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What do we know about Saint Joseph?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 12, December 2013 Categories: Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History
Virgin Mary Saint Joseph Baby Jesus
ICON of the Holy Family.


Almost nothing; the New Testament pickings are slim. The Gospel of Mark eliminates Joseph from the story, beginning its narration in Jesus’ adulthood. John’s gospel mentions Joseph once in passing. Luke tells the infancy story from Mary’s perspective, making her the principal actor. The Gospel of Matthew alone highlights Joseph’s role in salvation history. It is here we meet Joseph the dreamer who, like his namesake in the Book of Genesis, learns heaven’s purposes for him while he sleeps.

We can fill in some blanks from what’s known about Jewish customs of the 1st century. Marriages were enacted as early as 13 for males, 12 for females. Nothing in the gospels betrays Joseph as an older man, a widower, or theologically better suited to be Mary’s chaste guardian than her husband. That the earliest gospel calls the adult Jesus “son of Mary” rather than Joseph, however, suggests his father was absent, dead, or suspect. This resonates with Mary known to be with child before the marriage, and/or that Joseph was dead by the time Jesus grew up. Luke and John prefer to call Jesus “son of Joseph,” restoring respect to his patrimony. Luke adds pointedly, “As was thought.” When the family of Jesus comes around during his ministry, his father is conspicuously absent.

Jesus is called a carpenter and carpenter’s son, which is how we know his father’s occupation. The last time Joseph makes an appearance in the story is when Jesus is 12 and goes missing in Jerusalem. Mary remains in the company of Jesus until the Crucifixion, when her care is transferred to the beloved disciple, confirming that Joseph is already dead.

In Matthew’s portrait we encounter Joseph the righteous man who, understandably, does not want to marry a woman who turns up pregnant without his participation. Of two possible legal solutions—exposure to violent punishment or quiet divorce by paperwork—Joseph chooses the gentler. Then heaven intervenes and gives him consequential second thoughts. He takes Mary into his home and gives her his full protection. That is an enormous concession to the divine will, especially given the church’s insistence on Mary’s perpetual virginity. We always want more from Joseph. He’s already given quite a lot.

Genesis 37:5-11; Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-23; 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; Luke 1:26-27; ch. 2; 3:23; 4:22; John 6:42

The Life and Prayers of Saint Joseph by Wyatt North (Wyatt North Publishing, e-book)

The Mystery of Joseph
by Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P. (Zaccheus Press)

Why is there a church calendar?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 03, December 2013 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Liturgy,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Catholic Church Year
Liturgical Calendar

Calendars are about time and the human need to harness it. Starting in the ancient world religions employed calendars, but you didn’t have to be a Mayan priest or a Stonehenge druid to care when the sun and moon were in this phase or that. You just needed to be a farmer—or to depend on one for your survival.

Ancient Israel’s calendar traced the turn of the seasons and celebrated their influence on the natural world. Sowing was an occasion for intercessory prayer and harvesting the time for praise and thanksgiving: “Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy” (Psalm 126:5). The feasts of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles were all originally harvest festivals.

Calendars, however, do more than note predictable, cyclical events. They also commemorate significant past events, such as battles won or important goals achieved. So Passover became the ultimate commemoration, remembering the signature victory over Pharaoh’s armies and captivity itself. Hanukkah, a more minor feast, reminisces about another victory regarding religious liberty. It should be noted that none of these events were considered secular occasions, because God was understood to be the source of all movements in the created order.

Christianity, with its roots in Jewish thought and practice, adopted its sense of the sacred character of time from Israelite history. Jesus grounded the meaning of the first Eucharistic ritual in the liberation event of Passover; as a result the celebration of Easter is configured each year with the Jewish Passover, and the entire liturgical year conforms backwards and forwards from that date. The need to embrace the sacred character of all of life’s seasons, both tearful and joyful, remains evident in the longing of Advent, the penitential nature of Lent, and the alleluias of Easter.

The church continues to acknowledge divine victories won over sin and death in both the Incarnation and the Paschal mysteries celebrated at Christmas and Easter. It honors the harvest of the church reaped at Pentecost and the long season dedicated to growth—both seen and unseen—in Ordinary Time.

Today’s religious calendar commemorates mystical events and spiritual victories rather than agrarian events and military battles, but it still assists in harnessing time and organizing it for optimal use. Liturgical cycles help us remember our story and the identity we bear as heirs to this history. It acknowledges the sacred character of time in witnessing to the goodness and faithfulness of God. Most of all it reminds us of the many reasons we have to give thanks.

Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 16:1-17; Isaiah 9:2; Hosea 8:7; Matthew 13:37-43; John 4:35-38; 1 Corinthians 9:10-11; Revelation 14:15-20

• The Roman Catholic calendar for A.D. 2014

Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross (InterVarsity Press)

What is the “deposit of faith”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 15, November 2013 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

The phrase has an interesting history. It was first used as a technical term at the Council of Trent (1545-63) and implied the full treasure of the church’s teachings. The deposit includes the canon of scripture, the sacraments, and all teachings since apostolic times. It was understood in church tradition that revelation ended with the generation of the apostles: Therefore the deposit of faith is closed to further additions or subtractions. What church tradition has done since that era is to “reap the interest,” so to speak, on that original deposit with any ensuing teaching.

Of course it’s also true that the church’s treasure is not a thing but a person: Jesus Christ himself, “a living resource” of truth and salvation, as theologian Nancy Dallavalle puts it. So while the deposit of faith is “unchanging” since the apostles, it’s nevertheless quite alive.

The introduction of the term came at an embattled time in church history, when “what is truth?” was more than a rhetorical question in light of the Reformation’s many challenges to tradition. The "deposit of faith" became a catch-phrase through the documents of the First Vatican Council (1869-70), a gathering that sought above all to fix the body of truth infallibly and for all time in the face of Enlightenment questions.

Vatican II (1962-1965) revived the term under new conditions. By this time scripture itself was undergoing a sea change in scholarly understanding, and the community of faith was asking the “what is truth?”question less defensively. This council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation saw the sacred commission of a deposit of faith as entrusted to the whole church and not as the sole possession of its magisterium or teaching authority. The subsequent encouragement of scripture study by scholars and the laity alike was one way the church incorporated this newfound appreciation concretely.

The opening of the Eucharist to the vernacular and the laity’s increased participation in many liturgical roles also enlarged the shared sense of responsibility for the treasury of tradition. The fresh articulation of church doctrine that sprang from the council was a surprising indication of how much the Christian community could hear as new from such an ancient vault of treasure. Which reminds us again that the real deposit of faith is not a trove of documents but a living person: Jesus Christ.

