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How did the veneration of relics get started?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 29, November 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Prayer and Spirituality
Mother Teresa relic
A relic of Saint Teresa of Calcuttaa drop of her bloodat St. Ita Catholic Church in Chicago.

A relic is an object kept in tribute to a holy person. Some relics are body parts such as bone chips or teeth. Others are items once belonging to the person, most often snips of clothing. Catholics aren’t alone in collecting relics. Other religions like Buddhism employ them. People of faith backgrounds that permit it keep cremains of loved ones in an urn on the mantle (See here for Vatican instruction on Catholic burial, cremation). I have a shirt that belonged to my dad, which I still wear. Relics are a traditional way of keeping in touch with someone special.

Catholic relics are as old as the church. Martyrdom was a frequent if not typical cause of Christian death. The faithful collected the martyrs’ remains, often in pieces, for secret burial in places like catacombs. When available, the instrument of death was spirited off as well. Think: relics from the True Cross. Christians gathered at martyrs’ tombs to celebrate Eucharist. When the persecutions finally ceased, churches were erected on the gravesites. Christians considered burial near a martyr a privilege. A tug-of-war over these bodies became typical; some were exhumed and re-interred on the properties of those who could afford it. In the Middle Ages, Crusaders pilfered lots of relics and carried them to Europe.

Relics were catechetically useful. They spurred interest in the saint whose virtues might be imitated. In 410, a council in Carthage ruled that saints’ shrines had to contain authentic relics or be destroyed. In 767, a Nicaean council determined that every altar must contain a relic or Mass could not be celebrated on it. This decree echoes the original practice of celebrating Mass on the graves of martyrs and is upheld in current canon law (no.1237). Exceptions are made today for portable altars such as those used in wartime.

Selling relics has always been forbidden. Church law says significant relics can’t even be moved around without express permission from the Vatican (no. 1190).

Attributing magical powers to such items is considered an abuse, but the tendency to be superstitious about holy objects is not unknown in the modern church. From the Holy Grail to the Shroud of Turin, the curious and the credulous will always find a less than edifying fascination with such objects. Church teaching draws a distinction between proper and improper veneration. Worship belongs to God alone. Even if a saint should appear suddenly in an apparition, human honor is the limit of our tribute.

Scripture: The Bible regards holiness as a divine attribute communicable to people, places, and things (e.g. Moses’ shining face, the Ark and its sacred utensils, the Temple’s Holy of Holies.) The topic of relics, specifically, is not treated. But see 2 Kings 13:20-21; Mark 5:25-34; Acts 5:12-15

Books: Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics – Thomas Craughwell (New York: Image Books, 2011)

Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe – Charles Freeman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)

Why do we worship in buildings instead of in God’s beautiful creation?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 29, November 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Church building
The word temple means "to be cut from": to be separate from ordinary use and reserved for sacred encounter.

The fixed sanctuary of meeting between God and mortals is an old concept. Your instinct is correct that creation seems perfect for the job. Sacred space is meant to display the cosmos in miniature: a unified center where heaven, earth, and the underworld intersect. Just as mountains reach into the heavens, and roots push deep into the soil, the holy place conjoins the three anciently acknowledged realms. The achievement of this unity is evident in the designs of temples, cathedrals, pyramids, ziggurats, pagodas, monoliths, and even the towering sacred trees venerated in northern lands.

As in many religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition regards this design as divinely supplied. So Moses gets the blueprint for a sanctuary from God at Sinai, as does King Solomon for the Jerusalem temple. Ezekiel receives a revitalized one in a vision after the first temple is destroyed. John at Patmos envisions the Lamb as an incarnate temple in the reign of God at the end of time. In these episodes (which have parallels across ancient cultures), the leader or seer is given precise measurements for the job, including careful attention to the worship space’s orientation toward nature’s four directions and often including a source of living water. Other traditions incorporate architectural elements to interact with the sun and moon, and the seasonal calendar. The design of sacred space always acknowledges the superiority of God’s world design and is not intended to replace it, but rather to celebrate it.

Attention is likewise paid to the meaning of creation, and not just its patterns. The story of creation—again, in our biblical tradition and in other world religions—is a triumph of divine order over primordial chaos. Sacred geometry is therefore strictly observed in these designs, which explains the astonishing exactness of many structures from antiquity, as well as the patience of builders who begin a cathedral which none of them will see completed.

The word temple means "to be cut from": to be separate from ordinary use and reserved for sacred encounter. Our word contemplate reflects the understanding that contemplation is an activity enhanced by the temple, and also that the temple’s mysteries ideally reside inside the worshipper as well as around him or her. Jesus epitomized this understanding when he identified his own body with the Jerusalem temple. Paul repeated this teaching when he called each believer a temple. The more we consider sacred space, the more it can teach us.

Scripture: Genesis 28:10-22; Exodus 25-31; 1 Kings 5:15-7:51; Isaiah 28:16; Ezekiel 40-47:12; Matthew 16:18; John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Revelation 21:22-22:5

Books: The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth – John Lundquist (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012)

How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals – Richard Taylor (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press/HiddenSpring, 2005)

What are Catholics to believe about the Antichrist?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 21, October 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Fires of hell
Technically Antichrist is not a proper name, but rather the description of any power in the universe opposing God’s anointed (hence, anti-Christ).

Antichrist is a term found only in the first two Letters of John in the New Testament. Technically it’s not a proper name, but rather the description of any power in the universe opposing God’s anointed (hence, anti-Christ).

The Book of Daniel contains earlier biblical references to an apocalyptic monster known as the fourth beast. This terrifying creature appears in direct opposition to “one like a son of man”—a human being who is God’s special champion. The Book of Revelation later retrieves the son-of-man figure and identifies him with Christ. This pits Christ against the beast of Revelation associated with the number 666. This beast is clearly anti-Christ, though the term isn’t employed in either context.

Other references both in and out of the New Testament are corralled into the Antichrist category: Belial or Beliar, Gog and Magog, the ruler of this world, the lawless one, the deceiver. Some would include Old Testament anti-God figures such as Rahab the dragon, Leviathan the sea monster, or the Satan who plays adversary in God’s court. All are allusions to figures sufficiently arrogant to challenge the purposes of God. The Antichrist litmus test in John’s letters is unwillingness to pledge belief in God and Christ “in the flesh.” This test is directed at Gnostics, who viewed Jesus as a sort of divine mirage, not a human being. To John, anyone in the Gnostic camp is anti-Christ.

