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The Dimensions & Appearance of Heaven

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Where is heaven? How big is heaven? What does it look like? Many past believers imagined heaven in the sky, particularly since Jesus ascended and Mary was assumed into heaven.  There was also the biblical presumption that hell or hades was under the earth.  Artists have imagined heaven with cathedral like buildings, where the streets are paved with gold and everything is illumined with an interior light.  As for how big, we imagine a vastness further than the eye can see.  God would certainly insure enough space for all who would call it home.  While God and the angels as spirits take up no space or extension; Jesus and the Blessed Mother have glorified bodies, just as the saints will possess.  These bodies will have to reside somewhere.  We sometimes speak of a new heaven and a new earth. However, I doubt there will ever be a celestial surveyor who could determine the boundaries of heaven or measure the jurisdiction.  How big is it?  It is big enough.  I have often pondered the question in reference to our final end.  We will live within the Trinity.  Any way we turn, we will see God.

Physicists speak about the relativity of time and space.  It is my supposition that when it comes to heaven, this relativity is taken to another level entirely with a signification hinted in the sacraments.  When we speak of the Eucharist, we assert that Christ is present in his person and in his saving activity.  The entire paschal mystery (our Lord’s betrayal, scourging, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension) is made present in the liturgical action and in the consecrated species.  Just as a taste of heaven can be condensed to the sacrament, we might imagine heaven as a spiritual gravity well, where the providence of God is fully realized and we are offered a share in eternal life.  This new signification or meaning makes the question about size inconsequential.  All of creation and salvation history meets in this singularity of the kingdom.  One might argue that material creation mimics this situation with its initial singularity, the release of energy with the big bang, and then the unfolding of the universe. God sustains both his material and spiritual creation.

Angels are discussed as spiritual creatures without physical bodies.  Stories about full-bodied angels are interpreted as phantasms fashioned so as to relate to men.  Like God, they are perfect spirits that exist outside of time and space.  However, God can give them liberty to become involved with human affairs.  Similarly, God as a perfect spirit can reveal himself to us by entering the human family through the incarnation.  The angels and the souls of the dead know duration but are outside of time.  It has been conjectured that with glorified bodies, the clock might start ticking again as matter and time are partners to each other.  But, having said this we really do not know much about the spiritualized matter or immortality of glorified men and women (where souls and bodies are reconnected).  The risen Christ appears in locked rooms and to men on the road— then just as suddenly he disappears and shows up somewhere else.  What would the space or dimensions of heaven matter if we could all travel at the speed of thought?

 

Much of this reflection is speculation.  What do we know for sure?  We have the promise of Christ.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:2-3).

 

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Stuck Between the Rock & a Hard Place

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Who are we going to punish? I worry about this as a priest in reference to the distribution of Holy Communion, absolution in the sacrament of Penance and in terms of preaching a faith message from the Scriptures that might immediately be interpreted as “hate speech.” Passivity and toleration is not enough to appease certain people… it is being demanded that conventional Christians become advocates for sinful behavior. If a priest gives the sacraments to anyone, no matter what their views and lifestyle, then does he not become an accomplice in their sin? Would he forfeit his own immortal soul for causing scandal and violating conscience, the commandments and his sacred duty? For the sake of accompaniment, can a bishop or even pope force a priest to say or do something that he views as sinful and wrong?

Interfaith Pollution of the True Faith?

I thought it was a joke or exaggeration, but when I visited the website for the Catholic diocese of Hallam in the UK under Bishop Ralph Hesket I was shocked to see that charges of religious relativism or indifferentism might have merit.  As part of a national interfaith outreach, Christian believers were encouraged to visit and honor pagan shrines.  I fail to fathom how this is either genuine dialogue or true ecumenism.  Despite the directions given, Catholics should not bow to pagan images or eat the food that has been offered to idols.  Christians were persecuted and even martyred in the early days of the faith for refusing such acts that compromised the true faith and pampered superstition.

Indeed, the early apologists argued that despite the generosity of the pagans toward the poor, Christians should not eat the food of pagan sacrifices because the pagan deities were actually demons.

