Faith and the War Within

St James writes, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” (James 4:1). He describes something that we all experience – the fact that within ourselves we feel a battle between many different desires and emotions. This can make us feel like we are being pulled apart, and St James lists conquering this as one of the pre-requisites for true peace (both personally and in the world as a whole!). We each have to address this in some way. Should we work against any of these desires, and if so, how? I thought today I’d give some reflections on these questions from a Catholic perspective.

We see our creation as both body and soul as leading to these different sets of desires. We perceive things with our senses, and we are drawn toward the pleasurable and away from the painful. With our minds we also are drawn toward what we perceive to be true, and toward doing what we believe is good (although people use many different standards to make these judgments).

In the beginning of creation, we believe the grace of integrity was given to unite all of these desires toward a unified and true goal, but one of the fruits of sin was to introduce disorder into our heart. From here we are often drawn to seek superficial goods that are in conflict with our true and long-term goals, and we see selfishness work its destruction across the world every day.

The Christian vocation, in contrast, is to be transformed into a living image of God. Rather than a rampaging horde of barbarians (which is what our passions may seem like some times), the mission of the Church is to be more like a horde of images of Christ – people who will live with the love and wisdom of Christ, His patience, and His strength. In the “cloud of witnesses” of the saints we can see ways in which this has been successful, although we also know the great need to re-commit to this mission today.

Our first step in winning the war within as Catholics, then, is to make an act of faith in the power of God. Our biggest obstacle is our self-reliance, which hesitates to rely on the grace of God, and is reluctant to reach out for the help that we need. We want to be perfect in a day without involving others, and are discouraged when this transformation does not take place according to our time-table. It is a grace-fueled cooperation of our will with God’s, not just a passive process that happens automatically. But, moving beyond self-reliance, we are called to face this battle with trust in personal prayer, the Sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), friendship, and perhaps other aids (e.g. counseling, small groups, etc).

This is a path of freedom and healing. It brings us back towards that unity of the initial creation – and what will be restored in the life to come. Many may struggle with the decision to enter into this battle from the point of faith, and instead choose a path that relies on human power and wisdom alone (doubting a chance for anything else). But, the faith that we are invited to is not a “blind” faith with no evidence. I am encouraged on by seeing how this has happened in others, how it is happening now, and how it has happened in my own life. I believe that Christ is alive and that I have encountered Him. May He work in my life and yours, and may we in confidence follow where He leads!

The Fellowship

The first part of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings largely focuses on the gathering together of the “Fellowship of the Ring.” (mild spoilers for this paragraph, if for some reason you are not already familiar with this story!). This is a group of heroes gathered from all the races of Middle Earth (ie humans, hobbits, elves, and dwarves – along with the wizard Gandalf) that unites for the purpose of destroying the dominion that the One Ring holds on the world. I think in that way the Fellowship is an image of the universal Church. The original Greek word for church – ekklesia – in fact means an assembly that has been called together. They set out against their opposition, and even come to a point at which the Fellowship seems to break – although in truth they stay united to their purpose despite no longer being in each other’s company.

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel describes a breaking among the disciples of Jesus: “many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6: 66). The dispute here centered on His words, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6: 53). At the end of the chapter, Jesus also speaks of the upcoming betrayal of Judas Iscariot (verses 70-71).

I think these passages give an important warning at the end of the Bread of Life discourse. Jesus is preparing this community/fellowship, and desires it to be a place of transformative encounter with Him (in a particular way in the celebration of the sacrament of His body and blood). However, our response to His invitation maintains its freedom. There is no substitute for a conversion of self, and no external proclamation that is sufficient without an interior correspondence.

At the time of this writing there is unfortunately the scandal of priests and bishops that  have used their positions to abuse (or cover up abuse) of those in their care. They took the external signs of consecration, but without a true internal correspondence. Instead of loving the Church as Christ loves her, they chose to care more about worldly prestige or personal gain. This is deeply saddening and I am so sorry for those affected. I pray for healing for those harmed directly or indirectly by the scandal, and for a true purification of the Church. I pray that I may be a faithful minister of Christ, and always do my part to protect those in the part of the vineyard entrusted to me. I am aware of my weaknesses, and ask for your prayers to fully respond to God’s call.

What inspires me at this time, though, is to meditate on that original plan of Christ for this Fellowship of the Church, and to be a part of its renewal. As ugly as scandal is, I am thankful that what has been brought to light is not continuing its growth in the darkness, where corruption breeds most quickly. May the light of Christ shine and drive out the darkness. I am reminded of the joy of living a life rooted in the presence of Christ, and renewed in my desire to fight against everything that seeks dominion in my life in opposition to it.

