Pope Francis: In the Mass We Enter the Mystery of God

In the pope’s comments on today’s readings, he spoke about mass as a theophany: an encounter with God. There have been many posts in the past weeks about teaching the faith (Joanne McPortland rounds them up), but teaching the faith is a relatively simple matter for those who practice the faith. Sure, they can use a deepening of their understanding to make people disciples rather than just practitioners, and that’s why we’re working on adult formation programs.

But when teaching children, the biggest problem is that people simply don’t practice their faith. The religious education programs are sacrament mills used by many non-mass-attending families to get their kids through Communion, Reconciliation, and Confirmation. (About 20-30% of the families in our programs attend mass each week, although my wife has had some success recently in getting that percentage up to 50% for her kids in sacrament prep.) It’s not possible to teach a faith that is not practiced.

Thus, we need to draw those families back. They need to understand mass as something more than an hour of drudgery a week done out of habit, but as a true encounter with the living God. We can worry all we want about the Church’s moral and social teachings, but unless people encounter God, none of that really matters. And the place to encounter God is in the mass. Practice is medicinal. It’s not everything, but it’s the beginning, and nothing else will take hold without it.

This is what Francis spoke about today: the mass as a place where we encounter a God who is “closer, without mediation, near. It is His presence.” It is “not a social act, a good social act; it is not a gathering of the faithful to pray together. It is something else. In the liturgy, God is present… The presence of the Lord is real, truly real.”

Francis continues:

When we celebrate the Mass, we don’t accomplish a representation of the Last Supper: no, it is not a representation. It is something else: it is the Last Supper itself. It is to really live once more the Passion and the redeeming Death of the Lord. It is a theophany: the Lord is made present on the altar to be offered to the Father for the salvation of the world. We hear or we say, ‘But, I can’t now, I have to go to Mass, I have to go to hear Mass.’ The Mass is not ‘heard’, it is participated in, and it is a participation in this theophany, in this mystery of the presence of the Lord among us.

The Vatican Press Office has not made the whole transcript available yet, but offers this summary with additional quotes:

Nativity scenes, the Way of the Cross… these are representations. The Mass, on the other hand, “is a real commemoration, that is, it is a theophany: God approaches and is with us, and we participate in the mystery of the Redemption.” Unfortunately, too often we look at the clock during Mass, “counting the minute.” This, the Pope said, is not the attitude the liturgy requires of us: “the liturgy is God’s time, God’s space, and we must place ourselves there, in God’s time, in God’s space, and not look at the clock.

“The liturgy is to really enter into the mystery of God, to allow ourselves to be brought to the mystery and to be in the mystery. For example, I am sure that all of you have come here to enter into the mystery; however, someone might say: ‘Ah, I have to go to Mass at Santa Marta, because on the sight-seeing tour of Rome, each morning there is a chance to visit the Pope at Santa Marta: it’s a tourist stop, right?’ All of you here, we are gathered her to enter into the mystery: this is the liturgy. It is God’s time, it is God’s space, it is the cloud of God that surrounds all of us.”

The pope recalled that, as a child, during the preparation for First Communion, there was a song that spoke about how the altar was guarded by angels to give “a sense of the glory of God, of God’s space, of God’s time.” And when, during the practice, they brought the hosts, they told the children: “Look, these are not the ones you will receive: these count for nothing,” because they have to be consecrated. So, the Pope concluded, “to celebrate the liturgy is to have this availability to enter into the mystery of God,” to enter into His space, His time, to entrust ourselves to this mystery:

“We would do well today to ask the Lord to give to each of us this ‘sense of the sacred,’ this sense that makes us understand that it is one thing to pray at home, to pray in Church, to pray the Rosary, to pray so many beautiful prayers, to make the Way of the Cross, so many beautiful things, to read the Bible… The Eucharistic celebration is something else. In the celebration we enter into the mystery of God, into that street that we cannot control: only He is the unique One, the glory, the power… He is everything. Let us ask for this grace: that the Lord would teach us to enter into the mystery of God.

Leo XIII on the Role of “Amateurs” in Defending the Faith

Every now and then I come across a complaint, like this one urging the Register to fire Mark Shea, about lay Catholics who speak and write about the faith.

The idea that this role should be left to the “professionals” is rooted in either clericalism or elitism. It has no roots whatsoever in the life of the Church or in the scripture. St. Peter tells us to always be ready to give the reason for our hope, and we are all commissioned to spread the gospel, with or without “training” or ordination.

In Providentissimus Deus, Leo XIII tackles the errors of modern reductionist Biblical scholarship with his usual Thomistic clarity and skill, but he also urges us all to engage and defend the faith.

But to undertake fully and perfectly, and with all the weapons of the best science, the defence of the Holy Bible is far more than can be looked for from the exertions of commentators and theologians alone. It is an enterprise in which we have a right to expect the co-operation of all those Catholics who have acquired reputation in any branch of learning whatever. As in the past, so at the present time, the Church is never without the graceful support of her accomplished children; may their services to the Faith grow and increase! For there is nothing which We believe to be more needful than that truth should find defenders more powerful and more numerous than the enemies it has to face; nor is there anything which is better calculated to impress the masses with respect for truth than to see it boldly proclaimed by learned and distinguished men.

Moreover, the bitter tongues of objectors will be silenced, or at least they will not dare to insist so shamelessly that faith is the enemy of science, when they see that scientific men of eminence in their profession show towards faith the most marked honour and respect. Seeing, then, that those can do so much for the advantage of religion on whom the goodness of Almighty God has bestowed, together with the grace of the faith, great natural talent, let such men, in this bitter conflict of which the Holy Scripture is the object, select each of them the branch of study most suitable to his circumstances, and endeavour to excel therein, and thus be prepared to repulse with credit and distinction the assaults on the Word of God.

I actually do have the “formal education in theology” to which that first link alludes, and I think Mark Shea’s a far better apologist than I. Credentialing and even ordination do not magically create effective preachers, exegetes, evangelists, or defenders of the faith. We’re all called to that role. We are to preach and defend the gospel from where we are in the world. We don’t need scolds and Pharisees to shoo us back into the pews so the priests and theologians can do all the work of spreading the faith. That’s our baptismal duty.

What Is Your Middle Schooler Being Taught About the Crusades?

Update 9/17/14: With the start of a new school year, I’m circulating this post again. It is particularly relevant now since we are witnessing, in real time, the violent nature of a large and fanatical Islamic army. I don’t understand how anyone can criticize the motives for the Crusades now that we see, in ISIS, something like the aggression that provoked them. Europe and the Near East has been dealing with versions of ISIS for almost 1400 years.

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Yesterday, something interesting happened: my daughter asked me to print out her 7th grade Social Studies homework, which was a lesson on the Crusades. Coincidentally, I was teaching the same subject that evening, and what I saw in my daughter’s lessons drove home the absolutely necessity of Catholics telling our own story and teaching our own history.

I’ve been teaching Church history to 8th Grade Confirmation candidates for 6 years, and I’ve developed a series of history lessons that are taught to multiple classes each year. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the controversies of our history in order to better teach them to the students. I never whitewash it. I tell my student, “We have not always been as good as we should have been, but we have never been as bad as our enemies have said.” The truth is usually in the middle of two extreme views.

In the interest of understanding what they’ve already been taught, I’ve read several middle school textbooks over the years, and found all of them deficient. Even textbooks intended for Catholic schools leave a lot to be desired. The current trend is to minimize the horrors of Islamic history (their role in the slave trade and their violent military expansionism are glossed over or left out altogether) and amplify the evils of Christians and the Church. None of this should be news to any observant Christian parent.

Yesterday’s lesson was an eye-opener, however, and I ran my red pen all over the handout that was to serve as my daughter’s source, before scribbling a final grade of “C+” at the bottom. It was a rude thing to do, since my daughter likes the teacher and she’s only working the material given her, much of which is weak in several important areas. I wrote a follow-up email explaining my problems, and she was very responsive. We’re happy with our school and our teachers, and none of this is a knock on them.

To begin with, there’s the oft-repeated lie that this was an unjust, terrible, super-wrong series of misadventure by no-good Christians to wrest control of the Holy Land from innocent, wise, and gentle Muslims in the name of greed and God.

Muslim designs on Europe? The clashes with the Byzantine Empire, the conquest of North Africa, and the occupation of Spain? The Battle of Tours? Charles “The Hammer” Martel? The differences among Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Seljuqs and others? The attempt to conquer Europe through the gateway of Constantinople? The destruction of the Holy Sepulcher (twice) by Muslims? The expulsion and murder of Christians from the Holy Land? The wholesale robbery and murder of pilgrims?

Pshaw! Don’t bother the kids with facts! The text-book writers prefer easily digestible pap with noble non-white heroes and wicked European Christian villains. Forget that Muslims were not only the aggressors, but had powerful, expansive empires when Europe was little more than a batch of quarrels with borders. If we’re talking size and power, the Crusader armies were the underdogs.

Let’s look at what bothered me, and keep in mind it follows right on the heels of a section in which Islam is presented as all lollipops and puppies.

Crusaders were particularly vicious in their attacks. Before they even reached the Holy Land, crusaders lay waste to the Jewish communities of Western Europe. Members of the Jewish community had been expelled from England and France. Many were forced to live in ghettos. Entire Jewish towns were completely wiped out by crusaders. Jewish men, women, children were all slaughtered and robbed of their possessions. Some committed suicide or killed their own children rather than being killed by crusaders, or forced to convert.

Note the absence of any qualifiers: not “some crusaders” but “crusaders were particularly vicious.” All of them. Note also the rather reckless and inaccurate use of the word “all” in reference to the slaughter, and the suggestions that the crusader armies committed wholesale genocide against the Jews of Europe.

The history of European interaction with the Jewish population is complex and often disgraceful, but too much is glossed, exaggerated, or left unsaid in this passage. The resulting image is of crusaders being commissioned for a Holy War and killing every Jew they find along the way, destroying their towns, and salting the Earth beneath them.

The lesson is blending two things: peasants who attacked Jews, and the fringe group of crusaders who committed the despicable Rhineland Massacres in 1096. Peter the Hermit’s mob of zealots also alternately killed and robbed Jews. There were crusaders on both sides of the fight: Emicho of Leiningen whipped his men into an anti-semitic mob, while Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV ordered them protected.

Christians in Mainz sheltered them in their homes. Adalbert, Bishop of Worms, sheltered Jews in the episcopal palace, only to have the mob overrun it and kill perhaps 800 Jews. Ruthard, Bishop of Mainz, barred the crusaders from the city and with the help of the Jews attempted to bribe them to go elsewhere. They took the gold and attacked anyway, leaving over a thousand dead. Stories are told of at least one mother who killed her children to keep them from their hands, and of a Jewish man killing himself in shame after submitting to a forced conversion. There’s no reason to disbelieve these stories.

As for “members of the Jewish community had been expelled from England and France” … not quite.

Orders of expulsion were going on in various places in Europe and would continue for centuries, and France around the time of the Crusaders saw waves of this as well. As for England in 1095, they hardly had much of a Jewish population at all. Jews arrived with the Normans in 1066. King Edward’s Edict of Expulsion didn’t come until 1290 (almost 200 years after that First Crusade), and even then the population of English Jews was fewer than 2,000. No Jews were expelled from England as part of the manic zeal of the First Crusade for the very sound reason that England had almost no Jews to expel at the time.

And where was the Church in all this? It’s kind of an interesting question that might be of interest to middle school students, no? After all, there’s no shortage of detail about how bad ole Urban II had called this crusade, so naturally he must have approved of wholesale slaughter of the Jews, right?

Obviously, if you know your faith, you know the opposite is the case. Under the influence of Augustine’s Witness Doctrine, popes issued edicts of protection for Jews, and bishops sheltered or attempted to shelter them. Orders against forced conversions were issued repeatedly, and repeatedly ignored by the mob. Heroic stands by great Catholic leaders might be worth a passing mention, one would think.

When St. Bernard of Clairvaux was preaching the Second Crusade, he explicitly condemned the actions against the Jews taken during the First in order to prevent it from happening again. Urban II condemned the murders, and ordered protection of Jewish life and property.

(Note: Several popes did issue antisemitic orders in defiance of the Witness Doctrine. Innocent III and Paul IV are among those who ordered Jews to wear distinct signs of their faith, be prohibited from higher office, or moved into ghettos. It was as wrong, but it was not the norm, and property and life were to be protected.)

Certainly, the Crusades saw the first sustained outbreak of antisemitism in Europe. Leaders like Godfrey of Bouillon thought a crusade to save the Holy Land would be worthless if Europe’s own Jews were left unconverted or alive.

The Church didn’t share these views, and insistently pronounced against them, but too often they were ignored.

Why? That brings us to the second reason: it was widely believed that all Jews were spectacularly wealthy, and some crusaders coveted their gold. Indeed, the “zealotry” of these alleged radical Jew haters often could be bought with a bribe, which tells us their zealotry often was a mask for their greed.

Finally, there’s a third reason. A letter (most likely a forgery) was in circulation that allegedly proved prominent European Jews had written to the the Fatimid caliph urging the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This libel helped stoke antisemitic sentiment.

Moving on:

Crusader atrocities continued when they reached the holy land. After capturing the city of Antioch, crusaders committed an unimaginable act – they committed cannibalism. They ate Muslims as a show of their utter disregard for Muslims. In other words, the crusaders viewed Muslims as no more that animals.

Whoa! That’s some pretty wild shootin’, Tex!

Widespread crusader cannibalism is one of the libels that’s become embedded in the popular imagination, and it’s time we disembedded it. First off, the reports of cannibalism come not from Antioch but from Ma’arrat al-Numan. Different siege, different city.

As for the stories themselves, the text would have us imagine a victorious crusader looming over the supine body of the hated Mohammedan, cutting out his heart, and biting into it with zesty contempt.

Ah … no. After Ma’arra fell, some crusaders moved on to Jerusalem, while others remained behind as famine took over the city. The starving population may have been reduced to cannibalism, and contemporary reports suggest this is a reasonable belief. As disgusting as that is, it was cannibalism driven by hunger, not as a gesture of contempt by a healthy man. Even the contemporary reports say the perpetrators were driven to madness by hunger. To suggest that it was a conscious gesture of contempt is an attempt to dehumanize the crusaders and portray them as barbarians in contrast to the Muslims, who are portrayed as noble.

Eventually, the crusaders captured the city of Jerusalem. Upon capturing the city of Jerusalem, crusaders massacred all Muslim and Jewish people. Muslims sought safety in their holiest mosque, as did the Jewish in their synagogue. All Muslims were slain and the Jewish were all burned alive inside.

The massacre of Jerusalem is a historical fact, but the statement should read “many” rather than “all Muslim and Jewish people were killed.” Too many by far were killed, but not all. Cold comfort, but history needs to strive for accuracy.

Massacres of besieged cities in medieval and ancient warfare were not unique to the crusaders. It was a crime against God and man. It was also the way hostile populations were subdued in the ancient world.

As for the “burning the Jews alive in the synagogue,” this certainly happened in the middle ages with depressing frequency, but did it happen at Jerusalem? A Muslim source claims it happened. A Jewish source claims the synagogue was burned with no one inside. I would not be surprised if it happened, but there’s evidence for and against.

At least they refrained from saying “the streets ran ankle deep with blood,” which I have read in textbooks, and is just a crass bit of hyperbole treated as fact by people who should know better. In a speech given at Georgetown, Bill Clinton even brought up the lore of crusaders wading knee-deep in blood, because nothing is so wonderfully responsible as an American president validating that lie and projecting it into the Islamic world.

There’s a lot of praise for Saladin, the only leader in the entire Crusades praised in this lesson. We are told that crusaders respected his honor.

Why the rabid murderous blood-thirsty flesh-eating “Christian” animals thus far described would respect a man of honor is not explained.

Then we come to this howler:

Children attempted to take back Jerusalem, although many drowned or were sold into slavery along the way.

Oh dear, that won’t do at all.

The Children’s Crusade is so tainted by legend that it’s almost impossible to tease out the truth. It gets blended with facts about the People’s Crusades and a couple other popular movements in Germany and France, so we wind up hearing that 30,000 children marched to the sea, which they expected to part for them, and when it didn’t, they tried to cross anyway and drowned. The rest were sold into slavery.

Yeah … that didn’t happen.

Genuine facts about the Children’s Crusade are fairly thin. In France, a young boy named Stephen claimed to have a vision ordering him to gather an army and march on Jerusalem. In Germany, a shepherd named Nicholas experienced something similar. It being a time of outbreaks of extreme popular piety, and both people claiming supernatural commands, they attracted some followers and began to march. These ragtag groups soon began to splinter and then starve. The sea didn’t part and most went home. Some may have been kidnapped and sold into slavery by sea captains. When a hardcore remnant finally made it to Rome to offer their services, Innocent III sent them home. The end.

Writing a broad history text is a matter of selection: what facts do you select, how do you shape them, and what governs the process?

The cherry-picking of grotesque facts, half-facts, and lies about the Crusades from among a wide array of facts both good and bad suggests an agenda to make Christians look uniquely horrible. I could tell a story about Islam that was nothing but 1300 years of murder, rapine, and ruin, and be fairly accurate, if not actually fair. Yet, quelle surprise!–the story of Islam is told by many textbooks in the exact opposite way from the story of the Christians: the bad is suppressed and only the good highlighted.

Why? Which facts are selected to be included, and why? Why are we told this, but not that? Why is one point emphasized and another minimized?

It’s an interesting question, no?

One final point.

I used these sections of text in my own lessons last night to help my students sort fact from BS. I urged them to be critical readers, and to not just take these stories at face value, but to seek out sources and alternate points of view. I said they should extend that skepticism me as well: Don’t take my word for it. Look for yourself. Find good sources. Test everything, hold fast to what is good.

The quoted passages matched what my students had learned in two other towns. This is just how the Crusades are taught to middle schoolers. It’s strange, I explained, that the image of the courtly knight and the crusader were the main images of chivalry, which provided generations with thrilling and heroic stories and lessons in honor, nobility, and sacrifice. And now children are carefully instructed to dispose them all and chivalry is mocked.

They stared at me blankly, and I realized something wasn’t computing.

“You know what chivalry is, right?” I asked.

No one did. Not one.

I explained how people realized that young men given power, money, armor, weapons, and training could be a dangerous, disorderly addition to European civilization. They needed a civilizing hand. They needed a code that bound up faith, honor, care for the weak, courage in battle, upright behavior, chastity (or at least continence), and idealization of women.

Men were given an ideal of manhood, and were expected to honor it. When they didn’t, we get things like massacres and murder and robbery by knights professing Christianity.

Was it ever anything more than an ideal?

I think it was. I think some men tried to live it, and did. Others tried, and sometimes failed. Others never tried. Humanity’s funny that way.

But at least it was an ideal, and a good one.

Oh, your average gender studies major will argue points about patriarchy and whatnot, but that’s just nonsense. A world in which strong, powerful men behave with honor, protect the weak, fight for the right, and treat women with genteel respect is a better world than we have now.

It may have never been the world as it was, but at least, once upon a time, it was recognized as the world as it should be.

Peter Teaches: The Apostles of Acts

Peter first had follow in order to lead: to learn, in order to teach.  What strikes us most in Acts of the Apostles is the way this man emerges from the often-unflattering portrait of the Gospels to become the first leader of God’s universal Church.

After Peter heals the man in the beginning of Acts 3, it is not merely the healing that amazes his opponents. It is, rather, the ability of John and Peter to teach and persuade:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man that had been healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. (Acts 4:13–15)

Two things are at work in the ministry of Peter and John: their actions and their words. Each reinforces the other. Both amaze. Both attest to a great power working within and through them. As we are told in Acts 4:6, “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit,” answers his inquisitors. These “uneducated, common men” are shaming the wise, the rich, and the powerful with their wisdom and gifts of healing. Something new is at work in the world.

Peter fills many roles in Acts, the first half of which is occupied by the details of his ministry. He is, at various times

  • Leading the apostles
  • Conducting a healing ministry
  • Preaching the risen Christ
  • Establishing churches
  • Carrying on the work of the prophets
  • Being filled with the Spirit, and manifesting “signs and wonders” along with the other apostles (Acts 5:12).

All of these roles, and the miracles that accompany them, show the power of a Spirit at work in Peter, but what is the message we take from it? Let’s look at three miracles to see what they tell us.

Two healings and a conversion provide us with a deeper understanding of Peter’s ministry, and ours. The healing of the paralytic Aeneas (9:32-35) and the resurrection of the disciple Tabitha (36-43) convey volumes in few words. The account of Tabitha is told in far more detail, but both are packed with enough information for us to draw some conclusions.

The name of Aeneas calls to mind the hero of Virgil’s epic, and suggests that we are dealing with a Roman, a Greek, or perhaps a Hellenized Jew. The lack of detail about his life suggests he’s a man of no particular significance. Tabitha, however, is an important woman in the community, and the description of her burial preparations suggest she is a woman of great wealth as well.

The paralytic is healed and Tabitha is raised: two miracles evoking the ministry of Jesus. These are immediately follow by the calling of Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian Cohort.” The story of Cornelius takes up all of chapter 10, as he is called by the Spirit and received by Peter. As this call is happened, Peter receives a vision showing him “all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.” He hears a voice telling him to “rise … kill and eat.” The message disturbs and confuses him because it contradicts the purity law binding upon all Jews.

With the call of Cornelius revealed to him, Peter understands the meaning of the vision more fully. It is a meaning that draws in the previous two healing accounts. Poor, rich; male, female; Gentile, Jew; lame, healthy; weak, powerful, soldier, civilian: all are one in Christ Jesus. As he says, “Truly, I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34)

And as he speaks, the Spirit that had been prompting others to seek Peter and follow Christ, descends upon them in fullness. The Jews are amazed to see the Gentiles receive grace along with the chosen ones of God. Peter goes with all of them, “making no distinction” at the command of the Spirit. (Acts 11:12)  The Jews hear and understand: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:18) The promise of the kingdom is opened up to all.

The issue comes to a head at Council of Jerusalem in Chapter 15, and at the same moment Peter vanishes from the Acts of the Apostles. His final words are the decision to welcome to the gentiles into the faith without forcing them to obey the Jewish laws on diet, purity, and circumcision. It is a simple statement: “We believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:6-11) It is a firm and final decision that calls to mind the decisions of his successors down through the millennia. The fisherman who learned and student who followed is now the master who teaches.

And then Peter is gone. He left us only two epistles, and 265 successors, each of them teachers like him, each continuing the work of the Lord.

Peter Follows, And Leads: The Apostles of Acts

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away; and when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. (Acts 1:12–14)

Here, at the beginning of Acts of the Apostles, and immediately following the Ascension, the apostles are gathered and named. They have come together to devote “themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14) and, guided by Peter, to choose a successor to bring their number back to 12.

Peter stands before them (Acts 1:15) and assumes the leadership role given to him by Jesus in Matthew 16:18. His act of standing is significant: the Lord stood when teaching, which was uncommon in a time when teachers traditionally sat, with students at their feet. Peter already is imitating the Lord: a simple gesture that will echo throughout Acts as he reproduces the healing and teaching ministry of Christ, and concluding with his inverse crucifixion in Nero’s circus some 25 years later.

At this moment, we witness the apostles of Jesus become the Church, with Peter taking on the papal role of Servant of the Servants of God, first among equals.

The Master has ascended, leaving the Paraclete to inspire these simple men to greatness. It is a greatness that, up until this point, has eluded them. At various times, some or all of them have been hot-headed, cowardly, clueless, vainglorious, exclusionary, violent, lying, and proud men.

But then something remarkable happens. They breathe in the Spirit on Pentecost and become new men. They take on their roles with skill that belies what we’ve seen of them in the gospels. Of none is this so clear as with Peter.

We follow Peter’s faith journey throughout the scripture, and in some particulars it follows those of all disciples, right down to us. It begins with the call of an ordinary man at work. He is a man who doubts but trusts in the Lord, as when Jesus tells him to put out into deep water even after he has failed to catch any fish all night. What does a carpenter know of fishing? he must have thought. What does a Man who lived 2,000 years ago have to teach to us? many still wonder

Peter’s doubt is internal, but when he sees the powers manifested, he is deeply ashamed. His first reaction upon seeing his doubts shattered by a vast haul of fish? “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8)

This is every disciple from the first called down to each of us. We pull away from the call, but are drawn back nonetheless, as though these ancient fishermen have caught us an invisible line stretching down through the ages. When we trust enough to return and are dazzled by the miracle of God’s mercy and love, we may withdraw at first as one unworthy. Humbled, we endeavor to sit at the master’s feet and learn.

But all of this learning does us no good until that Pentecost moment in each of our lives. In Acts of the Apostles, Peter receives the Spirit, and is changed forever, fulfilling the promise of Christ to be that petros—that rock—on which the Church shall stand for all time.

Moments later, this man who once denied the very Lord who directed him to a miraculous catch of fish “lifted up his voice and addressed them.” (Acts 2:14) He spoke as he never had before, with words that were not his own. He quoted Joel and David. He preached Christ, and made an argument so forceful and persuasive that all who heard him were “cut to the heart.” (Acts 2:37) Reading the words of Peter at this speech and throughout Acts, it is hard to remember him as the same man who babbled about pitching tents at the Transfiguration.

Moses, too, was a man who had no skill at speaking, and as the God said to Moses, so it is with Peter. “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” (Ex 4:11-12)

Those of us in catechetical ministry must always keep these words before us, and remember the Peter of Acts.  In order to stand in the Master’s place, Peter had to sit at the Master’s feet. In order to be a teacher of the Lord, he had to be a student first. In order to speak, he had to know when to be silent. In order to lead, he first had to follow.

And when step up to teach or preach, in speech or writing or even a conversation with a friend who doubts, one prayer must be on our lips: “Your words, not mine.”

Tomorrow: Peter Teaches

My Wife Replies to “Are You Being Called?”

My wife decided to reply to my post Are You Being Called?, and I thought it was worth its own post. So, here’s the perspective from my (much) better half.

Since Tom kind of called me out in his post, I decided to chime in too. I remember sitting in Mass that morning 10 years ago. We were relatively new to this parish (having moved from our geographic parish for a number of reasons). Our son was just starting 1st grade, so we didn’t know anything about the RF program (they call it Religious Formation) or that the little Italian sister was new to the parish and revamping the whole program.

But I did know that she spoke at the end of Mass and said that they were desperately in need of catechists. I felt as though I had no good reason not to help. I hadn’t taught, but I’d been an assistant to my mom for a number of years when she taught First Communion classes at my childhood parish.

So that night, I was there to get my introduction to teaching 1st grade. The next year, I moved to second grade and mid-year took over coordinating the First Penance/First Communion prep programs and have been doing that every year.

For those just considering a call (either from the Holy Spirit, or that insistent tap on the shoulder from your pastor or DRE), know this: almost all of the catechetical programs out there have good catechist materials — you can read ahead, get tips on teaching the lesson, have activities to make it fun, etc. You don’t have to know it all or be a theologian to teach children. You need to have faith and commit to the time to prepare and teach. Find a helpful experienced catechist or DRE or priest or deacon to ask questions of.

Asserting your authority (no matter how gently) from the start makes a big difference. If you convey that you expect respect and that the children will behave properly, you’re off to a good start.

From my personal experience, sometimes kids are really open to the faith and learning about prayer, and you may be one of their only personal contacts of someone who loves the faith! Encourage them, wherever they are (and whatever level of faith support they get at home, or don’t).

Since Tom is sharing, I’ll share something I’ve told very few people (until now). I had a call of my own several years into teaching and coordinating sacraments.

About 4 years ago. I was ready to pack in it. I was tired and worn out. It’s a lot of work to do the logistics and deal with many parent and administrative issues involved with sacrament preparation and liturgies (a lot more work than teaching the children!). I was going to stop at the end of that year and ask someone else to step up. I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. I heard a voice — not with my ears, I just heard it. “Bring them to my table.” I still tear up thinking about it. I’ve never had that direct a literal call before then, nor since. But since then I’ve been able to go on teaching and coordinating with more peace than before, helping to prepare several hundred more children to receive the Eucharist.

As my pastor said to me once, “It’s not for me, or Sister, or the parents, or the children, you’re doing this work for the Lord.” What else is there to say?

If you’re being called, don’t hold back. Take the leap. Or at least find out what your parish does and what is needed.

It’s for the Lord.

Are You Being Called?

One Sunday evening, ten years ago, my wife went to a meeting at church. Our parish had a new DRE, and she was attempting to create a real religious education program for the parish’s growing number of children. My wife can speak to her own reasons for going to that meeting, and maybe she will in the comboxes.

I did not go. It was of no interest to me whatsoever. I had two young children of my own, was still recovering from the damage done to my body by the onset of arthritis in my early 30s, and had only really returned to the church a short time earlier. I was still feeling my way and deciding not what to believe (I had already decided to believe Catholicism, and all of it), but how to believe. Teaching others seemed beyond me.

As she was walking out the door on her way to the meeting, someone said, “If they’re still short of teachers at the end of the meeting, I guess I’ll take a class.”

I found out later it was me. I’d said that.

I honestly don’t remember saying it, but I do recall her coming home later that evening with a stack of books and telling me, “You’re teaching fourth grade.”

I was floored. I had no real experience with teaching, and gathering 20 nine-year-olds for 75 minutes on the floor of the church to teach them about a faith I had only recently re-embraced seemed insane. But I was committed (or soon would be, ha ha), and decided to make the best of it.

The first year was horrible. Fourth grade is that transitional year when kids start morphing from cute, fun kids into tiny soon-to-be-teenagers. Later, I’d realize that I’d started during one of those “bad years.” Some years, it just seems like an entire grade of kids has more than its fair proportion of difficult children.

Maybe something was in the water when they were conceived, or a comet passed too close to the earth the year of their birth, but you watch a an entire batch of kids progress from one level to the next making nervous wrecks of every teacher they get. They were so bad they left my poor assistant in tears, and I had yet to find the all-powerful secret to classroom discipline. (For those wondering, it’s this: seating. The majority of classroom disruptions can be handled by moving kids around the room and seating them in the right place.)

I decided I was better suited to teaching older kids, and moved up to 8th grade the next year. (When I got my original 4th grade class again in 8th grade, they were still a nightmare.)

I’ve been teaching 8th grade and confirmation ever since, and now I’m teaching RCIA and completing my masters in order to train and certify other catechists and teach ongoing adult education.

Catechesis is my vocation. It’s what I was called to do.

Here’s the thing, though: I never heard the call. I have no memory of it. I’ve been bashed on my thick head enough by the Holy Spirit to know when He’s trying to get my attention. But back then, it just happened.

I did a weird thing without any prompting and retain no memory of having done it, but it changed my life completely.  I acted of my own free will in response to some deep prompting that I was trying desperately to ignore. But to this day, I cannot tell you why I did it.

It’s like when I fell in love with my wife. A few hours after we met for the first time, I said to the friend who was dating her, “If you don’t marry her, I will.”  I was 18. Twenty-seven years later, here we are.

What prompts that kind of deep motion in the soul? The materialist would tell us it’s all reducible to the mere firing of neurons, but that’s not even good nonsense.

The Spirit moves. It moves in us. If we quiet ourselves and give in to His promptings, it will never fail to lead us on the paths of righteousness.

The Spirit breathes. It breathes in us. Each breath we take is not ours but His. The same ruach elohim that swept over the face of the waters at the dawn of time now lives in us through the grace of baptism.

It’s there, prompting us in ways we rarely choose to heed. Sometimes–despite ourselves–we heed them nonetheless. That, too, is a grace of baptism.

The question isn’t “Are you being called?”

You are.

The question is “To what are you being called?”

Because you are being called to something.

And, just maybe, this September, you’re being called to make sure the flame of faith that shines in you is passed on to the next generation. 

Around this time of year, in parishes around the country, DREs and catechists are making their annual plea for volunteers to teach in religious education programs.The larger the parish, the more likely they are to be short-handed.

BONUS! You get a free pin!

Our program teaches more than 800 children each year, and requires over 100 volunteers. They’re not all catechists. There are also assistants, classroom helpers, hall monitors, and other support staff. Most diocesan programs operate under strict rules that require multiple adults wherever children are taught, and no catechist is allowed to be alone in a room with students for the duration of a class.

This isn’t–or at least it should not be–the catechesis that failed so many of us in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The days of “Cut, Color, and Draw” are over. We can’t afford it any more. If that’s what’s going on your “CCD” classes, then your children are just being taught how to waste time, not how to live their faith in a hostile world.

Your kids–and all the kids of your parish–deserve a solid, authentic education in the truths of the faith: one that is faithful to the Magisterium and strongly orthodox.

And you know what? You–the person who cares enough to read this far on a Catholic blog–may be the person to do that. You don’t need to be comfortable speaking in public (few people are) or a tiny Aquinas. You just need to a) learn all you can about your faith, b) accept it, and c) teach it faithfully.

See, that call that goes out each year for a gray mass of general “volunteers” is all wrong. It says, “We need anyone with a pulse.”

No. We need you. You specifically. Your talent, your fidelity, your skills.

Many programs are just beginning now. Even those that have already begun are likely to need extra people. Quiet your mind, think, breathe, pray, and listen to the Spirit working you. He may just be calling you to catechetical ministry.

UPDATE: My wife replied to this update.

Wine in the Old Testament

Bread was the ordinary food of the people, but wine was for celebration. It was a symbol of joy. It was considered so important in the ritual life of the Jews that people had the responsibility to provide wine for the poor during the feasts if the poor could not provide it for themselves.

Egyptian wine press and storehouse

The grape harvest was a festive time (Is 16:10) that includes feasting, singing , and dancing (Jeremiah 48:33, Judges 21:20–21). Wine was produced by gathering grapes into large vat, which would have been carved from stone, or made of wood or clay. This vat (called a “gat”) was connected to a lower cistern (a “bor”) via a pipe.

Grapes were pressed in the gat, with the juice passing through a pipe, strained using linen to remove husks and other unwanted bits, and ending up in the bor. It was stored in large receptacles of wood or pottery, sealed with pitch.

Wine had to stand for 40 days before it was usable as a drink offering. Once it had settled, it would be decanted into jars or skins (Matt 9:17). As with all wine, there were varieties by region, with red preferred to white, as well as blends. Some added water and balsam to old wine, sacred incense, honey and pepper, and different spices. There were myriad variations, levels of quality, and special wines for special occasions. The Jewish Encyclopedia identifies a number of them:

“Yayin” was the ordinary matured, fermented wine, “tirosh” was a new wine, and “shekar” was an old, powerful wine (“strong drink”). The red wine was the better and stronger (Ps 75:9, Prov 23:31). Perhaps the wine of Helbon (Ezek 27:18) and the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:77) were white wines. The vines of Hebron were noted for their large clusters of grapes (Num. 13:23). Samaria was the center of vineyards (Jeremiah 31: 5; Micah 1:6), and the Ephraimites were heavy wine-drinkers (Is 28:1). There were also “yayin ha-reḳaḥ” (spiced wine; Song 8:2), “ashishah” (hardened sirup of grapes), “shemarim (wine-dregs), and “ḥomeẓ yayin” (vinegar). Some wines were mixed with poisonous substances (“yayin tar’elah”; Ps 60:5). The “wine of the condemned” (“yen ‘anushim”) is wine paid as a forfeit (Amos 2:8), and “wine of violence” (Prov 4:17) is wine obtained by illegal means.

Merchant with wineskin

“The Lord gives us wine to make our heart glad,” the Psalms tell us. (Ps 104:15) Wine was a gift from God (Deut. 7:13, Ps. 104:15) and at the end of time, it would be provided in great abundance. (Jer. 31:12; Joel 3:18, Amos 9:13-14) That theme of abundance is key: bread meant life, but wine meant something extra added on to life. There was an element of luxury about it. It meant abundance, and was used in both feasting and mourning to celebrate good times (Eccles. 10:19) and to dull the pain of bad times (Prov 31:6).

Amos 9:13-14 provides vivid imagery of the importance of wine to the Jews:

13 “Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine…”

God’s promise of wine would have been a symbol of salvation to the Jews. It was against this background that Jesus made wine the source of his first miracle John, and then placed it, along with bread, at the center of the Eucharistic celebration.

For the references to wine in the Old Testament, click here.

For other posts in this series, click here.


Ancient wine press

All photos from Verbum Bible Software.

Apologists and Catechists, Debate and Dialectic

The role of Catholics online has evolved in interesting  ways, with social media tools allowing all members of Christ’s Church to explore and share the faith, from the pope right down to the average layperson with a mobile phone and a Twitter account. A vast range of topics and approaches falls within that spectrum, but the two most notable roles are apologist and catechist, and there are important distinctions between the two.

An apologist (from the Greek apologia, meaning to speak or teach in defense of something), is a person who makes the case for Christianity. More and more, the apologist is called upon to make the case for simple theism in the face of a vocal and active fundamentalist atheism, which rose to prominence in the wake of several really bad bestselling books. In short, the apologist is arguing a point and a making a case. It is debate.

A catechist, on the other hand, is a teacher of the faith. We convey the established truths of the faith to people who are predisposed to believe them. They have already made that first step, under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, towards accepting Christianity, and need to be taught what the faith means and how to live it. It is not a debate. Although intelligent and involved converts will always want to engage points in order to better understand them, this is more akin to a dialectic approach. People are asking questions in order to deepen knowledge, not to strike down a core point of the faith.

Debate involves people with fixed opinions arguing their own points, while the dialectic approach (best embodied by Socrates) involves people asking and answering questions in order to better explore the truth.

The apologist’s approach is persuasive, while the catechist’s is pedagogic. An apologist needs to accept that all questions are on the table, and be willing to answer them. A catechist assumes several basic facts (God exists, Jesus is Lord, the Church is his body), and then helps the student to better learn and live those facts.

One leads the horse to water, and the other teaches him to drink.

These aren’t rigidly defined categories. The apologist is often a catechist and the catechist often engages in apologetics. But the roles are different, and that distinction is important because everyone approaches “online Catholics” as though we’re apologists willing to hash out all the arguments for and against our faith at the drop of a dime. While all Christians are called to “give the reason for our hope,” not all are equipped or inclined to engage in internet apologetics, which is a kind of verbal trench warfare in which both sides remained fixed in place, sniping from their locations and rarely moving the front line either direction.

I am not an apologist: I am a catechist. I’m trained and certified as a catechist, I work as a catechist, and I’m getting a masters degree in order to be a better catechist and teach at a higher level. I’m willing to explain the core points of the faith to those who do not accept them, but I have very little interest in hashing out settled truths about the basic existence of God with unyielding and unreasonable people. I studied grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and did all that debate bosh starting in junior high, complete with note cards, points of information, propositions, scoring, and all the rest. Debate-as-sport is something I’ll leave to better men, since I find it unbearably tedious. Internet debates rarely go anywhere at all. At least a formal debate ends and is scored. An online debate just goes round and round and round until someone calls you a Nazi.

When I wrote my post on Augustine asking hard questions atheists don’t like to ask, I got a lot of atheist comments from the usual range of people, from reasonable to obnoxious to psychopathic. I really wasn’t trying to engage atheists in debate, because debating the existence of a creator in a created universe is like debating existence of the sun. Also, for reasons pointed out by Frank Weathers, I’d probably suck at it. I don’t think atheists are stupid at all: I think they simply can’t see and, not being God, I can’t open their eyes. The most useful thing I can do for them is shut up and pray that the one “who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” will open their eyes. I was a blind beggar when I was an agnostic, and was given the totally unmerited gift of faith. I could never debate someone into believing about God, and I’d probably make a poor witness in the attempt, so I’ll leave that to cooler heads.

Which is why I’m not an apologist. I have no problem at all discussing the claims of Christianity, the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic Church, and the meaning of scripture. That’s all part of a catechist’s job. We pick up where the apologist leaves off.

I’m about to begin a new year of teaching and see last year’s class across the finish line to Confirmation. Conveying the faith to the next generation is enough work for me. I’ll let others handle the combox battles over the existence of God.

Faith, Family, and Special Needs: An Interview with Author David Rizzo

I first wrote about the Rizzo family back in the fall, when their Adaptive First Eucharist Kit was published by Loyola Press. Dave and Mercedes Rizzo, along with their son Brendan, created the kit to teach Reconciliation and First Eucharist to developmentally disabled children using visual and tactile tools. Arising from their experiences teaching these sacraments to their daughter Danielle (who has non-verbal autism), the kit fills an important gap in catechetical ministry. It was piloted at my parish, and I was thrilled to see it reach a wider audience in desperate need of this kind of teaching tool.

When Loyola agreed to to publish the kit, they also requested that Dave write a book about the challenges, techniques, and spirituality of special needs parenting. Faith, Family, and Children with Special Needs: How Catholic Parents and Their Kids with Special Needs Can Develop a Richer Spiritual Life is a terrific little book packed with gentle wisdom, hard-earned experience, a deep sense of the spiritual dimension of both the special needs parent, and keen insight into the unique spirituality of developmentally disabled children. Every catechetical program in America needs to give it to teachers involved in special needs ministry, and parents of disabled children will find comfort and guidance in its pages.

I’ve done an interview with Dave for the National Catholic Register, and it’s a corker. I can’t claim any credit for the quality: I just asked some questions, and Dave did the rest. Here’s a bit of it:

What was your initial response to God when you learned of Danielle’s autism, and how has that response changed over time?

“At first I was angry at God. Danielle’s autism seemed like a cruel joke. I couldn’t find any meaning in it: Why would God do this? I felt like I had been in a boxing match with God, and he had delivered the knockout punch. After that, I kept holding out for some miraculous intervention, and I remember taking Danielle to be prayed over, so she might learn how to talk or be cured of her autism.

“But it was during one of these prayer services that I discovered the one prayer that made sense: I prayed for Danielle to become the person God wanted her to be. Now, my wife and I have both come to see Danielle’s absence of words as something akin to God’s silence. In this silence, one has time to feel and accept the reality of the situation; one has an opportunity to come to peace with it. Also, Mercedes and I have seen how much good Danielle accomplishes because of who she is. We have seen so many people touched by her. There is remarkable healing in it.”

In your experience, how do people with cognitive disabilities experience and express the life of the Spirit?

“They are very open to the Spirit in that many have learned to compensate for their deficits in language by becoming more reliant on visual, tactile, kinesthetic and other types of information to make sense out of the world and express themselves. Often, this leads to a more intuitive and spontaneous approach to life. Think of how much spontaneous energy children like my daughter Danielle show … the joy they can show.

“It’s almost like King David and his dance of joy and praise. Of course people with disabilities can also show quite a lot of negative emotions, too. But so much of the time it’s positive and joyous. People with disabilities can often be very loving, too. Danielle used to come up to us and take our hands to squeeze her head as a sign of her love for us. Sometimes she asks for a kiss using a picture icon, her electronic speech device or sign language.”

Read the rest.

I’ve been privileged to know this family, and seen their patient (although they would probably say “Not always patient”), skillful parenting of Danielle. She’s a remarkable young lady, and a testament to the wisdom of a loving God who placed her with such a family. God makes no mistakes. The Rizzos, and Danielle in particular, are living witness to the power of grace and love, and I’ve seen the transformative power of that witness in action. Our entire parish benefits from Danielle’s presence. Our pastor must have realized this when he told the Rizzos that they should attend mass as a family, and it didn’t matter if some people were annoyed by her occasional disruptions: this is life, and this is the family of the Church, in all its messiness and with all its challenges. Deal with it, he was saying.

It took a lot of work to help Danielle understand the sacraments enough to make her first confession and receive the eucharist, and when the time came, she understood that what she received was forgiveness, and what she ate was more the mere bread. This precious gift, given by the grace of God through the efforts of determined and loving parents, is a pearl without price.

Danielle Rizzo