Paul warns against a “man of lawlessness” who would claim to be divine. Christians throughout history have deemed this figure THE Antichrist and have pointed him out in their own generations: Nero, Caligula, Arius and his followers. Martin Luther viewed the papacy as a likely candidate for the Antichrist. He wasn’t the first: as early as the 13th century, Catholics themselves wondered if popes such as John XII didn’t fit the bill.        

The notion of Antichrist became useful to medieval preachers, who rightly declared every sinner contains a spirit that counters Christ. Literature of the period drummed up backstory for the Antichrist: born of a human couple by demonic power, his biography is a mirror-image mockery of the story of Jesus complete with counterfeit miracles. Movies like “The Omen” play on this idea that a child will arrive at the end of time and inaugurate the full horrors of Revelation. Most Catholic scholars would say there’s no need to wait. A spirit in contradiction to Christ inhabits every generation. 

Scriptures: Isaiah 51:9; Pss 74:13-14; 89:11; Job 1:6-12; 26:12; Daniel 7; 8:23-25; 9:27; Mark 13:22; Matthew 24:24; John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 6:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10; 1 John 2:18-23; 4:3; 2 John 7-11; Revelation 13:1-18; 20:8

Books: Who Is Satan? According to the Scriptures – Joseph F. Kelly (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013)

Sacra Pagina; 1, 2, and 3 John – John Painter (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

How can I understand and explain the Catholic position on contraception?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 21, October 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Affectionate couple
In 1965, the unitive value of intercourse was embraced along with its procreative meaning in Catholic teaching. The right and duty of couples to responsibly limit the size of their families was accepted; a distinction was drawn between natural and artificial means of doing so.

Start with two basic teaching tools: That life is a sacred gift from God. And that the family is the primary social unit and what happens within it is of great social consequence. Hang onto these ideas as you reflect on the history below, which demonstrates the evolution of these principles in regard to contraception.

Until the 20th century, the church viewed procreation as the sole meaning of sexual activity. Sex designed to prevent a life, therefore, was an obvious contradiction of its meaning. Ethicist James Hanigan identifies six developments that made this perspective less obvious to many. First, 18th-century biology studied the human reproductive system well enough to prevent pregnancies artificially. Next, sociology pointed to a population explosion in a world with limited resources. Third, political valuing of the dignity of the person as a free chooser rose in the social consciousness. Fourth, as family farms gave way to factories, economic burdens increased with the number of children. Fifth, the contemporary recognition of women as full persons led to aspirations beyond traditional roles. Finally, a reappraisal of the significance of sexuality in human identity led to an acceptance of the unitive meaning of sexual activity.

Modern popes have shown a desire to acknowledge these factors while not abandoning fundamental teachings about life and family. In 1965, the unitive value of intercourse was embraced along with its procreative meaning in Catholic teaching. The right and duty of couples to responsibly limit the size of their families was accepted; a distinction was drawn between natural and artificial means of doing so. Pope Francis reiterated this teaching in 2015, noting Catholics weren’t compelled “to breed like rabbits.” Exceptions regarding the use of artificial contraception have been introduced three times: in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI approved birth control for religious sisters exposed to the risk of rape in the Belgian Congo. In 2010, Benedict XVI noted that condoms used by prostitutes to prevent the spread of AIDS could be seen as a moral choice. In 2016, Pope Francis cited Benedict’s teaching in declaring that women endangered by the Zika virus might use birth control as a responsible choice.

Church teaching in 2016 illustrates how popes are still listening and nuancing: “The just way for family planning is that of a consensual dialogue between the spouses, respect for the times of fertility and consideration of the dignity of the partner.” (Amoris Laetitia #63) 

Scriptures: Genesis 1:27-28; 2:18-24; Ruth; Song of Songs; Ephesians 5:25-32 

Books: Just Ministry: Professional Ethics for Pastoral Ministers – Richard Gula (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010)

Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic introduction to Pope John II’s Sexual Revolution – Christopher West (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2009)

How is it determined that someone is a saint?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 11, September 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints
Mother Teresa
The common thread in all of these saintly lives is that they were lights along the way to Christ for others to follow.

Canonization, the process of adding a name to the canon of saints, has been a formal procedure in the church since the 13th century. Informally, the church has noted saints (“holy ones”) since the first generation, when such recognition was given to martyrs. Those who died for belonging to Christ, even if flawed individuals, earned the claim of “no greater love” since they did indeed “lay down their life for a friend.”

Sainthood was soon extended to confessors: those who defended and suffered for the faith even if not murdered for it. The category opened next for those who gave their testimony in lives of austerity and penance—living martyrs known as white martyrs in contrast to those defined by the color of their blood. Those who taught Christian doctrine with insightful new clarity—doctors of the church—were admitted to the circle of sanctity, along with evangelists and models of heroic virtue who spread the faith by word or deed. A reputation for miracles never hurt.

The common thread in all of these saintly lives is that they were lights along the way to Christ for others to follow. Their lives “corresponded with grace,” as James McGrath puts it, as if grace were a lifelong dancing partner with whom they came to share perfect synchronicity.

The process discerning that synchronicity has gone through various phases. Originally a saint was simply locally declared as such. Needless to say, unsubstantiated accounts of largely or entirely fictitious lives worked their way into the canon: Saint Christopher medals, anyone? Saint George fought a dragon? Church authorities began intervening in the process in the 6th century, but the first papal paperwork to be filed on a saint was for Saint Udalricus, a German bishop, in 973. It wasn’t until 1738 that Pope Benedict XIV wrote a treatise on the proper way to discern and attest to sainthood. His guidelines became part of canon law and were observed until the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983.

Church teaching is cautious in its claims about the saintly canon. It reminds us the church doesn’t make saints: God does. The church, through the work of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, simply acts to lift up some of these holy lives to the world for contemplation and imitation. Saints can intercede for the world as well. They’re useful lives on both sides of eternity.

Scripture: Matthew 27:51-53; John 15:12-17; Ephesians 4:11-24; Philippians 1:9-11; 2:13-16; 3:12-14, 20

Books: Saints: Men and Women of Exceptional Faith – Jacques Duquesne (Paris, France: Flammarion, SA, 2012)

Making Sense Of Saints: Fascinating Facts About Relics, Patrons, Saint-Making, and More – Patricia Ann Kasten (Huntingdon, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2014)

What can we expect from the Vatican Commission on women deacons?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 11, September 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Clergy
Women of the early church
What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were.

