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A Reflection on the Lord’s Prayer

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Having celebrated this morning the memorial Mass for St. Francis of Assisi, I am inspired by the votive Gospel reading (Matthew 11:25-30) to reflect upon the Our Father. This may seem a bit odd as the reading was not about the Lord’s Prayer, per se, but rather a different albeit neglected oration with similar attributes. Jesus announces, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.” This much, any of us as believers could recite. However, unlike the Our Father, this was Jesus’ personal prayer. There was no request to teach the gathering how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer is given to us as one that reflects the human condition of weakness and sinfulness. Like us, Jesus will be tempted in his humanity; unlike us, he will surrender himself into the hands of the evil one so that we might be delivered. The prayer here speaks of his unique identity as the divine Son of God: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

Note that it begins much as does the Lord’s Prayer as an oration of praise addressed to the Father. Heaven is also mentioned although here it is clear that he has lordship over both heaven and earth. We are given a quick glimpse of our Lord’s relationship as “the Son” to the Father. This is not figurative language or pure analogy. It is expressive of his very identity. (Note that at his baptism in the Jordan the identity of Christ as the beloved only Son of God is revealed; when it comes to our baptism, our identity is changed— we become adopted sons and daughters to the Father.) We are summoned as “children” to trust God in our communication with him and in the life of faith. Ours is not a detached or malicious deity. He loves us and wants the best for us, which is union with him. Suffering and death come into the world through sin. While the dark mysteries are not immediately brushed aside, we have in Christ one who is in solidarity with us. Indeed, by enduring the price of sin, he redeems us. A distinction must be made between the active and passive will of God. The Father did not send his Son into the world because he directly willed for him to be tortured and murdered. That would image God as monstrous. The reason or motivation for his coming is made clear in the reading: “Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.” The mission of Christ is to be faithful to his Father’s will— to do whatever it takes to fulfill the divine saving plan. Both here and in the Our Father, the providence of God is accentuated, “thy will be done.” The reading continues: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” We know that his situation is not entirely comparable to our relationship with the Father because we are purely human and Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity. He is God made man. Nevertheless, he gives us something of his relationship as our own.

Interestingly, this prayer in Matthew appears in the Gospel again tomorrow (Saturday, the 26th Week of the Year, Cycle 1) albeit from Luke 10:17-24. Prior to the prayer, the text states: “At that very moment he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit . . .” This is an important lesson for us as the great Christian revelation is that of the Trinity. Jesus reveals to us the face of God. He patterns for us how we are to pray to the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit. Our Lord prays in the Spirit. Saturday’s text from Luke also precedes the prayer of Jesus with the return of the seventy-two disciples sent out by the Lord. We are told they come back rejoicing and say, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus responds, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.” A link can be drawn between this and the ending words of the Our Father where we pray “deliver us from (the) evil (one).” Ours is a jealous God. He will not share us. If we belong to him then the devil can have no part of us!

More than any other prayer, the oration that is held in common by all Christians is the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. While there are a few variant English translations, we all recognize it and it is a staple in our liturgies. It is the one prayer that we have memorized. Until recent times, most Catholics could also recite the Our Father in Latin, something which the Vatican still promotes so that visitors to Rome from around the globe can recite this prayer in unison. Note that the prayer for peace and its sign is placed immediately after the Lord’s Prayer in the Mass. This is no accident as both the ritual and the prayer from the lips of Christ immediately signifies the unity of the believing community in Christ. We should exhibit caution that while it is memorized, we should never say it mindlessly or mechanically. We would not want to lose sight of the treasury of prayer types that make up the whole. It has been called the perfect prayer. Our Lord gives it to us as both as a prayer to be said and as a formula for other prayers. These are words that we must make our own if it is to be a true dialogue with God. It is the one prayer that is essential to a person’s daily prayer and spiritual life as a Christian.

During the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord introduces the Our Father. “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). Why did the ancient pagans babble with many needless words? First, they were speaking to a false deity. As such they were really talking to themselves, trying to convince themselves, despite their frustration that someone was listening. Nevertheless, there was no response— no intervention— just a painful silence. Second, some of the pagans believed that if they could stumble upon the true name of God then all their wishes would be granted. They literally babbled long strings of nonsense words for this purpose. This was no genuine speaking in tongues, but a one-sided and deliberate effort at magic or sorcery so as to manipulate the deity. It was not intelligent conversation just fruitless gibberish. Nothing came from it. Third, some sought to pamper God just as they did people of power or high station or wealth. They were moved not by a desire as creatures to give praise to the Creator; no, this was simply an effort to ingratiate themselves so as to court favor. Such people were often very weak and fearful in character. The more anxious they became the more they talked and talked and talked. Fourth, the pagan priests in particular would often shout and repeat their petitions— almost as if their deity were deaf or had to be convinced to respond. This stood in stark conflict with the intimate union that Jesus shared with us by giving “his” Father to us as “our” Father and suggesting a back room, hidden away, as the best place to privately pray.

Note that those who know each other often need few words. I have known long-term spouses that can communicate to each other with a look or a nod. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we want. More importantly, he knows what we need. He hears all prayer, even that which is said in a whisper while we are alone. We do not have to make a big show about prayer and faith. The main thing is that it remains real. The Lord’s Prayer helps us to render true prayer.

