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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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The Rise of False Worship

witches

There are now more witches in America than Presbyterians. Sorcery is on the rise and it is more than fun-and games.

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Not Quite Alone in the Dark

scare7I will begin with the admonishment, “Beware of what lurks in the shadows!” Properly forewarned, I will tell my story. My brothers and I delighted in scaring one another and/or testing our courage. We would tell scary stories in closets. We would make faces in the dark and then shock one another with a flashlight showing a devilish grin or eyes popping out. I was probably the best with scary faces. Even today, young mothers should probably remember this when babies spy me over their shoulders and start to cry. Did I make a face or am I just naturally scary looking?

My parents had added two bedrooms to our small house. There was an interconnecting hallway room with three doors. There was no light in the small space. When all the doors were closed, it was quite dark. Mike, Danny, Paul and I would play in the room. The hard tiles made marbles exceptionally good fun. We would also play dare games, sitting in the blackened enclosed space, making eerie sounds and telling scary stories, daring each other to be the first to open a door and run for it. I was quite good at this game.

I recall one in particular . . .

“Hey, Joe, come and play!” I heard my baby brother Paul call out.

Okay, I thought, this will be good. He’s the easiest one to scare. I entered the dark space and closed the door behind me. Surrounded by pitch darkness, I sat down on the floor, facing where my brother was obviously sitting.

I started, “Booooo! Muhahaha! I’m coming to get you! Muhahaha!”

“I’m not scared,” Paul cried, “now it’s mine turn.”

“I’m coming to get you!” he parroted in baby fashion.

I interrupted, “Oh come on, try something different.”

“Let me finish!” he complained.

“All right, go ahead, give it your best shot.”

“I will, I really will,” he responded. His voice had taken on a shrill quality. Hum. He was getting better at this. “I’m coming to get you! I’m not your brother! I’m coming to get you! I’m not your brother.” His speech entered into an up-and-down sing-song kind of pattern. It was really quite unusual. “I’m coming to get you! I’m not your brother! I’m a demon from hell! I’m not your brother!”

He really was getting good at this. The voice he was using was now nothing like it was usually. I tried to interrupt again. “Uh, that’s pretty good, but it’s my try again,” I said.

Nevertheless, he did not quit. It was as if he no longer heard me.

“Stop it, I said, it is my turn,” I argued.

Still he continued in the peculiar rhythmic speech. “I’m not your brother! I’m a demon from hell! I’m coming to get you!”

I could not believe it, I was actually getting scared. He would not stop, that was unlike him. Paul always listened to me. His voice got louder and he began to hold the vowels longer. The words were clear but the inflection was all wrong, as if he did not know how to speak as a human.

“I’m not your brutheeer, Joooooe! I’m a deeemon from hell! I’m going to get you! I’m right next to you! Ready to grab you! Take you with me to hell! I’m not your brother! I’m a demon from hell! A demon from hell! From Hell!”

I yelled at him to stop but he wouldn’t. I had all I could stand. This was a little too scary and on top of that I had to go to the bathroom. I opened the door. Light poured into the small chamber. I stared at my brother, well I would have, except there was one small problem. He was not there. I had been in the dark space alone. I stared in disbelief and ran to the kitchen where mom was cooking. My brother Paul was eating a cookie. He had been there the whole time. I had been by myself or worse, maybe not? I can still hear the shrill sing-song voice after all these forty plus years, “I’m not your brother! I’m a demon from hell!”

The darkened space was created by the addition of two rooms upon the house. We had neglected to have that section blessed and there were no holy pictures or crosses in the enclosed space. Maybe this oversight was all the thing that I had encountered needed to violate our home. Or, perhaps it was all the overworked imagination of a young boy?

One evening not long after, I recall awakening in the middle of the night and putting my hand out into the hallway beyond my bedroom door. Again, in the darkness there was absolutely no light to see. Everyone was in bed asleep except for me. I dared myself to get over the fear I had experienced in the connecting space to the new rooms. There was nothing in the dark that was not there in the light, right? I had to prove it to myself. I would not be a coward. I stretched out my hand as far as my arm could reach. Just as I was ready to dismiss my earlier experience, something grabbed at my finger tips and I quickly withdrew my hand. I shook with fear in my bed. The grownups were wrong. There was SOMETHING IN THE DARK that was not there in the light!

