Sunday, August 30, 2009

10 Episcopal Nuns in Archdiocese of Baltimore to Join Catholic Church

Nice little story about Anglican nuns (and an Anglican priest) and their return to Rome.

BALTIMORE, Md. (Catholic Review) - After seven years of prayer and discernment, a community of Episcopal nuns and their chaplain will be received into the Roman Catholic Church during a Sept. 3 Mass celebrated by Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien.

The archbishop will welcome 10 sisters from the Society of All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor when he administers the sacrament of confirmation and the sisters renew their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the chapel of their Catonsville convent.

Episcopal Father Warren Tanghe will also be received into the church and is discerning the possibility of becoming a Catholic priest.

Mother Christina Christie, superior of the religious community, said the sisters are “very excited” about joining the Catholic Church and have been closely studying the church’s teachings for years. Two Episcopal nuns who have decided not to become Catholic will continue to live and minister alongside their soon-to-be Catholic sisters. Members of the community range in age from 59 to 94.

“For us, this is a journey of confirmation,” Mother Christina said. “We felt God was leading us in this direction for a long time.”

Wearing full habits with black veils and white wimples that cover their heads, the sisters have been a visible beacon of hope in Catonsville for decades.

The American branch of a society founded in England, the All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor came to Baltimore in 1872 and have been at their current location since 1917.

In addition to devoting their lives to a rigorous daily prayer regimen, the sisters offer religious retreats, visit people in hospice care and maintain a Scriptorium where they design religious cards to inspire others in the faith.

Throughout their history, the sisters worked with the poor of Baltimore as part of their charism of hospitality. Some of that work has included reaching out to children with special needs and ministering to AIDS patients. Together with Mount Calvary Church, an Episcopal parish in Baltimore, the sisters co-founded a hospice called the Joseph Richey House in 1987.

Orthodoxy and unity were key reasons the sisters were attracted to the Catholic faith. Many of them were troubled by the Episcopal Church’s approval of women’s ordination, the ordination of a gay bishop and what they regarded as lax stances on moral issues.

“We kept thinking we could help by being a witness for orthodoxy,” said Sister Mary Joan Walker, the community’s archivist.

Mother Christina said that effort “was not as helpful as we had hoped it would be.”

“People who did not know us looked at us as if we were in agreement with what had been going on (in the Episcopal Church),” she said. “By staying put and not doing anything, we were sending a message which was not correct.”

Before deciding to enter the Catholic Church, the sisters had explored Episcopal splinter groups and other Christian denominations. Mother Christina noted that the sisters had independently contemplated joining the Catholic Church without the others knowing. When they found out that most of them were considering the same move, they took it as a sign from God and reached out to Archbishop O’Brien.

“This is very much the work of the Holy Spirit,” Mother Christina said.

The sisters acknowledged it hasn’t been easy leaving the Episcopal Church, for which they expressed great affection. Some of their friends have been hurt by their pending departure, they said.

“Some feel we are abandoning the fight to maintain orthodoxy,” said Sister Emily Ann Lindsey. “We’re not. We’re doing it in another realm right now.”

The sisters have spent much of the past year studying the documents of the Second Vatican Council. They said there were few theological stumbling blocks to entering the church, although some had initial difficulty with the concept of papal infallibility.

In addition to worshipping in the Latin rite, the sisters have received permission from the archbishop to attend Mass celebrated in the Anglican-use rite – a liturgy that adapts many of the prayers from the Episcopal tradition. Mother Christina said 10 archdiocesan priests, including Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden, have stepped forward to learn how to celebrate the Anglican-use Mass.

The sisters expressed deep affection for Pope Benedict XVI. The pope exercises an authority that Episcopal leaders do not, they said. The unity that Christ called for can be found in the Catholic Church under the leadership of the pope, they said.

“Unity is right in the midst of all this,” said Sister Catherine Grace Bowen. “That is the main thrust.”

The sisters noted with a laugh that their love for the pope is evident in the name they chose for their recently adopted cat, “Benedict XVII” – a feline friend they lovingly call “His Furyness.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Does the Letter to the Hebrews Deny the Sacrifice of the Mass?

