), and invites a series of petitions from the specific ("give us this day our daily bread") to the far-ranging ("deliver us from evil"). The prayer Jesus teaches also acknowledges personal responsibility for the relationship with God we are crafting by our every decision ("forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us").

Traditional Jewish prayer, particularly in the Book of Psalms, is rooted in the formulas Jesus and Paul espouse. There's room for prayers of asking and thanking, praising and hoping. There's even a prayer-style known as the lament, which is sort of like whining with a faithful conclusion.

What all this suggests is that if you have something to say to God, by all means say it. If you don't know how to begin, our tradition can supply many wonderful starting points for the conversation. But the most important thing, of course, is to engage that conversation-unceasingly!

Scripture
Matthew 6:5-13; Luke 11:1-13; Ephesians 6:18-20; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 3:16; 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; see also the Book of Psalms

Online resources

Articles from VISION magazine on prayer: "Five steps to better prayer" by Sister Melannie Svoboda, S.N.D. "Point and click to pray" by Carol Schuck Scheiber. Online prayer resource: Prayer Support from the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province

Books
Beginning to Pray
by Archbishop Anthony Bloom (Paulist Press, 1988). Also available as an audiobook from St. Anthony Messenger Press.
Prayer by Joyce Rupp (Orbis Books, 2007)
Prayers from Around the World and Across the Ages by Victor M. Parachin (ACTA, 2004)

Paying for seminary

Posted by:   🕔 Wednesday 26, August 2009 Categories: 

I’m thinking about becoming a priest, but my family and I do not have the financial resources to pay for my seminary education. What should I do?

First I want to let you know that you are already beginning to respond to God's call just by the fact of considering the priesthood and a life of caring and service to God's people.

Money is an issue that needs to be addressed when considering joining the priesthood or another form of consecrated life, as it is in other areas of life. Formation and academic studies for the priesthood cost money and can't be completely absorbed by a diocese or parish community. Likewise, families and individuals can't always afford the total cost either.

Fortunately there are many benefactors who donate directly to seminaries or make funds available through scholarships or grants. Two Catholic organizations that have generously supported vocations are the Knights of Columbus (contact your local council) and the Laboure Society (www.labourefoundation.org).

And consider some fundraising of your own:
•­ Take a paying job and save the income for your studies
• Network with priests in your diocese and ask for their assistance
• Seek help from your parish (e.g., fundraising events, donations)
• Publish a request for support within your online social networks

And perhaps most importantly, trust in the Holy Spirit who is not only working within you to respond to God's call but within others, too, who have the ability to help you. Providence provides, as my I.H.M. sisters say. Blessings to you, and be sure to discuss your concerns with a vocation director when you are ready.

If I join a religious community do I have to change my name and cut my hair?

Posted by:   🕔 Tuesday 25, August 2009 Categories: 
I am writing a work of fiction in which there is a character who wants to be a nun. Do nuns have to cut their hair and change their names?

Such a simple question, yet one that can be answered in so many ways! The answer depends on when your fictional nun lived. Her time in history is very important because the customs of Catholic nuns and sisters have changed. It also depends on the kind of community to which she belongs because each community has its own particular customs.

Regarding a nun’s hair, if your character lived prior to the 1960s chances are good that she wore a habit and veil and was required to have her hair cut. The reasons are two-fold: 1. It’s easier to wear a veil with short hair, and 2. The cutting of one’s hair symbolized the sister’s giving everything—even her hair which enhanced her uniqueness and femininity—to God. If she lived after the 1960s, which was the time of many changes in the Catholic Church, she may or may not have had to cut her hair.

As the church changed and opened up more to embracing and serving in the world, opportunities for Catholic sisters and nuns shifted to a focus on gospel living and ministry. Some veils got shorter and others were retired, which simultaneously meant allowing one’s hair to show. Many sisters were no longer required to shave or cut their hair. Their hairstyle was left to their own discretion. Of the communities that kept a veil, some still kept the hair-cutting custom while others adapted it.

