What is Catholic about Halloween?

On the surface there isn’t much that looks Catholic (or even religious) about Halloween. One of the most basic elements is, though—the name! It is a shortening of the phrase “All Hallows’ Eve” (“e’en” and “eve” are both short forms of “evening”), which in turn indicates that it is the evening before All Saints’ Day (“hallowed” is another way to say “holy,” as in the Our Father “hallowed be Thy name”). It forms part of what might be called the Fall Holy Week! Like the celebration of Easter in the Spring, we have a whole run of special days.

October 31st, as the vigil for a major feast day, is a time in the Catholic liturgical cycle to prepare and/or begin to celebrate the coming day. Parts of the current cultural celebration flow from other sources, but still the opportunity remains to keep this context in mind. A classic way would be to spend the first part of the day as a time of preparation (maybe by setting aside time for prayer/reflection, making a sacrifice for the day, or doing work of mercy), and then spending the latter part with a celebration/thanksgiving!

On November 1st (a holy day of obligation for us) we take a moment to commemorate all of the saints in heaven—named or unnamed. We give thanks God for the gift of their holiness, we ask for their prayers, and we seek to learn from their lives. I’ve already mentioned this a number of other times on this blog, but I have found the communion of saints to be a tremendously strong help in the spiritual life!

November 2nd is generally referred to as All Souls’ Day in the US (or Día de los Muertos in Spanish), and on it we commemorate all of the faithful departed. We pray that by the purifying power of the Redemption of Christ they may enter into the full company of the saints (I’ll have to post more about praying for the deceased another time!). Black vestments may be used, which is not to signify despair but rather compassion for the solemnity of the loss of a loved one (like waiting with them during the night for the dawn). As with a funeral, the priest may also wear white vestments (signifying the Resurrection) or purple (which we wear in times of purification or petition). There is a special indulgence (again, something for another post!) if we visit a cemetery to pray for the deceased in the week following. Finally, in this spirit of compassion, many places also include prayers for those who have lost loved ones in the past year on this day. All Souls’ is a fitting time since it falls just before the start of the holiday season (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, etc), which can be especially difficult after a significant loss. Consider reaching out to someone you know that might be in need of support, or searching for support if you are struggling.

I encourage you to enter into these holy days. The liturgical calendar of celebrations gives a powerful way to let our daily life enter into harmony with our life of faith! It gives us moments to renew our devotion or to focus on particular needs. May we support each other this week through the Communion of Saints!

How do you conduct a disputation?

Disagreements are often… disagreeable. Some people seem to like conflict too much and others avoid it at all costs. Jesus was a master of handling those that tried to trap him in speech (e.g. the question on paying the tribute to Caesar, Matthew 22:15-21). I thought today we might look at some tips on handling disputations ourselves.

I want to take St Thomas Aquinas as a model to examine. He studied/taught at the University of Paris in the 13th Century, where “disputation” was a technical term for a form of debate. He used this as the structure for his main writing, the Summa Theologiae (a summary of theology). A disputation would begin by stating a question (e.g. “Whether baptism is a sacrament”). Objections would be raised, and then responses given—a statement of authority, the author’s own reply, and then responses to the individual objections.

This structure makes reading his work a little different from something written in prose, but is very helpful for working through a problem. It pursues truth while maintaining charity and fairness to the opponent. Many of these points may strike us as common sense, but it’s good to review them from time to time! Let’s break down his steps and see what can be gained from them:

  1. A disputation remains focused on a single question. A common problem in arguments is to continue to raise more and more points and not allow the other side to respond. This stops being a search for truth and instead becomes an attempt to bury the opponent in words. Stay on topic!
  2. Second, by examining objections, it takes the time to understand the other person. Listing the objections is not supposed to be an exercise in distorting them! Aquinas would seek to put himself in the shoes of his objectors and be fair to their argument. Again, this is an extremely common mistake that ruins discussions. We need to understand what others are saying and not turn their statement into a “straw man” (the term for misrepresenting the opponent to weaken their argument). Aquinas studied pagan, Jewish, and Muslim authors as part of his philosophical/theological investigations as well. He wanted to seek truth and to think clearly about the places of disagreement. Otherwise, the step of listing objections will not bear any fruit.
  3. Third, Aquinas would quote a text that he held as an authority (usually Scripture or another saint). Citing an authority isn’t always convincing (e.g. your interlocutor may not accept the same authorities), but it does remind us of the importance of doing our research. Sometimes the better answer is to pause the discussion and say, “I do not know” or “I’ll look that up” rather than to just make something up that sounds good!
  4. Fourth, Aquinas would give his own answer to the question in a simple, logical fashion. He didn’t rely upon emotional pressure or insulting attacks. This might be another time where we defer to a later time so that we have a chance to get our thoughts in order before offering an immediate response.
  5. Finally, he went back and responded to the specific concerns of his interlocutor. Like before, there is a temptation here to lose track of the actual point of the conversation. We might give an answer to an imaginary objection rather than the concerns of the person we are actually speaking with. Even if we do respond to them, it may be the case that they still aren’t convinced of our point. We need to have patience and not feel like every conversation is a matter of life or death. We can’t forget to leave time for thought, reflection, and future discussions. Our goal isn’t just to “win” a disagreement but to be faithful to truth and charity, and to leave the rest to God.

