Beyond The Smells and Bells

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many bishops have canceled the public celebration of the Mass. Live-streamed Mass on the internet has become the new normal worship. There are t dangers to habitually “attending” Mass in the virtual reality of the internet. Catholics can very gradually lose the desire to receive Holy Communion, invoking their internet Mass “attendance” as good enough. Simply put, virtual worship is not real, as the Real Presence is something we physically touch and experience.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made by God, and His crafting of us is undeniably intricate. Our senses help us experience the fullness of God’s creation, and are vital in our worship of God.  Traditionally, this is sometimes called the ‘smells and bells’ of liturgy.  These smells and bells, in addition to other manifestations of our senses, are of greater importance in our worship than we often acknowledge.

As Catholics, we take our whole body to prayer, and we use more than words.  We stand, we sit, we kneel, hear bells, smell incense, feel holy water, cross ourselves, and genuflect. Everything we do has meaning and says something about our faith. The use of all these symbols may seem strange or unnecessary to some, even to some Catholics, and many often dismiss them as unnecessary pageantry that gets in the way of experiencing God.

Smells and Bells of The Holy Mass

At Mass we stand when the Gospel is read, out of respect for the very words of Jesus, and we sit to listen attentively to the other scriptural readings. At the consecration we kneel, kneeling being the posture of adoration. What we are doing is praying with our bodies, not just with our minds, and praying in this manner makes perfect sense for a creature composed of body and soul. The postures we use during Mass show us, and those around us, what we believe and what we take seriously. 

The Catholic Mass does not need the approval of our culture to be relevant or essential, as it pertains to a completely different reality from our world.  The liturgy transcends our time and space, and it invites us into the reality of a Trinitarian God and His kingdom.  One of the features of smells and bells is to communicate sacred space, time, and a transcendent experience though our senses. Smells and bells transport a person into an alternative place, in some cases Heaven itself, or the divine presence. These practices are abundant in scripture Isaiah 6, Ezekiel, Leviticus, Revelation, and are consciously imitating ancient Israelite temple rites.

All of this may come across as pious snobbery. Does it really matter if the vestments and the candles and the gestures are just so?  Is not Christ just as present if Mass is celebrated on the beach as the finest cathedral? Certainly. Christ is present, but these things matter because our bodies and our spirits are one. Catholic rituals give a sense of authenticity to worship, and they teach us that worship is serious business in which the living Lord comes into our presence, and gives Himself to us. The Catholic principle is not that we need to have all the right accoutrements and do all the right things, or else Jesus will not show up. Rather, it is that we give our very best to God, wherever we happen to be worshipping, because He does always give His very best to us.

Catholicism is a sacramental religion, and is the natural consequence of the Incarnation. God took on flesh (matter) to save us, and he left behind actions that use matter (such as water, oil, and wine) to continue to give us His saving grace. While smells and bells are not essential, they are not superfluous. Smells and bells are signs of honor, and are designed to bring dignity to worship. During Mass, something profound, even mysterious is happening, and we must engage all our senses if we are to fully enter in.  Online Masses and spiritual communion do not represent the Church; while important, they are not enough. Our relationship with Jesus is intimate, it is personal, it is physical, and it is in a Church community. Do not become satisfied with this virtual presence, and continue to seek the Real Presence of Jesus in the Mass.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Jesus was the master storyteller, and He often taught people in parables.  Many of the parables retold the faith in ways that seemed familiar, but brought the listener to a conclusion they did not expect. Through parables, Jesus provided the opportunity for people to see their assumptions and worldviews differently.  His parables were provocative stories, inviting His listeners to leave their conventional understanding, and encounter new and transformative views.

As Catholics, we are a community shaped by stories.  Anthropologists, philosophers, historians, and theologians agree that we experience our lives and the world around us through stories.  Roger Schank, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University contends in his book “Tell Me a Story” that stories are the way humans explain reality to themselves; the more and better our stories, the better our intelligence.  We seek beginnings and endings, climax and conclusion. We also weave our own personal stories into larger ones, as we desire to be part of a bigger story than ourselves.  One can only answer the question ‘What am I to do’ by answering the question ‘Of what story do I find myself a part of?