The Commission was formed to address a question Pope Francis frankly admits he doesn’t have the answer to: can women be deacons? What the Commission will do is study the history of female deacons in the church. What it won’t do is determine what the Pope will do with the information. As some will recall from 20th-century study commissions on birth control and women’s ordination to the priesthood, popes are free to reject the findings of such commissions and go their own way. The guy in Peter’s Chair gets to make the call.

Which is not to say the appointment of this commission is unimportant. Earlier popes, including most recently John Paul II, not only rejected ordained ministry for women at any level: John Paul emphatically said the church has no authority to ordain women. By calling a commission together, Francis suggests that the church may find such authority buried in historical precedent.

What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were. The record is clear, from Paul’s letters to church history, that the church employed female deacons as early as the year 55. Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (not deaconess) in Romans 16:1. In 1 Timothy 3:8-12, after a description of what makes for a good male candidate for diaconate, the letter states: “Women, similarly, should be dignified ... temperate and faithful … .” The next sentence continues the description of the ideal deacon. It’s evident both male and female candidates made viable deacons.

What the Commission will seek to determine is whether women deacons were “ordained” or “installed” to their office. It makes a difference to the sacramental character, if any, of their service. Here, lines are drawn in the sand. Some scholars insist the rites of diaconate for men and women were identical as evidenced by existing materials. Others disagree. Still others say it doesn’t matter whether the rites were the same; what matters is how they were understood. The differences in service rendered by male and female deacons are less clear to some scholars. Others question whether past practice must dictate present needs. A bishop was once required to be “the husband of one wife,” according to 1 Timothy 3:2. That’s no longer true. The church evolves. For the moment, it’s up to Francis: is it time for the church to restore the women’s diaconate? And how?

Scriptures: Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:2, 8-12

Books: A New Phoebe: Perspectives on Roman Catholic Women and the Permanent Diaconate – ed. Virginia K. Ratigan and Arlene A. Swidler (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1990)

Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate – Phyllis Zagano (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)

Women Deacons? Essays With Answers – Yves Congar, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

Who were the women at the cross?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History

women cross crucifixion

The women who were present at the crucifixion of Jesus are an intriguing mystery. Several were named Mary. In the shared tradition of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the women don’t approach the cross. They stand "at a distance," probably for the usual reasons: Women tried to be invisible in public. And they would have reason to fear their treatment by Roman soldiers.

Mark, who writes first, doesn’t give us a precise number of how many women looked on from a distance. He names only three: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. While not an original disciple, Mark offers an account reputed to be from Peter. Only John's late gospel records specifically the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus. All the women there, according to Mark, had been with Jesus since Galilee.

The names James and Joses provide a clue about one of the Marys at the cross. These men are mentioned elsewhere in Mark among four "brothers of Jesus"—possibly cousins of some degree. This makes their mother an “aunt” of Jesus, present to comfort his mother. Mary may have been a family name, the way I have four relatives named Paul. John’s account lists a Mary identified by her husband Clopas rather than by sons. Both Marys could be the same person.

Like Mark, Matthew references four brothers/cousins of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. In Hebrew, "Joseph" and "Joses" are the same name. At the crucifixion, Matthew mentions James and Joseph as sons of a certain Mary. Matthew verifies the presence of Mary Magdalene and also the mother of Zebedee’s sons James and John. To harmonize Mark and Matthew’s narratives, Mark’s Salome is often identified as Zebedee’s wife.

In Luke’s crucifixion story, the Galilean women are described among "acquaintances" of Jesus standing at a distance. None are named. 

John locates the women directly at the foot of the cross. His list includes the mother of Jesus, his mother's sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Without punctuation in the Greek, however, it’s not clear whether Mary wife of Clopas IS the sister of Jesus' mother, or two separate women. John says Jesus gives his mother into the care of a beloved disciple. Tradition claims this is John, making him the lone male disciple present. Other scholars identify Mary Magdalene as the beloved disciple who took Mary home, since only women are known to have remained near the cross.

Scripture: Mark 6:3; 15:40-41; 16:1; Matthew 13:55; 27:55-56; 28:1; Luke 23:48-49, 55-56; 24:1-11; John 19:25-27; 20:1

Sources: The Characters of the Crucifixion – Joseph Fichtner, OSC (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000); The Passion and Death of Jesus (DVD and audio CDs)– Raymond Brown (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press/ Ewloe Clwyd, Wales: Welcome Recordings, 2015)

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Is the Bible infallible?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs
Is the Bible infallible?
Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation.

The reliability of Scripture is an important issue. Let’s start with a basic Catholic position: The Bible is true. And some of it really happened. In other words, our understanding of Scripture has to address not only whether it’s true but how it’s true. Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation. These texts were produced to impart the lived tradition of believers. If you trust in the God of Israel and commit to the way of Jesus, the Bible is a primary means of exploring the truths of your faith.

Does this imply that the Bible contains no mistakes? Obviously, ahistorical sections won’t necessarily square with “the facts” as we appreciate them archaeologically. Plus the Bible’s pre-scientific origins frequently betray a sense of the world we moderns flatly reject. The ancients’ lack of concern with historical method and complete innocence of scientific principles place sacred texts like Scripture in the category of mythos, or “higher truth.” This creates a dilemma for modern folk, who rely on science to “tell us the truth” about reality. Our ancestors used storytelling to convey what’s genuine and reliable.

Should we expect discrepancies between the cultural and scientific sophistication of writers who lived 2,500 years ago and today? Absolutely! Nonetheless, antique perceptions of the world don’t jeopardize the sacred writers’ transformative revelation: that God is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of us all.

Vatican II explained the Bible’s validity in this way: "The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures" (Dei Verbum, 11). This careful statement underscores that the truth we need for our ultimate rescue from sin and death is entirely and safely transmitted by these sacred stories.

Catholics view Scripture as a collaboration between inspired authors and the Holy Spirit. Wherever human beings are involved, naturally, human limitation can’t be far behind. Early church fathers such as Origen and Augustine accepted biblical inaccuracies and literary exaggerations as a natural feature of God’s full partnership with the sacred authors. Thomas Aquinas accepted “something imperfect” in any prophetic work for the same reason. Acknowledging pre-scientific miscalls and literary license is a far cry from insisting the Bible must either be inerrant or bogus. For believers, truth is bigger than history or science.