Certain anti-Catholic critics will use our Lord’s spurning of the babbling prayers of the pagans to attack upon our recitation of the rosary. But such an argument collapses as there is definite content to the rosary, i.e. the mysteries of faith. Others, particularly the “once saved, always saved” apologists will argue against persistence in prayer. This latter view crumbles because we are urged to pray always. Note the story about the mistreated widow in Luke 18 who prevails against an unjust judge because of her persistence in wanting justice. Jesus commends her to his listeners. If she can find justice from a bad judge, just imagine how well our petitions will fare given that the divine judge is all good and loving. Our Lord tells his listeners not to lose heart when they pray and that it is a “necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1). Patience and persistence is really more for our sake than for God’s. While the Christian will humbly acknowledge divine providence, our petition prayers ideally express what we really want, the desires of our hearts. This speaks immediately to our relationship with the Lord. Is Christ our true treasure? Do our hearts belong to him? What do we really want? God knows what we really need. It has been said that God answers all prayer. A catechist friend teaches, “Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no and sometimes not now.” I would add that often the asking itself is the true answer as it breeds a sense of dependence upon the divine. When the answer does come it is often a gift unexpected but what we really need.

I think part of the answer for which we are looking is hidden in the Catholic mystery of purgatory. We are taught that this purification rightfully begins in this world. Often we pursue penance and various mortifications. But we are also purified and transformed in our daily life of prayer. The response of God and his timing brings us to a continual conversion or changing by grace. This is also expressed in the Our Father, to put on Christ, to have the will of the Father. Any questioning experiences a reversal. Those least enlightened and transformed will ask, “Why doesn’t God give me right now what I want?” The person who has walked with the Lord for a while will ask, “Why is it that I am still restless and fail to want what God wants in my life?”

Christianity is not sorcery and the Our Father is not a magical incantation. Christianity is the end to magic and superstition. The words of the Lord’s Prayer are precious but they also constitute a formula to assist us in putting together our own personal words when we pray. Further, prayer is a back-and-forth operation. We talk to God and then we pause and find quiet in ourselves to listen for God’s whispering to our souls. This is not self-deception. It is something wondrous and real. The conversation with God must be authentic if it be constitutive of a worthwhile and personal relationship in faith. Remember that Catholic-Christianity is not a book religion or one of philosophy and rules. At its very heart, Christianity is a personal and communal relationship with a person, with the saving Lord. It is Jesus who draws us into the mystery of the Trinity. He is our mediator to the Father. Remember, our orations are made to the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit.

How are we to pray?

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:7-13).

1. To Whom is Our Prayer Addressed?

As mentioned before, we address the Father as a people who have been brought into a more intimate relationship with God. We are not merely creatures appealing to the Creator but adopted sons and daughters to our heavenly Father, kin to Christ and children of our Queen Mother Mary. We are invited into the family of God. The Holy Spirit makes possible this saving faith. Otherwise, neither believing nor prayer would be possible. While we are naturally wired for God as demonstrated by all the efforts at sacrifice and worship toward a deity around the world and throughout human history; the God of the Jews is revealed as a loving Father. He is the Abba or “papa.” We are his little children. It is this God who surrenders his only Son so that we might be saved from our sins. Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. He works his miracles by the Holy Spirit. He raises himself from the dead by his own power, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is extended to us in faith and baptism. We become temples of the Holy Spirit— a people regenerated or “born again.”

Our posture as we approach the Father in prayer is not comparable to the oppression humanity endured as the devil’s property. Redeemed or bought at great price, we are no longer slaves but sons and daughters.

“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17).

Note that we address God by denoting that he is in heaven. Heaven is by definition where God is. One might even say that God is heaven. Those who would live in heaven must live in God. The Trinity will be our eternal home.

“As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Galatians 4:6-7).

We are literally heirs to the kingdom of heaven. It is in Christ and by grace that we will be divinized— members of the family of God.

2. Summoned to Give Glory to God with the Angelic Hosts.

The angels of God always keep their sights upon God and give him eternal glory. We are invited into this chorus of praise. Our rejoicing comes with the acknowledgment of God’s holiness, “. . . hallowed be thy name!” At Mass we have the Sanctus where we cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Holiness is more than a description of God or a divine attribute. One might regard it as a name. Indeed, the Trinity is intimated by the Sanctus, the triune holy God; he is three co-equal divine persons in one God or divine nature. What is holiness? It signifies something of the divine otherness. When possessed by men they are transformed into the likeness of Christ. Saints are not self-made and it is so much more than being good. Foremost, a saint is a sinner that has been forgiven. God extends something of his own mystery and plants himself into the souls of men. We become temples of the Holy Spirit and new Christs for a world that still needs to encounter Jesus.

The pattern when praying is always to begin with praise. It conveys the basic posture of the creature to the Creator and the Son to the Father. Other forms of prayer will eventually pass away. Giving glory and praise to God is not only foundational to the spiritual life but to the order of creation. The sung praises of the heavenly hosts is the symphony or music of all rightly disposed creation. If there is a discordant note or break in the harmony, such is reserved for the devil and his indentured pawns. Those who keep faith with Christ have every reason for their “sure and certain” hope. The righteous man or woman (not self-righteous) knows joy even before crossing the threshold from this world into the next. He or she already carries something of eternal life.