Matthew 5:17-19; 6:19-21; 13:51-53; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 2 Timothy 1:12-14; 2:11-13; 3:10-17

"The Deposit of Faith" from the the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix

The New World of Faith by Avery Dulles (Our Sunday Visitor)
New Evangelization: Passing on the Christian Faith Today
by Donald Wuerl (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013)

What’s the purpose of incense?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 06, November 2013 Categories: Liturgy,Church History,Prayer and Spirituality

Incense was big in ancient religions. You can appreciate why when you think about how much blood was splashed around in ritual sacrifices or how troublesome the smell of bodies (both living and deceased) was in the time before modern hygiene. The perfume industry did well in a world where peculiar odors were the rule rather than the exception. It covered a multitude of sins in more ways than one.


Like most ritual elements, its practical use laid the groundwork for a spiritual interpretation as well. The sweet smell that cloaked odors also drove out evil spirits and welcomed the divine Presence. Smoke provides a certain amount of concealment, too, which is why we speak of a “smokescreen” (effectively used by the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz!). This veil of mystery hints at the sacred One who cannot be seen by mortal eyes. Smoke rises toward the sky, traditionally the dwelling place of the divine. It’s no surprise that the psalm popularly prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours declares: “Let my prayer be incense before you” (Psalm 141:1-2). We also “lift up our hearts” to God in prayer at every Mass. Everything that goes to God, goes up.

Incense comes from the Latin word for “something burned.” It was produced from the resin of trees and burned either in a swinging thurible pot or a stationary brazier. The first is useful for incensing around a crowd of people, as we do at Mass. The second works for producing a cloud around an altar or sacred object.

Before the Second Vatican Council the use of incense was restricted only to High Masses. Now it can be used at any Mass: to honor the sacrament, the assembly and presider, the gospel book, the ambo and altar. The first recorded use of incense in Christian rituals was at a funeral in the year 311, and it’s still used to reverence the body of the deceased at funerals today—reminding us that the destiny of the loved one, as our own destiny, is to unite with God in the life to come.

As liturgist Paul Philibert elegantly expresses it: “Incense, the fragrant, lovely substances that allows itself to be consumed and to float off into indeterminate space beyond our reach, signifies the loving entrustment of our lives to God’s providence.” The sign of incense, burned to ashes yet producing a pleasing fragrance in its surrender, symbolizes our capitulated self-interest in radical trust in the divine will.

Exodus 30:1-10; Psalm 141:1-2; Sirach 24:15; Isaiah 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20; Matthew 2:11; Mark 14:8; John 12:3, 7

Seeing and Believing: Images of Christian Faith by Frank Kacmarcik and Paul Philibert (Liturgical Press, 1995)
The Symbols of the Church, ed. by Maurice Dilasser (Liturgical Press, 2000)

What is “mission”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 29, October 2013 Categories: Scripture,Church History,Mission & Evangelization
“THE CHURCH does not have missions; it is mission.” So says Father Robert Schreiter, C.P.P.S., missiologist, offering the best word on the subject. Mission is the reason the church exists, if we’ve heard Jesus’ command to go, preach, and baptize correctly. Why take the good news to the ends of the earth? Because the good news about God and humanity is meant for a wider audience than the already convinced. Even Abraham was told: “All the families of the earth will find blessing in you” (Genesis 12:3). The Israelites were chosen to be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) as a universal revelation of the one God, which is why the Bible doesn’t start with the story of Israel but with the first human beings. Everyone is invited to share the blessing.

The Jewish community, however, did not evolve into an evangelizing community. Jonah is the only prophet who takes an oracle from God outside of his own nation—and he’s not happy about having to do it. While Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets view Israel as an illuminating presence among the nations, they seem content to leave it at that. Matthew’s gospel, the most Jewish of the four, echoes this perspective in limiting the mission of Jesus and the 12 apostles to Israel (with problematic exceptions to that rule). Mark reveals a more proactive mission as Jesus moves back and forth between Jewish and Gentile territory. John’s account, considerably less invested in the mission of the apostles, describes the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene running to tell what they’ve witnessed.

While Mark and Matthew both see the tools of mission to be preaching, healing, and dispelling demons, John declares the mission of Jesus is “to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). In Luke and Acts the goal of mission is to preach and do justice. When Saint Paul picks up the mission to the Gentiles, he emphasizes the gospel of reconciliation that establishes peace where there was only division.

William Stanley
MARYKNOLL missionary priest
Fr. William Stanley, M.M. in Tanzania.
The church has continually reshaped its understanding of mission, from spreading the gospel to individuals on the one hand to mass (sometimes forced) baptisms on the other. In 1919 Pope Benedict XV uncoupled colonial goals from evangelization. Pius XI championed the ordination of indigenous bishops in mission territories. Pius XII and John XXIII saw the need for more sensitivity to local culture in the mission field, which John Paul II liked to call “inculturation.” Today, works of justice, inculturation, and a dialogue form of evangelization are the hallmarks of Catholic Christian mission.

Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 49:6; the Book of Jonah; Matthew 15:24; 28:16-20; Mark 1:38; John 4:4-42; 18:37; 20:1-18; Luke 4:18-19; 24:47; Acts of the Apostles 1:8

• Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes, Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church
• Pope John Paul II encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio (1990—on the 25th anniversary of Ad Gentes)
• United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, To the Ends of the Earth: A Pastoral Statement on World Mission

Why is marriage a sacrament?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 02, October 2013 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
That isn’t a question asked of other sacraments that clearly have a religious purpose. One might say marriage grew into sacramentality along the way of church history. Of course people married before Jesus showed up. The Bible treats the marriage arrangements of Israel’s patriarchs and kings with great interest, and the Books of Ruth, Tobit, and Song of Songs are essentially celebrations of matrimony—and progeny.

In the time of Jesus, Roman law pronounced people married by mutual consent, eventually integrating the northern European view that marriage was inaugurated by sexual intercourse. All agreed that children were the purpose and goal of the institution. The early church embraced Jewish and Roman philosophies of marriage and added its own rituals. By the 4th century marriage liturgies were celebrated; by the 5th century, these were held in the church, though marriages were still under state jurisdiction.

Saint Augustine of Hippo (4th cent.) first called marriage a sacrament with three “goods”: offspring, fidelity, and the sacrament itself. Thomas Aquinas (13th cent.) radically declared a marriage “in the Lord” as much a sacrament as Baptism and Eucharist. The church’s position was defined as it spread across cultures and local marriage practices came into conflict. By the Middle Ages marriage was considered one of seven sacraments and ecclesially defined by its purposes: a “contract” for the procreation and nurturing of children and the mutual help it provided spouses. These two ends were not equal but hierarchical in significance, in that order. A theology evolved as the church considered what makes marriage sacramental, who its rightful ministers are, and how grace might come from an institution centered on human sexuality.