Scripture: Baruch 3:36-37;John 1:1-3, 14; 14:6; 20:30-31; Romans 1:19-20;2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 1:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16

Books: The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture – Pontifical Biblical Commission (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014); Biblical Fundamentalism: What Every Catholic Should Know – Ronald Witherup, PSS (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001)

Can Catholics practice yoga?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 05, July 2016 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Doctrines & Beliefs


Full disclosure: I’ve been taking yoga classes on and off (mostly off) for 30 years. Fuller disclosure: I’m lazy and this is the closest to exercise I’ve ever come. So I admit I’m stunned whenever the suitability of yoga for Christians comes up. My first yoga teacher from 30 years ago is today a well-respected Catholic priest. My current teacher is a devout Russian Orthodox woman whose 40-day fast during Lent put my wobbly lenten observance to shame.

Those who are suspicious of yoga quote the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s document: Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life. This text considers New Age beliefs in a discerningly critical light, and I agree with its principles. As a catechist I don't espouse New Age religion, and as a former librarian I know quite a bit about how flakey and narcissistic New Age teachings can be. Religion loses something vital when reduced to a spiritual selfie. On the God quest, God necessarily displaces the ego as the center of meaning and authority.

The anxiety about yoga seems to reside in its origins in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist spiritual practice. Nobody seems anxious that the Olympic Games began as a religious festival honoring the Greek god Zeus. Catholics who borrow the Sedar celebration from Judaism during Lent don’t fret about whose faith it properly belongs to. Contemplation is a prayer form that Thomas Merton shared with Buddhists with no apparent harm done.

Is yoga a valid form of prayer for Christians? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially #2697-2719 on "The Life of Prayer") offers a good understanding of what Christian prayer is and is not. So, while many fishermen, mountain climbers, and camping enthusiasts tell me they find God in these activities, the Catechism makes it clear that the experience of physical fitness and enjoying nature, while good in themselves, are not the same thing as praying or worship. This means Sunday morning is for Mass; put on your running shoes later.

A distinction might be drawn between restless Catholics who go to ashrams to explore alternative spiritualities to their faith, and folks who do yoga or tai chi at the gym for the exercise. I go to church to express my Catholic Christian relationship with God. When I leave church, I seek to bring the encounter with God everywhere I go. To the laundromat, the grocery store, and yes, to the gym.

Scripture: 2 Samuel 6:14-15; John 8:31-32; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Books: Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice – Thomas Ryan, CSP (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001); Holy Goals for Body and Soul: Eight Steps to Connect Sports with God and Faith – Bishop Thomas Paprocki (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 2013)

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Where can Mass be celebrated?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 05, July 2016 Categories: Sacraments,Liturgy,Doctrines & Beliefs
Saint Ita Catholic Church in Chicago

The Eucharistic celebration is called “the source and summit” of our faith—both the origin and epitome of what we believe—in church documents. The Table of the Lord, AKA the altar, is at the center of our lives as Catholic Christians. Everything we do emanates from that starting point.

So where that celebration takes place is of no small consideration. According to the General Instructions for the Roman Missal (GIRM 288), the People of God normally gather in a church. When the local building is too small for the assembly, as for a papal Mass, another “respectable” setting (auditorium or stadium) can be employed. Another lovely provision is this: “sacred buildings and requisites for divine worship should be truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities.” So all that floor polishing and statue dusting my mother does in her home parish with her friends is canonically approved.

Canon Law (n. 932) specifies that Mass is to be celebrated on a dedicated or blessed altar, as well as in a sacred place—unless “necessity requires otherwise.” Necessity has made the hood of a Jeep into an altar in wartime; wooden pallets or crates can be fashioned into a vineyard altar for farm workers; a hut can serve as a chapel in mission lands. In lands where Mass is prohibited, the celebration can be held in hidden places like mines, caves, or tents. Leading youth groups on hikes, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (Saint John Paul II) celebrated Eucharist on a flat boulder in the woods. In any setting, the traditional cloth and corporal should be used to designate the table or surface commandeered for divine service.

Here’s a surprise: When the cause is just and with proper approvals, a priest can also celebrate Mass in an ecclesial community or church structure that is not in full communion with the Catholic Church “so long as there is no scandal.” (n. 933) The aforementioned scandal might include the confusion that results if some did not appreciate the difference between, say, the Lutheran host church and the Roman Catholic liturgy being offered. Such time-shares are often necessary when a Catholic church has been damaged or destroyed by natural disaster, terrorist attack, or military forces. The bottom line is that sacred space with an attention to beauty and respectful worship is the norm for Mass. But even more important than the venue is the necessity to make the Eucharist available to all under every circumstance.

Scripture: Mark 14:22-24; Luke 21:5-6; 2 Corinthians 4:7-11; 5:1; 1 Peter 2:4-6

Books: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011); The Liturgical Environment: What the Documents Say – Mark G. Boyer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015); The Ministry of Liturgical Environment – Joyce Ann Zimmerman (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

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I've been told Catholic devotion to saints contradicts what the Bible says about graven images.

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 15, June 2016 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Golden calf

Let's talk about that. Someone knocks on your door and presents you with some Bible passages: Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10. They advise you to take down your Madonna and Child statue and to stop wearing your St. Anthony medal. Does the Bible view these objects as dangerous or even blasphemous?

In the first of the Ten Commandments, the passage reads: "You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them." This command has been interpreted in Orthodox Judaism as a complete ban on image-making, even in art. Muslims also ban images of any living creatures, although the Qur'an does not. Protestant founders John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli forbade the use of religious images specifically. Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists view religious statues, stained glass images, and icons as blasphemous. This battle has been actively engaged at many points in church history. Churches have been destroyed, windows smashed, art burned because some saw such images as contradicting the First Commandment.

Iconoclasm, as image-busting is called, is not just a religious phenomenon. In the ancient world, smashing the statues of a previous ruler was often a political maneuver more than a religious reform. When modern terrorist groups destroy religious artifacts that are also culturally significant sites, it's unclear whether the destruction is about restoring religious purity or asserting control.