Humanity has always feared the unknown associated with the darkness. We cling to the light. Many of the dying saints have begged to have a lantern or candle burning by their bedsides so that they might not have to die in the darkness. May we take comfort and courage in the true Light of the World who leads us out of the darkness of sin and death.

A Catholic Ghost Story from Southern MD

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The priest was happy to have a fire burning. It was a cold winter night and it felt good to be settled in for the evening. Pastor of a small country parish in Charles County, Maryland; it was a good assignment. Simple but hardworking and faithful people made up the Parish membership. True, the area was a bit too remote for some, but it fit him fine. He preferred a slower-paced life far from the hectic city and the hubs of power, both of the Government and of the Archdiocese. He had adequate time for his many Parish labors and for quality prayer. He enjoyed the latter in a way that other men could only know on religious retreats. The duties for many priests, in supposedly better-placed assignments, only allowed for a hasty saying of required orations. He was not an ambitious man. It was enough for him to be thought of as a good hard-working priest. This was his humble goal in life.

Like a sad woman’s lament the wind howled. It was ever so dark. There was no light pollution as in the city or suburbs. The Catholic cleric opened his breviary to say his prayers; hopefully he would finish them before falling asleep. He had barely begun when there was a knock at the door. Perhaps it was just the branch of a tree? Knock, knock!— no, there it was again— who could it be at this late hour of the night?

Throwing on his cassock he went to the door and opened it. “Yes, can I help you?” said the pastor, somewhat irritated at the interruption.

“Father, you have to come quickly, my daddy is dying!” cried a young teenage boy.“You have to come as fast as you can; he needs the Last Rites!”

The priest became immediately alert. He grabbed his coat and sick call kit and ran out the door with the boy. Journeying to the house, he noted that the boy was only dressed in a flimsy shirt and shorts. He was even barefoot. No doubt the boy had run out to get him at a moment’s notice, thinking only of his father. He put his coat over the pale cold skin of the child. “Goodness, boy, if you’re not careful you’ll catch pneumonia yourself!”

“I’ll be okay, Father. The main thing is that you take care of my old man. He meant to contact you before this, but, well, he never thought his health would go down so quickly. We don’t have a phone so I ran to get you.”

“You’re telling me that you ran all this way to get me? You’re quite some boy. But rest and warm yourself now,” replied the concerned priest. He turned up the heat in the car. The boy pointed the way and the priest made good time driving to their home.

Upon arriving, the priest jumped out and ran into the house. If the fellow was as bad as the boy made out, there was no time to lose. Sure enough, there he was, lying in a small bed near the burning stove and quite sick. The priest heard his Confession, Anointed him, and gave him Holy Communion— it would be his last.

Taking up a lonely vigil alongside the old man, for that was assuredly what he was, the priest chatted with him. “Ah, I see you have a picture here of your son,” said the priest, picking up a photograph near the man’s bedside.

“Oh yes, Father, that’s my boy,” returned the old man.

The priest added, “You must be proud to have a son like that, running all the way from here to the rectory for the priest on a night like this.”

“What Father? What do you mean?” he asked.

“Your boy,” repeated the priest, “rushing half-naked to get me so that you would receive the sacraments— that was quite a selfless feat of love.”

“But Father,” stammered the old man pointing to the old photograph, “my boy has been dead these eighteen years, it was summer and he drowned.”

This story was told and retold to me many times by my father. It is a wonderful testimony of the value of the sacraments and the bond of love which transcends the grave.

Happy All Hallows’ Evening

FamilyFunNight03

I was recently involved with a FACEBOOK discussion on the topic of Halloween.  A college student was challenged by his roommate that the celebration was “evil.”  His friend was a “born again” Christian.  He asked friends to shed light on the question.

A Catholic Reflection on Halloween

Halloween in a pluralistic society means various things to different people.  Indeed, given the contemporary fascination with vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts and zombies, it might seem that Halloween is now a year-long celebration.  But the question at hand is a narrow one, does Halloween place superstition above authentic faith?  The dialogue is not only between Christians but must confront the values and meanings imposed by a liberal secular humanism and the emergence of modern paganism.

Questions of sectarian faith aside, we have also connected Halloween to the fall harvests, thus the symbols of pumpkins, apple bobbing, corn mazes, hay rides, scarecrows, owls, etc. Such a feast provides a fun dress up for children and the giving of candy, which reinforces the joy of childhood and the solidarity of the community in caring for them.