A good friend of mine recently brought to my attention several passages from the Letter to the Hebrews concerning the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and how it superseded the many eternally useless sacrifices of the Jewish people in the Old Covenant. Drawing the very biblical conclusion that “[Jesus did not] offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary with blood that is not his own; if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world. But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice” (Hebrews 9:25-26), my friend in warm, Christian charity sought to point out the possibility of grave error in Catholic teaching in regards to the daily offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, Catholics hold that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, Second Vatican Council) and since the Eucharist can only be confected by a validly ordained priest or bishop through the Sacrifice of the Mass, it would seem that these central beliefs could be misleading, if not simply false.

True, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks often of Jesus’ single, perfect, unrepeatable sacrifice in atonement for our sins, but this in no way means that the Sacrifice of the Mass is somehow an additional sacrifice which attempts to do something Christ failed to do in His singe, perfect, unrepeatable sacrifice on the cross. To draw a parallel between the Mass and the empty sacrifices of the Jewish people is to misunderstand the Mass altogether. Hebrews also tells us that Jesus entered into heaven where He even now stands before His Father on our behalf (“For Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf,” Hebrews 9:24). The Book of Revelation adds to this by further describing Jesus in heaven as “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Thus John was pointing out the eternal aspect of His sacrifice. Even now Jesus is before God “standing as if slain” (Revelation 5:6) and the eternity of His sacrifice is thus applicable for future believers as well as those dating back to the foundations of the world. Because Jesus is both God and Man, His sacrifice occurred “once and for all” in time and space but it is timeless and ongoing in regards to eternity. Indeed, if the merits of Jesus’ sacrifice were only applicable “once for all” then no one outside of His lifetime could benefit from it.

But what does that have to do with the Sacrifice of the Mass? Sure, the grace Jesus merited by His death on the cross is accessible to us because of His eternal presentation of His sacrifice to the Father, but doesn’t His being in the timeless, purely spiritual realm of Heaven clearly differentiate itself from a very physical, repeated sacrifice by Catholics on Earth? No on many counts.

Obviously we can all agree that new blood sacrifices on our part are simply meaningless in regards to making atonement for the eternal consequences of sin and, as the Bible clearly teaches, it is by Jesus’ sacrifice that we may have hope of salvation. Catholics believe this as much as Protestants. So what then is the connection between the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrifice of Christ on the cross – for there must be some connection if Catholics have such strong beliefs about both! The Catechism of the Catholic Church said it clearly in paragraph 1367: “The sacrifice of Christ [on the cross] and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.” In His wisdom, God decided to allow us to participate in Jesus’ “once for all” sacrifice by making it accessible in the Mass. The Mass in no way competes with or replaces the one sacrifice of Jesus but rather makes it present for us today on the Catholic altars throughout the world. Jesus promised to be with us always – and He keeps His promise in a particular way through the Eucharist. The Eucharist is given to us to help us become holy. Remember, you are what you eat and to become the holy, body of Christ we Catholics partake of the body of Christ!

Of course, both the Eucharist and the Mass are mysteries of the Faith and can in no way be fully explained in human words – but the sacrificial character of the Eucharist is a Biblical and historical FACT. Paul, for example, in his First Letter to the Corinthians implicitly acknowledges this in the following passage:

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. Look at Israel according to the flesh; are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? So what am I saying? That meat sacrificed to idols is anything? Or that an idol is anything? No, I mean that what they sacrifice, (they sacrifice) to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to become participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and also the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:16-21).

Paul is thus comparing the sacrifices of the pagans and the Jews to the Christian sacrifice of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharistic sacrifice, for to speak both of the “table of the Lord” and the “table of demons” and also of the “cup of the Lord” and the “cup of demons” is to speak of both using sacrificial language. What’s more, Paul is pointing out that Christian unity is fostered by the Eucharist! No wonder Jesus said as much at the Last Supper (where he instituted the Eucharist) when he spoke of the need for Christians to remain one – and to make that happen, He gave us the Eucharist!

The Letter to the Hebrews also refers to an Old Testament allusion to the Eucharistic sacrifice in that the letter describes Jesus as the “high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” But who was Melchizedek and what was his priestly sacrifice? Melchizedek blessed Abraham, the father of the great monotheistic religions, and offered God a sacrifice of bread and wine! Thus Melchizedek prefigured both the blessing Jesus would bring all humanity through His sacrifice of Himself in one sacrifice of the cross and the Mass.

But the concept of the Eucharist and the Mass as a Christian sacrifice is also a historical fact. Check out the following quotes from Christians in the 1st-2nd centuries:

"Assemble on the Lord’s day [Sunday], and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until he has been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, ‘Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations’ [Mal. 1:11, 14]" (Didache, 70 AD).

"Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its sacrifices.” (St. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, 96 AD).

"Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his Blood, and one single altar of sacrifice—even as there is also but one bishop, with his clergy and my own fellow servitors, the deacons. This will ensure that all your doings are in full accord with the will of God" (St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Philadelphians, 107 AD).

"He took from among creation that which is bread, and gave thanks, saying, ‘This is my body.’ The cup likewise, which is from among the creation to which we belong, he confessed to be his blood. He taught the new sacrifice of the new covenant, of which Malachi, one of the twelve [minor] prophets, had signified beforehand: ‘You do not do my will, says the Lord Almighty, and I will not accept a sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is my name among the Gentiles, says the Lord Almighty’ [Mal. 1:10–11]. By these words he makes it plain that the former people will cease to make offerings to God; but that in every place sacrifice will be offered to him, and indeed, a pure one, for his name is glorified among the Gentiles" (St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies, 189 AD).

We must also remember that the incarnation is a permanent act on God’s part. To assume heaven is a purely spiritual realm denies the reality of the incarnation, for Jesus still has His human body now and will have it forever. In a real way, Heaven and Earth are in contact at “God’s end” through the bodily presence of Jesus (and Mary, as Catholics believe) in Heaven. Furthermore, Catholics would argue that the reverse is true of Earth by Jesus’ bodily presence in the Eucharist throughout the tabernacles of the world. In a special way, at Mass Heaven and Earth touch as Jesus becomes present with us on the altar and then enters into our bodies through Holy Communion. If that’s not having “a personal relationship with Jesus” then I don’t know what is. Indeed, when looked at from this perspective it is quite easy to understand why Catholics believe the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian faith” just as Vatican II taught!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What is the Catholic Religion?

Now, how believable is that? Honestly, is it even remotely likely this logical listener will jump on the bandwagon? I'm guessing no, unless he was told from birth that it is all true and has no doubt that everything is true. Doesn't it sound a bit like a fairy tale? I mean, zero, physical evidence is provided for all of these claims. What reason would you have to believe that?”

The above statement was posed regarding the legitimacy of the Catholic religion. Of course, one must wonder what these questions and conclusions are based on; how does one define the thing being critiqued? The writer offers the following description:

Now suppose you meet someone who says that indeed, there is an invisible man who lives in the sky, created you, the Earth, and everything. In order then for you to live morally, you must have a Church to guide you and tell you things. You are incapable of doing it on your own, as you are from a fallen race of beings. There is this book too, which has been passed down from the Stone Ages from this invisible man himself, and you must read it, follow it, and worship this invisible man. Oh, and this invisible man left no trace of his existence, because he is not observable in any way.

Also, this invisible man created another invisible being, called Satan, who he is at war with for eternity. When you die, you go to an eternal heaven to live with this invisible man in the sky. This is because you have an eternal, unchanging soul - a soul you had from before you were born - that leaves your unworthy body to go to this Heaven.

However, if you disobey this invisible man with the freedom that he gave you, he will send you to a Hell where you will burn forever in pain for all eternity, away from your creator. This will be the most painful, worst suffering imaginable. This is what your heavenly father does to his children who don't follow him. You burn. But he loves you...

It is a very interesting and thought provoking description; however it is not a description of the Catholic religion. While most textbooks lump together Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as “Peoples of the Book” I would argue in a simple form that we might describe the Catholic religion in two ways: 1) as a people of the Word, and 2) as an incarnational people.

1) People of the Word: Though Protestants might describe themselves as a People of the Book, Catholics understand that the Word of God is not simply a book but a Person. It is to this Person, this Word, that the entire religion hinges and the entire human race depends. Unfortunately this Person was not mentioned once in the above description of the Catholic religion. To understand the Word, we must understand a dogma. “Dogma,” however, is a term that somehow inspires thoughts of boredom and closed-mindedness. Thus before I proceed, I’ll let Chesterton speak of dogmas as the first principle of Catholicism and really its most intellectually interesting part:

“If [one] would condescend to ask what the dogmas are, he would find out that it is precisely the dogmas that are living, that are inspiring, that are intellectually interesting. Zeal and charity… are admirable as flowers and fruit; but if you are really interested in the living principle you must be interested in the root or the seed. In other words, you must be intelligently interested in the statement with which the whole thing started; even if it is only to deny it. Even if the critic cannot come to agree with the Catholic, he can come to see that it is certain ideas about the Cosmos that make him a Catholic… He will never get anywhere near it by sentimentalizing against Catholic sentiment or pontificating against Catholic pontiffs. [One] must get hold of the ideas as ideas; and he will find that the most interesting of all the ideas are those which the newspapers dismiss as dogmas.”

Now the dogma alluded to earlier which must be understood is the dogma of the Trinity. I admit I can nowhere come close to explaining, much less defending, this dogma here but I will make a one-paragraph attempt. Now if one allows for the existence of a personal transcendent deity we could put forth the argument that this deity, as a subject, has an understanding or conception of himself – but this self-thought or self-idea would not be limited by time or space and would thus contain all that God is. This Thought (“logos” in Greek translates as “thought,” “idea,” and “word”) is distinct from the Thinker yet “one-in-being” with the Thinker. What’s more, we understand the Logos, or “Word/Thought,” as more importantly a Son. Now instead of the Son having a self-Thought of his own, he turns back to the Father (the Thinker) and from their union proceeds the outpouring love which we call God the Holy Spirit. The three united by one Nature yet distinct in Person.

2) Incarnational People: None of the above could be discovered using the scientific method, but that is not to say that God left us with zero evidence. Catholics believe that God the Father sent us His Son, the self-Thought and mind of God, to capture our hearts and elevate us to a shared participation in the Trinitarian family which is God. This sending happened in a real place at a real time. It can be verified by history and witnessed to in the lives of Catholic saints and martyrs. Look at the lives of the Apostles who were all, save one, brutally tortured to death for proclaiming that Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead, is God the Son. Why would they each allow themselves to be tortured to death for a lie? I mean, maybe a couple might if they were crazy, but not all of them. What’s more, there are many who say Jesus was a wise teacher but not God. These people miss out on the fact that Jesus claimed to be God! Now if my neighbor approached me and said he was God, I’d think twice before considering him a “wise” man. He’s either one of three things: a liar, a lunatic, or Lord God.

But one may still be wondering what the concept of an “incarnational people” really means. First of all it means that we consent to another dogma: the dogma of the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that God the Son joined to his divine nature to a human nature and that from his conception and on into the vastness of eternity, God the Son is perfectly God and perfectly human. Forever. In effect, the Incarnation meant that God humanized his divinity and divinized our humanity (with neither the humanity nor divinity overwhelming the other). And not simply that, he allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by humanity in the process, and then used this most evil of acts (deicide) to produce man’s greatest good: our redemption. That is love. True, we “are from a fallen race of beings” as the writer indicates, but this primordial Fall became the seed of God’s rescue plan. St. Athanasius pointed out the entire crux of Christianity when he said: “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of men could become the sons of God.” In other words, God shared in our human nature so that we could share in his divine nature (the theological term “grace,” by the way, refers to a created sharing in God’s nature).

Thus it’s not about going to hell for not following the rules or needing some Church in order to be moral, as the above writer thought, but rather about sharing in divine life and being supernaturally adopted into the divine family. Or as C.S. Lewis wrote in the essay God or Rabbit?: “The people who keep on asking if they can’t lead a decent life without [Jesus], don’t know what life is about; if they did they would know that ‘a decent life’ is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods [in a loose, not formal sense], intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear—the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.”

Secondly, the term “incarnational people” refers to the way in which Catholics (a) believe, (b) act, and (c) worship. According to (a), there is no such thing as an “unworthy body” for God the Son had and still has a human body in heaven. This in turn leads to (b) in that we recognize the worth of our bodies in parallel with the fact that God has joined a human body to himself for all eternity. Finally (3), matter is of great importance to the Catholic because God has forever united himself to matter through a human body. It is the Protestant who misses this point and distrusts matter. They deny any real power behind water baptism (by which we enter into the divine family) because “God can’t work through matter” – yet they agree that Jesus is God come in the flesh (and if human flesh isn’t material then what is it?) and thus redeems us through matter!

Furthermore, the Incarnation recognized that we are both matter and spirit and that we must interact with God in both matter and spirit. To this end, Jesus instituted a Church that has a physical and spiritual dimension. He gave this Church “sacraments” which are physical signs that point to, and actualize, spiritual realities. In short, the Catholic Church, instituted by God, treats man as he is: material and spiritual. This dual nature of man becomes a problem for the materialist (who believes everything is only matter) and the Buddhist (who believes everything is only spirit). Both the materialist and the Buddhist, however, make their metaphysical claims but then fail to act accordingly. The materialist gives answers in purely material terms and then throws out his material principles as soon he enters the real world – for if all that exists is matter and matter is competitive then there is no reason to be moral; yet the materialist acts as if there was a real right and wrong. The same is true of the Buddhist who claims not to believe in a material world at all yet looks both ways before crossing the road. Here we have two philosophies at both ends of a spectrum but neither position “works” in the real world. Everyone has a philosophy that cannot be proven by the scientific method (but neither can the scientific method be proven by the scientific method), thus we should judge a philosophy not solely by whether we can prove it’s ‘truthiness’ (as Stephen Colbert would say) but rather by how its views stand up in the lives of real people. The Catholic religion, like other religions and philosophies, gives answers to questions. Though these answers cannot be verified by the scientific method, the glove-like answers of the Catholic religion fit our human, hand-shaped nature perfectly. This is why for two-thousand years the Catholic religion has been providing the world with joy-filled saints who have done more for the world and the human race than all the materialists and Buddhists in human history.

It would seem to me that the Protestant fundamentalist and the materialist atheist suffer from one similar problem. While the Protestant fundamentalist looks to the Bible alone for truth and treats it as if it can interpret itself, the materialist atheist looks to matter alone for truth and treats it as if it can interpret itself. The Protestant somehow thinks the Bible just fell out of the sky as if it were always there and the materialist is by his position forced to believe that matter either popped into existence (“fell out of the sky” so to speak) or was simply always there. The Catholic religion alone provides a place for which the origins of both can be legitimately explained in relation to human nature and sanity. As C.S. Lewis said: "I felt in my bones that this universe does not explain itself." I would argue that the same is true of the Bible.

Furthermore, neither the Protestant fundamentalist nor the materialist atheist has any reason to believe in founding their authoritative truths on the Bible or on matter. For the materialist, I ask him to prove to me that matter is even “there” to begin with. There have been philosophers and philosophies (from the Berkeley to Buddhism) that claim that matter does not exist, and the materialist must then somehow prove, without using something the materialist might call matter, that matter is real. As to the Protestant fundamentalist, G.K. Chesterton muses about the historically proven connection of the Bible to the Catholic religion when he speaks of the Reformation: “To an impartial pagan or skeptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men [i.e. Protestants] rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed "Psalms" or "Gospels"; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures?”

What is my reason for believing in the Bible? Well in short (and perhaps much too short), once I accept the existence of God, the Trinity, and the divinity of Christ, I can simply look at first-second century Christian history and see that a mission was given to men who appointed bishops as their successors. Once given the Holy Spirit, these men (though sinful and fallible by their own measure) were somehow promised by Jesus (God incarnate) infallibility when united and in speaking in matters of faith and morals. These men and their successors compiled the Bible and (most importantly) determined which books belonged in the Bible and which did not. Thus the grounding chain of infallibility goes: Jesus Christ-Church-Bible. In other words, I believe in the Bible because I believe in the Catholic Church and I believe in the Catholic Church because I believe in Jesus Christ. This logical chain of authority, while having to be accepted by faith, is what has kept and is what continues to keep me ever untied to the Catholic religion.

When he was asked what keeps him Catholic, St. Augustine in 397 AD gave the following reasons: "The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15-17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And last, the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called 'Catholic,' when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house."

Of course, there are many, many more reasons why I am a Catholic, but I leave it to G.K. Chesterton who summed it up nicely when he said: “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”