Biblically, Moses did destroy the Golden Calf permitted by his priest brother because it imitated religious practices that predated the religious movement Moses was attempting to establish. But later, Moses commands that a bronze serpent be made to heal the people—a beneficial image, but still an image. Still later, King Hezekiah will have the bronze serpent destroyed because the people have begun to worship it. The message is clear: it's not art that God doesn't like. It's the use of idols that limit the idea of divinity or divert a believer's fidelity away from the one God of Israel.

I've rarely met a Catholic in danger of idolatry in relationship to images of the Sacred Heart or devotion to a patron saint. If religious images assist you in prayer or widen your appreciation of divine mysteries, then use them. If they interfere with or narrowly define your sense of wonder, let them go.

Scriptures: Exodus 20:4-6; 32:1-35; Leviticus 26:1; Numbers 21:9; Deuteronomy 4:15-24; 5:6-10; 1 Kings 12:26-31; 2 Kings 18:4; Isaiah 40:18-20; 44:9-20;  Jeremiah 10:1-15

Books: The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law - William J. Doorly  (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002)

Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction - Lawrence Boadt  (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)

Where in the Bible does it say Jesus' birthday is December 25th?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 02, June 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

You won't find a biblical text verifying the date of the birth of Jesus. December 25th has a 1-in-365 chance of being the historical date. It's simply the liturgical date the church settled on to celebrate Incarnation, the mystery of God-made-flesh, officially called the Nativity. We have no idea what time of year Jesus was born. There are debates about what the actual year may have been. Because of calendar anomalies like leap years and other early errors made in the Gregorian calculations that established the Western calendar, the year Zero isn't an accurate starting point for the life of Jesus. Scholarly speculations generally include a range between what we call 7 B.C. to 4 B.C.

December 25th wasn't immediately selected for the celebration of the Nativity. Early Christian observances had strong Jewish roots. For example, they utilized the Jewish calendar in Sabbath observance, shifting allegiance early from the last day of the week to the first to honor the resurrection day. The original Christian feast was therefore Sunday, when Eucharist was celebrated. Easter became the first annual Christian liturgical season to be put in place universally, fixed as it was to the Jewish observance of Passover. It soon grew to a constellation of before-and-after observances, including an entire preparatory season (Lent).

 As the church expanded into the Hellenistic world, feast days were added, typically wedded to whatever local civil calendars were in operation at the time. The Nativity was the second universally popular observance, developing its own preparatory season (Advent), but the length of the season varied and even the date wasn't uniform.  The Western Church chose December 25th to coordinate with the already popular secular celebration of the Winter Solstice, when days began to lengthen with the sun's annual return and winter darkness was conquered by light. The solstice made a useful pairing and natural catechetical tool in declaring the arrival of Jesus, the light of the world, vanquishing the darkness of sin and death.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Church celebrated the Nativity on January 6th, now the feast of Epiphany in the Western Church. These dates were never intended to imply historical accuracy, but rather a theological reality to be recalled and honored. The liturgical calendar focuses on uniting the universal church in commemorating the birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as cosmic realities, not past occurrences.

Scriptures: Isaiah 9:1; John 1:3-5, 9; 3:19-21: 8:12; 9:5; 12:35-36, 46

Books: The Origins of Christmas - Joseph F. Kelly(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014)

The Feast of Christmas - Joseph F. Kelly (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press,  2010)

Is Jesus truly the Son of God or is it just a story?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 15, May 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

This question hinges on the term "Son of God," which sounds simple but is actually theologically dense. "Just a story," of course, implies the alternative to claiming Jesus as God's Son is to admit it's a false identification. I should probably say up front that, for Christians, Jesus is truly the Son of God. It's fundamental to our faith that Jesus is the divine Son. But we further embrace that Jesus enjoys a dual nature: born of a woman and therefore truly human; yet with origins in God and therefore truly divine. Fully human, AND fully divine. Jesus is both, Christians say. To claim him as one or the other—as merely an exemplary mortal, or a divinity who presents a brief human mirage—is to express any number of heresies recorded in church history.

If you accept Jesus is the Son of God, what are you saying? In the Old Testament, son of God was a title used to describe heavenly beings altogether: angels or superhuman creatures sent to enact the divine will. In ancient Hebrew idiom, the word "son" implied membership in a species: so "son of God" suggested a being of a celestial subset none too specifically parsed. Please note: the nation Israel was also identified as God's son. The covenant bond made Israel an adopted child of God. Israel's identity as son of God was not, however, equivalent to other nation's identification of their leaders as divine sons, as the Pharaoh of Egypt was considered to be. For Israel, it was a designation of relationship, not substance or essence.

In the New Testament, Son of God is applied to Jesus 31 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke's gospels, and 23 times in John's, where it is the preferred title.  The NT letters employ the term 42 times. Clearly the first generations of the church found this title key to their understanding of Jesus' identity. They didn't limit it to the definition implied by OT usage, nor to the title's meaning in Greek culture: that of a hero, king, or demigod. For early Christians, "Son of God" became a unique category for Jesus. While we are all "children of God," Jesus is "Son of God" in a way no one has been or will be. More than a statement of relationship or location with the celestial ranks, Jesus shares God's very substance (is "consubstantial," in the Creed) and cannot be known apart from this essential unity.

Scriptures: Genesis 6:2; Pss 29:1, 89:7; Job 1:6; 38:7; Exodus 4:22-23;Deuteronomy 14:1-2; 32:19; Isaiah 1:2; 43:6; Jeremiah 31:9, 20; Hosea 2:1;     11:1; Mathew 3:17; 16:16; John 1:34; 11:27; Romans 5:10; Galatians 4:4-7
Books: God: Three Who Are One - Joseph Bracken, SJ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008)
What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus? - David Gowler (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007)

If you're married, is it still possible to become a priest? If yes, what are the steps needed?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 11, May 2016 Categories: Clergy,Doctrines & Beliefs
Priest kissing baby

If you're a Roman Catholic male, this is a thorny issue with no clear solution in 2016. But the surprising truth is, the answer is not exactly no for others. Consider: the 1965 Vatican II Decree on Priestly Ministry and Life, states that "(Celibacy) is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is apparent from the practice of the early Church and from the traditions of the Eastern Churches where . . . there are also married priests of highest merit." (no. 16) While this statement appears in a section on the gift of celibacy, it opens a door to other priestly possibilities.