The Reformation rejected this sacrament, not seeing any intent on the part of Jesus to institute marriage. The Council of Trent in the 16th century affirmed the sacramentality of marriage on the basis of God’s intent in the Garden of Eden, along with Jesus’ wholesale rejection of casual divorce. Theologians of the 20th century retreated from the juridical and moved toward an increasingly biblical understanding of marriage rooted in human sexual nature. The desire for union and the benefits of mutual self-giving took on the gravity of biblical covenant. That built on the prophet Hosea’s view of marriage as a metaphor for the divine-human relationship and the Letter to the Ephesians’ affirmation of its mystical significance. The Second Vatican Council outlined a spirituality of marriage including a community of love, a sharing of life, and a vocation. The sacramentality of marriage was no longer limited to the wedding ritual but seen as a lifelong journey into grace together.

Genesis 2:22-24Song of Songs; Hosea 2:21-22; Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-11; 1 Corinthians 7:1-40; Ephesians 5:21-33

"The Vocation of Marriage," podcast by Mary Jo Pedersen of the Omaha Archdiocesan Family Life Office

Claiming Our Deepest Desires: The Power of an Intimate Marriage by M. Bridget Brennan and Jerome L. Shen (Liturgical Press, 2004)
Christian Marriage: The New Challenge
, 2nd ed., by David Thomas (Liturgical Press, 2007)

Where did American Catholic schools come from?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 13, September 2013 Categories: Church History
The story of Catholic School begins in 1634 when Maryland was founded as a Catholic refuge in the American colonies: Six years later the first Catholic school opened there. By 1692, however, Anglicanism was established as the official religion in the colony, and Catholicism largely went underground after that.

REPLICA Catholic grade-school classroom
circa mid-20th century, Jubilee Museum
and Catholic Cultural Center (Columbus, OH).
By the mid-18th century, Quaker Pennsylvania proved to be Catholic-friendly, so Jesuits opened a handful of schools for German immigrants in and around Philadelphia—near the Maryland border. As one historian notes: “Anti-Catholic laws prevented the foundation of schools virtually everywhere else.” Before the century’s end the United States was a reality, with a constitutional First Amendment guaranteeing that no law would establish or prohibit religious practice. In 1789 the Northwest Ordinance encouraged the development of schools because “religion, morality, and knowledge” were deemed good for government and happiness. That opened the door to Catholic schools but also to the expectation of government support never quite realized.

Detroit became the next hub for Catholic education when a girls’ school opened in 1804. In 1839 nonsectarian reading of the King James Bible in public schools was instituted in Massachusetts and became the norm. The bishop of Philadelphia lost the battle to include other Bible translations. After the bishop of New York failed to win public funds for his schools, U.S. bishops agreed to finance parochial schools themselves at the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1852. This was a significant consideration, as the country was experiencing its second big immigration wave. Whereas in 1840 a half-million U.S. Catholics had 200 schools between Baltimore and the Middle Border, between 1880 and 1920 the Catholic population jumped by a million every decade.

At the Third Plenary Council of 1884 the bishops ordered the opening of a school in every parish. Eight million Catholics required 40 communities of religious women and 11 orders of men to staff these schools. By 1947 New Jersey agreed to fund buses for non-public school children, and in the 1960s textbooks, libraries, and even teacher subsidies were available to Catholic schools in half the states. In the same decade, praying and Bible-reading in public schools were prohibited. Despite over 100 parochiaid bills launched by President Richard Nixon, not one passed the U.S. Congress.

Parochial schools have been in decline since their peak in the 1950s and 60s. Contemporary debate centers on whether their mission has already been served in delivering Catholics into the U.S. mainstream.

On instructing children: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25; Psalm 119; Sirach 6:18-37

• "Grounding Hope in Uncertain Times: Mission and Catholic Schools" by Therese D'Orsa and Jim D'Orsa in Compass: A Review of Topical Theology, Winter 2011

Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present by Timothy Walch (NCEA, 2003)
Catholic Schools and the Common Good
by Anthony S. Bryk, Valerie E. Lee, and Peter B. Holland (Harvard University Press, 1993)

Photo credit: By Nheyob, via Wikimedia Commons.

What is the Anointing of the Sick?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 16, August 2013 Categories: Liturgy,Doctrines & Beliefs
One of seven sacraments of the church, the Anointing of the Sick is a liturgy that recalls the healing presence and power of Jesus in times when human beings touch their mortality most vulnerably, like during a serious illness, when facing surgery, in the infirmity of advanced age, in recognition of mental or physical debility, and at the hour when death is near.

From ancient times, anointing has implied ritual contact with a substance (oil, water, blood, or even mud) to affect change, according to Jesuit Father John Endres, S.J. Oil anointings were generally joyful occasions: athletic events, civil ceremonies, cleansing rites, initiations, and consecrations. Kings and priests assumed their roles through anointing rites. After the anointing, it was understood that a person’s life and purpose had been transformed. Oil was also used for its healing and beautifying properties, and for preparing bodies for burial.

In the same way, the church draws on holy oils at many rites of passage from one state to another, including baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, and in the consecration of new churches and altars—all of which enhances the dignity of the ritual use of oil in circumstances of weakness, illness, and dying as well. By this sign the sick person testifies to the whole community that it puts its faith in the seen and unseen, the bodily life of the present and the life of the world to come, the forgiveness of sins, and the authority of physical and spiritual healing available in Christ. In the 
Anointing of the Sick
Anointing of the Sick, we acknowledge the vulnerable or endangered person as one who essentially ministers to the community with his or her proclamation of faith in word and witness.

The ordinary minister of the sacrament is the priest, although it’s presumed that a community of faith gathers to share the event: family, friends, and caregivers. Various elements of the ritual include prayers, scripture, laying hands on the head of the recipient, and the anointing of their head and hands. There may be a water sprinkling rite of all present, and specifically affected areas of the sick person’s bodye may also be anointed with the oil. Children or young people may receive the sacrament if they are old enough to appreciate its meaning or if by their reception the family or community may receive the benefit of its effect. When a person is in danger of death the additional sacraments of reconciliation and communion (viaticum, or “on the way with you”) are also celebrated.

Leviticus 8; Psalm 23:5; 45:8-9; Isaiah 61:1-3; Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 4:18; 7:36-50; 10:34; John 12:1-8; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; James 5:14-15

Prophetic Anointing: God’s Call to the Sick, the Elderly, and the Dying by James L. Empereur (Liturgical Press, 1982)
And You Visited Me: Sacramental Ministry to the Sick and the Dying, revised ed., by Charles W. Gusmer (Liturgical Press)

Why do we hear scripture readings at Mass?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 05, August 2013 Categories: Liturgy,Scripture

To begin this discussion it’s best to go back and read Luke 24:13-35 (see link below). That is the story of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter night. These two had every benefit a disciple could have: They had known Jesus in the flesh, had heard him preach, perhaps had witnessed a miracle or two. The Emmaus travelers had even harbored the hope that this “prophet mighty in deed and word” would be “the one to redeem Israel.”