Do Christians have to follow everything in the Old Testament?

[Note- I know it’s long, there is a summary at the end!]

People often ask questions along the lines of, “The Bible commands people to do x/y/z. How can you believe that?” While the Bible has many beautiful parts, it is true that there are some that are challenging. Questions about these may come from Christians trying to better understand their faith, or come as challenges from non-Christians. I’ve seen billboards sponsored by anti-religious groups that put these passages on display as a way to discourage faith. However, I do think there are good answers to these questions, and already have written a little about this here.

Today I want to look at another part of the answer – the difference between the Old and the New Testaments in the Bible. Sometimes it seems that the person asking the question doesn’t have a sense of the difference in how we approach these two sections of the Bible. The “Old Testament” refers to all of the inspired books written before the time of Christ, and corresponds to the books revered by the Jewish faith. The “New Testament” refers to the writings inspired after the time of Christ written by the apostles and other disciples.

The reason that this is relevant is that most of the challenges I see based on difficult passages tend to come from the Old Testament, while the Christian scriptures would be more identified with the New Testament. Thus, it seems like an easy answer would be to say that any text quoted from the Old Testament is now invalid for Christians – like a lawyer trying to appeal to an outdated version of the law (the early writer Marcion actually tried an approach somewhat like this). This response, though, does not really fully respect the teaching of Christ. He reaffirmed some portions of the Old Testament, while not binding us to follow everything it contains. Here are a few key points about how Jesus spoke of the Old Testament.

1. Jesus affirmed that He was not abolishing everything in the Old Testament: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). In other places He teaches the continued validity of some of the commandments of the Old Testament (eg, Luke 18:20). The important word here is that He came to “fulfill.” This is different from simply repeating old laws, and different from simply creating completely new ones. It is about bringing the commandments to the purpose they had from the beginning.

2. Jesus showed that some teachings in the Old Testament needed to be understood in a deeper light. This is most clear in His “Sermon on the Mount” in chapters 5-7 of Matthew. He repeats a similar formula to this one: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44). The Ten Commandments given to Moses taught basic truths, but that did not mean that was the limit to what God desired for our behavior. There is much more to the love of God and neighbor than simply avoiding murder!

3. Jesus showed that there were commandments in the Old Testament that flowed in part from hardness of heart. For example, when asked about divorce Jesus said, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). In other words, we should recognize that the Old Testament teachings were steps along the way to perfection, not the final reality. I also think it is very important to realize that this sort of correction is already included in the Old Testament itself. For example, God says to the prophet Ezekiel, “Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked? … Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live?” (Ez 18:23). Or, in Isaiah: “‘What do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; in the blood of calves, lambs, and goats I find no pleasure.’” (Is 1:11). So, even in the Old Testament itself we see evidence that God is preparing for a fulfillment of the Old Testament commands to coincide with their true purpose.

4. In addition to these forms of elevating/restoring given commandments, Jesus teaches that some parts of the Old Testament will be replaced. In regards to worship, He tells the woman at the well, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4: 21, 23). As The Letter to the Hebrews also shows the way that Christ’s offering on the Cross fulfills (and hence replaces) the offerings of animals in the Old Testament. As Catholics we believe that this new worship is connected to Jesus’ command to continue what He did at the Last Supper (“Do this in memory of me,” Luke 22:19), which is what we do at Mass.

5. Finally, I want to end by saying that Jesus ultimately entrusts the Apostles with the responsibility of discerning what is still required. We see this in the Acts of the Apostles as they address the dietary restrictions and the question of circumcision (Acts 11 and Acts 15, respectively). While I only referenced a small number of the teachings Jesus gives on the matter, even the full list would not address every part of the Old Testament! Here we see one of the reasons why Catholics believe in a continued teaching authority that exists in the Church.

Summary: This is one of the longest posts I have written, even though it barely scratches the surface! Therefore, I thought I’d end with a tl;dr type response from the great Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 100-105). The Church has basically concluded that commandments in the Old Testament can be broken down into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Moral commands came from the demands of doing good and avoiding evil, and still bind – often with a deeper explanation given by Jesus. Ceremonial commands had to do with the worship of God, and are fulfilled in the worship of the New Testament centered on the offering of Christ on the Cross, replacing the old practices. Judicial commands covered other aspects of life among the Israelites concerning community order, and weren’t about enduring questions of good/evil. These were only intended to remain for a time, and were annulled by the coming of Christ.

I hope this helps in some way to clarify how we understand the Old Testament as Catholics. When someone questions a particular passage, it’s essential to take the time to understand how it fits into this larger picture. God bless!