In regard to a sister’s name, again, the 1960s is an important marker. Prior to this time your character most likely was given a religious name symbolizing her new life commitment. The name may have been in honor of Mary or a saint or some combination thereof, e.g., Sister Mary Benedicta. After the 1960s sisters in many communities, in the spirit of the changes occurring within the church, decided to use their own baptismal name (usually the name they ordinarily went by) as their religious name because baptism was the ultimate sign of new life in Christ.

Blessings on your writing project and may Saint Teresa of Avila, herself a writer and a nun, be with you as you create your nun-character!

What do Catholics have to believe?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 12, August 2009 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

This question addresses two things—teaching and belief—so I want to respond to both. Let's start with belief. Not much has changed in the realm of Christian faith since the time of the apostles, so the Apostles’ Creed is still the best summary of what Roman Catholics and many other Christians declare to be true. In a few lines, it affirms a surprising number of heavyweight doctrines:

—That God is revealed as Trinity
—That Jesus Christ has two natures, human and divine
—The Virgin Birth
—The Paschal Mystery: Jesus suffered, died, and rose again
—The Ascension of Jesus
—Heavenly realities, including final judgment, the communion of saints, and eternal life
—That the church participates in the holiness of God
—The central teaching of the forgiveness of sins

The Nicene Creed, which we profess at Mass, employs the blueprint of the Apostles’ Creed and seeks only to clarify its tenets. It was written at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and revised in 381at the Council of Constantinople. Both "editions" sought to address specific misinterpretations of church doctrine. The most familiar contribution of the Nicene Creed is the four marks of the church: "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic."

At Baptism each new Catholic is asked to affirm the doctrines contained in the Creed (in the case of infants, through their godparents). These are the same beliefs we confirm at every Eucharist.

The elements contained in the Creed are matters of faith. By comparison, the rest of church teaching is a matter of morals. I don't want to suggest that moral teaching is less binding than doctrine. As the Letter of James reminds us, faith and works are intimately woven concerns. What we believe influences the choices we make, and our actions likewise betray our convictions. The ongoing teaching authority of the church (or magisterium) is important because moral discernment is common to every generation and yet constantly evolving in each one. While basic doctrines don't change, their application in new moral situations must continue to be contemplated.

Scripture
John 11:25-27; Hebrews 11:1; James 2:14-18; 1 John 1:1-4

Website
The Theology Library, from the department of theology of Spring Hill College, the Jesuit College of the South: a large collection of documents relating to church, revelation, liturgy, justice, theology, morality, spirituality, evangelization, and religion.

Books
The Church We Believe In: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic by Francis A. Sullivan (Paulist Press, 1988)
Making Disciples: A Handbook of Christian Moral Formation by Timothy O'Connell (Crossroad, 1998)

Who were the prophets? Does God still call people to prophecy?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 03, August 2009 Categories: Scripture

This question betrays an assumption I wouldn't be hasty to make: that God doesn't call people to prophecy now. Certainly classical biblical prophecy has a closed membership. It's tempting to say prophets ended when the Bible did, but that implies they were fixtures of the biblical period, which they weren't. Prophets occupied a narrow niche of Bible history from the 9th to the 4th centuries B.C. No distinct office for prophecy existed earlier, when patriarchs and elders led their tribal communities. Prophets appeared when Israel's priesthood and monarchy were up and running to balance (and apply brakes to) those institutions when necessary. Prophets so often contradicted those in power that they seem like professional protesters camped outside the gates of government and organized religion.

This stance may have led to the demise of their role after both kingdom and Temple collapsed during the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. After Israel returned home, the office of the prophets was never quite the same because the institutions they addressed weren't either. The monarchy of Israel never recovered—unless you count the Herodian kings, which most Jews didn't. The priesthood got back on its feet for a few centuries before the second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., which ended it. In those waning centuries minor prophets plied their trade of speaking for God, but they gave way to another group of truth-seekers known as sages, who produced the Wisdom tradition (including the biblical books of Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon, among others). The role of the sages eventually morphed into the Sanhedrin. The voice of challenge ceased to be heard.

Yet the New Testament holds traces of that voice: in John the Baptist, who looks and sounds like Elijah; in Anna, who inhabits the Temple and is an early evangelist of the child messiah; and in the casual mention of Philip's prophetic daughters in the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, traces of prophetic speech and action have surfaced in every generation since that time, though the title has been retired. The ancient prophets were men and women who believed they spoke for God. Do we imagine that God has nothing further to say to us?