Then came the arrest and trial, condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus, all with brutal swiftness. The horror of these events at the end of such a promising festal week, which had begun with the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and terminated abruptly on Passover night, must have stunned everyone who hoped in Jesus to be the answer to their personal and national problems. On the heels of this heartbreak came the dubious report of “some women from our group” who couldn’t find the body of Jesus in the tomb where he’d been laid. Visions of angels in no way comforted those who heard the news. These two from Emmaus were headed home, to resume the lives they’d had before they ever heard of Jesus. The Jesus-thing had all gone wrong and none of it made much sense.


What made the difference and turned these near-deserters around? Two things. The first was encountering a stranger who explained scripture to them. The second was the breaking of the bread at supper that night. In scripture and ritual suddenly these two disappointed and dispirited disciples “got it.” Just hearing the Bible lesson wasn’t enough. Their hearts may have been burning as they walked along and listened to the stranger, but he didn’t become their Lord until the breaking of the bread. But the truth is, they would never have invited the stranger to have supper with them if they hadn’t been attracted to his words and absorbed by the implications.

Word and sacrament have been natural complements to the unfolding of the mystery of our faith ever since. One prepares us for the revelation of the other. If we didn’t have the Liturgy of the Word, with its stories of old covenants and new ones, God’s promises made and kept, we would come to the Table of the Lord uninitiated and uncomprehending—if we made it that far at all.

Luke 24:13-35; John 1:1-5, 14; Acts 2:42-47; 6:1-7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 15:1-4; Colossians 3:16; 1 Timothy 3:14-16; 1 John 1:1-4

The Lectionary and the Liturgical Year: How Catholics Read Scripture by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D., Scripture from Scratch, Franciscan Media ©1996-2013.

Eucharist: The Meal & the Word by Ghislain Lafont (Paulist Press, 2008)
Encountering Christ in the Eucharist: The Paschal Mystery in People, Word, and Sacrament by Bruce T. Morrill, S.J. (Paulist Press, 2012)

What about the violence in the Old Testament?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 24, July 2013 Categories:
From the fact of violence in Hebrew scripture we can’t conclude that violence is OK with God. As theologian Gerhard Lohfink says, the Bible is always and without exception “the word of God in human words.” It wasn’t written to be edifying literature for Sunday schools, scholar Father Leslie Hoppe, O.F.M. notes. Rather it’s a call to faith. One way biblical violence calls us to faith is it uncovers the violence of the world which often remains hidden. In this disclosure the injustice wielded by the strong over the weak is revealed.

MOSES CONTEMPLATES the Promised Land of Canaan,
from the1890 Holman Bible. The conquest
of that land would not be so peaceful.
Violence manifests itself after sin enters the world in form of the murder of Abel. Cain kills in a moment of indignation, and he immediately fears for his own life. The cyclical nature of violence is uncovered here: It solves nothing. It only perpetuates the disorder it seeks to resolve.

This violent story sheds light on all the violence to follow. Tribal battles of the patriarchs, the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the constant sword-wielding and sexual violence in Joshua and Judges, the hostilities of nations advancing on Israel and Judah in the time of kings—all of this mirrors the original wanting of what another has and fearing what the other may do. Want and fear are the driving forces of violence throughout history. It’s fair to say they shape most international policy today.

If biblical violence raises the question, does it propose an answer? After all God is no innocent bystander in this history but often seems to organize the violence. Disasters like the flood in Noah’s time, the ten plagues on Egypt, and the occasional outbreak of leprosy, seraph serpents, or locusts indicate God is not above violence as a means of moral correction. The ancient world was a brutal place where “the violent bear away” the victory and often the future. It would have been difficult for Near Eastern cultures to characterize God as a pacifist when the terms of survival were so harsh.

Even without a New Testament counterpoint of turning the other cheek, however, the religious dialogue with violence was already engaged. Prophets from Isaiah on continually urged the nation’s leaders not to resist powerful empires but to submit to them, using the “Joseph defense” from the Book of Genesis: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” For every Maccabee hankering for a fight there was a Daniel trusting that to God alone belongs the contest. Human beings started the violence, and yet there remains a peace the world cannot give.

Genesis 4:1-16; 50:20; Deuteronomy 20:1-4; 1 Maccabees 2:15-48; Daniel 3:26-45

Dealing with Violence and War in the Old Testament, 5 CD-set, by Father Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P.,  (St. Paul Media, 2007)
The Word of God—The Word of Peace by Sister Patricia McCarthy, C.N.D. (Liturgical Press, 2001)

What’s the difference between “the gospel” and “the gospels”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, July 2013 Categories: Scripture

The word gospel comes from the Anglo-Saxon “god-spell,” or good tidings. In Greek that’s evangelion, which is how it appears in the New Testament. There it’s used to convey the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Note: The gospel isn’t the teachings of Jesus, his parables and sermons; it’s the teachings about Jesus—his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection—which reveal him as the divine Son who saves the world from sin and death. In the plural the gospels are simply the four books written to tell the story of how that gospel came to be.


The term evangelion was used in Roman times for news that the emperor had gained an heir or that a new Caesar had been installed. Christians adopted it to describe the idea that God had a Son and a new reign was at hand. Saint Paul uses the term most frequently, referring to “God’s gospel” rather than those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (remember, in Paul’s generation, those books had yet to be written). Paul saw himself as the servant of the gospel, which for him eventually boiled down to one impenetrable idea: “Christ crucified.” The paradox that the world could be saved from sin and death by the shameful sacrifice of the Messiah, Paul was the first to admit, sounded like foolishness to Greeks and created a theological obstacle to Jews. Yet Paul refused to back down from the story of the cross with all its apparent absurdity.

Mark calls his whole book “the gospel of Jesus Christ,” using the term six more times to refer to the saving power of God’s Son. To Matthew the good news is that God has seized power over evil and begun a new reign in the world. In Luke Jesus announces “glad tidings to the poor,” and it’s this message of worldly reversals of circumstances in God’s great cause of justice that takes precedence. John’s gospel doesn’t employ the term, but his announcement of the divine word that becomes flesh for our sake has the same implications.

The four gospels serve the gospel by helping subsequent generations of disciples to understand how we must live in the face of this new Christian reality. If salvation has come to the entire world in the person of Jesus, we have to be clear what embracing this truth will mean.