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Moses was commanded to remove his sandals when he encountered God in the burning bush. But what we have here is an image of Buddha and a pagan shrine.  While these locations may hold anthropological interest for learned Christians, most would best avoid such places. As Christians we may honor persons and give deference to religious liberty that also protects our rights in a multicultural society, but we should not underestimate the general ignorance and tottering faith of many Christians.  Already many are adopting Eastern ideas about the yin and yang of the Tao, the transmigration of the souls, the spirituality associated with yoga, and a pantheistic view of creation.

The removal of shoes may be a small concession but the added flower presentation and material sacrifice of money, mimics or parallels the offertory at Mass.  Christ and the Church he instituted is the one way that God has established for our salvation.  No one comes to the Father apart from Jesus Christ.  A confession of faith can be made both in words and with gestures.  We must be wary of making a wholesale compromise of the truth. Buddhism is incompatible with the Christian kerygma.  Pope John Paul II was criticized for his assessment in CROSSING THE THRESHOLD OF HOPE.

Do we draw near to God in this way? This is not mentioned in the “enlightenment” conveyed by Buddha. Buddhism is in large measure an “atheistic” system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process.

While some might note Buddhism as more a philosophy of negation than a deistic religion, the diocesan guidelines also threaten to taint the faith of believers under an effort to show respect to the adherents of Hinduism.

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The early Christians were put to death for refusing to throw the smallest fleck of incense into the fire for an idol of Rome and its emperor. Just as we would not expect Hindus to bend the knee and cross themselves in our churches; neither should Hindu shrines be honored by Christians with bowing before the idols of false deities. This act impugns the heroic sacrifices of the early martyrs. Such concession signifies a cowardice to accusations of intolerance where there should be a brave act of witness that promotes the missionary spirit within the scope  of both understanding and charity.

Christians need to respect the Eastern effort to discern truth while not abandoning our own rich inheritance.  The missionary effort, going back to the days of St. Francis Xavier, had many successes.  But we must admit that the faith also suffered from the stigma of being Western and foreign.  Right or wrong, the saint regarded all the Hindus as devil worshipers.  This is part of our historical faith inheritance.  Doors were closed where the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes might have opened them.  There is said to be an evolution in Hinduism toward monotheism; but this truth is already realized in Christianity.  We must be careful that weak Christians do not embrace Eastern religion due to an attraction to the strange or exotic.

Pope Paul VI stated in NOSTRA AETATE the following:

Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust.

We would not deny any elements that are true in such religions, but there are also wrong turns and false understandings (error).  All salvation truth subsists in the Catholic Church.  We do not have to look elsewhere. People who are largely ignorant of their own rich Christian faith inheritance might be lost if we are passive to their involvement in other religions.

Catholics should bow or genuflect before the Christian altar, or the Crucifix or the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle but NOT before the image of alien gods.  Definitely they should not eat the food given to them, demons or not.

1 Corinthians 10:18-22 – Look at Israel according to the flesh; are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? So what am I saying? That meat sacrificed to idols is anything? Or that an idol is anything? No, I mean that what they sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to become participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and also the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealous anger? Are we stronger than he?

At a time when exorcisms are on the rise, this is the height of idiocy.   We can respect persons and work together for a more civil and caring society; however, we should not do so at the cost of our immortal souls.  Ignorance of the truth may save some from the full weight of judgment.  However, our Catholic and Christian community will be judged according to our understanding and fidelity to the revelation of Christ that is passed down to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

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Catholics and other Christians might visit such sites for educational purposes. They should do nothing that suggests worship. Pope John Paul II argued that the Allah of the Muslims is the same Father God of the Christians. This may be, but there remains much that divides us, particularly the role of Jesus as Lord and Redeemer. The Pope states:

Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.

A gesture for peace is also fine, as long as we do nothing to undermine or apologize for our identity as Christians. We should also insist that the Islamic community become more pro-active against discrimination and violence against Christians throughout the world.  Otherwise, gestures of human respect (not divine worship) become empty.

While we can respect others, we should not be giving directions to Christian believers on how to commit idolatry.