The Tension over Halloween

Certain reformed Protestants often object to Halloween because of its apparent preoccupation with the dead and their souls.  Remember, such believers reject purgatory and prayers for the dead. Other groups deny even the soul and hell, like Seventh-day Adventists.  Obviously, as Catholics, we cannot play along with arguments focused against our holy faith.  While we might regard ghosts as souls in purgatory, in their estimation the whole business is either a fantasy or a devilish deception.  Since Christ has destroyed death, any preoccupation with it is negatively judged as “popery.”  But Catholicism stresses both a personal and a corporate faith.  The saints live in a communion with Christ and one another.  The souls in purgatory are still part of the Church.  We pray for the poor souls just as we ask the heavenly saints to pray for and with us.  The bond of our unity is Christ, himself.

The so-called pagan foundation of Halloween (as in Samhain) is a modern exaggeration. The roots are actually Christian, or Catholic. The name Halloween is a derivation of All Hallows’ Evening or Eve. Neo-pagan religion, perverse occultists, and New Age believers would attempt to make it something else.  Catholic immigrants from countries like Mexico are also introducing the similar “Dia de los Muerto.”

Some have the peculiar notion that All Hallows’ Eve is a night where spirits or ghosts enact violence.  This is nonsense!  It is the made-up stuff of the occult and/or horror movies.  It probably has roots in the pranks played by juveniles while dressed up and moving from house to house.

Puritans and/or Calvinists associated prayers for the dead with witchcraft and necromancy.  Their religious descendants are still among us.  Today when we think of Puritans, the legacy of Plymouth Rock is tarnished by the legendary Salem Witch Trials.  Religious hysteria brought about the condemnation and execution of innocent women.  Each year witches, real and imaginary, pilgrimage to Salem, Massachusetts. Tourism soars as revelers come to celebrate the holiday.  This has even precipitated seasonal tension between Wicca or naturalistic pagans and those who perpetuate the caricature of witches on brooms. I recall that the Salem Knights of Columbus hall had to cancel contracts when they realized that renters were using their facility for genuine witchcraft, not the make-believe variety.  It is precisely because of such fears that a number of Christian communities have now utterly rejected Halloween.  Of course, certain Christian cults reject any holiday or special day that is not clearly scripturally based.  Others object just to be different from Catholics or to illustrate their disdain for Rome’s authority.  That means that a number of these faith communities do not celebrate Christmas, Easter or the Sunday Observance.

The fundamentalist Christian critic insists that Halloween is a capitulation of the Christian commission.  This seems to be a bit of a stretch, at least in terms of boys dressed as cowboys and girls as princesses.  My only regret is that I would have children yearn for Holy Communion as much as they race to fill their Halloween bags with candy.

While some Protestants politely agree to disagree with Catholicism and about the celebration of Halloween; other Christian groups condemn the festive day as devilish and pass out anti-Catholic “Chick Tracts” to the trick-or-treaters.  Still other Christians, like most Catholics, see nothing inherently wrong with children dressing up and collecting candy.  Certain Catholics and Protestants will pass out alternative treats, like crosses, prayer books, religious stickers, etc.  Concerned about the direction that Halloween is taking, a number of Catholic families and churches urge the children to dress up as saints.  I recall one little boy who was quite upset when Sister at school told him that he could not dress as a monster.  When Halloween came she pulled him aside, angry with his costume.  She lamented, “I thought I told you that you had to be a saint?”  He answered, “I am a saint, Sister— I’m John the Baptist… after the beheading!”

The weekend of our Halloween Party at Holy Family Parish, a lady rebuked me after Mass for celebrating the “devil’s holiday.”  If such were true then Christians could have no part of it.  But the case cannot currently be made.  Baptist and Catholic churches both have Halloween parties and trunk-or-treat activities in their parking lots.  As Christians our strength is in the Lord.  The children of light are in conflict with the darkness.  But the game is fixed.  There may be casualties who reject the Lord but the victory over sin and death is already accomplished.  We need no longer be the devil’s property.  We have been redeemed or purchased at a great price.  Jesus dies that we might live.  Prayer and the life of charity are the essential ways that we confront darkness.  God made the pumpkins, the spiders, the bats, the owls and us.  He made candy sweet and gave innocence to children.  God gave us the day and the night. Halloween belongs to God.

The negative critic feels that Halloween gives the devil a foothold in the lives and hearts of Christians.  However, as in our recent parish Halloween party, I saw selfless volunteers running games, cooking, and distributing goodies to children out of a Christian love for youth and their families.  The devil will have nothing to do with real love.

A Christian Understanding of the Symbols of Halloween

Some authorities trace the carved pumpkin to Irish folklore about a drunk who trapped the devil in a tree and carved a cross upon it.  Having made a deal with the devil never to be tempted again by drink, Jack was denied entry into heaven.  He was given a cinder of fire in a turnip for light.  Supposedly the turnip became a pumpkin in America.  The jack-o’-lantern became a visible against compromise with the devil.  It also serves the same function as the gargoyles on the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. They became a type of sacramental to invoke divine protection.

Scary costumes, like the carved pumpkins, fulfill a similar purpose.  These were cultural or folkloric ways in which simple people sought to ward off evil.  While it may be a bit silly, the notion that people had was that evil or dark spirits would be encouraged to pass over their homes and leave their communities undisturbed.  The assumption was that the demons might be fooled by the caricatures of themselves (kids in costume) into supposing that the area was already infested or occupied.  There is no real doctrinal weight to such a practice… just a desire to be holy and not molested by evil.  Today most people just dress up for fun.

The practice of trick-or-treating probably finds its roots in All Souls Day.  There used to be processions or parades on November 2nd.  Christians would beseech “soul cakes” (dried raisin/square bread) in return for saying prayers for dead family members.  They were mostly collected by children and the poor.  Each cake represented a soul being released from purgatory.  Dressing up and singing was often parting of “souling” from house to house.

Some Christians are unhappy with the symbolism of Halloween.  I recall one person angrily upset about skulls or skeletons.  However, this prejudice fails to appreciate that the skull is embraced by Catholicism as both an immediate sign of death and of our dependence upon God. It is used by the Knights of Columbus, in depictions of the crucifixion and even decorates certain European churches.   We do not worship death but are ever mindful of the price paid for our redemption.  Further, our time in this world is short.  The theme of death or mortality is one to which we return on Ash Wednesday. “Remember, O man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

It is unfortunate that venerable Christian symbols should be confused by the ignorant and bigoted as satanic.  I was in one parish where a shrine to St. Peter was vandalized, not by crazy kids or occultists, but by Christian fundamentalists.  They ripped the inverted cross from the ground and argued that it was a sign of Satan and of the antichrist.  You still hear such foolishness about the upside-down cross on the back of the papal chair.  But the bigots misinterpret an ancient symbol of martyrdom.  St. Peter did not feel worthy to die like his Lord so he asked his executioners to crucify him with his feet in the air and his head toward the ground.  Critics make a mockery of an inspiring witness to Christ.

Catholics also venerate the relics of the holy dead, wear medals and scapulars, carry and say rosaries and use holy water.  These are not talismans or the accidentals for magic.  Rather, they are visible signs of our faith in the incarnate God, the God made visible in Jesus Christ.

Keep Christ in Halloween

We read in Philippians 4:8-9:  “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.”  Christians are committed to the pure and the good.

This might make us reflective of the spiritual elements attached to the secular commemoration of Halloween. We cannot buy the entire package. However, it may yet be reclaimed for Christ. The Christian effort is to Christianize the world, not to run away or hide in a spiritual ghetto. Certainly, there is innocence about children dressing up and finding delight in sweets. My growing reservation is about where adults are taking the festivity. Catholics and significant numbers of other Christians offer alternatives to trick-or-treat and spend All Hallows’ Eve at church worshipping God and recalling the witness of the saints in Christ. I agree with the criticism that there are sinister undercurrents that are seeking to hijack the expanding season of Halloween. As a child I dressed as a clown, a cowboy, an astronaut and as a superhero. It troubles me to see children attired today as characters from “R” rated horror movies. Why do they even know anything about these murderous and blasphemous characters? I am repulsed “personally” by the sleazy costumes that cast derision upon priests and nuns. Adult costumes, especially for females, increasingly celebrate vulgarity and eroticism. If Christians cannot redirect the fun away from these elements then it is true (I would agree) we might have to opt out entirely. It may be that Halloween is escalating in the direction of the occult and vulgarity.  Maybe we as good Catholics and Knights need to campaign for Halloween as we would for Christmas?  We also need to keep Christ in Halloween.  All Saints’ assures us that we can have a share in Christ’s life and in the kingdom.  All Souls’ reminds us that while we are sinners, God is infinitely merciful.  What he has started in us, he will finish.