Matthew 24:14; Mark 1:1, 14-15; 8:35; 10:29-30; 13:10; 14:9; Luke 4:18-21; John 1:1-5; Romans 1:1; 15:16; 1 Corinthians 1:17-25; 2 Corinthians 11:4-11; Galatians 2:7-9; Philippians 1:3-7; 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-9; 2:4-13

Reading the New Testament, 3rd ed., by Pheme Perkins (Paulist Press, 2012)
Invitation to the New Testament by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2004)

What is the Sacrament of Confirmation?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 28, June 2013 Categories: Liturgy
In the early church the answer was simple: Confirmation was part of the initiating rites of Christianity along with Baptism and Eucharist. All three were administered together on the same occasion as one embraced the faith. With the rise of infant baptism, however, the anointing that confirmed faith was separated from the water rite that signaled reception into the church. The reluctance to give Eucharist to infants led to the disintegration of a unified initiating rite.
CELEBRATION of Confirmation in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
©Zvonimir Ćorić, Catholic News Agency, Bishops' Conf. of Bosnia and Herzegovina
The term “sacraments of initiation” was introduced at the end of the 19th century, mostly by liturgists and theologians. The term made it into the Code of Canon Law in 1983 when these three sacramental moments were declared “so interrelated that they are required for full Christian initiation” (Canon 842.2). To understand Confirmation, then, is to appreciate how it stands together with these sacraments as much as how it stands apart—if in fact it can be said to do so at all.

From its earliest practice, the imposition of hands and the anointing with oil signified the imparting of the Holy Spirit to the newly baptized. Around 416 Pope Innocent I allowed a priest to use chrism (blessed oil) at Baptism but insisted that signing the brow with the oil be reserved to the bishop. That created problems because bishops were not omnipresent in the church then or now. Once Confirmation was delayed, the second oil anointing required justification. Perhaps it was seen to provide spiritual strength for the battles of life; as this idea became popular, the bishop’s welcoming kiss was replaced with a slap to signify the entrance into spiritual conflict.

Over the centuries both parents and bishops got lazy about administering this additional sacrament—which, frankly, is not a little problem even today. To ensure its practice, church councils established age requirements, anywhere from one to seven, with the maximum permitted being seven, the age of reason. Human nature being what it is, the maximum became the standard, except in danger of death.

Efforts to close the gap between the first and last initiating sacraments went on for centuries, but a clause in the Confirmation rite itself, which gave bishops’ conferences the right to “set an age that seems more suitable” after proper formation “when the recipients are more mature,” invited the practice of adolescent Confirmation into the mix. Confirmation is now popularly understood as a rite of passage into Christian adulthood, and remains, as many theologians call it, “a practice in search of a theory.”

2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14

Podcast: The Sacrament of Confirmation - Wendy M. Wright interviews John O’Keefe about the Sacrament of Confirmation in historical context, from the Center for Catholic Thought, Creigton University

The Confirmed Catholic’s Companion: A Guide to Abundant Living by Sister Mary Kathleen Glavich, S.N.D. (ACTA Publications, 2013)
• I Have Chosen You - Candidates's Journal and I Have Chosen You - Leader’s Guide byJoseph Moore (Paulist Press, 2004)

Why are there cults?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 20, June 2013 Categories:

Until recently, cult was a respectable word describing religious practices; Catholicism has plenty of them. Around the 1960s the word was derailed to describe unfamiliar religious groups that recruit vulnerable people (young, old, marginalized) and use mind-control on them for nefarious purposes. Popular depictions include Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, which ended in mass suicide in 1978; David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, which fell to a hail of federal bullets in 1993; and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate UFO believers, also resulting in suicides in 1997. These groups became the poster children for the horrors of losing your family members to a cult.

Not all new religious movements (NRMS)—the technical designation for such groups—are dangerous and manipulative however. What we might ask is: Why do these groups arise at all? Several social factors have been identified that make NRMs probable: the breakdown of social constants, which leads to a crisis of meaning; the East-meets-West phenomenon on a shrinking globe; the rise of religious secularization, in which the lines between religion and ideology become fuzzy. Other reasons people join NRMs are because of inadequacies in mainstream religion, the depersonalized modern world, and honest curiosity.

NRMs aren’t the problem. That they reveal a 21st-century hunger for meaning, truth, wholeness, and values is a very hopeful thing. Successful NRMs supply charismatic leadership and an attractive counter-worldly critique and emphasize the need for a deep personal experience of the transcendent. Mainstream religions that can offer all that have nothing to fear. Consider the U.S. religious scene in the 1800s. In the same era that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) was galvanized by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to offer Americans a new religious covenant, Christian Science headed by the personally persuasive Mary Baker Eddy was harvesting from the same barrel of citizens discontented with their congregations. In turn Catholicism was set on fire by evangelically minded priests like Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist order—yet all three movements were viewed as “cult-like” by mainstream American Protestantism.

Also consider this: The same 1960s that ignited the NRMs inaugurated the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Is every new enthusiasm assigned “cult” status? The real difficulty with NRMs is that, absent time-honored structures and hidden from the public eye, they lack the checks and balances that work to keep mainstream religion honest—or force it to pay the piper when it’s not.

1 Corinthians 14; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-15; 2 Peter 3; 1 John 4:1-6

Introduction to the Study of Religion by Nancy C. Ring, Mary N. MacDonald, Kathleen S. Nash, and Fred Glennon (Orbis Books, 2012)
Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements, 2nd ed., by Lorne L. Dawson (Oxford University Press, 2006)

What’s in a papal name?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 03, June 2013 Categories: Church History

A FRIEND wrote me an email during those fateful hours last March as we all watched for smoke to come from a certain Vatican chimney. “Do these cardinals all go into the conclave with a papal name up their sleeves, just in case they’re elected?” she asked. “You don’t want to be unprepared, and then blurt out a name like “Bluto!”

Pope Francis
THE FIRST Pope Francis.

Having few cardinals in my acquaintance, I can’t say for sure. I imagine those deemed largely non-papabile among the cardinalcy don’t lose much sleep over the name. But contenders surely give it a great deal of thought. Papal names send signals, as the surprising choice of “Francis” recently verified. Everyone now expects a pontifical swerve away from power and structure and toward the poor and disenfranchised, perhaps with attention paid to the beasts and the natural world, too. That’s why the most popular papal names—John (23), Benedict (16), Clement (14), Leo and Innocent (both 13), and Pius (12)—have had so many takers. The originators of these names, as well as many of their successors, have legacies deemed attractive and imitable to their spiritual protege. (Being the first "Francis," the pope doesn't have a number after his name.)

The one-off papal names, by contrast, didn’t have that sort of appeal. Lando, Sisinnius, Hormisdas, Simplicius, Hilarus, or Hyginus, anyone? So far, 46 one-and-done popes have reigned, and if we never see another Pope Fabian or Valentine, that will probably be OK—which doesn’t imply that the one-offs were failed leaders by any means. Peter, for example, was the original of the breed. His name has been retired apparently out of respect. Linus, Clement, and Cornelius, while never repeated, were significant enough to garner everlasting note in Eucharistic Prayer I used at Mass. A few names were certainly sullied by the dubious reigns of anti-popes (illicit rival contenders), nasty or corrupt fellows, or slackers who accomplished little and were never considered for the titular suffix “the Great.”