Stories are everywhere; they are the common theme shared by all people, and exist in every language, culture, and time period.  The story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the most powerful story of all; the story of a God who took on human form so that He could show us how to live and how to die, a God who went down into the valley of death with us and promised that death would not be the end. However, many Catholics have forgotten or have never been told our story.  Much of our Catholic and cultural memory has been erased, leaving us estranged from our faith, family and country.  We try to guess who we are from what we have left, our knowledge, skills and possessions, but that is not enough.   

How Do You Tell Your Story?

Stories have been and still are the essential vehicles for matters of faith. Stories are central to the Catholic faith as a means of sharing one’s testimony, and for their ability to make abstract and often complex issues of faith accessible.  C.S. Lewis best described the appeal of stories when he said, “Stories can mediate imaginative life to the masses while not being contemptible to the few.” Stories can change people. People who are hostile to the Catholic faith may become sympathetic, and those who see their faith as a non-factor in their lives may begin to give it some consideration.  People who are distant from one another or their faith often become part of our Catholic community because of our stories.   

As Catholics, we are called to shape our work, family life and community activity in such a way that it points to and tells the story of Christ.  Sharing personal stories about God’s work in our lives is a lost art, and many Catholics are reluctant to make themselves vulnerable by openly sharing their own experiences.  Yet, our stories provide irrefutable evidence of God’s love and His power to change lives.  Catholicism has great stories because at the center of our faith is sacramentalism, the conviction that God discloses Himself in the objects and events and persons of ordinary life.  To be an authentic Catholic is a be a storyteller of the greatest story ever told.

Friends in Low Places

Country music  fans know that whenever you hear the song “Friends in Low Places”, it is a sign that you are about to have a good time. The fun-loving song was released by Garth Brooks in 1990, and has taken on a legacy of epic proportions. The world teaches that if you want to be successful, you must be driven, you must let go the people from your past, and you must fight and work your way to the top.  Successful people do not ask the question, “How can I be more humble”, rather “How can I be more successful”.  Success and humility can be in opposition to each other, as demonstrated by such self-help books such as  “How to Stay Humble When You’re Smarter Than Everybody Else” and “The Know It All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.”

‘Cause I’ve got friends in low places…

However, scripture teaches the opposite, and flies in the face of this conventional wisdom.  Scripture speaks continually about the value of humility. Proverbs 29:23 says, “A man’s pride will bring him low; but the humble in spirit retains honor.”  James 4:10 says “Humble yourself before the Lord and He will lift you up.”  On one hand we have pride, and on the other hand, humility.

Humility is seeing yourself as God sees you, and having an honest assessment of who you are. On one hand I am a sinner, and yet I am a child of God.  Humility is found in the tension and the balance between these two realities.  Saint Paul writes about this tension in Romans 7:19 “For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do”, and speaks to people who struggle with sin.

When the prodigal son spent all his money on wine, women, and song, he found his friends had somewhere else to be. He soon found himself at the lowest point in his life, a pig farmer.  To a Jewish person, there was hardly a more humbling job.   We have been taught the importance of choosing friends wisely, and to keep company with the right kinds of people, as bad associations can cause us to develop habits of thinking, language and action that can be difficult to overcome.

Humility is revealed by how I treat others, as the only way to show humility is when we treat others more highly than ourselves.  Scripture teaches , “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves…your attitude should be that of Christ Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant” -Philippians 2:3-6.  Remember that true humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.  Jesus humbled Himself to step down from heaven to become human, and speak the good news to His friends in low places.

Humility is refined through trials.  When you go through some adversity and struggle, perhaps God is trying to teach you humility, by allowing a humbling experience in your life.  Saint Paul knew of the dangers of pride when he wrote: “To keep me from becoming conceited, there was given me thorn in my flesh” – 2 Corinthians 12:7.

The gospels tell us that Jesus was a friend of sinners, friends in low places, not because He ignored their sin, but to save sinners and welcome those who were open to truth.  Luke 7:15 tells us that “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”.   Going forward, whenever you hear the song “Friends in Low Places”, use it as a reminder of our rejoicing in heaven with our friends who were in low places.