Scripture
Ezekiel 3:17-21; Matthew 23:29-34; Mark 13:9-13; Luke 13:33-34; 21:12-19

Books
The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann (Fortress Press, 2001)
Four Modern Prophets by William M. Ramsay (John Knox Press, 1986)

What is the lectionary?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 15, July 2009 Categories: Liturgy,Scripture

If you attend Mass regularly you'll notice certain books hold prominence of place in the gathering. These over-large and often decorated volumes contain Bible passages appointed for public reading by trained readers (lectors) and are called lectionaries.

Each lectionary organizes readings according to the feasts and seasons of the church year. In this way we hear about the birth of Jesus at Christmas, the Passion during Holy Week, the ministry of Jesus during other times of the year, and so on. The Sunday lectionary contains three years' worth of readings:

—Cycle A follows Matthew's gospel with Old Testament passages chosen to parallel its themes.

—Cycle B is organized around Mark's gospel—although Mark is so short that John's gospel supplements the year.

—Cycle C coordinates Luke's gospel with Old Testament readings.

(The Gospel of John isn't slighted; it's used in all three years for special feasts when thematically appropriate.)

In between the Old Testament and gospel readings on Sundays, an additional New Testament passage is selected from a letter of Saint Paul or another apostle and read continuously across the Sundays until it's finished. During the Easter season the Old Testament reading is replaced by a passage from the Acts of the Apostles or the Book of Revelation.

There's also a daily lectionary that runs in a two-year cycle (Years I and II) pairing gospel passages with continuous readings from Old or New Testament books. Saints' days have their own appropriately chosen optional readings, and an additional lectionary has passages suitable for baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other occasions.

Why do we have lectionaries? For one thing, they provide breadth. Catholics can hear a fairly broad amount of scripture in a few years' time. Not every Bible verse is covered by the lectionary, but a surprisingly comprehensive reading can be achieved by the daily Mass-goer.

Another practical reason for lectionaries is that they save time: The preacher doesn't have to scramble looking for passages on forgiveness for every Rite of Reconciliation, for example. Finally, it keeps preachers honest: They can't default to their favorite themes but must treat scripture in its fullness.

Lectionaries have existed in one form or another since Christianity's Jewish roots in the synagogue. These tools have proven the test of time.

Scripture
Nehemiah 8:1-12; Psalm 119; Luke 4:16-21; Hebrews 4:12; James 1:19-21

Website
The New American Bible organized by daily lectionary readings

Books
Journeying with Mark (also available for Matthew and Luke) by Jennifer Christ (Paulist Press, 2005)
God's Word Is Alive: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2007)

Why do Catholics bless themselves, genuflect, and so on?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 15, June 2009 Categories: Liturgy

Many rituals that your parents may have performed or your parochial schoolteachers insisted on when you walked into sacred space fall under the heading of personal pieties. Enter any city church and you’re likely to see a host of ethnically rooted expressions of faith: people kissing statues, moving up the aisles on their knees, leaving rosaries around the necks of madonnas or handwritten prayers rubber-banded to the hands of Jesus. Dollar bills origami-ed into the shape of hearts are becoming popular in the candle offering box, too.

While these practices are meaningful to their practitioners, they are not "officially" Catholic gestures. Blessing yourself—that is, making the Sign of the Cross “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—is, however, a formal ritual gesture of the church. It marks you as a Christian, and it is the way both public Catholic prayer begins as it is for the most personal expression of thanks before and after meals. It also reminds Christians of their belief in three “persons” in one God.

The full Sign of the Cross includes touching the forehead, heart, and both shoulders, signifying acceptance of the demands of discipleship over our thoughts, desires, and deeds. A smaller version, performed before the proclamation of the gospel at Mass, involves making a thumb sketch of the cross on the forehead, lips, and heart while praying silently, “May the Lord be on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart, that I may be worthy to proclaim the gospel.” At the start of Lent, it’s also customary to bear the Sign of the Cross in ashes on the forehead.