In fact, one way to deal with a bad papacy is to take up the name, dust it off, and reuse it. That happened with two antipopes, John VIII and John XXIII, whose names were reappropriated by better men. On the other hand, John XVI’s anti-papacy was deemed illegitimate but the number not reused. John XX never existed at all; that number was deliberately skipped when John XXI determined to straighten out the John numbering once and for all. He died, however, from injuries sustained when his study collapsed on him. Perhaps one really can overthink the name.

• On the significance of names: Genesis 17:5, 15; 32:28-31; Judges 13:17-18; 1 Samuel 1:20; Isaiah 7:14; 8:3-4; Hosea 1:6-2:1; Matthew 1:21-23; 16:18-19; Luke 1:13, 31-32

• List of popes and antipopes

• 101 Questions & Answers on Popes and the Papacy by Christopher M. Bellitto (Paulist Press, 2008)
• The Papacy by Paul Johnson (The Orion Publishing Group, 2005)

What is Pentecost?

Posted by:   🕔 Monday 13, May 2013 Categories: Scripture,Liturgy
PENTECOST has always been a festival, both in the Jewish and Christian worlds, but even in Judaism its meaning has changed through the centuries, and Christianity gave it a whole new meaning.

The word Pentecost—“fiftieth”—appeared in the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament to refer to the “Feast of Weeks,” a harvest festival occurring 50 days after Passover. Later it became a time when the Israelites recalled God’s covenant with Noah. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D., Pentecost took on an even greater religious significance when it became associated with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. It was an important festival, and in Jesus’ time it would have attracted many Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem.

That was the setting for what Saint Luke described in the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, Luke drew on not only on the Israelite Pentecost traditions but other biblical events as well. The “noise like a strong driving wind” echoed the “mighty wind” which swept over the waters at the creation of the world and after the Great Flood. The ability to speak in and understand different tongues reversed the chaos of language in the aftermath of the Tower of Babel. Like God’s appearance to the Israelites during their Exodus, in Acts God’s presence once again appears in the form of fire.

At the first Christian Pentecost, the earliest assembly of the church received all that and more: God's abundant creating Spirit sweeping through the whole world, forming a new people on a mission to communicate God’s new teaching to the whole world—and gathering a great harvest as a result.

• Genesis 1:1-2; 8:111:1-9Exodus 13:21; John 14:25-26; Acts 2:1-13

What is Christ’s Ascension?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 05, May 2013 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Liturgy,Scripture
For most of my life I thought the Ascension was a feast basically designed to resolve a mystery: After Easter, where did Jesus go? Answer: back to his Father. Most scripture scholars are quick to point out that the stories of the Ascension do not match up in many details, which suggests they aren’t intended to give us a visual on what historically occurred the day Jesus left town.

Luke says Jesus was carried off to heaven from Bethany on the same day as the Resurrection. The account in the Acts of the Apostles reports this event 40 days later and from the Mount of Olives. Mark says it happened later in the day on Easter—but apparently from indoors, while Jesus was seated at the table with his disciples. Houston, we have a problem.

Or maybe not. Early church father Saint John Chrysostom insisted the event was intended to convey the final exaltation of Christ: After the humiliation of the Cross he winds up at the right hand of his Father. Saint Augustine said the Ascension is really about the glorification of us all: Where Jesus went, we, too, might go.

It’s possible to talk about ascension in pre-Christian terms. Prefigurings of this event in the Old Testament include the mysterious departure of Enoch in Genesis who “walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him.” This startling sentence is amplified in later extra-biblical books about Enoch. How can you let a story line like that go? The prophet Elijah likewise enjoyed a grand exit on a fiery chariot in 2 Kings: “Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha saw it happen.”

It should be added that the Catholic Church teaches that Mary, mother of Jesus, was also assumed into heaven, though the Bible doesn’t include the story. Theologians like to distinguish between “passive” assumptions like these and the active principle of an ascension, in which one chooses to depart, as Jesus did.

Another element that makes the Ascension unique is that while Jesus is technically “gone” he’s not absent but rather present in a new way. His bodily Ascension makes it possible for the church now to become the viable Body of Christ on earth. Jesus is present not only in the church but also in his Spirit and in the Eucharist. If the clouds and angels in the Ascension stories have been called apocalyptic stage props, the idea that Jesus is lifting up the church to where he is, is not.

Genesis 5:21-24; 2 Kings 2:1-18; 1 Maccabees 2:58; Sirach 49:14; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Hebrews 11:5

Why do Catholics believe in the Assumption of Mary? 

Ascension Now: Implications of Christ’s Ascension for Today’s Church by Peter Atkins (Liturgical Press, 2001)
The Ladder: Parable-Stories of Ascension and Descension by Edward Hays (Ave Maria, 1999)

What are the different forms of prayer?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 11, April 2013 Categories: Scripture,Prayer and Spirituality

Prayer is a spiritual art, so prayer forms differ according to the artist. The Encyclopedia of Catholicism lists three general categories: vocal, mental, and passive. Vocal prayer is anything that uses words—spoken, recited, or sung. It can utilize composed or spontaneous prayers. The psalms and the liturgy of the Mass are two examples of vocal prayers. Mental prayer, by contrast, is silent prayer involving the imagination. The guided-imagery method of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the prayerful reading of scripture (lectio divina) are samples of mental prayer. Passive prayer is also known as contemplation. You don’t control or generate it; you relinquish all to it. In return the mystical encounter awaits as a pure gift of God. Passive prayer can be ecstatic, as Saint Teresa of Avila experienced it. It can also relate to suffering, as it did for Teresa’s friend Saint John of the Cross.

Another way to envision prayer-forms are two categories Franciscan friar Richard Rohr suggests: mental prayer and body prayer. The vocal and mental forms outlined above fit into Rohr’s idea of mental prayer. Body prayer by contrast means “to pray from the clay”—the vessel of the self formed from clay and divine Breath. That includes spiritual activities as diverse as walking a labyrinth or the Stations of the Cross, making a pilgrimage, praying with rosary beads, tai chi, or yoga. Depending on your level of participation in passive prayer mentioned above, these could be mental prayer or a full-body experience.

The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia gets more explicit, listing 16 prayer forms. The first bunch are communal: public (shared prayer), Eucharist (the source and summit of the faith), scripture (where God speaks), and the Divine Office (psalm-led prayer on behalf of humankind). Tre Ore, the least familiar on this roll call, is a Trinity prayer in which one hour is given to silent adoration, one to reflection and writing, and a third to group-sharing.