You Should Choose Your Words More Carefully

Infinity Wars is a film based on the Marvel Comics, in which superheroes attempt to prevent Thanos from collecting six all-powerful Infinity Stones, as part of his quest to kill half of all life in the universe.   One of the notable quotes from the move is when Thanos, says “Undying. You should choose your words more carefully”, just before he kills Loki. This statement has meaning for us as humans, as God created us with an immortal (undying) soul, which is shaped by our words.  This is confirmed in scripture “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” – Proverbs 18:21

One of the most amazing truths about life is revealed in scripture, “In the beginning was the word” – John 1:1.   God understands the power and importance of spoken word, and He demonstrated this by speaking our world into existence.  As His children, we are endowed with the same power. We are products of our words, and our lives are shaped by what we have knowingly or unknowingly spoken.   Words are spiritual in nature, meaning that are not made of matter, Jesus confirms this when He says “My words are spirit and life” – John 6:63.  

Language is a substitute for the infinitely deep and inexpressibly rich vibrations of our experiences, our words. Language becomes a translation for words, and in a translation, something is always lost.  Language is not fixed, as we are constantly adjusting it to our changing needs.  The Church, however, does not do paradigm shifts, Jesus Christ, the Word, is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, even if our language changes.

In Catholicism, the word is a spiritual agent.  When a priest pronounces the words of Eucharistic consecration, the bread and wine, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ.   Similarly, in the sacrament of confession, the priest says the words of absolution, whereby Christ forgives and frees us from our sins.  In baptism, both water and the word transmit God’s grace and the forgiveness of our sins. The priest does so in persona Christi, that is, in the person of Christ.  It is really Christ speaking through the words of His priest.

The materialistic view of the world is the dominant one in modern science. The typical argument is “All phenomena are purely physical, and there is no alternative”.  Yet, everything we observe in the physical reality is a direct correlation to what we think to ourselves, feel towards ourselves and speak toward ourselves.  That which we express in language, our words, is something already in our hearts.

As Catholics, we believe that sin is a break in a relationship thanks to our words, thoughts, actions, and inactions.   We must not think that sins of the tongue, of our words, are of little importance.  Jesus said: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” -Matthew 12:36. Although one can conquer any sin by God’s grace, those associated with speech are among the most difficult to overcome.   

Our remedy to uncharitable words is to have times of silence, so that we may turn our conversation toward God.  Our world has too much noise in it today, and if we are really honest, each one of us could probably say that our hearts do also. When we do speak, let us be more attentive to what we say, why we are saying it, and how it affects others.  Never forget that we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus on our tongues.  Our tongues become the throne of Jesus, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Word made flesh. Let us always speak words of goodness!

As It Grows Darker, We Shine Brighter

We live in an era of post-truth, where the public outcry is about preferences, not truth. In our digital age, not just facts, but entire stories can be easily faked and disseminated globally in a matter of minutes.  When falsehoods take over from truth, chaos follows.  This is not a new human condition.  The prophet Isaiah’s assessment of his society rings true today: “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey’” – Isiah 59:14:15.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” John 1:5

Today, Catholics and non-Christians stand on two different mountaintops, and have completely different ways of viewing the same reality.  Our challenge is bridging these worldviews, while not being branded a hater, or with the resultant “Isms and Phobia” labels.  To compound the challenge, for many the Catholic Church has lost credibility through the recent sexual scandals, and is no longer seen as an authoritative source of truth. Many governments no longer view the Catholic Church as a valued partner, and many recent actions suggest an emerging systematic discrimination against the Church. Catholic’s who forget their history and beliefs are at risk of being easily manipulated.  In the novel 1984, a memory hole was used for the deliberate alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts or other records.  Today, the history and story of the Catholic Church is being pushed down this proverbial memory hole.

Product branding involves telling a story until consumers become convinced it is true. What images come to mind when you think about Budweiser? Do you imagine healthy young people engaging in sports and having fun together, or do you picture obese sedentary people watching television?  Drinking lots of beer will not make you young, healthy, or athletic, rather, it will increase your chances of obesity and alcoholism. Yet for decades, Budweiser has invested billions of dollars in linking itself to youth, health, and sports, and many people subconsciously believe in this linkage.   While we may not agree with the message, one cannot deny its effectiveness.  In a similar manner, we need to continuously tell the story of our Catholic Faith.

Evangelization in this era of darkness must be based on trust in Christ’s words: “The truth will set you free” – John 8:32. Knowing truth in not sufficient, living it is key.  Living the truth means living according to God’s word in scripture, it means proclaiming the truth of the Gospel and the Catholic Church, not only by our words, but by our example.  Living the truth also means telling the truth and calling things by their right names, and that means exposing the lies by which some people try to force others to live.  We must always speak the truth in love, as they go hand-in-hand.