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The Sikh religion is inherently pantheistic.  We believe that God maintains creation but he cannot be identified with it.  While its tenets include reincarnation and various Hindu teachings; it is monotheistic, rejects the caste system and the use of idols.  It also espouses a syncretism where it tries to unite various beliefs from disjointed sources.  Christianity might adopt elements of culture and even the symbols of others (as it did in the Roman and Greek world) but the content is always that of the Gospel.  The blunt matter is that, no matter how interesting, this still constitutes a false religion for Catholics.  Ours is a jealous God.  He will not share us with others.

While certain traditionalists would attack overtures toward the Jews, we must always acknowledge that Judaism is a true, albeit natural religion.  While they have yet to embrace the revelation of the Trinity, the Jewish faith was called into existence by Almighty God.  Pope John Paul II insisted:

The New Covenant serves to fulfill all that is rooted in the vocation of Abraham, in God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai, and in the whole rich heritage of the inspired Prophets who, hundreds of years before that fulfillment, pointed in the Sacred Scriptures to the One whom God would send in the “fullness of time” (cf. Gal 4:4).

We have a genuine historical and faith relationship with the Jews that we do not share with other religions. Interfaith efforts should not be so diffusive that we lose sight of this fact.  The Jews are our elder brothers and sisters in faith.  Their story is part of our story.  The truths of the faith preserved and passed down by the Hebrews made possible the coming of Christ and his kingdom.  While we believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah and the fulfillment of the covenant, God has not forsaken his first people.  God keeps his promises.  There are NOT two covenants.  Both Pope Benedict XVI and the late Cardinal-priest Dulles clarified that there is ONLY one covenant. The covenant of old now embraces (in Jesus Christ) both the first and the new People of God. We pray and hope that those first called will one day come to a full awareness of the fulfillment in Christ.

Responding & Praying for a Critic of Catholicism

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PAUL:

You know Father Joe, you sound a lot like the secular scientist Richard Dawkins who if you don’t just take his word as fact without any REAL evidence, then “you’re stupid!”

You have only church practices to back your claim about Mary’s holiness.

If I’m not wrong, doesn’t God say, “There is none righteous, not a single one”? Doesn’t he say, “All have fallen away”?  Doesn’t he say, “All have fallen short of the glory of God”?  Now I’m sure you’ll have a very convincing argument for Mary’s not being included there but is that based on biblical teachings or the churches practice?

What did Christ day about the teachers of the law? Be careful to judge others Father Joe lest you be judged likewise!

There’s only 1 Judge I know. I’d appreciate you not praying for me thanks as you’ll probably go in front of a statue of Mary to do so. It’s no wonder Jesus called the teachers hypocrites!

P.S. If you can’t reply without so much anger in you, maybe it’s time for you to shut down your blog eh? FATHER and LEADER of the flock!

FATHER JOE:

Ignorance is not the same as stupidity, or at least it need not be.  We can be properly informed and grow in the truth.  Dawkins negates any philosophy or religion that falls outside of his limited scope for truth.  Dawkins does not deny all evidence, but he does throw out much of the richness that belongs to human culture and genius.  I throw nothing out.  We can be informed through science, philosophy and religion.  We can be edified by mathematics or a poetic sonnet.  We can learn from dissertations or from fanciful myths.  I believe that God speaks to us in natural law and in his revealed Word.  How is it then that I am like Dawkins?  Indeed, would you not be the one to show him essential agreement and kinship in discounting Sacred Tradition and the teaching role of the Magisterium?

Actually, in regard to Mary’s holiness, we have the testimony of Scripture, as I have earnestly attempted to demonstrate to you.  You are the one who would question Mary’s divine election as the immaculate Mother of our Savior.  Why would you question God’s providence or his power to give his Son a pure vessel through which to enter our world?  Original sin was passed to us through human generation.  It would make no sense for Christ as the All Holy One to take his humanity from sinful flesh.  The privilege of the Immaculate Conception was not simply to honor Mary but to protect the divine dignity of Jesus Christ.  Mary is hailed by an angel as “full of grace.”  She is the most favored daughter of God chosen to be the holy Mother of the Messiah.