I know that I myself don’t always put this into practice perfectly, but studying Aquinas certainly helped! I highly encourage anyone who wants to think clearly (and dispute charitably) to spend some time studying his work. God bless!

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.

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!

What’s the deal with all the JRR Tolkien stuff?

I thought I’d take a break from my more serious posts, and answer a question that may be in some minds after seeing my blog: why is JRR Tolkien featured so prominently??

Like most people my appreciation for him started with the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I started reading them in 5th grade and became hooked. It is one of the only series that I have read multiple times, and at one point in junior high I read the Hobbit in its entirety to my younger brothers so that they wouldn’t miss out!

However, at this point in my life I would say that the Lord of the Rings is no longer my *primary* reason for having such a high appreciation of Tolkien (although I still enjoy those books very much!). What really appeals to me is his life, philosophy, and faith. I started to get to know him by reading the collection of his writing called “Tree and Leaf,” and by reading the biography written of him by Joseph Pearce (Man and Myth). “Secret Fire” (by Stratford Caldecott) and “Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth” (by Bradley Birzer) are two other great works on his life and writing. Probably the most powerful appreciation, though, came from reading Tolkien’s collected letters. The letters do contain a lot of interesting trivia about Middle Earth, but much beyond that. They include many letters of advice to his children or reflections to his friends. Between all of these sources I began to get a better glimpse at the man behind the stories.

His life itself was surprising to me—not your stereotypical path to professorship at Oxford University. Tolkien was born in South Africa to a British family that had traveled there for business. When he was three his mother brought him back to England for a vacation, and while they were gone his father passed away of rheumatic fever. His mother remained in England with her relatives to raise her children, but was cut off by her family when she became a Catholic. She worked hard (and to the detriment of her health) to support the children all alone as a single mother in the early 1900s, and passed away herself when Tolkien was 12. Without family to turn to, his mother had made arrangements for his guardianship to pass to one of the priests of their church, the Birmingham Oratory (side note: this was founded by Cardinal Newman- of “Newman Centers” fame- and was part of the religious order founded by one of my favorite saints, Philip Neri!). Despite the difficulties, Tolkien flourished at the Oratory, developed a deep faith, and found good soil for his intellectual gifts to blossom. He fought in the First World War (experiencing the horrors of trench warfare), and later (on account of his excellent education) was able to become a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

His writings show the depth of his faith throughout his life. In one of his letters he wrote, “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth … which every man’s heart desires.”  He gave profound reflections on human love and marriage. He discussed the interplay of power, violence, virtue, and humility (all themes powerfully contained in his work on Lord of the Rings). In the Silmarillion he gives a beautiful image of the work of Creation, along with an insight into the advent of evil.

These themes appear in his writings, but indirectly. He opposed an excessively allegorical approach and tried to include these themes through rich symbolism. For example, Frodo (the central hobbit of the Lord of the Rings) isn’t supposed to be an exact image of Jesus, although at times he reflects him (e.g., carrying of the Ring and the carrying of the Cross). Tolkien believed that in this way myth portrayed truth. As he explained in another letter, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.” While we may limit “truth” merely to quantifiable data, Tolkien saw deeper aspects of truth that couldn’t be quantified. Instead, they could be contained in story and conveyed through the generations. It was this insight that played the critical role in CS Lewis coming to faith, and I think is what gives his Lord of the Rings such enduring value.

I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say, Tolkien has had a large impact on me! In faith and philosophy I find in him a kindred spirit. If you have any interest in knowing more, I recommend that you take up one of those books I mentioned above. God bless!