As our culture gets darker, the light of Christ, His peace, hope, and joy, will shine all the brighter in us. For Christ promised “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” – John 15:5. The proclamation of the Gospel is truth-telling. Evangelism is not merely a methodology or process, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work, as it involves real, complex human beings.  You will never have the perfect conditions to share the good news, but whatever the conditions, be mindful that you take love (truth’s companion) with you in any conversation.  Unless we continue to tell our story, the Church risks having its voice being drowned out by the great plethora of voices.  I leave you with the wisdom of Saint Paul “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  – 1 Corinthians 13

Losing My Religion

The band R.E.M. had their biggest hit in the early 90’s with their music video Losing My Religion.  The lyric comes from an old Southern colloquialism meaning that something so upsetting has happened “that you might lose your religion”.  The song’s effects were far reaching, and it has struck a chord with many people searching for meaning.  The song has evolved into an anthem for spiritual seekers, and a model for many young people who have lost their faith.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion

Losing My Religion debuted at a time when it was no longer fashionable to be Catholic.  The video employs religious imagery including a fallen angel, the Catholic martyr Saint Sebastian, and doubting Thomas probing wounds.   Lyricist Michael Stipe explained, the song’s lyrics are not about the loss of religion, but unrequited love.   Yet, as with many forms of art, the video’s religious imagery and lyrics powerfully project a loss of faith, and a suspicion of institutional religions.   

Losing My Religion has become a fact of American life. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 20% of the U.S. population and 33% of adults under age 30 identify with no religious group.  Many of these so called “nones” are Catholics who have lost their faith, or whose faith in the Church has been shaken.

The loss of faith is one of the most painful experiences imaginable, whether for a parent dealing with a young adult child, a victim of abuse whose faith in God was shattered, a childhood friend or sibling. Sometimes, the decision to abandon the faith is more deliberate and calculated, and not the result of some serious trauma.  The specter of losing the gift of our Catholic faith that we were given at baptism looms large in a world that has intentionally marginalized the supernatural, and in a Church that has ineffectively instructed her young children.  We have raised generations of Catholics who have been sacramentalized, but not evangelized.  Many in the church routinely go through litany, ritual, and sacraments, but have little or no personal relationship with God.

The history of salvation is about people having an encounter with God; an encounter that changes their lives, and ultimately changes the world. The Old Testament stories tell of the astounding and life changing encounters between God and his chosen people. The gospels tell the story of the profound and moving encounters between wounded people and Jesus, who meets them where they are and as they are.  Sadly, many Catholics have yet to hear with their hearts the Good News of Jesus Christ and His Church. 

The Good News of the Catholic Church is proclaimed most readily by those who live the gospel day by day in their lives. When we live out what we say we believe, others will also see that we have encountered Christ, and will sense that we live life in a new and greater dimension. People who see this transformation in us will often search for that same new life. Ultimately, this is how the New Evangelization will occur, just like the Old Evangelization, by lives on fire, transformed by an encounter with Jesus Christ the Lord. Today is the day to encounter the Lord, who will meet you where you are at.

Sunrise Sunset

There are two special moments in every day, sunrise and sunset. Each day is born with a sunrise and ends in a sunset. Each morning gives birth to a new sunrise. Each sunrise is unique, and offers its own personality to the Earth. The sunset calls us to remember the memories of the day, and ushers in the end of the day. Painters that have tried to capture a sunset, poets that have tried to describe it, and scientists that have tried to measure it. They all are trying to grasp that beauty, that truth, which is held within a sunset. Sunrise and sunsets are a great model for the Christian life.

Sunset

Like sunrises, life is a gift from God.  We are made in the image and likeness of God. Human life is sacred, and the sanctity of human life is the foundation of the Catholicism.  We rejoice at a birth of a child, and mourn at their death.  When Jesus was born in human form as a baby, the angels rejoiced, and when Lazarus died, Jesus wept.  There is great grief and sorrow when it comes to death, especially when the one who has died is someone we love.