Genuflection, or touching down one knee accompanied by the Sign of the Cross, is a particular gesture made only in a Catholic church or other place designated for worship. It’s a sign of reverence toward the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Sometimes the reverence is directed toward the table of the Lord (the altar) if Mass is to be celebrated. Otherwise, genuflection is to be directed toward the tabernacle, where the real presence remains in the consecrated hosts. For those who cannot genuflect, a simple bow is sufficient. These movements are not magical but reminders that we are incarnate beings who believe in a God who chose to become a Word made flesh.

Scripture
Matthew 28:19; Romans 6:12-14; 12:1; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Website
Questions and answers about Catholic “sacramentals”—the Sign of the Cross, medals, and others

Books
Why Do Catholics Do That? by Kevin Orlin Johnson (Ballantine Books, 1994)
Catholic Etiquette: What You Need to Know About Catholic Rites and Wrongs by Kay Lynn Isca (Our Sunday Visitor, 1997)
Now That You Are a Catholic: An Informal Guide to Catholic Customs, Traditions, and Practices by John J. Kenny, C.S.P. (Paulist Press, 2003)

How did we get from following “the Way” of Jesus to the church?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 15, June 2009 Categories: 

The scholar E. P. Sanders has the most quotable quote on this matter in his book Jesus and Judaism: “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God, but it was the church that arrived.” To some folks’ reckoning, that’s a bit of a letdown. Although kingdom coming is a realm where every tear is wiped away, the concrete manifestation of the church at any point in history might just as often give you reason to cry. We’re reminded that the church is made up of people who maintain the freedom to behave as saints or sinners—not perfected souls saved and freeze-dried on the spot.

So when we say that Jesus established the church, we don’t mean Jesus laid down the blueprint for Vatican City. Some of us were taught that Jesus instituted the sacraments—complete with gospel references where each ritual was literally installed. It’s more accurate to say that the church, which practiced as many as 22 sacraments and as few as three at various moments in its history, finds theological grounding for its present seven sacraments in the ministry of Jesus.Trying to draw straight lines from Jesus to contemporary church practice sometimes makes us crooked. Few of our present practices fell from heaven as is.

My theology professors used to point out that Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. But he never told them how to do that organizationally, much less across 20 centuries and counting. Institutions develop as the best vehicles for stability and continuity for something that is meant to last. Leaders must be found, formed, and empowered. Teachings must be agreed upon for universal availability. Practices must be set, membership identified, rules defined. Institutions are great for holding things and people together.

Institutions do have their downside: They tend toward inflexibility and self-preservation and are notoriously resistant to change. Which is why the original “people of the Way” identified in the Acts of the Apostles sometimes have to get out of the way to let the Spirit blow on through.

Scripture
Matthew 10:1-10; 16:13-19; 28:16-20
John 13:1-17, 31-35; 15:1-17; 17:1-26; 21:15-17

Website
The Second Vatican Council’s document on the church (Lumen Gentium)

Books
A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins (Eerdmans, 2006)

What do we mean by the church’s “magisterium”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 28, May 2009 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

When it comes to authority structures, many of us find that we have a monkey on our backs. In a society that exalts freedom and individualism, thinking universally and acting obediently to a higher power just doesn’t sound very American.

Yet for Roman Catholics the unity of the church is one of its greatest possessions. We don’t go it alone as Rambo-style disciples. We are church, all of us together. The great unity prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper reveals his concern that the church remains “one” in spirit and truth.

The institution of the church has many names and plays many roles in the lives of believers. The church is a mother, giving birth to faith through its preaching mission. The church is a servant, continuing the ministry of healing and the restoration of hope that Jesus practiced. And the church is a teacher, bringing the light of truth to every generation in matters of faith and morals.

Because the church’s precious unity depends on our profession of a common creed and a common understanding of the faith, Catholics rely on teachers to protect the coherence and integrity of the gospel message. Each bishop exercises the teaching authority in his diocese. He doesn’t act independently but in concert with the bishops of his nation or region, as our bishops do with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

In turn, each bishops' conference exercises its teaching role in keeping with the magisterium (teaching office) of the episcopal college—all bishops together throughout the world who meet in periodic synods to discuss contemporary concerns. The pope is the head of the episcopal college and can exercise the supreme teaching authority of the whole college.

