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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pop-Culture for the Win!

Well... let's be honest, we will probably never actually mean that pop-culture is the "winning" side (at least in the spiritual sense). However, two examples, one of a song and the other of a movie, seemed to offer some good and appropriate reflection.

First, the song. It is a short clip of the lyrics from a very popular song, "Sigh No More" but the popular band, Mumford and Sons. They are:
Love it will not betray you,
Dismay or enslave you, 
It will set you free.
Be more like the man you were made to be.
There is a design, an alignment, 
A cry of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be.

The second, a short clip from the recently released film The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey. [Sort of a spoiler so beware.] Bilbo speaks to the company of dwarves about their mission. He says something along the lines of (paraphrasing from memory):
"I have a home, and a warm bed, and food in my pantry, and the Shire. 
You do not. That is why I am going to help you." 

 The idea in both the lyrics of the song and the good will of Bilbo is that home is something that we are moving towards, that we long for, that we seek and search for. I have no intention of getting into the nature-grace debate here; I mean only to say that belonging and resting in something that we belong to is a desire that seems to come naturally to us, and to be shared in common by all people. 

In the lyrics, the idea of the heart being designed and aligned to seek the beauty of love is something that many people, when they pause to reflect on it, will understand and agree with. While the realistic side of us may remember that the world is fraught with suffering and that the love given by our fellow man can be shallow and imperfect, it does not change that whether we are people of faith or not, we often put our hope and trust in love itself, as a pure ideal of self-giving care for others, as a final end or perfect state. For those who do believe, we understand this to be an end in eternal beatitude with God, who is perfect love. 

Looking then at the words of Bilbo, we see someone who knows of his home, of his rest, in something that is good. He has found a place of peace and love where he belongs. Yet, he is so roused by encountering others who do not have such a place of peace and rest, that he will leave his own home to aid them in finding theirs! It is an easy analogy for the spiritual life, where the Christian who knows his end in God then turns to his fellow man who is searching for beauty, truth and goodness, and points him in the right direction. Moreover, he walks with him, assisting him on the path and remaining with him until they both reach that final end. 

This may not be what the average person gleans from listening to Mumford or from watching the Hobbit, but then, on the other hand, I think many people who might not be looking for a spiritual element or the Christian themes present will still understand those truths as they apply to every human heart. 

The Catechism says (356):
"Of all visible creatures only man is 'able to know and love his creator.' 
He is 'the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,' 
 and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. 
It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity:  
What made you establish man in so great a dignity? 
Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! 
You are taken with love for her; for by love indeed you created her, 
by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good."

Certainly, we require faith (and therefore, God's grace) to truly comprehend all of this, but we can also recall at a young age understanding the feelings of needing a home, of being drawn to the good and beautiful, of love being a safe harbor in the chaos of the world, etc... and these are human experiences that span all peoples in all cultures, because though they vary greatly, at the end of the day, they are united in the need for love to sustain us and for us to give love in return.

There are too many things that could be said about this and too many qualifications necessary, so let us just reflect on this: may we first recognize that it is God who has loved us first, who willed us into being and continues to will our existence even now. It is from Him that we receive life and grace, and the invitation to eternal life with him. It is for us to acknowledge and accept this love that is being offered to us, and to rejoice that we are so cherished! It is then for us to give the same love, as best we are able, in turn to our brothers and sisters, to our families and friends, to our coworkers and to the man or woman on the street. We will do better in our own walk towards eternal life if and when we offer to help the other person to get there too! What great mercy of the Lord would it be for us to arrive in heaven and be assured that we had assisted others in finding their home, too. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Baptist's Announcement

I have been reading through Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth (very slowly), and found myself opening up John 1:29 (John the Baptist's Testimony) in the New American Bible Revised Edition.

I felt compelled to share some of what struck me, as I feel it is especially appropriate for Advent, especially as we enter the Octave of Christmas. This is the text of John 1:29-34:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  
He is the one of whom I said, 
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’ 
I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, 
“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, 
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 
‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’  
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” 

This event follows directly after John the Baptist has been questioned by Pharisees about his identity. When they push him for an explanation of who he is, his reply is "I am 'the voice of one crying out in the desert, "Make straight the way of the Lord,"' as Isaiah the prophet said" (Jn 1:23). The verse of Isaiah to which he refers is Isaiah 40:3, which reads, "A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord."

John further replies to them, "I baptize with water, but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie" (Jn 1:26-27). 

It is hard to imagine this scene without over dramatizing it, and yet, it is a very dramatic experience. Here is one who is wondered at, and is seen as an enigma; so much so, that the leaders of the community send men to discover exactly who John is. And John's reply is not one of self-proclamation, as perhaps they had anticipated. He speaks of himself only in reference to the one who is to come. He presents himself as a herald, as one who is to testify. 

Therefore, we read that the next day Jesus comes to John, and John announces that he is the "Lamb of God," the one whom the Spirit descended upon. Yet, John says he does not know Jesus, but that it was the sign of the Spirit remaining with Jesus that is the revelation that he is the Son of God. And John testifies to the revelation of the Blessed Trinity!

One of the footnotes from this section reads: "Remain: the first use of a favorite verb in John, emphasizing the permanency of the relationship between the Father and the Son (as here) and between the Son and the Christian. Jesus is the permanent bearer of the Spirit."

John has come baptizing with water that the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit may be made known; his life is to be a witness, to testify to the identity of Jesus, and to the revelation of the Trinity. 

Here we come to see something so imperative - the nature of communion that is the life of the Trinity, the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the very life into which we are called to and made part of in our own Baptism. We are not actually part of Triune God, of course, but we are made "'a new creature,' an adopted son of God, who has become a 'partaker of the divine nature,' member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit" (CCC 1265). This is not only a gift of grace at one moment or for one experience, but it is one that remains with us throughout life, as an indelible mark on the soul (CCC 1272). Therefore, just as John proclaims and testifies that Jesus is the Son by his witnessing of the Holy Spirit remaining with Christ, so others may similarly recognize us as disciples and adopted children of God if and when they recognize that we remain in Christ and that the Holy Spirit remains with us. 

This simple prayer by Cardinal Mercier is part of his "Secret to Sanctity": 

O Holy Spirit, Soul of my soul, I adore You. 
Enlighten, guide, strengthen and console me. 
Tell me what I ought to do and command me to do it. 
I promise to be submissive in everything that You permit to happen to me, 
only show me what is Your will.

Cardinal Mercier explained this prayer by saying: "I am going to reveal to you a secret of sanctity and happiness. If every day during five minutes, you will keep your imagination quiet, shut your eyes to all things of sense, and close your ears to all the sounds of earth, so as to be able to withdraw into the sanctuary of your baptized soul, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, speaking there to that Holy Spirit saying: "O Holy Spirit, Soul of my soul …" If you do this, your life will pass happily and serenely. Consolation will abound even in the midst of troubles. Grace will be given in proportion to the trial as well as strength to bear it, bringing you to the gates of Paradise full of merit. The submission to the Holy Spirit is the Secret of Sanctity."

I believe this is so pertinent to the setting that we find John the Baptist in when he is able to make his testimony to the identity of Jesus Christ - the desert. 

We all know the continual challenge to retreat from the chaos and endless tasks of daily life to find some time for sincere and heartfelt prayer, but how much more necessary is it to do so when we are being further challenged to testify to Christ before the world. It may not seem so imperative for ourselves to find peace or to strengthen our knowledge of God, but perhaps the fire of proclaiming him to those who are in need of the freedom and truth of the Gospel is enough to push us into the desert. We cannot testify if we do not remain with the Lord, and he with us. Scripture repeatedly promises us that God will never abandon us, but it also reminds us that we often abandon the Lord. We must first place ourselves in the desert where we can clearly see the Holy Spirit's work; where we can authentically recognize Jesus Christ; where we can know of the Father's love. Only when we are saturated in the truth of God's revelation of his love can we then go and testify that what we have come to know and love is life-giving, and is for all.

The Year of Faith is a call to us all to breath again: to be born again. It is a call to rebirth and renewal. It is a reminder that no relationship grows without work, and nothing that is valuable comes easy. It is a mandate, really, to the baptized soul, to repeat in the utmost sincerety his or her baptismal promises:

V. Do you reject Satan?
R. I do.
V. And all his works?
R. I do.
V. And all his empty promises?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
R. I do.
V. God, the all-powerful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and forgiven all our sins. May he also keep us faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
R. Amen.
If we know that we believe and profess the truth, and that the truth has set us free, and that in the truth we have the hope of eternal life, how can we not testify to the truth? As imitators of Christ, who answered Pilot saying, "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth" (Jn 18:37), we must similarly reply to the world in all of its hardships and heart aches and sufferings and darkness, that we testify to the truth; that we remain with the truth - that the truth is Jesus Christ, and it is he who takes away the sins of the world. 
Let us pray that these last days of Advent be a time for us to renew our knowledge of Christ, that we might more readily announce him in this world, and give testimony to his love and mercy. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, to remain with us, that we might better imitate our Lord.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Advent of Faith

(Adoration of the Shepherds- van Honthorst, 1622)

When the angels went away from them to heaven,
the shepherds said to one another,
"Let us go, then, to Bethlehem
to see this thing that has taken place,
which the Lord has made known to us."
So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.

- Lk 2:15-20

There is much that can be said about the short verse, "And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart." There is much that has been said about that verse.

Yet, I believe it does call for further reflection, or perhaps it is better stated, ongoing reflection, considering that the Blessed Mother is indeed our prime example and model for how we are to anticipate the birth and coming of Our Lord.

For some, Advent can be a more "joyous" occasion, as is witnessed by the shepherds in the Gospel. What then, of Mary's reaction? Is it not in contrast to the "glorifying and praising" of the shepherds? Perhaps it seems hard to interpret the account in any other way, but I believe it is not in adherence with the whole truth of the faith to argue that Mary was not joyous, or not "glorifying and praising" - certainly, she must have been the most joyous and grateful of all! St. Louis de Montfort includes in his reflection on Mary during the twenty-third day of preparation to Consecration to Our Lady that she is "the most grateful of creatures."

What, then, is to be understood of this quiet and internal reflection?

First, I would consider that there is a contrast made between proclamation and reflection, though not in the negative. Consider how the message passes on; it is the angels who declare this good news, this divine revelation, that Christ is born; it is then the shepherds who carry this great news with them, and recount what they have been told; it is then "all who heard" their message that are amazed, and the shepherds who continue to go forth to announce the good news. However, Mary, the Mother of Christ, reflects on these things in her heart.

One observation that can be made is that Our Lady already knew that the Son she gave birth to was Christ! Mary has been told by the angel who announces to her that she is "blessed among women" that she will be the Mother of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. She has lived with the Word of God growing in her womb for nine months. This is not to say that it diminishes her joy or zeal or gratitude for the truth, but rather, that the truth takes root in her heart in a way that is more mature than those who have just heard the good news.

Christ gives us the parable of the seed that falls on various types of ground, and therefore either takes root and grows to bear fruit, or is killed by various failures in the seed taking root and growing. In Our Lady, the seed that was planted was placed in such fertile soil that the fruit that was borne was literally and physically the Word of God! There can be no better or more realistic example than the Blessed Mother for what it means to allow the seed, the Word, to be planted and to grow within us.

Therefore, the contrast that is seen in this account from Saint Luke is an example of the first proclamation of the Word, of the first hearing of the Gospel, with what it is to take the Word into one's heart, into one's very life, and to allow it to grow and bear fruit that will remain. The Blessed Mother has, dramatically, announced the Good News - she has brought Christ into the world in the most literal way that has ever been! From that point on, the proclamation of the Good News is the work of Christ and the Church, the Church always in imitation of Our Lady, who is the exemplar evangelist in her life of faith that brought forth Christ in the world.

What does this mean for us, who desire to rejoice and proclaim the Good News, but who also may have heard the Gospel many times? If this is not our first invitation to know, love and serve Christ, and if we are familiar with the message of salvation given to all men, how do we respond to the re-proclamation of the Gospel?

The answer is of course, a both-and, a two-fold course. We must then practice what it is the be the maturing Christian and the newly-evangelized; we must be (what we are in reality) the saint and the sinner. We must be the penitent, who turns to the Sacraments often, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist, and who prays daily for personal conversion. We must be the maturing Christian who studies the Word of God and seeks to know Christ more, day to day. We must be the person who is re-affected by the truth; who finds that internal fire is burning first and foremost for our own improvement - for a greater charity in all things - and then for the sharing of the truth with others.

As Pope Paul VI so astutely wrote, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41). This is a summation of the both-and practice that is proper to the one who is re-affected, re-evangelized, by hearing the proclamation of the Good News once again! The practice must be that the man who has known Christ, but who once again meets him on the road, finds his heart turned once more; turned to the light, which somehow had become obscured, turned to the path, which had somehow veered on a different course, turned to the life, which had somehow been forgotten in the smoke of our world. We must be reoriented! Realigned. Through conversion, we become better witnesses, for our lives begin to reflect the truth we profess; through announcement and profession, we give a reason for the conversion we live. 

Modern man cannot live on only emotional, feel-good stories of how God has blessed us; nor can he live only on deep theological doctrine which has no practical demonstration to him: how can anyone come to love a person enough that they would desire to love them for their entire lives, if they know only what he thinks or only what he does? It will not happen. Man must be presented with both the reality that Jesus Christ has been born into our world, true God and true man, the Savior of the world, and with the truth that it is in knowing, serving, and loving Jesus Christ, in conforming to his Gospel and in living as his disciple, that we made children of God. 

Pope Benedict XVI has said that "it is not possible to speak of the New Evangelization without 'a sincere desire for conversion'" (Zenit). Let us then, with Mary as our model, recall in our own lives how we have already been given the Good News, how we have already heard the message of Salvation, which should stir up in us great joy, great gratitude, and the zeal to proclaim such mercy to the whole world - and yet, recall that this proclamation begins first with our own turning back to Christ, so that we will be authentic witnesses to the truth that we share.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lowliness of Mind by St. John Chrysostom

Taken from St. John Chrysostom's Homily on Lowliness of Mind:

Knowing therefore these things, beloved even if we should have mounted to the very pinnacle of virtue, let us consider ourselves last of all; having learned that pride is able to cast down even from the heavens themselves him who takes not heed, and humbleness of mind to bear up on high from the very abyss of sins him who knows how to be sober.
For this it was that placed the publican before the Pharisee; whereas that, pride I mean and an overweening spirit, surpassed even an incorporeal power, that of the devil; while humbleness of mind and the acknowledgment of his own sins committed brought the robber into Paradise before the Apostles. Now if the confidence which they who confess their own sins effect for themselves is so great, they who are conscious to themselves of many good qualities, yet humble their own souls, how great crowns will they not win.
For when sinfulness be put together with humbleness of mind it runs with such ease as to pass and out-strip righteousness combined with pride. If therefore thou have put it to with righteousness, whither will it not reach? through how many heavens will it not pass? By the throne of God itself surely it will stay its course; in the midst of the angels, with much confidence.
On the other hand if pride, having been yoked with righteousness, by the excess and weight of its own wickedness had strength enough to drag down its confidence; if it be put together with sinfulness, into how deep a hell will it not be able to precipitate him who has it?
These things I say, not in order that we should be careless of righteousness, but that we should avoid pride; not that we should sin, but that we should be sober-minded. For humbleness of mind is the foundation of the love of wisdom which pertains to us. Even if thou shouldest have built a superstructure of things innumerable; even if almsgiving, even if prayers, even if fastings, even if all virtue; unless this have first been laid as a foundation, all will be built upon it to no purpose and in vain; and it will fall down easily, like that building which had been placed on the sand.
For there is no one, no one of our good deeds, which does not need this; there is no one which separate from this will be able to stand. But even if thou shouldest mention temperance, even if virginity, even if despising of money, even if anything whatever, all are unclean and accursed and loathsome, humbleness of mind being absent.
Everywhere therefore let us take her with us, in words, in deeds, in thoughts, and with this let us build these (graces).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Call for Mercy

The Lord Jesus Christ bent down and washed his traitor’s feet.

From the instrument of his torture and death, he said,
Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

Saint Peter writes to us, “Above all, let your love for one another be intense,
because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

Our choice for every day, in every circumstance, with every person, is if we will imitate our Lord and “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). 

What right have we, O worm, O dust, O sinner and hard-hearted self-server, to do anything other than recognize that we are to hand on what we have first received: forgiveness?

Let us invite every man and woman to an encounter with Christ precisely in the mercy we share.

Let us strive, as Blessed Charles de Foucauld, to live up to the Christian vocation, where the world will meet us and say, “If such is the servant, what must the Master be like?”

Monday, November 19, 2012

Year of Faith, Scripture Reflection

The Gospel reading for today was Luke 18:35-43:

As Jesus approached Jericho
a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging,
and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening.
They told him,
"Jesus of Nazareth is passing by."
He shouted, "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!"
The people walking in front rebuked him,
telling him to be silent,
but he kept calling out all the more,
"Son of David, have pity on me!"
Then Jesus stopped and ordered that he be brought to him;
and when he came near, Jesus asked him,
"What do you want me to do for you?"
He replied, "Lord, please let me see."
Jesus told him, "Have sight; your faith has saved you."
He immediately received his sight
and followed him, giving glory to God.
When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.

Let us reflect for a moment about the faith of the blind man.

Few of us know what it feels like to live this life without sight; many of us know what it is to fear the unknown. I assume that some of the feeling of fear that we experience about what we cannot anticipate or predict is similar to the feeling of fear one would have when he cannot see.

This begs a question of us; how courageous is our faith? How fundamental? How complete?

In this Gospel reading, we hear of a man who is rebuked for his audacity. He is told to be quiet, and yet he throws himself into making a ruckus. He will not be hushed.

When Jesus calls the man to himself, he asks the man what he desires. His simple answer of "Lord, please let me see," is certainly one of faith in the power of Jesus. However, this supplication comes after the man has shown how strong his faith is in that he would not be quiet, would not be hushed, and disregarded the social norms for the sake of drawing near to God.

It is his audacity that is the sign of his faith, that comes before he even asks for healing.

Perhaps we need to keep this in mind for our own lives. How many times in our culture are we, people of faith, hushed? How often do we feel the oppression of social norms keeping us from reaching out to a stranger in need or speaking up about the truth when our friends or family are misguided? I know how easily I can close my mouth and think of what I would say, if I were free to do so. Well, why am I not free to do so? Fear? I seek acceptance. I seek to not "rock the boat." I seek to remain in good standing with people, and therefore I would rather not confront them with the truth or rebuke them.

Certainly, the virtue of prudence and the gifts of the Holy Spirit assist us in judging accurately when we should or should not speak or act. There are times when it is not appropriate, or when we could do more detriment than harm. But this cannot be the case every time. Nor should it be the case most of the time. We should be practicing a much more fear-less faith! Truly, we should be practicing the proper fear, which is fear of the Lord. It is he who is our final judge, not society, culture or our family and friends. None of them will judge our eternal life - only the Lord. So we must remember who it is that we should be calling out to - Jesus - and no one else.

The very end of the Gospel states that "When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God" - perhaps we find this hard to imagine in our own day and age. Yet, if more of us acted in great faith, and had the audacity to proclaim the truth of Christ even in the midst of opposition, perhaps more people would find themselves believing again! Jesus performed miracles both because of the good of healing and because of the confirmation of his identity before the people. Those who might have doubted were perhaps brought to faith by seeing this blind man's faith rewarded so beautifully.

We must keep in mind that God's will is not our will, and that his plan for our lives is perfect. While we may not be able to see into the future and anticipate what that may mean, we must act daily with the faith that is a testimony to the power and love of our Savior. We should pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to pour out grace and to strengthen his gifts in our lives. We must pray to be courageous if we hope to see the miracles our world needs.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Blessed John Paul II Shrine Lecture Series

The Blessed John Paul II Shrine in Washington, DC (formerly the John Paul II Cultural Center) is hosting a lecture series on the Year of Faith.

Here is the flyer - check it out if you are able!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Faith, Hope and Love

I was considering today the theological virtue of faith.

St. Paul says, "So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13). I was considering how often our emphasis in the spiritual life is on charity, and how that sometimes negatively affects our focus on faith. Now, the Catechism states, along with St. Paul, that charity is the greatest of the theological virtues (see CCC 1826), and therefore our emphasis on charity is certainly just. However, there is a reason that "faith" is listed first, and I wanted to reflect for a moment on the importance of faith.
'The Incredulity of Saint Thomas' by Caravaggio

During the Year of Faith I think it is especially important to ponder anew what it means to "have faith." St. Paul teaches us that, "Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Certainly, faith and hope go hand and hand, and assist us in better understanding the other virtue when we contemplate them and practice them in conjunction. However, to specifically look at "faith," we must dissect St. Paul's statement. "Faith" is the "realization" and the "evidence."

This is interesting, because we typically consider virtues to be things that are themselves "unseen." They may be "felt," or "sensed" and they are certainly practiced, but the language here is "realization" and "evidence." The painting above by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is a vibrant depiction of faith being realized and evidenced. Saint Thomas said that he could not or would not believe that Christ was risen from the dead until he could touch the places on Jesus where he had been nailed to the Cross; when Jesus presented himself to Thomas and offered him his hands and his side, Thomas exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" (Jn. 20:28).  This is the response of one who has been filled with the virtue of faith and who has seen evidence of that faith come to life.

Our Lady, of course, is a perfect witness of faith - made - real. The angel announces to her something so spectacular and seemingly impossible, and she replies in faith, "May it be done to me according to your word" (Lk. 1:38). Immediately she conceives Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Throughout the Gospels, how often do we hear a final response from Christ as he works a miracle that has been asked of him, "your faith has saved you"?  It is the faith itself, the real and dramatic presence of the virtue within the person, that makes way for the great works of God. In Matthew's Gospel, Christ is unable to preform many miracles in his native place because they could not believe that he had the power to do so - "And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith" (Matt. 13:58).

This ought to be a challenge to us to consider how often we pray the prayer of one whose faith is great enough that we expect a substantial and evidential result for our prayers. The father of the child who was possessed begged Jesus for healing saying,  "I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). Do we not need to be echoing this same prayer for ourselves each day? Are there not many people who are suffering, many countries that are in need, many souls that are lost and broken, in need of healing? Do we not look around each day and find endless need for prayer and sacrifice? Where is our heart in our prayer? Where is our faith? Do we possess this virtue that gives rise to the miracles that we need? It is certainly not God's injustice, God's wrath, or any failure or evil on God's part that prevents good from happening. God is all just, all merciful, all loving and ready to assist us. Certainly, we have free will, and sadly we live in a world very broken by the effects of sin, and God does not intervene so as to prevent our free well. Yet, God can intervene to do good things, to do great things, if we put our faith in his power and love and prepare our hearts for him.

Cardinal Schonborn of Austria reflects here for a time on the Year of Faith, and emphasizes personal conversion as the starting point to living a life of authentic and zealous faith. We need to begin to expect what we ask for in prayer, and to do so in humble confidence. We need to pray daily to the Holy Spirit to perfect in us the virtues, to bring an increase in the theological virtues, especially faith, and to assist us in our Christian lives that we might grow in our faith. We need to frequent the Sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

If we hold that love is the highest and greatest of virtues, and as St. Thomas Aquinas said, the perfection of perfections, than we must begin at the beginning; we must look first at our own hearts, and determine where and how we must grow. If we doubt the power of God to work miracles, if we doubt the mercy of God to forgive our sins, if we doubt the love of God to provide for us in our needs, if we doubt the justice of God to care for the good, if we have any areas where we are struggling to believe - we must pray, and we must practice expecting. We must remember that faith is "realization" and "evidence," and we must find ways to live the virtue of faith until there is a great amount of realization and evidence of the faith of the Church throughout the world!

During this Year of Faith, let us not, both personally in our own hearts and universally in the Church, be a place where Christ is unable to work great signs because of our lack of faith, but a place where Christ will turn to us and say, "Go, your faith has saved you."

Friday, November 2, 2012

Poetic Last Days.. (October)

Slightly late, but let us pretend that I posted this two days ago.

I wanted to share this poem by Thomas Merton, written in 1949. It seems pertinent today, if one looks around at the violence in the world, even though our circumstances are so different.

To the Immaculate Virgin, On a Winter Night
Lady, the night is falling and the dark
Steals all the blood from the scarred west.
The stars come out and freeze my heart
With drops of untouchable music, frail as ice
And bitter as the new year's cross.

Where in the world has any voice
Prayed to you, Lady, for the peace that's in your power?
In a day of blood and many beatings
I see the governments rise up, behind the steel horizon,
And take their weapons and begin to kill.

Where in the world has any city trusted you?
Out where the soldiers camp the guns begin to thump
And another winter time comes down
To seal our years in ice.
The last train cries out
And runs in terror from this farmer's valley
Where all the little birds are dead.

The roads are white, the fields are mute
There are no voices in the wood
And trees make gallows up against the sharp-eyed stars.
Oh where will Christ be killed again
In the land of these dead men?

Lady, the night has got us by the heart
And the whole world is tumbling down.
Words turn to ice in my dry throat
Praying for a land without prayer,

Walking to you on water all winter
In a year that wants more war.

Life Issues Forum

After reading this recent article in Life Issues Forum by Susan Wills, I felt compelled to share it. This is a direct copy-paste, so nothing has been added or changed. Please give it a read! What Susan shares is accurate information that should be made more public, but is sadly not discussed very often. If you would like to read this in its original format, please click here.

A Foolish Inconsistency on Contraception
By Susan E. Wills, Esq.

October 31, 2012

Here’s a riddle for readers. There are drugs so safe, so effective and so essential to women’s well-being that they are recommended for continual use by all healthy women 15-45 (or thereabouts) for 30 years or more, and that almost every employee health plan will soon have to provide them “for free” under the Preventive Services mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

But these same drugs have twice been determined, by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (Task Force), to be too dangerous for doctors to prescribe long-term to healthy women above age 45 or so. In middle-aged and older women, they are to be used only for the shortest possible time, at the lowest possible dose.

What could these Jekyll-and-Hyde drugs be?

Okay, it was a trick question. The synthetic hormones estrogen and progestin—used as combined oral contraceptives (COCs) by most fertile women, and in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by menopausal/post-menopausal women—are only promoted as being safe and benign. In reality, whether used in COCs or in HRT, they’re more like the sinister Mr. Hyde.

After reviewing the latest research on the risks and benefits of pills containing estrogen and progestin, the Task Force offered a sobering recommendation: “Do not prescribe combined estrogen and progestin for the prevention of chronic conditions” (emphasis in the original Clinical Summary). 

Yet in its 2011 contraceptive mandate, the Institute of Medicine treated fertility like a “chronic condition” that had to be managed with synthetic hormones (to prevent pregnancy) for upwards of thirty years! Now the Task Force concludes that when taken as HRT, these hormones significantly increase the risk of serious adverse events in healthy women, compared to matched controls who received placebos.

The increased risks for women using HRT (compared to matched controls) are 26% for invasive breast cancer, 41% for stroke, 61% for gallbladder disease, 205% for probable dementia, 207% for deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and 213% for pulmonary embolism (PE).

Is there any medical reason for these inconsistent recommendations and warnings? Are younger women immune to the adverse effects simply because of their age? No. Research has shown that, at any age, whether in COCs or HRT, progestin is associated with increased risk of DVT, PE, heart attacks, strokes and problems of the liver and eyes. The main difference is that it’s easier to measure the onset and progression of these diseases and conditions in older women because they are more prevalent with age.

Could the dramatically increased risks be caused by higher doses of hormones in HRT than in COCs? No. Typical COCs contain far more progestin that HRT pills. Loestrin, for example, has three times more norethindrone acetate than Femhrt and Activela (HRT pills). Yasmin (another COC) contains six times more drospirenone than Angeliq (an HRT pill), and Ortho Tricyclen contains 2.8 times more norgestimate than Prefest (an HRT pill).

Estradiol, the estrogen used in most COCs and in HRT, is associated with increased risk of breast cancer, endometrial cancer and gallbladder disease. Although the amount of estradiol in HRT pills is higher than the amount in in COCs, women “rarely have severe side effects from taking estrogens to replace estrogen,” according to the Mayo Clinic website—unlike premenopausal girls and women who are given synthetic estrogen on top of the estrogen they produce naturally.

Is it too much to ask that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) be consistent with respect to the two uses of estrogen/progestin? Could they not put the health of young women ahead of the interests of drug manufacturers, Planned Parenthood and those obsessed with divorcing sex from its natural consequences? Women deserve honest answers to these questions. HHS should be warning them about the risks of combined estrogen/progestin in contraceptives, as in HRT, not forcing almost every woman in America to pay for it in her health coverage.

Susan Wills is Assistant Director for Education & Outreach, Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to to learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Year of Faith Begins!

I cannot help but be moved by the beginning of the Year of Faith. I feel like we could rename it the "Year of Being Catholic," or the "Year of Actually Living the Catholic Faith," or the "Year of Sacraments and Prayer and Good Works and Missions..."

The list goes on.

To say that a year is dedicated to "Faith" - that is rather all-encompassing! This is intended, I believe. We have had some more particular "years" of late, such as the Year for Priests and the Year of the Rosary, and these were certainly very good things. However, sometimes it is really important and necessary to step back and look at the whole tapestry.

One could begin with the Creed, I believe, to truly explain the Faith, and what is being celebrated, but then, we all know that it is simultaneously so much more! Faith is lived, it is alive, it is embodied in those who profess it. It cannot be possessed and yet possesses people; it cannot be owned and yet we own to it. When one truly believes and professes a Creed, a Faith, one states that he or she identifies with this truth, and submits to it, and serves it, with all that he or she is. A "Year of Faith" is a "Year of BEING According to the Creed."

This can present a lot of challenges, or be rather overlooked. What if I already go to Mass each Sunday? What if I already pray? What if I volunteer my time for the Church, and tithe each week? Aren't I "living my faith"?

In Pope Benedict XVI's opening homily, he said the Year of Faith is an opportunity which invites us "to enter more deeply into the spiritual movement which characterized Vatican II, to make it ours and to develop it according to its true meaning. And its true meaning was and remains faith in Christ, the apostolic faith, animated by the inner desire to communicate Christ to individuals and all people, in the Church’s pilgrimage along the pathways of history" (emphasis added).

The hinge, crux, pinnacle of the Year of Faith is Christ. It is meeting him. Knowing him. Acknowledging him as Lord. Being obedient to him. Loving him. Serving him. