What led me to the rosary?

The rosary is one of the most distinctive Catholic prayers, but it didn’t come easily to me. It seemed so long, and kind of outdated. Others have concerns about devotions to Mary in general—do they lead us to Christ? In the end the rosary proved to be one of the devotions that most helped me grow closer to God—and a key step in beginning to consider a vocation to the priesthood.

When I entered college I joined the campus council of the Knights of Columbus (around November). They gave out rosaries, asked us to carry them, and encouraged us to pray them as often as we could. I did begin keeping mine in my pocket but never prayed it. I don’t think I had prayed a rosary since Sunday school, but it did intrigue me. I knew other people prayed the rosary and spoke highly of it. So, when it came time to pick a Lenten goal in the spring my mind went back to the rosary. I had a sense it would be a good thing to do, and a little sense of responsibility since I had not followed through on praying it yet. I set a goal to pray it each day during Lent.

At first I had to look up the instructions online. I knew the basic prayers by memory, but was fuzzy on some of the details. In particular, I needed a refresher on the “mysteries” of the rosary. These are one of the keys to what makes the rosary such a powerful method of prayer. If you aren’t familiar with them, how it works is that each “decade” of the rosary is made up of an Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, and a Glory Be. During each decade you call to mind a particular event from the life of Christ or Mary (called the “mysteries”) and reflect on it. These mysteries are grouped into four categories (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious). A standard rosary consists of praying all five decades of one group of mysteries. For example, the Joyful mysteries include the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple.

It was a tough habit to start. In the beginning most of my effort was focused on the logistics (what to say and when). After a little while I began to be able to focus on the mysteries and really think about them. The set of prayers gave me a fixed amount of time to think, and something to “do” to help focus. I gradually realized that the mysteries basically took you through the life of Christ, from the Annunciation all the way through our entrance into the life of heaven. These reflections began to bring together the “big picture” for me, and I began to really think about these things. I came to understand more about what the mysteries meant and how they connected with events I was facing. It wasn’t an abstract or solitary reflection, but one carried out in union with Jesus’ mother, Mary. Thanks be to God, I was able to continue this practice throughout all of Lent, and it really changed me. It’s hard to exaggerate how much this helped me to grow in an adult understanding of my faith and in my ability to enter into conversation with God during prayer. It ended up being my Lenten practice again my sophomore year of college, and it was shortly after that when I began to consider my calling from God. Developing this serious life of prayer (even if just 15-20 minutes a day) was something essential in becoming who I am today. Providentially, I later found out the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary is the anniversary of my baptism—a connection that brings me great joy!

There are different forms of prayer, but I wanted to share this one since it was a powerful avenue of grace in my life (and in countless others over the past 800 years or so!). It can be prayed in its fuller form, or even just one decade at a time. It is a great prayer for groups or to pray alone. It can be prayed in a church, on a walk, or in the car. Each decade can be offered for a particular intention, which makes it a great prayer of petition. It is a prayer that continues to adapt with you throughout life! I really had no idea where it would lead me, but am so grateful for what God has done. It humbles me to realize how God overcame my resistance and led me to follow Him

Take the time to pray. If you don’t know where to start or how to grow, take the time to have a conversation with someone that does have a serious life of prayer. You won’t regret it. God bless!

Who are the archangels?

September 29th is the feast day for the archangels in the Catholic Church. We list three- Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Michael is referenced in the Old Testament book of Daniel (chapters 10 and 12), the letter of Jude in the New Testament, and the book of Revelation. Gabriel also appears in Daniel (chapters 8 and 9), and in the first chapter of Luke (appearing to Mary and Zechariah). Raphael appears in the Old Testament book of Tobit, and is sometimes connected with the angel in John 5. They represent three ways that angels serve in the Scriptures: to protect, to announce, and to heal. I’ll let St Gregory the Great take it the rest of the way! (From Homily 34)

You should be aware that the word “angel” denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message. Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels. And so it was that not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary. It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.
  Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform. In that holy city, where perfect knowledge flows from the vision of almighty God, those who have no names may easily be known. But personal names are assigned to some, not because they could not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when they came among us. Thus, Michael means “Who is like God”; Gabriel is “The Strength of God”; and Raphael is “God’s Remedy.”
  Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that his action and his name may make it clear that no one can do what God does by his superior power. So also our ancient foe desired in his pride to be like God, saying: I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High. He will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment. Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John: A battle was fought with Michael the archangel.
  So too Gabriel, who is called God’s strength, was sent to Mary. He came to announce the One who appeared as a humble man to quell the cosmic powers. Thus God’s strength announced the coming of the Lord of the heavenly powers, mighty in battle. Raphael means, as I have said, God’s remedy, for when he touched Tobit’s eyes in order to cure him, he banished the darkness of his blindness. Thus, since he is to heal, he is rightly called God’s remedy.