The MCE list includes the familiar: personal prayer, spiritual reading, silent listening, recitation (e.g., rosaries, litanies), mental prayer, contemplation, and examination of conscience. It also explores the idea of recollection (bringing God to mind throughout the day); meditation (guiding the intellect and reason); affective prayer (involving emotions); and journaling as an interactive mapping of the spiritual journey.

These prayer-forms are by no means a complete list. Consider them a place to begin.

Numbers 6:24-26; the Psalms; Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 1:46-55, 68-79: 2:29-32

A downloadable “User’s guide on the ways to pray” by Linus Mundy
Find Your Spirituality Type” quiz by Roger O'Brien
What's the difference between saying ‘set’ prayers and prayers in my own words?” by Alice Camille
How is the Mass ‘prayer’”? by Alice Camille

Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey (Open Door, 1984)
The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications, 2009)

What is the Real Presence of Christ?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 01, March 2013 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

The clearest answer is the official one: Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist in his body and blood, humanity and divinity, under the forms of bread and wine. The church teaches that this presence is not a metaphor, it’s a reality. Real.

But how do we arrive at this idea? Jesus himself promises to be with us “always, to the end of time.” He promises to be present when two or more gather in his name, in the forgiveness of sins, and in the suffering world: “' 'Whatever you did for one of these least . . . you did for me' ” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus promises to be really present in many ways throughout the gospel. He’s most explicit about being with us, however, in one profound way: “Take it; this is my body” (Mark 14:22). “I am the bread of life. . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:35, 54).

Coptic icon of Last Supper
A COPTIC Orthodox icon of the Last Supper.
For nearly a millennium Christians didn’t dispute this understanding. The controversy began in the 9th century when it was suggested that the bread and wine were not physically changed but only signs of the presence of Christ among us. In response, the church formulated the idea of transubstantiation: The elements of bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ—as do we, in our participation in this sacrament. Both the Fifth Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Trent(1551) emphasized this teaching. It’s the basis for practices like Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, prayer before the Eucharist, and processions that feature the Real Presence carried in a monstrance.

Needless to say not all accepted this teaching, which influenced the reaction of the Reformation movement. Luther viewed the Eucharist as a “co-existence” of Christ and the physical elements. Calvin saw it as a symbolic meal. Zwingli called it an occasion of grace depending not on the minister’s actions but the faith of the recipient.

In 1965 Pope Paul VI reiterated that Christ is present in prayer, works of mercy, preaching, teaching, sacraments, and uniquely in the Eucharist, “a way that surpasses all others” (Mysterium Fidei, no. 38). The Second Vatican Council affirmed Christ’s Eucharistic presence in the consecrated elements, the proclaimed word, the minister of the sacrament, and the worshipping assembly. In 1982 the World Council of Churches took a big step toward unity in the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry documents in which participating denominations agreed that the Eucharist involves “real change” in the elements and necessitates “real change” in the participants.

Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; John 6:22-59; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Mysterium Fidei, Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Holy Eucharist
• World Council of Churches, Unity: The Church and Its Mission, with links to documents including Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry
"Why do Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate?" by Alice Camille

101 Questions & Answers on the Eucharist by Giles Dimock, O.P. (Paulist Press, 2006)
• The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World
by Monika K. Hellwig (Paulist Press, 1976)

How can the pope resign?

Posted by:   🕔 Monday 25, February 2013 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

You can’t say he didn’t warn us. “If a pope clearly realizes,” Pope Benedict XVI said in an interview only three years ago, “that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation, to resign.”

In a number of ways Benedict’s dramatic move is unique, though it is not completely unprecedented. We can firmly identify 7 previous abdications from the papacy. Two resulted from Roman attacks on the early church. Pope Pontian (230-235) was arrested in the persecution of the emperor Maximinus Thrax and sentenced to the mines of Sardinia (where people went but didn’t come back). Rather than leave the church in a situation where a sitting pope was essentially imprisoned for life, he resigned before heading off for the mines. Pope Marcellinus (296-304) went the other way, disqualifying himself by handing over the scriptures to the Roman authorities and burning incense to the gods—major giving-in-to-persecution no-nos.

Gregory XII
POPE GREGORY XII: The last pope
to leave office before Benedict XVI.

Three left office for reasons having to do with either secular or church politics or both. Pope Silverius (536-537) was exiled by the Empress Theodora of Constantinople, restored by the Emperor Justinian, and forced out again by his successor Pope Vigilius. Celestine V (1294) resigned because he couldn’t tolerate ruling as pope under the thumb of King Charles II of Sicily. Pope Gregory XII (1406-1417) reigned during the period known as the Western Schism when no fewer than three men were claiming the papacy. When the Council of Constance was planned to resolve the issue, Gregory agreed to abide by the decision of the council as long he could convene it, thereby establishing himself as a legitimate pope long enough to resign and let the council elect Martin V to be the one of leader of the church.

Another papal departure, that of Benedict IX (11th century), came about because of his scandalous personal life, including the fact that he sold the papal office to a relative. He was elected, deposed, and returned three times before finally leaving for good.

Finally, not much is known of the reign of Pope John XVIII (1003-1009) besides some of his official decisions, but apparently he resigned and lived out his last years in a monastery (sound familiar?).

Benedict IX
POPE Benedict IX, (c. 1012–c. 1056): A "bad" pope.

So Benedict’s resignation is not wholly unprecedented in that a few of the previous popes who left office did so of their free own will, either for personal reasons or the good of the church. It is, however, dramatic because it hasn't happened in a long time, and the church in recent decades is not used to papal turnover so quickly. Keep in mind that the 26-plus-year papacy of Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, was the second-longest in history. The length of Benedict’ papacy, about 8 years, is actually very close to the average reign of the 265 previous popes—slightly over 7 years—and not far below the average papal term since the 16th century of 10 years.

Benedict’s extraordinary decision has also drawn attention to the sometimes little-known but influential body of canon law that ultimately governs just about everything that happens in the church, including a pope’s resignation.

Before the 20th century, canon law existed in various forms and collections. It was not brought together into one book until 1917. The current Code of Canon Law, published in 1983, was a revision of the 1917 code. Some provisions for the resignation of a pope existed in older forms of the law (in the 13th century Pope Boniface VIII declared: “Our predecessor, Pope Celestine . . . constituted and decreed that the Roman Pontiff can freely resign. . . . we have determined . . . that it be placed among other constitutions for a perpetual memory of the same”). According to the current Code, a pope may resign validly as long as he makes the decision freely (canon 332.2) and makes it known in writing or orally in the presence of at least two cardinals of the church who serve as witnesses (see canon 189.2-4). This Benedict did.

This pope’s resignation is also significant not only because it is the first one to occur under the 1983 Code but also because of its reasons: We don’t know why Pope John XVIII retired to a monastery a thousand years ago, but we do know more about why his successor Benedict XVI is doing the same thing now.