Fr Georges Lemaître

If you went to Google’s homepage on July 17th you would have seen the picture of a Catholic priest! Google changes its graphic (“doodle”) from day to day to commemorate various individuals or events, and on the 17th decided to honor the 124th birthday of Fr Georges Lemaître- a Jesuit priest. Why?

In addition to being a priest, Fr Lemaître was a distinguished astronomer. He studied at Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT in the course of his education. He is most famous for proposing what is now called the “Big Bang Theory” of the development of the universe (although that was not his phrase for the theory). I have mentioned this before, but it is interesting that this theory is so often considered the epitome of an atheistic view of creation, when in fact it was proposed by a Catholic priest! Fr Lemaître did not construct it as a specific argument for the Catholic understanding of creation. It flowed from the fruits of his academic study. However, he saw that it was not in conflict with our faith. Although the theory is often described as a theory of creation (especially by those that might see it in opposition to belief in creation by God), it is actually a theory about how pre-existent matter developed into the universe as we know it. It does not require one to deny that the universe has a Creator, order, or purpose.

In my experience so much of the popular opinion of the opposition of faith and science flows from a mistaken understanding of one (or both!) of the elements. As Catholics we see them as two different ways to come to know about the same universe. They can mutually enlighten each other with their own specific emphasis. In Fr Lemaître – along with so many other examples – we can see this process in action.

Visiting the Alamo

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. I was familiar with it through tv shows and general American culture. Still, the visit there left a surprisingly deep impression on me.

Some might not know that it was originally built as the Catholic Mission of San Antonio, and the main building was designed as the chapel. Because of circumstances it ended up spending the majority of its time as a military/government base, but one of its side rooms was maintained as a functioning chapel for many years. The building is now surrounded by downtown San Antonio, although space has been preserved for a park that maintains the feeling of the original complex. Most of it is set-up like a typical museum, with artifacts, dioramas, talks, and even some historical reenactors (we saw one giving a musket demonstration).

What surprised me, though, was the reverence maintained in the old church itself. The door bore an old metal sign with the inscription, “Be silent, friend. Here heroes died to blaze a trail for other men.” In thinking of all those who have given their lives for others, the words of the Gospel came to mind: “No greater love has one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend” (John 15:13). Hats were to be removed and no camera/electronic devices were permitted. The space was clean and simple, with a few displays explaining aspects of the building, and a set of plaques listing the names of all of the deceased. It seemed the deaths were recent events, and the weight of loss was palpable.

Of course, from my perspective it was impossible to think of this without recalling that in a small side room the Franciscan priests at the mission had regularly celebrated Mass – the sacrament of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Side-by-side were the temporal struggle and the eternal dimension. It still merits further reflection for me. May I try honor those that have given me the opportunities that I have in this life, and the One that has offered me a freedom beyond that which the world can give.

Installation as Pastor

Today I was honored to be officially installed as the Pastor of St Malachy and St Elizabeth! You may wonder: didn’t I become pastor last year? Well… not exactly. I was appointed as “Parish Administrator,” which is the common practice in our diocese for the first time a priest is placed in charge of a parish or group of parishes. Up until this assignment I had always been assisting another priest. Canon law (the collection of laws within the Catholic Church) distinguishes an Administrator from a true Pastor. So, it is true that last year I was entrusted with the pastoral care of these parishes, but it was in a more provisional way (my dad referred to this role as being an “imposter pastor!”). By granting the canonical title of Pastor, Bishop Jenky has deepened my call to serve these parishes.

It has been an honor and a joy to spend this year of preparation/on-the-job training at these two great parishes! I very much request your prayers as I seek to give an ever better response to the call of the Lord. I am excited for all of the great possibilities that this next year holds! God bless-

State of the Blog 2018

Today marks one year (liturgically) since I started my “social media outreach.” Last year I had been praying in preparation for Pentecost about how to better communicate and support others in the faith, and had settled on the idea of starting a central blog that connected through other social media. In general, I’m very pleased with how it has gone!

My goal had been to post something every week, which more or less happened… I haven’t been as consistent with homilies as those take a little extra coordination. I’m planning to continue in basically the same vein. One new idea I am interested in is posting commentary/reflections on various things I read or watch. I’d love to have a little section of book reviews but am not sure how I’d organize it on here. We will see how it all goes!

Here is the original introduction in case you hadn’t seen it. It’s still pretty accurate to my plan: https://borrowedlore.com/2017/06/04/introduction-to-the-blog/

Thanks to anyone who has read or followed any of this. I hope in some way it has been helpful to spark thought or reflection on any of these topics. God bless!