Death is a topic that Catholics often prefer not to speak or reflect on.  Many fear death, especially as they approach the sunset of their life. Our culture often tries to sanitize death, to keep it as far as possible from the public view. Yet, our Christian faith affirms that death is not the end, life is changed, not ended.

At a Catholic’s death, a Requiem mass is often offered for the repose of the soul of the deceased person.  Through its funeral rites, the Catholic Church commends the dead to God’s merciful love, and brings hope and consolation to the living.  Our Christian hope faces the reality of death and the anguish of grief, but trusts confidently that the power of death has been vanquished by Jesus, through his death and resurrection.   The Requiem Mass is much like a wedding celebration, where Christ, the bridegroom, comes to take His bride to their new life, with His Father.    

A funeral Mass is a chance to say goodbye and to celebrate the life of the person you have loved. But it is also far more. It is the chance to worship God and to thank him for His inexplicable mercy, to proclaim and renew our faith in Jesus Christ, and to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that will immensely bless the person who has died. The funeral Mass, like everything we do as Catholics, is all about Jesus. 

Despite our hope of resurrection, death remains for many Catholics, painful and mysterious.  It involves a passage to new life, but we have no real understanding of what the after-life will look like.  The life that opens to us after we die is new life, it is not a replica of this life, but something completely transformed.  We have nothing in this life with which we can compare or imagine what after like will be like.  The Catholic teaching about new life is about a relationship of intimacy with God, the Beatific Vision, in which one achieves the fullness of who they are, as they behold God face to face, and find perfect happiness. Thomas Aquinas described the Beatific Vision as “the ultimate goal of human existence after physical death.”

If eternal life is a relationship with the God, then the way in which we must live in this life is to maturate our relationship with God .  We prepare for our relationship with Christ for all eternity by the way we live in relationship with him in this life. I leave you with the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, from his book The Great Divorce.  “That is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, “we have never lived anywhere except in heaven,’ and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”

The Nasty Bits: Fish Head Stew and Evangelization

Fishing is a great model of evangelization.  Fisherman are the type of person that Jesus desires.  Four of His first twelve disciples were fishermen. When He summoned them, He said, “Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men(Mark 1:17).  He also told Simon Peter, our first pope, “From now on you will catch men (Luke 5:10).   While catching fish can be fun, cleaning them is an unpleasing task. The fish are slimy, and you have to clean out their insides. Cleaning fish can take away the desire to eat the fish. However, if you persevere, the final product is always delicious. 

Cleaning Fish

As Catholics, we partake in the sacraments, and strive to learn more about God, so we can live for Him more effectively.  We grow our own faith, and have close encounters with Jesus in the sacraments.  Almost, as an afterthought, we want other people to grow deeper in their Catholic faith.  Often, however, we do not want to get involved in their messy lives and help them get cleaned up.  We would rather have someone else do the evangelization, as it can be an unpleasant job that takes courage. To help you in the task of evangelization, there are 5 rules of fishing which all Catholics should strive to follow in their evangelization efforts:

1. Go To Where The Fish Are

You will never catch a fish in your bath tub, because there are no fish in your tub.  Jesus was the preeminent fisherman, because He always went to where the fish were.  Jesus hung out with sinners. The religious leaders of His day ridiculed Him for eating and drinking with sinners.   As Catholics, we often forget that there are many people both inside and outside the church who need to know Jesus.  But we, His followers, don’t spend time sharing our faith, and our story. As baptized Catholics, we are commissioned to help as many people come to Jesus as we can.

2. Use The Right Bait

A fisherman knows that in order to catch fish, you have to use the right bait.  If you go fishing with the wrong bait, you will not catch anything.  In evangelization, the wrong bait is to be judgmental, critical, and condemning.  It is also important to be quiet when fishing, so as not to scare off the fish.  The same goes for evangelization, and having a listening heart is also important.  We can scare off people when we use the wrong bait, talk too much, and come across as condemning.  Jesus did not come to condemn people, but to save them (John 3:17).

3. Haul Into The Boat

While you can go to where the fish are, and use the right bait, you have not caught a thing until you get them in the boat. When people see our lives, hear our stories, begin to see how God is working in our lives, and are invited to become part of it, they will often join us in the mass and sacraments.  Life is full of fish stories, of the one that got away, fish that were hooked, but never brought into the boat, and Catholics who were never invited to become part of the Church.