Celibacy was practiced by many priests from early in the church’s history. However, at the Second Lateran Council of 1139, a rule was adopted forbidding married priests in the Roman church. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the tradition of priestly celibacy in 1563. A married clergy in the Roman tradition seemed a closed issue.

Then in 1951, Pope Pius XII permitted some married Lutheran clergy in Germany and Sweden to be ordained Catholic priests. In 1967, Pope Paul VI called for a study of the effectiveness of married ministers in other denominations. He entertained the possibility of admitting to the priesthood married ministers received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI allowed married Episcopal and Anglican clergy to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church under certain circumstances.

Today, around 200 married Catholic priests from other communions serve in the U.S. clergy. In order to ordain such a candidate, a bishop must appeal to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The petition for a "dispensation from the impediment of marriage" can only be granted by the pope.

In February of 2015, Pope Francis addressed priests in Rome, noting the question of married priests “is on my agenda.” Asked whether priests who had left to be married could receive a dispensation to celebrate Mass, the pope replied that the Congregation for Clergy was looking into it, but “it is a problem that does not have an easy solution.” The problem is not Scriptural, since the prophet Jeremiah was the only person in the Bible obliged to celibacy. Historical practice and a rich spiritual tradition have made priestly celibacy seem inevitable. But a door once slammed shut seems to be opened just a crack in recent times.

Scripture: Jeremiah 16:1-4; Matthew 19:12; Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9    
Books: Accompanied By a Believing Wife: Ministry and Celibacy in the Earliest Christian Communities - Raymond F. Collins (Liturgical Press, 2013)
The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological     Foundations - Alfons M. Stickler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995)

What's a halo, really?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 11, April 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Virgen de Gudalupe

Technically, it's a visible depiction of an otherwise intangible characteristic: glory. In biblical stories, glory describes the "shine" of God, an emanation of light so powerful, it "afflicts" Moses, who's the one human being routinely standing close to God in the Old Testament. When Moses enters the Tent of the Presence, he comes out with an unbearable brightness in his face that requires him to veil himself. Either Moses is protecting the vestige of God's glory from being viewed by profane onlookers, or protecting the unprepared onlooker from a potentially dangerous contact with divinity's afterglow. As we know from other stories, unworthy contact with holy things can kill you. The tribe of Levi was dedicated to God as the only Israelites allowed to touch, tend, or transport utensils and objects used in ritual sacrifices for this reason. They made a living out of keeping themselves pure enough to perform their duties.

The Greeks also imagined sunbursts emanating from Helios, their sun god. Pharaohs of Egypt wear a crown of light in some depictions. It makes sense that Christians would employ the halo when portraying Christ, later extending the usage to angels and finally to saints. Jesus and Mary alone are honored with full body haloes, called aureoles—the most familiar of which surrounds the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Most saints are portrayed with round haloes in the West, which can be thin circlets of gold or full discs of yellow. The circle is a perfect form, which hints at heavenly perfection. Some artistic renderings utilized a square halo when depicting a still living person who is revered: the square is an earthly, less perfect geometric form recalling the four elements, winds, or directions. A triangular halo is reserved for the less common depiction of God the Father, to recall the Triune nature of the divine. Very occasionally, Jesus will wear the triangular halo for the same reason. Jesus is the only icon who is permitted to be defined by the cruciform halo.

Sometimes anthropomorphic images of the Virtues—theological virtues like Faith, Hope, and Love, or the cardinal virtues Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance—will wear hexagonal haloes, to remind us they are attributes of God. So altogether, we conclude that the "shine" on a person or thing speaks to us of their nearness to God or their out-and-out resemblance to the divine. We should all be working on our shine!

Scriptures: Exodus 33:7-23; 34:27-35; Numbers 1:49-54; 1 Samuel chs. 4—6; 2    Samuel 6:1-19; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 1 Chronicles 23:25-32

Books: The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art - Sally Fisher (New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., 1995).

Saints and the Symbols: Recognizing Saints in Art and in Popular Images -Fernando and Giolia Lanzi (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004).

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Why do Catholics put so much emphasis on Mary and the saints?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 04, April 2016 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints
Mary and the saints

Since some Catholics in their spiritual practice have little truck with saints or Marian devotion, it's more accurate to say that Catholic tradition holds Mary and the saints in high esteem. To answer this inquiry thoughtfully requires the introduction of key terms. The first is hyperdulia: it means "more than service," and it's the special honor Roman Catholic tradition renders to Mary as the Virgin Mother of Jesus and therefore Mother of God (theotokos in Greek).

This title, by the way, is a sensitive spot in historical relations with the Orthodox tradition, which prefers to call Mary the Mother of Christ (christotokos)—a distinction dear to theologians. That God/Christ has a mother thanks to the incarnation of Jesus is, by any measure, a remarkable consideration. Once you ponder that, you begin to appreciate what it means for a woman to collaborate with God in the world's salvation, to carry divinity within her body, or to raise God's son as her own. You might want to treat such a woman with respect.

The special honor we show to Mary is not to be confused with the singular and highest honor due to God. To be specific: We worship and adore God alone (latria, Greek for worship). We honor Mary in a unique way (hyperdulia) as Mother of God and foremost saint (sancta, holy person). We show proper veneration (dulia) to all the saints, since by their lives they demonstrate the activity of God in the world. In the end, all of these forms of honor are directed toward God as manifest to us in various ways and degrees through the response of these holy ones. 

For many Catholics, these ideas have translated throughout history into a desire to engage these signature personalities and benefit from their guidance and example. Devotions toward homegrown saints or particular facets of Mary's life sprang up spontaneously and fulfill a need to connect with our more accomplished fellow travelers among "the communion of saints," as we say. We are sisters and brothers in faith whether living on earth or in heaven, as our belief in eternal life declares. If you had a talented and well-connected relative who could mentor you in your given field, wouldn't you take advantage of that relationship? As we share a common vocation to be saints, having ready-made saints to lean on and get help from is a benefit many are glad to have.

Scriptures: Acts of the Apostles 20:32; 26:18;2 Corinthians 13:12; Ephesians 1:1-2; 5:27; 1 Thessalonians 3:13;  2 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 18:20

Books: Saints: Men and Women of Exceptional Faith - Jacques Duquesne (Paris: Flammarion, 2012).                            Dictionary of Mary - ed. Alphonse Bossard, S.M.M., transl. John Otto (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1991).