How do we pray in solidarity?

As Christians we pray for other people. This is what we call “intercession.” It isn’t the only type of prayer, but is an important one! St Paul writes, “First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone” (1 Timothy 2:1). It is a way that we extend our concern for all. We are convinced that we are better able to face our difficulties when we pray, and that likewise we are better prepared when others are praying for us.

However, how do we keep everyone in mind? We know that we have limited financial resources, but even with prayer we experience our limitations. The modern world gives us more and more opportunities to learn about problems, which often surpasses what we can do in response. It is an impossible task to always be aware of everything. It can make the mission of prayer seem overwhelming. We see this at times with the modern attempt to stay “woke” (aware of every current issue). This easily degenerates into a discouraging treadmill or a sort of one-upmanship (highlighting the way that others aren’t as current as ourselves, etc).

I want to highlight a few ways to approach the work of intercession from a Christian perspective. First, we recognize that our responsibilities begin within our sphere of influence. We start with care for those that are closest to us, and seek to grow that circle however we are able. If we do not have the resources (material or spiritual) to go very far, we humbly begin with the portion of the Lord’s work that we can undertake. We resist the temptation to give up because of the immensity of the task. Second, we rely on our public prayers, which draw us into wider circles. The prayers at Mass in particular range out to touch the needs of the entire world. Where two or three are gathered, the Lord is present in our midst (Matthew 18:20). Finally, in our prayer we can leave space for the Lord to work within us. When we put an excessive burden on ourselves we forget that prayer involves the work of God to draw us into his work of redemption. St Paul writes, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26). It is important to create room for silence in our prayer, because it is here that the Spirit can work.

When the needs of the world overwhelm us, let us humbly offer our hearts and minds to the Lord, that the gift of intercession may well up within us when the needs of our brothers and sisters surpass what we are able to face alone.

How do you carry a cross with grace?

One of Jesus’ famous sayings is, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). What does it mean to carry a cross, and how do we do so with grace?

“The cross” symbolizes the difficulties of the mission or calling we have received in life. Some of those difficulties may come from our own poor choices. We may have made decisions that caused damage to our life or to other relationships, and now require work to repair. Some aspects of the cross may be beyond our control. Other people may create obstacles, or circumstances may present difficulties beyond anyone’s control. However, whether they are voluntary or involuntary, we have the interior choice to embrace them to the extent that we must, or to allow them to overcome us. When we embrace them we remember that we are not embracing suffering for its own sake, but for the sake of the mission we have received. Will it be accomplished, or will we allow it to remain unfinished?

Making the decision to “take up our cross” is only a first step. How do we plan to carry that cross? As funny as it is, we so often choose to do so in the most difficult way. I’ve certainly chosen to tackle things the “hard way” plenty of times myself! So, we also want to look at how we can carry the cross with grace.

  1. We shouldn’t be afraid of our failures or weaknesses. Instead, they are opportunities to grow in the essential virtue of humility. Humility doesn’t mean thinking of ourselves as terrible people but is about acknowledging the truth about ourselves. The cross will at times reveal our weaknesses, and so can allow us to grow in better self-awareness. Christ came to save our real self, not an image that we have created to show to others.
  2. Related to that, the cross can open us up to an experience of mercy. Mercy is a gift freely offered by God, and it is a powerful thing to receive it when we are aware of our true need for it. Likewise, we shouldn’t be afraid to receive mercy and help from others. God didn’t intend us to carry our cross alone, and trying to do so is an example of choosing to do things the hard way! When we experience our weaknesses we should reach out for support. It is not true that no one cares, or that no one can help us. We need a serious prayer life. We need friends or some form of community. For Catholics we have the profound gift of the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation. Many stay away from this out of embarrassment, when it is a tremendous opportunity to talk directly about our greatest difficulties. God desires to give forgiveness, grace, and counsel. Why stay away?
  3. Being aware of our weaknesses can also help us to grow in compassion for others. Understanding our own cross gives us grounds to understand others who struggle (whether in similar or different ways). We can pray for an increase in patience and understanding with others when we encounter our own weakness.
  4. Last (at least for this list!), Christ invites us to see our cross as united with his in the work of the fulfillment of the redemption. There is a tradition among Catholics of “offering up” our struggles as a form of prayer for others. For example, when we engage in our least favorite part of our vocation or job, we can offer it for the needs of others. This can be done in general or for some particular need (e.g. those who struggle with similar things, the needs of our family, a world disaster, etc). It is a way of imitating the profound words of St Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). We don’t understand this as saying that there is something insufficient in the work of Christ, but rather that we can share in the continued extension of this work. In the Mass we have a concrete moment to unite our cross with Christ’s. The truth is that if we avoid our mission there is some work in the world that will not be done. Instead of being so afraid of taking up our cross, maybe we should be afraid of not allowing the mission given to us to be fulfilled!