4. Clean Them

Fishing is not complete until you clean the fish that you have caught.   There is a very important fishing principle we need to keep in mind when evangelizing.  You don’t clean fish until you catch them.  Many times, lost people feel judged by us rather than loved by us, because we are attacking the things they do.  Many people act the way that they do those because they are lost and wounded.  Out job is to lead them to Jesus, who will take them from lost to found.  

If you leave a fish in a bucket overnight, the next day all you will have is stinky fish.  It is not enough to invite someone to mass, as that is just the beginning. We evangelize by connecting people to scripture, church teachings, the sacraments, and other believers. Providing these connection points is one of the most important things we do to evangelize.   Lapsed Catholics, who are left to themselves and not connected to the church, become stinky fish. Remember that fish do not clean themselves.

The church is full of wounded people growing in their faith. Retrouvaille for married couples who are struggling,  Rachel’s Vineyard to rebuild and redeem hearts broken by abortion, Courage for men and women who experience same-sex attractions, and others.   In all of these Catholic ministries, God uses broken people, who have experienced various pains in their life, to lead others closer to Christ.   

5. Create Wonderful Meals

When it comes to fish, what most American’s prefer are the fillets, no bones, no tail, and above all, no fish head! In contrast, Jamaicans use the whole fish when cooking dishes such as Fish stew, not just because it’s wasteful not to, but also because the bones and the heads are where the flavor is.

In many ways, the Church it is like Fish stew.  As Americans, we often throw away the parts of the fish that are undesirable. Yet, there is value in the entire fish, both the good parts (filet), and the not-so-good parts (head, tails). The wise person takes what are viewed as the bad parts and turns them into a delectable Jamaican dish, fish stew.  In the same way, God takes our wounded experiences and turns them into powerful stories to help bring others closer to Him.

The problem with lost Catholics is not their profanity, or their dishonesty, or their immorality; they are lost and living like it.  Their real problem is they need to encounter Jesus and His Church.  Yes, they must repent, but that is part of conversion, and turning away from their sins.  When evangelizing, do not make their lifestyle the issue. Make Jesus the issue, and follow the wisdom of Saint Paul, “When I came to you…I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). If you want to help people be in heaven with you, start with Jesus, and let Him clean the fish and make a fish stew beyond your expectations.

Slipping on Banana Peels

Back in the 19th century, litter was a problem on many city streets. Banana peels were a particular concern as they became more slippery as they rotted into a greasy mess.   As a result, the banana peel became a common annoyance, a national joke. Slipping on a banana peel has become a classic comedy slapstick visual gag, which coined the popular phrase “slipping on a banana peel”.  Slipping on a banana is a model for modern’s society view of pregnancy and children.

1910 Postcard

Chastity is the most unpopular of all Catholic virtues. Catholic teaching is simple:  sexual relations between a man and woman are reserved to marriage. This teaching is so problematic and so contrary to our modern instincts, that either Catholicism is wrong, or our sexual instincts have gone astray. To many, this may seem a hard saying.  It is a teaching that many Catholic couples today, through no fault of their own, have not heard, or not heard in a way they could appreciate and understand.

Blessed Archbishop Fulton Sheen once lamented “Birth Control – the words are not very proper because those who believe in it actually believe neither in birth or control”. The impact of The Pill was radical, as it unleashed the reality that sex need not lead to pregnancy. Pregnancy roulette was over, and people were able to have sex anytime without consequences.  Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, understood this very well when he said that “The birth control pill separated procreation from sex”. The pill ushered in the contraceptive mentality, the belief that a couple can engage in sexual activity and avoid its natural consequences.

The notion of a pre-birth control pill world is unimageable to most people, including many in the Catholic Church. Our culture presents sex as merely recreational.  In this view, being responsible about sex simply means limiting its consequences; avoiding disease and using contraceptives to prevent pregnancy.  We have unleashed a hookup culture, where sex is between people who barely know each other’s last name. There is no love relationship; no commitment, and becoming pregnant is viewed as an accident, like slipping and falling on a banana peel.  The sexual revolution teaches that sex does not make babies; unprotected sex makes babies.  Society uses the phrase accidental pregnancy, yet it is a simple fact that sexual intercourse leads to a pregnancy.

We have become a culture that is defined by contraceptive sex and abortion. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court confirmed what the Catholic Church has long proclaimed: abortion is directly related to the use of contraception.  The court stated that “For two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.”