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Is the parish expected to give the pastor and secretary a bonus at Christmas?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 14, March 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

Full disclosure: I was a parish secretary, so I have a personal investment in this question. "Expected" is a telling word in your query. Since a bonus is a gift, and a gift is not obligatory, the short answer is no. The parish isn't obliged to offer a gift to anyone at Christmas or at other times.

But does that absolve the parish from considering doing so? Canonically speaking, church law says this: "The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for apostolic works and works of charity, and for the decent sustenance of ministers." (Canon 222—my emphasis. See also c. 231 and 1286 regarding the same for lay workers.) Unless things have changed drastically since I sat at the front desk, I can assure you parish staff members are not lavishly compensated for their labor. Many are glorified volunteers, work part-time without benefits, or accept modest salaries for the privilege of serving the parish. While service is its own reward in many ways, justice requires that folks can make a livelihood and provide for their families. 

Many dioceses have a recommended pay scale as a standard for positions across their parishes. Such a rate can be modest according to the means of a wealthy parish and still entirely out of the question in a poorer one. To make up for the lack of parity, many pastors offer other forms of compensation to make a parish position more appealing: say, more personal time off, or flexible hours. A bonus at Christmas or after a special assignment is another way to let your staff know they're appreciated. I remember spending a month redrawing the map of the parish cemetery, locating graves long obscured or lost. I received a bonus for this, since the cemetery beat wasn't normally a part of my job description. I would have done it anyway when asked.  But it was nice to go home with that extra check.

Most of us in parish work appreciate this isn't Wall Street. We're not here to make a killing. The diocesan priest salary is measly compared to any other professional career scale. While I'd look twice if the pastor gives himself bonuses without oversight, once the finance council clears it, that's enough for me. As for most parish secretaries, who are the backbone of parish life, I'd say give them a bonus. And flowers on Valentine's Day. And take them to dinner on their birthdays....

Scripture: Deuteronomy 25:4; 1 Corinthians 9:9-12; Matt 10:9-10; Luke 10:7;  1 Timothy 5:17-18

Books: The Laborer is Worthy of His Hire: A Survey of Priestly Compensation in the Roman Catholic Dioceses of the United States - William P. Daley (National Federation of Priests' Councils, 1999)

Catholic Parish Administration: A Handbook - Paul F. Peri (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)


I recently became a Freemason but feel a calling to be a priest. Do I have a canonical impediment?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 07, March 2016 Categories:

In using the term "canonical impediment," I suspect this is a trick question from a bored seminarian. But let's play it straight with the answer. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law it states: "Those who join a Masonic sect or other societies of the same sort, which plot against the Church or against legitimate civil authority, incur excommunication.” (See canon 2335)

Under this older Code, Masonic membership would definitely interfere with a priestly vocation since you'd be excommunicated from the church. However, a more recent version of Canon Law from 1983 supersedes that code. It states: "A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; one who promotes or takes office in such an association is to be punished with an interdict.” (canon 1374)

The new code doesn't mention Freemasonry. It's been concluded by some Catholics that belonging to the Masons is now acceptable. To clarify the matter, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued the “Declaration on Masonic Associations” shortly after the 1983 Code. The Declaration states that "the Church's negative judgment in regard to Masonic associations remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and, therefore, membership in them remains forbidden. The faithful, who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion."

Pope John Paul II added that it was “not within the competence of local ecclesiastical authorities to give a judgment on the nature of Masonic associations” that would contradict the CDF. Some U.S. bishops question whether the CDF, which is not the Vatican’s juridical body, is competent to interpret canon law.

In the section of Canon Law dealing with impediments to ordination, (canons 1040-1043), only membership in forbidden organizations that can be shown to lead to apostasy garners a mention. Fair to say most U.S. bishops wouldn't ordain a man belonging to the Masons. If a bishop chose to do so, a succeeding bishop could place the priest under an interdict preventing him from functioning. Best advice for one so conflicted? Quit the Masons and pursue ordination.

Scriptures: Mark 3:23-25; Luke 9:23-25; Romans 14:19—15:6

Books: The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary - edited by James Coriden et. al. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985)

The Theology of Priesthood - edited by Donald J. Goergen, OP, and Ann Garrido (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000)

Is it necessary to attend Mass on Sunday? I can't go to church because of my job. What should I do?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 13, February 2016 Categories: Liturgy,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Priest with parish

Attendance at Sunday Eucharist is one of the most solemn commitments in the life of a Catholic Christian. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” (canon 1247)

This obligation is naturally suspended in time of illness, or when there is no means of satisfying the obligation, as when traveling through territory in which there is no opportunity to attend Mass.

It should be noted that "Sunday Mass" also includes the celebration of Eucharist on Saturday evening. "Sunday" in secular culture follows a morning-to-evening definition of the day. The biblical day is counted from one evening to the next. (See the repeated usage starting in Genesis 1: 5— "Evening came, and morning followed: the first day.") This liturgical appreciation of a day makes possible the fulfillment of the Sunday obligation by attending Mass on Saturday evening. In most dioceses, opportunities to attend Sunday Mass extend from around 4:00 pm on Saturday until 5:00 pm on Sunday—even later in contexts like a campus Newman Center where students keep late hours and might more likely attend a 9 or 10 pm liturgy.

It would be rare for a person to have a regular work schedule that extends for 24 hours from Saturday evening to Sunday evening.

Canon law does provide for circumstances in which Eucharist is simply unavailable, as in the absence of ordained clergy. Canon 1248 says: “If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.”

A local pastor has the authority to judge particular cases and grant dispensation from the obligation of participating in Sunday Mass (canon 1245). When there is truly no opportunity to participate, there is no obligation. At the same time, a faithful Catholic might seriously consider a vocational or geographic context in which he or she never has the opportunity to participate in Sunday Mass.