The Mass gives us the Gloria, a wonderful expression of praise which ushers forth a real sense of the Church in pilgrimage giving praise in unison with the Church in heavenly glory:

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King,
O God, almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.
For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

It is a peculiar but authentic side-effect in the spiritual life that when the creature (the lesser) gives glory to the Creator (the greater) that something of the divine shines back upon the one rendering praise. We laud God as holy and thus make ourselves into recipients of his holiness. That which is praised, is shared or reflected back. We can only be saints because we participate in the holiness or divine otherness that is God. The one human person that supremely participates in this holiness is the Virgin Mary. She is preserved from sin and made holy because the All Holy One enters the world through her. She becomes an exemplar for God’s other children as to how we can be transformed by grace. Note the humble posture of Mary in Scripture. The pattern of praise that Jesus sets for us is realized in his first disciple. The Church echoes her daily in the Magnificat when reciting the Liturgy of the Hours: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”

3. It is in Giving that We Receive.

The liturgy, our prayers and even the life of charity consist of elements of giving and receiving. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The pattern is clear. The kingdom breaks into the world through the person of Christ. Then we respond by taking up our crosses and following him. The obedience of those on earth should mirror the fidelity found in heaven. The back-and-forth and the many prayer types in the Our Father also find witness in the great prayer of worship, the Mass. We encounter the Lord in his Word and we respond with praise and alleluia. The Gospel is proclaimed and we respond with affirming the Creed and petitions. God has given us the grain of the field and the grapes of the vine. We take them and make them into bread and wine. Next, we offer them to God that they might become the body and blood of Christ. Given to us again, we offer the Lord to the Father as the one acceptable sacrifice. He gives it back once more for Holy Communion. We take what we have been given and then give it to others as a people sent on mission. We cooperate with God but the initiative remains with God. We would have nothing to offer— we would be nothing— apart from the movement of God and his gifts to us. While we are called to obedience and to be sentinels of the kingdom, the kingdom of God breaks into the world according to his providence and not by human labor and whim.

This reception requires reflecting upon what the Lord says and does for us. Otherwise, we would be hard-pressed to know his will in our lives. Many people think they are good but, separated from the Lord they do not know how to be good. A son or daughter might advocate euthanasia for a parent suffering pain. A husband might urge contraception to his wife because of pressing financial worries. A friend might suggest to another teen an abortion because of unplanned pregnancy. They might all think they are doing right; however, they are easily led astray when separated from the Church and the content of the Good News (the Gospel of Life).  Formation in the faith, along with prayer and reflection, give us divine guideposts as to how we should live and act.  Otherwise, genuine love is replaced by a terrible and false compassion.

We must all be alert to the danger of devaluing prayer from a dialogue to a soliloquy. Are we communicating with God and allowing him to speak to us? Are we talking to ourselves and simply mimicking God with what we want to hear? While obedience plays an important part in Catholic discipleship, we are not mindless robots or soulless ants. The hands of the soul must be outstretched to receive what the living Word would give us. Indeed, the true disciple hungers for the truth that God wants us to receive and to know. Disposition and appropriation are vital. We must be ready for what God wants us to have. We must make what God offers our own, before any selfish desires or human fears. The pain at the end of a person’s life might be the means of a final purification so as to see God. The self-donation of spouses in the marital act may give their union it’s most precious gift and preserve their union. The unborn child regarded as an inconvenience or an accident may prove to be the person who most loves us in return and makes a positive difference in what would otherwise be a lonely life filled with regret. We have to know God’s will, even in the face of sin, and then trust God’s will in a childlike manner.

Christians should regularly open the Scriptures. It is God’s inspired Word. When we read or hear the Word of God there is a human-divine encounter. Every meeting with God changes us— if we are open— if we want to be in right relationship with God. Catholics should also know their catechism and look up all the attached Scripture passages. There is also utility in following the daily readings of the Mass as well as looking at the prayers. We are people called to both a personal and a corporate faith. We pray alone, among a few friends or family and with the community of faith at the Lord’s Supper (the Mass). The Mass is a participation in the marriage banquet of heaven. Christ is the groom and the Lamb of God. The Church is his bride. Christ instituted the Church so that we would have each other and to insure that his truths and sacraments would not be lost in the passage of time. The kingdom of God breaks into the world, first through the person of Christ and now through the Church, his mystical body.

4. Supplication Emerges from Our Dependence upon God

“Give us this day, our daily bread.” The first prayer that we learn as children is one that comes naturally— intercession and petition. A child asks his mother for a cookie. We make a request of God for a favor. We pray for ourselves and for others. There are some who reduce all prayer to petition. This phenomenon was manifested after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. There was a short while when millions seemed to return to religion. They had lost control. They were desperate and afraid. A year later many of them had fallen away again. Their faith was shallow. They could ask God for things; but, they were ill-equipped spiritually to give. Where was the praise? Where was the thanksgiving? Too often when it comes to “gimme” prayers, there is a lack of balance or focus. If the person does not get what he or she wants, then the person gets angry and stops praying. They are quick to tell God his business but slow to listen.

While prayers of petition might be the most elementary and readily distorted; God indeed wants his children to turn to him. However, we must do so with a profound humility and acceptance of God’s will. The Lord’s Prayer has us pray for our daily bread, that which sustains our life. Yes, this first may be the food for our bellies but it is so much more as well. We are also fed from the table of the Word and from that of the Eucharist. Jesus teaches, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). Given how Jesus does not run away from his mission; we must also pray for strength and courage. This was lacking when Peter denied knowing Jesus and the apostles were in the locked upper room hiding. The risen Lord would appear to them and along the beach to heal Peter. We cannot escape the Lord and we should face the challenges that come to us with a witness that celebrates Christ’s victory over sin and death. Whatever this world takes away from us, we know that Christ can give back many times over.

The Bidding Prayers or General Intercessions at Mass constitute a wonderful model for petition prayers. We pray for many needs: the Church, our country and the larger world, for the oppressed or those facing injustice, for the suffering or the sick, and for those who have died as well as for those who mourn them. A number of us regularly pray for an increase of vocations as well as for good and holy priests. Given the tragedy of abortion, most faithful Catholics pray daily for the unborn child, the right to life and that parents will have hearts welcoming toward their children. We can pray about anything— safety, health, solvency, security, belonging, love, etc. A mark of our Christianity is our willingness to pray on behalf of those who hate and seek to hurt us. This is a great measure to the authenticity of our faith and our willingness to imitate Jesus.

Having said all this, such supplications should not be reduced to crass and ineffective magic or superstition. The believer trusts that God knows best. It is not like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp and wishing for a million dollars in small bills. I would also doubt that an angel will come down from heaven with the winning lottery numbers. My credulity is also strained by those who pray during sporting events. While it is okay to pray for a fair match and the safety of players, I am doubtful that God would intervene so that the Redskins football team would beat the Cowboys, even if the devil does have a contract with the athletes from Texas. Countries might pray for victory and for peace during times of upheaval and war; however, I think God is more on the side of justice over oppression. Historically both sides often pray to the same God. I am reminded of the unofficial truce of 1914 during World War One. The leadership of the warring countries refused a papal petition for a hiatus in violence. Nevertheless, the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial Christmas truce. It was said that one could hear the hymn Silent Night simultaneously being sung in the different languages of the combatants. Many visited the enemy camps. Food and drink was shared. The dead were exchanged. Small gifts were given. The peace did not last very long but it was a teaching moment about human brotherhood that still haunts us in a divided world.

Watching the news on television or reading about tragedies in the newspapers often leaves us unmoved. This should not be the case. We have access to news unlike any generation before us. This should become an occasion for prayer, not voyeurism seeking the sensational. We may not personally know the victims of violence or natural disasters but they are still people like us. They need to be remembered in our prayers to God. When possible we can add our donations to those prayers to assist people in a material way, too.

The worse the people, the more we should feel compelled to pray for them. Who knows, a believer may find out when he meets the Lord at judgment that his were the solitary prayers for some poor soul who had no one to care enough to remember him to God. Many will rightfully pray for victims, but how many of us pray for the victimizers? The most they usually receive is the venom of curses elicited from hatred. Over time many poor souls are forgotten. We should pray for those who need jobs and for those who sell themselves and are exploited to make ends meet or to care for children and those who need them. We should pray for those living on the street and eating out of dumpsters; we should also pray for the callous who walk around them each day uncaring. Many have made bad decisions and are locked into destructive behaviors and addiction. We can lend a helping hand and keep them in our hearts and their needs upon our lips. Such prayer can be effective. It is also transformative for the person who is praying and interceding for others. Do we invite others to know Christ as we do? Do we ask them to pray with us? Have we ever asked a friend or neighbor to join us at Sunday Mass? Prayers of supplication are a demonstration of compassion.

5. The Proclamation of the Gospel Begins with the Cry to Repent and to Believe.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Our Lord came into the world to make possible the forgiveness of sins. Here is the root of my vocation as a priest.  Every priest is a minister of reconciliation ordained to extend the saving work of Christ. Repentance makes the ground fertile for faith. We have to let go of what a fallen world offers if our hands are to be free to accept the gift of Christ. (Years ago I remember reading a book by a Pentecostal minister who explained this clause of the Our Father as a bargaining with God: if you forgave others then God would give you mercy in return.) No, there is no such deal.  It does not work that way. We have nothing with which to bargain with God. He holds all the cards. The Lord’s Prayer is not offering us a deal as might be imagined between gangsters; no, rather the prayer is pointing to imitation and how this furthers our new creation in Christ. If we forgive as Christ forgives then we are imitating the Lord. If we love and forgive like Christ then the Father will see something of his Son in us and give us a share in his Son’s reward. The reference to temptation is an acknowledgment of human weakness. It is okay to ask God to avoid certain challenges which might be too much for us. Of course, when empowered by grace, people are often surprised by how much they can endure as a disciple. The deliverance from evil or from the evil one is indicative of the whole meaning of Christ’s redemptive Cross. Original sin made us the devil’s property. Christ redeems us and makes us free.

We want our personal sins forgiven or remitted. We also want true liberation or the lease broken from the house that sin built— the various injustices, sources of hatred and manipulation— indeed, any and all of the framework of sin that would bring us back into demonic bondage. Christ reached out to those who were oppressed, hated, scapegoated, and cast aside. He let them know that they were important and loved. He also healed the sick, forgave sins, exorcised demons and raised the dead. These were the acts by which he gave us a powerful example of counteracting the presence of sin or evil among us. When facing the effects of evil, we all need deliverance prayer and heartfelt contrition. Our sins placed Christ on his Cross. He died for each of us by name. He said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The war is over and Christ is the victor. But the devil is spiteful. He fights his small skirmishes for individual souls. We must still battle powers and principalities. Between this world and the next saints will certainly be made perfect but on the way saints are sinners who know they have been forgiven.

 

Women & The Priesthood

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Given that women are excluded from the sacrament of Holy Orders, does this mean that in the Catholic Church there are seven sacraments for men and only six for women?  How is this fair? What are we to tell young women who feel a calling to ministry?

While some critics contend that Jesus only selected men as his apostles given the prejudices and chauvinistic conventions of his times, there are many instances where Jesus raised up the dignity of women and highlighted their call to witness and service.  How could Jesus extend spiritual liberation to us if he were not free to do as he pleased?  Indeed, the fact that he is a sign of contradiction that is betrayed and murdered is a testimonial of his freedom.  He would do what is right and is not subject to coercion.  He shows us the way to true freedom.  When it comes to his dealings with women, he cherishes them as disciples and prophets, but not as apostles or priests.

The first relationship that comes to mind is with his Mother.  She is a strong and courageous woman, who self-proclaims herself as the handmaid of the Lord.  If the tradition be true then she is learned of her faith due to her service as a child-servant in the temple.  Mary is present at the most important moments of salvation history:  at the annunciation, at the presentation in the temple, at the start of Christ’s public ministry in Cana, at his passion and death upon the Cross on Calvary and as a witness of the risen Lord among the eleven in the Upper Room.  There are also the two faithful sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.  There is the repentant and faithful Mary Magdalene.  Indeed, there is the exceptional Samaritan woman who encounters Jesus at the well and then testifies about him to her people.  Nevertheless, while Jesus is willing to break with the conventions of his day; he still only selects men to be his apostles or his first bishop-priests.  This is a pattern that would remain unbroken.  Indeed, the early councils (as at Nicea) would forbid the “laying on of hands” or ordination of women.

The Gnostic heretics ordained women but they also denied the incarnation.  They taught that Jesus only pretended to be a man and as one subject to death.  Since matter and the body were given a negative value, they did not perceive an issue with priestesses as an alternative to priests.  Catholic Christianity has always insisted that matter is not inherently evil and that it cannot be subtracted or ignored in the equation of redemption.  Our Lord joined himself to humanity in a male body.  This flesh was integral to his identity.  Indeed, we are promised restoration as ensouled bodies.

Gender is not an accidental to who we are.  We are not angels or pure spirits.  This truth is discerned in all the sacraments which are signified by form and matter.  Baptism requires water (matter) and the words that invoke the name of the Trinity (form).  The Eucharist requires bread and wine (matter)along with the words of consecration (form).  Ordination requires the intention to ordain priests with the laying on of hands (form) upon men (matter) called to ministry.  One could not baptize with beer.  One could not celebrate the Mass with milk and cookies.  One could not ordain a woman substituted for a man.

The pattern established by Jesus brought no derision upon the dignity of women but neither was it a pattern that the Church felt free to alter in any manner.  Given that our faith is in the person of Jesus Christ, then we must acknowledge that he knew what he was doing and that it served his purposes. Pope St. John Paul II in his 1994 encyclical Ordonatio Sacerdotalis, infallibly taught, once and for all, that the Catholic Church has no power whatsoever to ordain women to the priesthood. Many churchmen may very much want to ordain women.  But the Church is faithful to Christ, even if there should be matters we do not fully understand.  If we violated the pattern given by Christ, then the whole Church would be jeopardized.  The Episcopalians or Anglicans may be in this situation.  Orders in the Anglican Church were deemed null-and-void given a change in their prayer book after the break with Rome.  About a century passed where the intention to ordain priests who make sacrifice was edited from their rituals.  Apostolic succession was lost.  Some have argued that it might be partially restored today through the participation of former Catholics in their ranks and Orthodox bishops at their ordinations.  Unfortunately, even if there should be a partial restoration, it is further jeopardized by the presence of women presbyters and bishops.  If their ordination is counter to the will of Christ, then all the Anglicans are doing is playing dress up.  There are no true women priests (or rather, priestesses) in Christianity.  If the Catholic Church were to follow suit and attempt to ordain women, it would place the sacraments at stake.  If the priest is a sham then the Mass and absolution for sins would be forfeited as well.  The equation is simple:  no priesthood = no Eucharist = no Church.

The pattern of Jesus in selecting men and not women for the priesthood is normative for all ages.  Any change would require a new revelation from the Lord. Not even the pope has the authority to change this teaching and practice.

The one who would extend the Holy Spirit to the Church is himself filled with the Spirit.  His every step is aligned with divine providence.  His miraculous works and signs are enabled by the Spirit of God.  The Holy Spirit preserves the Church in the truth, especially about those most essential elements of faith.  The apostles are made the first of his ministers of a long-line throughout history, extending his proclamation of the Good News and realizing his saving works in the sacraments he instituted.  The male-only priesthood emerges as part of his plan for the legacy and life of the Church.  God does not fumble or make mistakes, even when the men chosen are sometimes less than saintly.

The first apostles were Jews but later Jews and Gentiles would be chosen.  Some of those chosen were married, but there was a growing emphasis upon celibacy from the beginning.  However, while the apostles and priests were married and single, Jew and Gentile, not one of the successors chosen would ever be a woman.  This is the case all the way to the present day.  This two-thousand-year consistency speaks volumes about the will of Christ upon the matter of ordination.  The tradition is clear and uninterrupted, century after century.

The Church also makes use of the bridal analogy that we see in Scripture, especially in the writings of St. Paul.  The substitution of a woman would destroy this ancient analogy and wrongly signify a lesbian relationship of a bride to a bride.  The priest stands at the altar “in the person of Christ” the groom and head of his bride, the Church.  The priest is a living and breathing icon or image of Christ.  Certain religious traditions demand that the priest have a beard, an “accidental” that makes self-evident the “substantial” element of his maleness which he shares with Jesus Christ.

Years ago I recall an interview where certain women who had undertaken theological training and had a background of church service, demanded that they be ordained priests.  They were angry and claimed the Church was deaf to their cries.  They said that they deserved to be priests— that they had earned it.  But such an attitude is counter to the truth about the priesthood.  Even men with such a mentality would probably best not be ordained.

The priesthood is not something that one might earn as in a social justice agenda.  The underlying meaning comes out at the foot washing by Jesus of his apostles.  Those who would lead the faith community must become the servants of all.  The priesthood is a gift that must be exploited in giving.  The priest lives for others.  He preaches God’s Word, not his own.  His very reason for living is the forgiveness of sins.  He makes present the Lord, both in his sacramental presence and in his saving activity.  Never in the history of the world had God given such authority to men as he did with his priesthood.  And yet, ironically, the priesthood is not about personal power and prestige.  It is about being the servant of all, literally a slave to honor God and to serve the needs of God’s people.  His servanthood is a fundamental imitation of Christ (Mark 10:45).

It would be wrong to say that there are seven sacraments for men and only six for women.  Most men and all women will never be ordained priests.  However, all the laity, men and women, are summoned to participate with their priest at Mass.  The celebrant makes possible the offering of the congregants at the liturgy.  Along with the gifts of bread and wine, believers join themselves to Christ— as grafted to him— as one oblation within the Lamb of God and accepted by the heavenly Father.  We pray, not only that bread and wine will become the flesh and blood of Christ, but that all of us may be transformed by grace into the likeness of Christ.  It is in this sense that the priesthood enables our own faith and our own oblations.  We are united in the Mass and the priest’s absolution insures our growth in holiness.  Our universal and most essential vocation is not to the priesthood but to holiness.  All of us are called to be saints.

The Proper Response to Scandal is Not Defection

ARTICLE: “Want to leave the Catholic Church? Officially you can’t” by Dan Waidelich.

SOURCE & DATE:  Washington Post – October 22, 2018.

REFLECTION:

The reporter notes that Mary Combs left the Church 15 years ago over the clergy sexual abuse scandals in Boston.  We are told that she looked at “the collection basket, imagining the money paying off victims.”

While one can readily appreciate how terribly she was disheartened, there was nothing particularly noble or heroic about her personal defection.  While such scandals, then and now, should make the laity angry— the proper response is not to run away but to stick it out and fight.  It may be that the clergy are overly identified with the faith; but the laity constitutes the largest segment of the Church.  She should have looked at that collection basket and realized that “there” in the purse strings is power to compel reform.  This is not blackmail.  The laity as a matter of justice can demand that the resources they share go to building up the kingdom and not be squandered in covering up for sin or for appeasing greed and ambition.

Unfortunately, anger spoke louder than her own calling or mission as a disciple.  Indeed, it also eclipsed the many needs that emerge from charity toward the poor and the hurting.  Despite the presence of evil in her ministerial ranks, the Church still does much good for the disadvantaged and the oppressed. Indeed, Catholic Charities is the largest and most active social outreach organization, just behind the U.S. government. Mary Combs walked away from that element of her discipleship in the Church because she was upset by weak and sinful men.

Judas signified one-twelfth of the world’s bishop-priests in 33 AD.  He betrayed Christ and later committed suicide.  Did everyone who had followed Christ leave the Church because of his sin?  No.  They realized that despite human iniquity, Jesus was indeed their Messiah, Savior and Lord.  Peter, the first of many popes of the Church, fearfully denied even knowing Christ when Jesus was being tried.  Nevertheless, our resurrected Lord would respond to his affirmations of love by restoring his authority as the visible head of the Church.  Just as we shake our heads today at the clericalism of our priests and how ambition sometimes overshadows servanthood, we can also recall James and John asking for a special place at Christ’s right and left.  Similarly, the apostles argue among themselves as to who is the greatest.  And yet, when the going got tough, all but John ran and went into hiding.  At the Last Supper they had each been given the authority sacramentally to re-present the mystery of Christ’s paschal mystery and his saving oblation in “memory” of him.  But when they had the opportunity to walk physically with Christ to Calvary, there was only one apostle who accompanied him to the Cross so as to witness the mystery firsthand.

“Now there’s this Pennsylvania scandal,” Combs said. “Hundreds of priests abusing thousands of parishioners and a coverup that went all the way to the Vatican — again.” We are told that she now attends Grace Lutheran Church in Virginia. This is no solution either.  Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.  While even Protestant churches have their own scandals, they are historically also breakaway institutions from Catholic unity.  They may possess certain saving elements which they took with them from Catholicism, i.e. the Scriptures, faith in Christ and baptism.  Sadly, they have also forfeited a genuine priesthood and Eucharist.  This signals that her defection is rooted, not just in a repugnance to clerical scandal, but in a lack of a true and complete Christian faith.  We are told that she took comfort when the Pennsylvania stories broke, in knowing that she was done with Catholicism.  Unfortunately, while we leave judgment to God, he will judge her not as a Lutheran but as a Catholic.

The current scandals should not confirm Mary Combs and those like her in their defection.  Indeed, it should be a clarion call for all to come back and to make right that which has gone wrong.  Those who have courageously stayed with the Church must demand a full accounting of past misdeeds, transparency in the future and a purging of those persons from ministry who can no longer be trusted.  There needs to be a genuine purification and reform.  This must be done by those who have remained faithful and those who have repented of their own failures or defection so as not to be part of the problem but of the solution.

Jesus instituted the Church and gave us ministers and sacraments so as to provide for his people.  He did not say that the Church would always be perfect, only that he would sustain her and that she would be made holy by the bridegroom, Christ.  The devil has had a hand in the corruption of churchmen.  Violations of priestly celibacy as with other sins can be healed by our merciful Lord and even forgiven by God’s faithful people; however, those who have harmed minors and those who have engaged in same-sex acts have no place in the priesthood.

The Washington Post article, while heavily focused on the issue of clergy abuse, actually targeted the question as to whether one could technically leave the Catholic Church. Rev. Thomas Ferguson, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., affirmed what Catholics should already know that it is impossible to defect from the Catholic Church. Our affiliation with the Catholic faith is stamped upon our souls at baptism.  It is the Church directly instituted by Christ.  Any movement away from that Church distances us from our Lord.

The original Protestant churches were regarded as groupings of fallen-away or lapsed Catholics.  Over time, many were born and raised in these communities, never juridically united or formed within the fullness of the Catholic faith community.  What might merit them through ignorance will not satisfy for Catholics who should know better.

The Low Regard for Anglican Orders

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“The decision to ordain women, which the Church of England took in 1992, damaged the relationships between our Churches, and the introduction of female bishops has eliminated even a theoretical possibility for the Orthodox to recognize the existence of apostolic succession in the Anglican hierarchy.” Pope Leo XIII had the same verdict about Anglican orders back in 1896 in the papal bull “Apostolicae curae.”

Jesus, Mary & the Apostles

A discussion with Paul on some matters about which he has a dispute.

PAUL: What is the true meaning and definition of being an Apostle of Jesus?

FATHER JOE:  There are varied definitions given but Catholicism would tend to restrict the term to the chief Disciples of Christ.  The Church is apostolic in the succession of Holy Orders through the “laying on” of hands, in the perpetuation  of Jesus’ ministry and in our constant teaching from the deposit of faith revealed to the early Church and passed down to us.

PAUL: Doesn’t it mean walking with and following the actual person you are trying to emulate?

FATHER JOE:  Yes, but that is a generic dictionary definition of the word apostle, not a theological or doctrinal distinction.

PAUL: I think that we have been called disciples and based on the true meaning of apostle, no one on earth, at least present day earth, can be called an apostle.

FATHER JOE:  The Catholic Church believes the authority of the Apostles is passed to the Bishops of the Church.  Pope Francis is singular among the Bishops because he is viewed as the Successor of Saint Peter (and for that matter, Saint Paul).

PAUL: So if Jesus, as the Catholic Church says, interchangeably meditates/intercedes for us to the Father then why do we also need Mary to pray/intercede/meditate for us? In regard to Jesus this is biblically based as is the fact that the Holy Spirit speaks to the Father in groans that words cannot express. Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are in full nature also God.

FATHER JOE: 

(I think by “meditates” you actually mean “mediates.”)

The problem with your statement is that it does not sufficiently express Catholic teaching.  The Word became flesh and in his mortal life Jesus revealed to us the face of God, how to pray and how to live out our discipleship.  He prayed in his humanity because it is an essential element to the incarnation and our humanity.  However, after his Paschal Mystery (suffering, death and resurrection), Jesus the Lord ascended to his place at the right hand of the Father.  He transforms and facilitates our approach to the Father.  We do not ask Jesus to pray to God for us because he is God.  We address our prayers to the Father in Jesus’ name.

Jesus is a divine Person, as is the Father and Holy Spirit.  There are three eternal generations in the Blessed Trinity.  Remember the classical definition from the councils of the Church:  there are three divine Persons but one divine Nature in God.  God is still one.

We can intercede and pray for each other.  Indeed, Mary and the saints in heaven can do so for us still in earthly pilgrimage.  God is still the direct object of all prayer, even intercessory.  Asking others to pray for us does not displace God from his dais.  We are all creatures, even the angels, although they are spiritual and not composites like ourselves.  The saints of heaven share in our Lord’s risen life and continue to love us and to pray for us

The mediation of Christ is not interchangeable with sanctoral intercession.  Christ is the Mediator, Lord, Redeemer and Savior.  We approach him both individually and with a communal faith.  The latter is very much the purpose for which he instituted the Church.  We do not approach God alone.  Just as God called to himself an Old Testament people— so too does he claim the Church as a new People of God.  Church membership includes the faithful on earthly pilgrimage, the souls in purgation and the saints of heaven.

We offer our prayers to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.  Christ is the bridge between heaven and earth.  He is the Way and the Truth and the Life.  If it were not for the Holy Spirit there could be no faith and no prayer.  We could not say “Jesus is Lord” if it were not given us by the Holy Spirit.

PAUL: By the way, I find NO biblical reference to Mary being our spiritual mother. Thank you.

FATHER JOE:  I have already written at great length about the Blessed Mother and would invite you to search the pages of my site.  Mary is given to us as our Mother at the Cross through our emissary Saint John.  A phrase I repeat again and again is that “the Mother of the Redeemer becomes the Mother of all the Redeemed.”  Mary will always be the Mother of Jesus.  Believers are members of the Mystical Body of Christ (which is extremely biblical).  Mary is the Mother of Christ where ever he should be found.  If we are grafted to Christ and have been transformed by grace into his likeness then she sees something of her Son alive in us.  We imitate Christ’s filial relationship of love to Mary.  We are made members of the royal household of God.  Through faith and baptism we are made adopted sons and daughters of the Father.  Thus, Christ the King becomes our elder brother in faith and Mary assumes her crown as the Queen Mother.  Peace!

Women Bishops – The Lights Go Out for Anglicanism

5f0c3e5657ed3b8229685eac8a081987The General Synod of the Church of England voted on Monday to consecrate priestesses as women bishops. Well, there’s the nail to the coffin for the home of Anglicanism. Ecumenism with them will be restricted to soup kitchens, sharing contributions from C.S, Lewis, and appreciation for perfecting the English language. The bridges have been burned to most else. Since women cannot be ordained in truth, this makes arguments about their Masses and the Eucharist mute. Fake priests can only give you a counterfeit Holy Communion. When it came to morality, our ships passed in the night a long time ago. They disregard both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, wrongly approving homosexuality and dismissing the indissolubility of marriage. Abortion is reduced to a personal choice, far from the Catholic stance that sees it as an assault upon the heart of the Gospel of Life. Their last convention in the States could only agree about how terrible landmines were, as if that is a big issue in suburbia. This is what happens when morality collapses and an “everything goes” mentality takes over. Public opinion and modernity is given preference over divine revelation. Instead of obedience to God, the human becomes the measure of all things— and people are fickle and frequently wrong. The Orthodox churches are lamenting that years of work toward a common faith and even levels of recognition have been thrown upon the garbage heap. Anglicanism, except as a small group received by the Holy See, is destined not to be counted as a branch of the apostolic and “catholic” family of churches. The “reapproachment” with them since Vatican II is now a dismal failure because the Anglicanism of even half a century ago no longer exists. It has been replaced by a mutated structure that will continue to devolve and crumble. Australian Anglicans are arguing that priests might be optional and that the laity can offer the Mass. Fragmented, one segment fights with another, and there is no contemporary pretense of a world Anglican order. Certain traditionalists among them refused the offer of Pope Benedict XVI, hoping to rebuild with a union of conservative African bishops. But how long will it be until modernity will invade that new structure? Ironically, some of them attack the Anglicans who accepted the special offer from the Pope in becoming Catholics. They still buy the prejudices against Rome which were initially an element of their split. Catholicism has its dissenters; but they will have no official weight in the practice of our sacraments and doctrines. The accidentals may change, as with language, but the deposit of faith is safe and sound. As for the Anglicans, could they even agree as to what this deposit consists?

The Anglicans feel that immutable doctrine can be changed by ballot. Here is the vote approving women bishops:

  • House of Bishops: 37 to 2 with 1 abstention
  • House of Clergy: 162 to 25 with 4 abstentions
  • House of Laity: 52 to 45 with 5 abstentions

This move goes against the teachings and pattern passed down from Jesus. There was no woman among the twelve apostles. Jesus did not worry about stereotypes. But this one, he did not break. It was God’s will. Anglicans no longer care. I guess they would say that Jesus was wrong. Of course, this change was anticipated. A long time in the mix, the first ingredient was added back in 1994 when they began ordaining women as priestesses (women priests). Error breeds error. The United States made a woman its chief Episcopalian bishop some years ago, Katharine Jefferts Schori. Before her they elected their first gay bishop. Australian, New Zealand, and Canada also have women bishops. The show continues but it no longer matters. They can wear their pointy hats and play-act all they want— these women are neither true priests nor bishops. Both Orthodoxy and Catholicism are in agreement here. There is no third tier to the Church. Without a valid hierarchy, there can be no true priests. If there is no priesthood, then there can be no Eucharist (sacrifice of propitiation and real presence). If there is no Eucharist, the ecclesial community is not really a CHURCH.  End of Story

The Primacy of Peter & the Council of Jerusalem

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Regarding the first council of the Church in Jerusalem, note that after the debate about ritual circumcision, it is Peter who resolves the matter. The mere fact that Paul and Barnabas had come to Jerusalem illustrated their confidence in the apostolic authority there. As in any council, there was debate and dialogue; however, in the end it was Peter who stood up and supported Paul in his refusal to impose the Mosaic Law upon the Gentiles– they would not have to become Jews before becoming Christians. Citing the work of God’s Spirit in Cornelius and his household, whom they knew and accepted, Peter summarizes the core proclamation of salvation: “My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they” (Acts 15:7-11). We are told that the whole assembly was reduced to silence. The issue was resolved. Paul and Barnabas then enthusiastically recounted how God had used them as instruments to reach the Gentiles.

Many distinctions need to be made about Peter. He is certainly much altered after the Christ has suffered, died, and risen. The Holy Spirit on Pentecost grants him a special charism of authority and infallibility. This did not mean that either Peter or his successors would be impeccable and unable to sin. The miraculous truth in the long history of the Church is that even weak and sinful men have seemed changed by the office of Peter. Without such an authority, we would suffer from the same endless fragmentation and deviation from Gospel truth that other religious communities experience. We believe we have Christ’s Rock to preserve and protect the deposit of faith. Given to Peter, this gift of infallibility is for the entire Church. This forum demands brevity, but we see it observed when the Holy Father makes a formal proclamation of dogma as the universal shepherd (the Vicar of Christ) on a matter of faith or morals. Neither the Pope, nor the bishops, nor an ecumenical council can manufacture new beliefs– they define something which has always been taught and believed, but reformulate it in a more concise and solemn way. A papal declaration along these terms is an exercise of his Universal Extraordinary Magisterium.

The unanimous teaching of all the world’s bishops in union with the Pope is called the Universal Ordinary Magisterium. This latter expression of infallibility is much more common. The laity and the religious of the Church also enter into this mystery. The Sensus Fidelium (sense of the faithful) among Catholics who have informed their consciences according to Church teaching and who live out the faith also touch upon this mystery of faith. (Admittedly this latter aspect is usually only mentioned by dissenters these days; however, they cite people who have largely rejected the deposit of faith and the Christian life– the ones to whom it does not really apply.)

The question arises, what is the significance of James’ input? As the bishop of the Jerusalem Church, he rose after Peter and directed that a letter be written and promulgated to the other churches. While a special charge is recorded as given to Peter, the apostolic community also respected the familial relationship of John and James to Jesus. James, John and Peter accompanied our Lord when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. These three also witnessed the Transfiguration. These “sons of thunder” remained close to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter’s unique authority was real and yet the structure by which authority was exercised was much more fluid during the apostolic period. Peter did not remain with the Jerusalem church but traveled elsewhere in exercise of his universal charge. James remained with the Jewish community in Jerusalem and became its bishop. Jerusalem is viewed as the Mother Church and James operated the council since it was within his jurisdiction.

Peter is listed as first among the apostles; he is given the new name Rock and our Lord said that he would build his Church upon this Rock; and he is named the chief shepherd by name. Jesus prays for him by name in order that his “faith may not fail” and that in turn he might “strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32).