When a married couples act to suppress fertility, their marital relations are no longer complete.  Rather, it becomes something less powerful and intimate, something more casual and recreational. The total giving of oneself, body and soul, to one’s beloved is no time to say: “I give you everything I am, except my fertility”. The Church’s teaching is not about observing a rule, but about preserving the total, mutual gift of two persons in its integrity.

Many people think the Church teaching on Chastity is judgmental and intolerant, and honestly believe that what they are doing is fine. Catholics who believe that there are ambiguities in the Church’s teaching on Chastity, or that it is up for debate, are ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room. Married love is embodied in the spouses’ sexual relationship, when they most fully express what it means to become “one body” (Genesis 2:24) or “one flesh” (Mk 10:8). The Church teaches that the sexual union of husband and wife expresses the full meaning of love, its power to bind a couple together, and its openness to new life. I leave you with the prophetic words of Archbishop Chaput:

“There will be no renewal of America without renewal of the Catholic Church, and no renewal of the Catholic Church without renewal of the Catholic family, and no renewal of the Catholic family without a bold proclamation of the sacred truths regarding the transmission of human life.”

Trust God, He knows what He is doing.

By The Light Of The Silvery Moon

The more we learn about the Earth and moon, the more we discover how closely they are connected. What science is increasingly discovering is how moonlight influences life in a surprising and subtle way. For people living in cities blazing with artificial lights, it can be difficult to imagine how dramatically moonlight can change the night landscape.  Not too long ago, before electric lights, farmers relied on moonlight to harvest autumn crops. With everything ripening at once, there was too much work to do to stop at sundown. A bright full moon, a “Harvest Moon”, allowed farmers to continue into the night.    Throughout the animal world, the presence or absence of moonlight, and the changes in its brightness across the lunar cycle, guide a range of activities including reproduction, foraging and communication. Amazingly, a 2003 study demonstrated that African dung beetles use polarized moonlight as a compass! 

Moonlight

Mary is like the moon. The moon only reflects the sunlight, and without the sun, the moon is just a rock. However, with the sun, the moon becomes radiant and bright.  The moon takes nothing away from the sun, it just reflects its light. So too is Mary reflecting the light of Her Son. Without Him, she is but another woman, and with Him, she is the Mother of God. Scripture teaches that “All generations will call Her Blessed”, and we refer to her as our Blessed Mother.

Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, Mary is a reflection of the light of her son, Jesus. Blessed Fulton Sheen wrote “God who made the sun, also made the moon.  The moon does not take away from the brilliance of the sun.  All its light is reflected from the sun.  The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son; without Him, she is nothing.  With Him, she is the Mother of men”. Mary, far from detracting from the light of Christ, she acts as a light shining in the darkest times to point us toward the source of true light, Jesus.

Just like the bond between the moon and the earth exists, the bond and love between Jesus and Mary is unlike any human and spiritual love that this world has ever known.  St. Alphonsus Liguori described Mary as the gentle light of the moon and Jesus as the brightness of noonday sun. The moon’s gentle light does not overwhelm.  Mary’s gentle light calls us to trust in her Son, who lights our path by day and night. Sometimes too much truth can be blinding. After all, we observe the moon best when we are in the dark.  Questioning Catholics are often not ready to embrace the full truth of the Gospel, and the bright light of Christ. Mary is able to gently light the darkness in our spiritual life, and provide a bridge for us to return to a fuller communion with the Church and her Son.

Consider lunar and solar eclipses, where the moon and the sun interest. Eclipses are like the Hearts of Mary and Jesus, where they intersect. They embrace and remind us of their unity of purpose, to bring sinners back to God. Both the Sun and the Moon are necessary for different purposes on earth, yet they work together for our benefit, just like Jesus and Mary. From the beginning of life on earth, the moon, without ever touching us, without generating light or heat of its own, profoundly shapes the rhythms of Earth and its collective life forms. The moon, our silver sister, is always right here with us, awash in our seas, pooling in our eyes, written into the earth’s very design.  

My hope is for Catholics to increase their love and devotion to Mary, our Blessed Mother, and for Christians to “Behold thy Mother” and “Call her blessed.”   In doing so, you will honor Christ’s mother, and grow closer to her Son!

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