Yes, all have fallen short of the glory of God.  Yes, we are sinners.  It was precisely for this reason that Mary calls Jesus her Savior.  However, in her case there is prevenient grace.  Mary is preserved from sin by the same saving Cross that transforms us through faith and baptism.  Mary does not save herself.  Jesus does for her what he will do for us who believe in him.

The testimony of Scripture comes to us through a living Church.  It must be understood within the context of the tenets and worship of that faith community.  Your rejection of the Church and her traditions results in numerous false interpretations.  However, I doubt you will appreciate how the disjointed interpretations you give are severed from any kind of logical or authentic hermeneutics.

Our Lord criticized the Pharisees and Scribes as blind guides and hypocrites, but he did not deny that they received their authority from God.

“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3).

The Pope sits in the cathedra or chair of St. Peter, to whom our Lord gave the keys of the kingdom and renamed as the ROCK upon which he would establish his Church.  The Magisterium is composed of those bishops who teach in unity with him Priests are also given apostolic orders and are charged to teach what the Church teaches.  Thus, you may not think much of me, but if you were consistent, you would take seriously to observe what the Catholic Church teaches.  Instead, you ridicule the messengers and reject the message.  If you do so from ignorance then you may still be open to Christ’s mercy.  If you do so from enmity, then the warning about judgment also applies to you.

Christ will judge souls, but the teaching Church and her ministers are charged to proclaim the truths of faith.

Why would you reject my offer of intercessory prayer for you?  Is it just because of an expressed malice against Mary?  I fear that a proper discernment of spirit would disclose a poorly disguised diabolical oppression.  On this account I will redouble my efforts.

“Dear Lord Jesus, you made yourself a slave so that men might be free.  You were renounced by the crowd so that we might be claimed by God as his children.  You were mocked by the soldiers and crowned with thorns all so that we might be made members of your kingdom.  You suffered the scourging and passion so that a broken world might be healed.  You died on the Cross so that we might live.  Dear Jesus, you are the SAVING NAME, and we ask you to open the eyes and to soften the heart of Paul who has commented on this Blog.  Let him know the love you have for him.  Forgive his sins and join him ever closer to the family of faith.  We offer this prayer in Jesus’ Name, the one who is the Son of God and the Son of Mary.  Amen.”

Again, I will extend to you the Peace of Christ.

Finding Hope & Not Despair in the Synod

I am troubled that otherwise orthodox Catholic critics are suggesting that the Synod on the Family in Rome will signal a fall into apostasy.  While there may be a number of wrong-thinking priests and bishops, I have confidence that nothing of the Church’s doctrinal integrity will be sacrificed to pastoral expediency.

While the deposit of faith is both fixed and develops, there can be no revocation of objective truths.  Those couples living in second marriages or irregular unions cannot be uncritically invited to receive Holy Communion.  They may come up without our invitation; but we cannot encourage people to commit either mortal sin or sacrilege against the Eucharist.  No degree of penance would suffice unless there is genuine repentance and a firm amendment of life.  Any projected change in discipline or a so-called pastoral provision cannot justify regularizing church life for recalcitrant adulterers.

Despite the derision by angry critics that many priests are spineless wimps, most men in ministry are dedicated and courageous in their service.  Priests who seem to turn a blind eye to scandalous behavior are often in the dark or uncertain about the marital status of others.  The opposite may also be true.  Their apparent passivity may consist of knowing too many facts about which they are duty bound to keep within professional secrecy and/or the seal of Confession.  A priest may do nothing by word or gesture or intimation based upon what he learns in the sacrament of Penance.  This is the case even when absolution is withheld.  Such a predicament does not prevent others from condemning faithful priests who are already suffering when they must treat adulterers, active homosexuals and child-murderers as if they are Catholics in perfectly good standing.

Of course, it is no wonder that many of the laity might expect churchmen to invite blasphemy against the Eucharist when ministers are generally forbidden by their bishops to refuse the sacrament to others for fear of negative publicity or scandal.  We have witnessed for many years the tension of various pro-life groups with certain U.S. Bishops demanding that they turn away from the altar pro-abortion politicians and others who enable the murder of the unborn.  This conflict has yet to be resolved and continues to alienate those who should be on the same side and working together.  In any case, there is a vast difference between a general passivity and a universal invitation.