Celestine V
POPE BENEDICT XVI visited—twice—the tomb of his 13th-century
predecessor Celestine V,
who put papal resignation on the books.

Note that in Benedict’s 2010 interview he talked about “a pope,” not “me.” He was speaking of what he thought all popes should do—not only what he thought he should do—when a pontiff is “no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office”: Namely, resign. Clearly Benedict had decided that for him that time had come. He obviously believes that, first, a significantly incapacitated pope should not be in office, and second, by resigning ahead of a catastrophic illness he is making sure the church does not face a situation for which it is not entirely prepared.

While church law on papal resignation is relatively clear, the same cannot be said for the serious incapacitation of a pope. Here we need to go back to canon law, which does allow for the possibility that the Holy See might be what it calls “impeded,” that is, if a pope becomes totally disabled, mentally ill, or otherwise truly incapable of the tasks of the office. To govern those situations the law refers to “special laws enacted for these circumstances” (canon 335). These “special laws” governing what happens when the Holy See is vacant are found in the procedures the popes establish for papal elections, last revised by the pope in 1996, but within these special laws no provision for an “impeded” pope has ever been made. In other parts of the canon law, procedures exist for removing an infirm bishop but nothing like that is set down for an incapacitated pope—even though he is the bishop of Rome—other than the provision that such a pope have a designated cardinal to oversee Vatican administration.

While it is not without precedent in history and church law, Benedict XVI’s bold decision to resign does set a modern precedent that while a pope is presumably elected for life, he does not have to and should not continue to serve if he is unable to do so. An incapacitated pope does not have to in effect abdicate his office to his aides and can make room for someone better able to lead the church into the future.

Online resources
List of all the popes
Canons 332 and 335 from the 1983 Code of Canon Law

Can Catholic doctrine change in light of new information?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 29, January 2013 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Vatican I
ILLUSTRATION of a session of the First Vatican Council.

The question involves a few layers of consideration. Catholic teaching isn’t uniform, though many folks think it is. The heaviest layer of teaching is called dogma, Greek for “what seems right.” Dogma is an infallible teaching of the church and will not be revoked. Because of its gravity, your pastor can’t up and declare a dogma nor can your local bishop. The formal promulgation (official publishing) of a dogma can be advanced only by an ecumenical council of the church which includes the pope or by the pope himself.

Dogmatic teaching acquired its heft at the First Vatican Council in 1869-1870 and was reiterated in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. At that time it was determined that dogma must meet three conditions. First, it must be rooted in scripture or post-biblical tradition and be divinely revealed. That means at the very least that it’s time-tested, not sprung out of yesterday’s news or today’s political situation. Second, the church must explicitly propose it as dogmatic. That protects us from the rogue cleric, theologian, or small-faith-sharing-group leader who makes a lone interpretation. Third, such proposals are made in solemn decrees or universal teachings. So you don’t have to read every book a pope writes—worthy though that may be—to be sure you’re not missing a dogma slipped into chapter six.

It would be helpful if there were a page devoted to dogmatic teachings on the Vatican website so there would be no mistaking a simple teaching from an unassailable one. Because formal and deliberate rejection of a dogma is considered a heretical act, it could be vital to your interests to know for sure whether you’re crossing a sensitive line or an irrevocable one.

Interestingly, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has declared that dogmas are influenced by “the changeable conceptions of a given epoch.” While the central meaning of a dogma cannot change, its expression can and must be reevaluated in each age to preserve the clarity and applicability of its revealed truth (see the document [link below] Mysterium Ecclesiae, 1973).

Every dogma is a doctrine (“teaching”) of the church, but not all doctrines are dogmas. So the long answer to the question is: If a doctrine isn’t a dogmatic teaching, yes, it can change. The preferred mode of change is development rather than a subsequent erasure of an earlier teaching outright. How doctrines “develop” is a topic for another time—and the sure instigator of many useful arguments.

Matthew 5:17-19; Luke 16:17; Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:3-11; 4:11-16; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; 3:14-17; 4:1-5; Titus 1:5-9

Beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church page from the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops
Mysterium Ecclesiae, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

By What Authority? Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful by Richard Gaillardetz (Liturgical Press, 2003)
Catholicism: New Study Edition—Completely Revised and Updated by Richard McBrien (HarperOne, 1994)

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Why is the Lord’s Prayer so important?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 10, January 2013 Categories: Scripture,Prayer and Spirituality
The Lord's Prayer

PRAYER is the food of faith, as one theologian put it. Christians have sought the best way to feed their faith since the disciples first asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus offers a lot of advice about how to pray in other places: Pray in secret and don’t call attention to it. Pray in groups especially when you need spiritual support. Pray often, pray briefly, and don’t multiply fancy words. Ask for what you need and you’ll get it. Pray when faced with bad spirits and difficult cases. Be watchful and prayerfully alert in times when fear may cause you to be weak.

Jesus also offered parables about effective prayer: Pray with humility and honesty, like the tax collector rather than the self-congratulating Pharisee. Be persistent in prayer, like the widow before the judge. Forgive your brother or sister before you offer your gift at the altar. Finally, Jesus gives his insistent friends a prayer that does all these things. Early Christians found it so useful they were urged to say it three times daily in the late 1st-century book of the teaching of the apostles known as the Didache. Today the “Our Father” is also prayed at every Mass, in the Liturgy of the Hours, in reciting the Rosary, and in many other devotions.

The early church father Tertullian called the Lord’s Prayer the perfect summary of the whole gospel. The heart of the prayer is an invitation to God to make the kingdom coming a present reality. The fulfillment of that kingdom is the end of all need, so we pray for what mortals need most: provisions, pardon, and protection. The prayer begins with “you” statements and ends with “we” petitions. That makes sense because faithful people must begin with submission to God’s will before we can anticipate its fulfillment in our present needs. God’s will first; then ours.

The petitions don’t imply that God has to be informed of what we need. Rather they express our confidence that God will address our needs. Jesus instructs us to begin our prayer intimately, calling on God with the familiarity of a child. Knowing the Holy Name of God presumes intimacy: In the ancient world, such knowledge gave you a certain inside track in a relationship. Invoking the kingdom to be realized “on earth as it is in heaven” brings the will of God directly into human experience. Everything about this prayer invites God to bring this world ever more closely in line with the new creation promised in Jesus.

Matthew 5:44; 6:9-13, 33; 7:7; Mark 9:29; 14:32-38; Luke 11:1-13; 18:1-14; John 12:27-28

The Lord’s Prayer; a presentation by Father Dennis Hamm on the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer

The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan (HarperOne, 2010)
The Three Greatest Prayers: Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles Creed by Saint Thomas Aquinas (Sophia Institute Press, 1998)



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