Carrying the cross is not easy, and these words only tackle a few of the issues. However, I hope they give some help to understanding the work we are called to undertake, and how to do it with grace. God bless!

Why believe in Christ? Part I: What sets him apart

Today I thought I’d post on the “second level” of belief. I’ve done a couple of posts on the “first level” (belief in God in general), and so now we move on to the question of Jesus Christ. Why believe in him among other religions? At this point I am not distinguishing between different groups of Christians (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, etc), but looking at Christ himself. I think the first point is to understand the basic difference that we believe separates Christ from other prophets or holy people. It is well portrayed in a passage from Matthew 16:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” [The disciples] replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

The question here centers on his identity rather than any particular action. Usually a person is significant to us because of what they have done. It is the opposite for Christ—his actions are significant because of who he *is.* From eternity he is the Son of God (the Second Person of the Trinity). In time he takes on human nature as the Son of Man (born of the Virgin Mary). He is therefore true God and true man, one Person with two Natures (divine and human). A nature is a source of action, so by his divine nature he knows and loves in an infinite way. By his human nature, though, he is able to share in suffering and death (and to know and love in a human way). Therefore, he is able to live a human life but filled with a perfect charity.

What problem did he come to solve? The separation between mankind and God. We see, then, that in his own Person he reconciles the two! The work of redemption involves the joining together of these two realities. Salvation involves sharing in the divine life. Divine life overcomes the limitation of death, sickness, and sin. It offers an invitation to hope and love in a manner that surpasses human nature alone—as seen in the lives of the saints. As Athanasius put it, God became man that man might become God. Christ possesses divine life by nature, but we can possess it by participation. It is not something that we can create ourselves—it transcends created things. We believe that God has freely chosen to offer this to us through Christ.

This, then, is why we believe Christ is worthy of belief. He doesn’t just claim to be a prophet or a holy man, but claims to be God incarnate. This means that there is something unique and fundamentally different about his actions. In other posts I will look at reasons to believe that this claim is true, and at the question of different Christian communities/churches. But, from the beginning we need to be clear on this fundamental claim of Christ: he is truly the Son of God and truly the Son of Man.

John Chrysostom Homily on “You are the Salt of the Earth”

Today I am going to include a “guest post” from St John Chrysostom (a bishop of Constantinople, d. 407 AD). It is a favorite of mine, and I think a powerful witness to the truth that we as Christians are not called to be transformed by the world into its own image, but to transform the world through God’s work in us. God bless!

(From his 15th homily on the Gospel of St Matthew)

“You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).

It is not for your own sake, he says, but for the world’s sake that the word is entrusted to you. I am not sending you only into two cities only or ten to twenty, not to a single nation, as I sent the prophets of old, but across land and sea, to the whole world. And that world is in a miserable state. For when he says: You are the salt of the earth, he is indicating that all mankind had lost its savour and had been corrupted by sin. Therefore, he requires of these men those virtues which are especially useful and even necessary if they are to bear the burdens of many. For the man who is kindly, modest, merciful and just will not keep his good works to himself but will see to it that these admirable fountains send out their streams for the good of others. Again, the man who is clean of heart, a peacemaker and ardent for truth will order his life so as to contribute to the common good.
  Do not think, he says, that you are destined for easy struggles or unimportant tasks. You are the salt of the earth. What do these words imply? Did the disciples restore what had already turned rotten? Not at all. Salt cannot help what is already corrupted. That is not what they did. But what had first been renewed and freed from corruption and then turned over to them, they salted and preserved in the newness the Lord had bestowed. It took the power of Christ to free men from the corruption caused by sin; it was the task of the apostles through strenuous labour to keep that corruption from returning.
  Have you noticed how, bit by bit, Christ shows them to be superior to the prophets? He says they are to be teachers not simply for Palestine but for the whole world. Do not be surprised, then, he says, that I address you apart from the others and involve you in such a dangerous enterprise. Consider the numerous and extensive cities, peoples and nations I will be sending you to govern. For this reason I would have you make others prudent, as well as being prudent yourselves. For unless you can do that, you will not be able to sustain even yourselves.
  If others lose their savour, then your ministry will help them regain it. But if you yourselves suffer that loss, you will drag others down with you. Therefore, the greater the undertakings put into your hands, the more zealous you must be. For this reason he says: But if the salt becomes tasteless, how can its flavour be restored? It is good for nothing now, but to be thrown out and trampled by men’s feet.
  When they hear the words: When they curse you and persecute you and accuse you of every evil, They may be afraid to come forward. Therefore he says: “Unless you are prepared for that sort of thing, it is in vain that I have chosen you. Curses shall necessarily be your lot but they shall not harm you and will simply be a testimony to your constancy. If through fear, however, you fail to show the forcefulness your mission demands, your lot will be much worse, for all will speak evil of you and despise you. That is what being trampled by men’s feet means.”
  Then he passes on to a more exalted comparison: You are the light of the world. Once again, “of the world”: not of one nation or twenty cities, but of the whole world. The light he means is an intelligible light, far superior to the rays of the sun we see, just as the salt is a spiritual salt. First salt, then light, so that you may learn how profitable sharp words may be and how useful serious doctrine. Such teaching holds in check and prevents dissipation; it leads to virtue and sharpens the mind’s eye. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor do men light a lamp and put it under a basket. Here again he is urging them to a careful manner of life and teaching them to be watchful, for they live under the eyes of all and have the whole world for the arena of their struggles.