Scripture: Exod 16:22-30; 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15; 1 Cor 11:23-26

Books: Sunday Mass: Our Role and Why It Matters - Anne Y. Koester (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007)

Mass on Sunday: And Other Ways of Being Catholic - Charles E. Miller (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004

Can Catholics be cremated?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, February 2016 Categories: Liturgy,Doctrines & Beliefs
Urn and flowers

The teaching on cremation is one more evidence that Catholic traditions evolve in time, responsive to both external circumstances and internally developing theological understanding. Cremation—the reduction of a dead body to ashes through burning—has been a commonly accepted form of body disposal in many cultures, including the Greco-Roman world from which Christianity emerged. The utility of the practice is evident in that ashes require little space for deposition where land is scarce. Cremation also prevents the spread of disease during epidemics. Yet Christians traditionally avoided the practice. One reason was Christian reverence for the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Another was  the teaching on the resurrection of the body. A third concern was the many non-Christian ideologies frequently attached to the act in some cultures. Catholics in particular were forbidden to cremate their dead except when public necessity intervened—as with epidemics or natural disasters when the death tolls were great. The ashes of those who were cremated were not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground, as in a Catholic cemetery.

 When the 1983 Code of Canon Law was introduced, the restriction against cremation was lifted. The new Code still "earnestly recommends" burial of the body as the preferable option. Yet unless the intent is to deliberately contradict Christian teaching on the resurrection by its practice (canon 1176.3), cremation is now permissible, especially where land resources make it more feasible than burial.  I've personally known several devout Catholics who held fast to the hope of resurrection yet nonetheless requested cremation after death because of the exorbitant cost of modern burials and a concern that surviving family members would be obliged to absorb the debt.

 The Order of Christian Funerals published in 1989 contains instructions for the funeral rite when a body is not present for the service, as well as prayers for the interment of ashes. In the end, the funeral rites are meant for the "spiritual assistance" of the departed and to honor them, while bringing "the solace of hope to the living." If these ends can be accomplished with cremains, there is no impediment. 

Scripture: Gen 23:1-20; Deut 28:26; Jer 7:32-33; Matt 27:57-60; Luke 23:50-53; John 11:33-44; 19:38-41; Acts 9:36-41

Books: Honoring the Dead: Catholics and Cremation Today - H. Richard Rutherford, CSC (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000)

Order of Funerals Appendix Cremation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997)

Is it a sin to eat meat on Fridays during Lent or just a suggestion?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 13, January 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

As early as the 2nd century, the Didache notes the practice of abstaining from meat on all Fridays of the year as a penitential observance recalling the crucifixion. There is no corresponding insistence on eating fish. (Some members of my family consider seafood a form of poison, so not everyone shares your enthusiasm for it.) It was Pope Nicholas I (9th c.) who made this practice binding under pain of mortal sin—and not because his family owned a fish market, as is sometimes suggested. Pope Innocent III (12th c.) made an exception for when Christmas falls on a Friday.

Thomas Aquinas considered meat, milk, and eggs all foods that incite desire. Fasting and abstinence were meant to bridle "the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex.” Vegans might find incidental common cause with this doctor of the church.

It wasn't until 1966 that Pope Paul VI advised local church officials to modify the abstinence rule as they saw fit. That same year, U.S. Bishops issued the Pastoral Statement On Penance And Abstinence allowing a substitution of some other form of penance in place of abstinence on all Fridays except for those that occur in Lent. However, persons in good health between the ages of 14 and 59 must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and lenten Fridays.

Some bishops or pastors make exceptions for St. Patrick's and/or St. Joseph's Day when they fall on lenten Fridays. In 2012, the U.S. bishops reconsidered reinstituting abstinence for all Fridays of the year, but preferred to make it optional to abstain on Friday for the intentions of life, marriage, and religious liberty. In 2010 the bishop of New Orleans reclassified alligator as a non-meat item on the menu.

The practice of abstinence from meat is intended as a penitential practice. Obviously, if you're wild about fish, that may not be the best substitution with which to observe the sacrifice. While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not categorized as meat and can be consumed without violating abstinence, indulging in a seafood buffet isn't in the spirit of a penitential act. 

Scripture: Pss. 69:11; 109:24; Isa 58:3-12; Dan 9:3; Joel 2:12-17; Neh 1:4; 9:1;             Tobit 12:8; Judith 4:13; Esther 4:3; 9:31; Matt 6:16-18; 9:14-15; Lk 2:37; Acts 13:2-3; 14:23

Books: The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity - Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011)

The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovery of a Christian Practice - Charles M.Murphy (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2010)

What exactly is a "Jubilee Year"? What's a "Holy Year"? I hear the Year of Mercy called both.

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 03, January 2016 Categories: Liturgy

The Year of Jubilee is a product of Jewish law as found in Scripture. Every 50th year, the land was to "rest," to lie unused for planting. Mortgage debts were forgiven and slaves were set free. These practices weren't randomly consigned to the Jubilee Year but had a theological agenda: to acknowledge that land, property, and life itself belonged ultimately to God, not to the human user.

The term Jubilee was adopted by Catholics in 1300 when the first Holy Year was inaugurated. It too is a year of liberation, though of a spiritual nature. A Holy Year is a time when the pope offers special spiritual privileges, or indulgences, for those who make a pilgrimage to Rome. Other religious activities may be assigned similar benefits during the Holy Year for those unable to travel. The Holy Year was originally intended as a centennial observance. But it came to be observed every 25 years, and additional celebrations between those intervals can be added when deemed helpful.

The Holy Year generally begins on Christmas Eve with the opening of an official Holy Door at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome which is normally kept bricked up in other years. Three other Roman Basilicas—St. Paul's Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major—also have doors opened to encourage pilgrimage. Bishops around the world are invited to designate similar doors within their jurisdictions through which pilgrims can be welcomed to celebrate the spiritual benefits of the event. Even religious educators are being asked to ritually open a door with their students in order to instruct them about the purpose of the Holy Year.

The Holy Year of Mercy called for by Pope Francis began this year on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 2015. This Solemnity recalls the occasion when God opened an avenue of mercy for the human race through the incarnation of Jesus. "Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy," Pope Francis declares. By symbolically opening a door, we spread the good news that anyone who seeks the love of God in Jesus will find consolation, pardon, and hope. All of us should eagerly seek the occasion to walk through that door. We should also extend the invitation to anyone in need of the assurance that God's mercy is open to them.

Scripture: Lev 25:8-55; Isa 5:8-10; Ezek 46:17

Books: Crossing the Threshold of Mercy ed. Mark-David Janus (Mahwah, NJ:Paulist Press, 2015)

Beautiful Mercy: Experiencing God's Unconditional Love So We Can Share It With Others Pope Francis, Matthew Kelly, et. al. (Beacon Publishing, 2015)



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