The Holy See and the Church are servants of the Word, not its master.  The words of St. Paul about fornicators, homosexuals and adulterers cannot be stripped from Scripture or from the constant tradition of the Church.  Similarly, the notion of the “closed-table” finds it roots in St. Paul and the censures of the early Church:  “And therefore, if anyone eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, he will be held to account for the Lord’s body and blood. A man must examine himself first, and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup; he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks unworthily, not recognizing the Lord’s body for what it is” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).  While there are different theologies in the Church, they must speak to the same doctrinal truths.  Disciplines and pastoral practices are not geared to circumvent doctrine but to help express and realize them.

What can we expect from the Synod on the Family in Rome?  Compromise would precipitate acceleration in the breakdown of marriages.  I foresee a reaffirmation of the timeless faith with suggestions to redouble our efforts to welcome and bring healing into the lives of our people.  Let us trust our bishops.  Let us work with our people and not against them.  Let us put aside the silly sensationalism in the news and give the living Church the opportunity to teach and minister as she should.  There will be discussion and debate in Rome.  But we have confidence in the Holy Spirit and the Magisterium.  The process can be messy but so is life.  The truth will prevail.

Once Saved, Always Saved?

KATHLEEN:

Hello, I am a “catholic.” I firmly believe that through my faith in Jesus he has saved me. I, along with everyone else who believes in Jesus already has salvation. We are not going to hell. So my question is why would a “catholic” want or need to wear a scapular? How can one save what is already saved? And isn’t their belief in Jesus enough for salvation?  Thank you for input.

FATHER JOE:

You may be a Catholic, but your assessment of “blessed assurance” is representative of a Protestant view. Indeed, it is the sin of presumption for a Catholic to view himself as irrevocably saved. Certain evangelicals believe in the “once saved, always saved” interpretation that emerged from Martin Luther’s teaching of juridical justification through imputation. Simply put it means that after a faith profession in Christ one is saved regardless of personal sins and weaknesses. Supposedly, we are masked by Christ when the Father looks upon us. The Catholic understanding is different. The ancient Catholic truth has to do with being born again as a new creation. We must be transformed. Faith and baptism makes us members of God’s people, but just as faith can grow, it can sour. The Evangelical would say that if a person becomes a grievous sinner that their earlier faith was counterfeit. Catholics would not nullify or doubt such faith. Instead, we argue that we must grow in the life of grace.

Your view would dismiss a lot more than scapulars. If you are already saved then you would need no sacraments, no Mass, no Eucharist and no Church. That is why those who hold such ideas reject the divine mysteries and reduce the “Church” to a place for fellowship and making converts. Catholicism is the true Bible Church and views salvation in terms of faith and obedient works in charity.

I would recommend that you attend a Parish RCIA program and relearn your Catholic faith.

Catholics live in the sure and certain HOPE of their salvation in Christ. Salvation is God’s free gift to us. But faith is defined as more than believing with our heads. The apostles understood faith as something lived out in faith and obedience. It is in this manner, and the reception of the sacraments, that the life of grace grows within us. The spiritual life is not stagnant but dynamic. We must always be properly disposed to God’s mercy and strength.

Here are some passages for spiritual reflection:

Matthew 7:21 – “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

John 5:28-29 – Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voices and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation.

Philippians 2:12 – So then, my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Hebrews 5: 7-10 – In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 10:26-27 – If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries.

James 2: 17-24 – So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.” See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead….You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

QUESTIONS About St. Peter’s Family

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Lee writes:

I know St. Peter had a wife. Was she Jewish or Gentile? St. Peter had a daughter, St. Patronilis. I believe St. Peter had other children. Please tell me all about St. Peter’s family— the real inside story.

Father Joe responds:

Yes, the Scriptures attest to the fact that St. Peter was married. While we are told that he is the brother of St. Andrew and the son of Jonah, we are not given other names or details. There is the tradition that his wife became a martyr for the faith. I think attestations of her name as either Perpetua or Concordia are dubious.

There is the tradition or legend that suggests a daughter, St. Petronilla, but this might have been a spiritual kinship only. She is venerated as a virgin martyr of the early Church.