In these ways the magisterium ensures that careful theological reflection, and not only reaction, remains at the root of the church’s message.

Scripture
John 17:20-26; Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Timothy 2:2

Books
Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium by Francis A. Sullivan (Paulist Press, 1996)
Turning Points: Unlocking the Treasures of the Church by James Philipps (Twenty-Third Publications, 2006)
Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith by Cardinal Avery Dulles (Sapientia Press, 2007)

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Is there salvation outside the Catholic Church?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 12, May 2009 Categories: 

Let’s start with a big word: soteriology, or the meaning of God’s saving actions. What are we saved from, and what are we saved for? When most Christians say they’re saved, often they mean “safe from the possibility of going to hell.” For Catholics the usual formula for salvation gets boiled down to this: The danger of hell comes from original sin. Original sin is washed away by baptism. Baptism is a sacrament in Christianity. The Catholic Church contains the only full expression of Christianity. The bottom line: There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.

I don’t question the statements in that chain of logic. But additional links in the chain allow room at the conclusion for the equally Catholic mystery of divine grace. For one, salvation is God’s work, not a human enterprise. You and I are in no position to save anyone, and we don’t want to presume to tie God’s hands either. Although we might say where salvation is readily available, it would be arrogant to say God can choose no other channels of operation. Being divine, God is utterly free.

God’s freedom is a huge consideration. Another is the idea that hell is all we need saving from. What about absurdity, which arises from the reality of death? The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus imbue mortal life with purpose and destiny that rescues us from despair. And what about the baptism available through other Christian traditions? The Roman church admits baptism as a valid sacrament when it uses the formula of the Trinity (“In the name of the Father . . . .”).

Finally, church teaching maintains that everyone is “called by God’s grace to salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 836) and that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, no. 16).

Scripture
Isaiah 45:22; 49:6; 52:10; Luke 3:6; 9:24; 1 Timothy 2:3-4

Books
“Salvation” in The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. (Liturgical Press, 1996)

What do people in religious life do for fun?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 02, March 2009 Categories: 

Pope John Paul II was famous for making silly faces at photographers. These pictures were a radical departure from the papal portraits in history books. That was the point: to humanize the papacy—and the church—wearing a grin and Bono’s shades.

If you’d asked our late ski- and movie-enthusiast pope what he did for fun, he’d have likely countered: What do you do? Most of us are limited only by our abilities, resources, and imagination concerning what we do at playtime. I know some priests who keep bees. They sell “Holy Family Honey: Where the Glory Bees Are Sweeter.” Another priest works on a pit crew at the local racetrack on Saturdays. A Paulist pastor has a shoebox under his bed full of short stories he’s been writing, and not a few screenplays. A Sister of Mercy loves to garden and gets up early for bird-watching.

Priests and religious sisters of my acquaintance cook (some are gourmets), travel, draw, sculpt, build furniture, read thriller novels, and gather friends for dinner parties. They play soccer, basketball, racquetball, and beach volleyball. (Warning: They play for keeps, so be careful.) They go fishing. They take night classes in subjects that intrigue them. They crochet (not all of these are women) and hang glide (not all of these are men).

What it comes down to is that folks in religious life are basically folks. When you meet a group of sweaty women packing out of the Grand Canyon, you may not know they’re Dominican sisters because they don’t wear habits when they go camping. That guy who just slid out from under a truck in the driveway doesn’t look like a priest, but he’ll get most of the grease out from under his nails before Mass.

Sure, a lot of people in religious life take their vacations in the Holy Land, or on pilgrimages to Rome, Lourdes, and Fatima. Some collect holy cards as a hobby (I collect holy cards too, and I’m a laywoman). Some only read books by Thomas Merton and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. But others are just wild about Sherlock Holmes.

Scripture
Need for Sabbath: Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 23:12; 34:21; Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:27

Websites
Priests and Nuns Having Fun Flickr pool site

Books
Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die by Nun Other Than Sister Karol Jackowski (Hyperion Press)
Diamond Presence: Twelve Stories of Finding God at the Old Ball Park, edited by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce (ACTA Publications)
Movies That Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith by Richard Leonard, S.J. (Loyola Press)
Good Cooking Habits: Food for Your Body, Your Soul, and Your Funnybone by Nun Other Than Sister Karol Jackowski (Forest of Peace Press)

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Why is celibacy important to religious life?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 16, February 2009 Categories: 

Celibacy was a radical idea from the moment it first appeared in our religious tradition. The setting was the 6th-century B.C. The prophet Jeremiah and his community were facing the devastating exile to Babylon, which included the loss of home, city, king, and Temple. In the midst of total upheaval, God asked Jeremiah not to marry or have children. That was a prophetic sign that the world as Israel knew it had no future. In a culture that valued the posterity of heirs so highly, Jeremiah’s celibacy was an outrageous choice.

The radical sign of celibacy, what the church calls the memento mori in Latin (“the reminder of death”) remains central to the practice of celibacy in ministry today. The affairs of this world are passing, while the realities of the reign of God are everlasting. The celibate lifestyle is a walking testimony to this belief. Jesus taught that when he told the disciples, “Some . . . have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matthew 19:12). The church points to the example of both Jesus and his Virgin Mother as eloquent witnesses to the single-minded dedication to God’s reign that is possible without other primary commitments.

Saint Paul also extolled celibacy (his own life is Exhibit A in his argument) but did not mandate it.. Paul believed that, all things being equal, the virgin and the celibate were free from preoccupation with family matters and can therefore be more attentive to the Lord, especially because he thought the end of the world was near. Theologians rush to add that all things are frequently not equal: a married person may certainly be more attentive to God than a given celibate.

What is clear from these discussions is that the point of celibacy is not refraining from sexual activity (the typical secular assumption) but simplifying and clarifying one’s life for single-hearted service. Celibacy remains a radical incarnation of Christian freedom to move as God wills.

Scripture
Jeremiah 16:1-2; Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:1-40

Web article
“Celibacy for the Kingdom & the Fulfillment of Human Sexuality” by Christopher West

Books
“Celibacy” in The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. (Liturgical Press)
Celibacy, Ministry, Church by Joseph Blenkinsopp (Herder and Herder)

Vocation: For all of life, or only "religious life"?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 02, February 2009 Categories: Vocation and Discernment

Vocation is one of those words that tends to cue the spooky music. What does it mean that God “calls” us? When the religious imagination runs wild on this topic, we begin to think: You can run but you can’t hide when God drafts you for a particular service. Look at what happened to Jonah, who tried to outrun God and wound up in the belly of a whale!

A website visitor’s question continues: “Does God plan our professional life, whom we marry, and who will come to be our children?” This line of thinking gets us to the crux of the matter, which is: How free is our freedom? Is free will a polite fiction, when God has our destiny all worked out in advance? The short answers are: Our freedom is real, human history has no blueprint, and God is prepared to greet any choice we might make with a constellation of grace and possibility. So feel—really and seriously—free.

Like any divine gift, our freedom comes complete with responsibility. It does, after all, make a difference which choices we make. Choose the way of destruction, and you’re in for a world of hurt. Choose the way of planting and building, and the future blossoms into fuller and greater life. What we reap, we sow. That isn’t God rewarding us or getting even with us, as the case may be. It’s just the natural consequences of our free decision.

Yet we say God calls us. To what, if not to particular things? God calls us to fullness of life. God wants you to be everything you can be, to the height and breadth and depth of your being. God wants you to be fully alive, which means loving, giving, expressing, and radiant—just as God is. We’re made in the image and likeness of God, right? So answer that call, and you have stepped into your vocation for sure.

Scripture
Book of Jonah; then compare to: Genesis 1:26-31; 12:1-3; Deuteronomy 30:19-20; 1 Samuel 3:1-10; Ruth 1:16-17; Isaiah 6:8; Mark 1:16-20; Romans 5-7; 1 Corinthians 1-3

Books
Running into the Arms of God: Stories of Prayers, Prayer as Story by Patrick Hannon (ACTA Publications)
Finding God in Each Moment: The Practice of Discernment in Everyday Life by Carol Ann Smith, S.H.C.J. and Eugene F. Merz, S.J. (Ave Maria Press)

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What is contemplation?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 19, January 2009 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality

I lived in a lay community many years ago in which we prayed the Liturgy of the Hours three times daily. We also spent a half hour each morning in communal contemplation. I have to admit, back then I didn't know what to do with that half hour. Sixty of us sat in silence together in the chapel and not a few of us fell asleep. In the first weeks of those long mornings, I wrote in my journal to pass the time. After almost a year of being enveloped in that silence, however, I finally let go and did "nothing." It was a powerful experience.

The formation director of our community, a Sacred Heart brother, called contemplation "wasting time with God." For those who are goal-oriented, spending 30 minutes not producing any tangible result can be maddening. At least with a rosary you get some mileage on those beads behind you! But contemplation is about turning the focus away from you and what you can do for God. It's more about what God can do for you, which requires nothing but your attention and your will.

In Richard McBrien's Encyclopedia of Catholicism, contemplation is defined as "prayer in which reasoning and structure give way to a focus on God's presence." It's generally contrasted with meditation, which actively engages the mind to dwell on a particular passage from scripture; an icon or image; or perhaps a virtue or attribute of God. Contemplation seeks to empty the self and self-consciousness in favor of God-consciousness. 

Writers on this subject caution us to remember that contemplation is not a prayer style; it is meant to be a lifestyle. It's a way of being, not only a way of praying. When we learn how to empty the self so that we can be in the presence of God and be filled with that presence, we aren't meant to dissolve that union and "go back to real life" afterwards. Contemplation is, in this sense, playing for keeps. Those who surrender to the contemplative life appreciate this best of all. 

Scripture
Psalm 131; Job 28:20, 23-28; Sirach 1:1; Isaiah 30:15; Baruch 3:14-15; Hosea 6:6; John 6:44-45; James 1:5-8

Website
Contemplative Outreach, www.centeringprayer.com/.

Books
An Invitation to the Contemplative Life
by Thomas Merton (Word Among Us Press)
New Seeds of Contemplation
by Thomas Merton (New Directions)
The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation by Thomas Keating (Paulist Press)

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Is my vocation from God or just my imagination?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 05, January 2009 Categories: Vocation and Discernment

I have to begin by quoting Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw's wonderful play about her trial. When Joan's interrogators doubt that the voices she hears are from God and suggest that they spring from her imagination, Joan replies as if her accusers are hopelessly ignorant: "I know. That is how God speaks to me."

We tend to belittle the imagination as the realm of children. We forget that Jesus had a high opinion of children, favored their company, and thought we should be more like them: "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." Many saints agreed with Joan's assessment that imagination plays an important role in the spiritual life. Teresa of Avila, no slouch about spiritual matters, employed religious imagination deliberately and recommended it over theological reflection: "I continued to picture Christ within me. . . . I did very simple things of this kind. . . . I believe my soul gained very much in this way, because I began to practice prayer without knowing what it was."

It's safe to say that the call to religious life most probably begins in the imagination, and in no sense does that imply it's to be ignored. But obviously if any vocation remains in the daydream stage—whether it's about becoming a bookseller or a Benedictine—it won't progress far. I would advocate three tools in the early discernment stage: regular prayer, reading, and retreat. How you pray best is up to you, but make it a habit. Daily mass attendance, praying the rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, meditation on the Bible, or using a daily prayer guide from your local Catholic bookstore may help.

Reading is next. Read about topics like chastity and celibacy but also about the specific aspects of vocation that interests you: contemplation, ordination, communal life, or a particular form of service. When you're ready, schedule a retreat and ask for a spiritual director. And remember Joan of Arc's prayer about being in God's grace: "If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me."

Scripture
Matt. 18:1-5; Mark 9:36-37; Luke 9:46-48; Ephesians 4:11-16; Philippians 3:12-15; Colossians 1:9-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12

Books
Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints by James Martin, S.J. (HiddenSpring)
Finding God in Each Moment: The Practice of Discernment in Everyday Life by Carol Ann Smith, S.H.C.J. and Eugene Merz, S.J. (Ave Maria Press)

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