Do Catholics worship Mary?

One of the classic questions for Catholics (especially from other Christians) is whether we worship Mary. Sometimes it is even phrased *why* we worship Mary, as if the issue isn’t even in question! This is a major obstacle for some people with accepting the Catholic Church.

We actually agree that worshipping Mary as a god would be a big problem! Mary is not God, and treating her as if she were is clearly against the Ten Commandments. Instead, Catholics venerate her. We see “veneration” as something that is proper to a human being, while worship (adoration) is the level of respect that is reserved for God alone. Catholics see Mary as a model and a mother. She is a model of the Christian response to God. When Gabriel appears to announce that she will conceive the Son of God she accepts the mission bravely. She follows her son closely even to the foot of the Cross, and is in prayer with the apostles as they wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Mary, though, is also a mother. At Cana (John 2) she intercedes with her son for the needs of the wedding couple, and at her request Jesus works his first public miracle. At the foot of the Cross Jesus directly calls her a mother to St John—his last teaching before giving up his spirit. Catholics believe that the saints in heaven are not disconnected from those on earth, but can still pray for them and their needs (we call this the “communion of saints”). In that sense, we don’t consider praying to the saints essentially different from asking someone on earth to pray for us. When we “pray to Mary” (or another saint), we aren’t praying to them in the sense of asking them to answer our request by their own power. Instead, we are asking them to pray with us to God for our need. We can of course go straight to Jesus by ourselves, but Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray together and for one another (eg Matthew 18:19-20). Jesus even was seen speaking with Moses and Elijah (Old Testament “saints”) at the Transfiguration! Devotion to the saints is a logical continuation of this with those who live with the Lord.

A final question is about representing Mary (or other saints) by a statue or image. Does this violate the prohibition against graven images? First, even in the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to form images of angels for the Ark of the Covenant or Temple. But, most importantly, the incarnation of Christ as God-made-flesh changes the relationship of the earthly to the divine. God has cast his own image in this world, and the veil of the Temple has been torn open. Therefore, we believe that images do not violate the commandment against idolatry. We see them reminders of a person that is alive with God rather than worshiping the image itself as if it were a god.

To return to the original question, while some may take it for granted that Catholics worship Mary/statues/etc, most Catholics would be baffled by this suggestion! I myself was very surprised the first time I encountered this question. The Catholic veneration of Mary isn’t set in contrast to the worship of God, but an aspect of praising him. All of the graces that Mary has received come from God. We believe that God rejoices to include us as co-workers with him (1 Corinthians 3:9). If I praised the beauty of the Mona Lisa no one would object that I should be praising Leonardo da Vinci directly—it’s understood that the two go together! The same goes with God and the saints.

At their root, many of the questions can be answered by simply clarifying what we mean by some of our terms. A lot of times misunderstandings dominate the conversation. At times our language or imagery doesn’t seem to reflect all of these distinctions, even if we have them in the back of our minds. But, in my own life, I have found my devotion to the saints (and Mary in particular) to have brought me closer to God and made me a better Christian. Rather than viewing the saints with suspicion or fear let us see them as powerful friends on our road to God. We are “surrounded by a crowd of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), and that can only help!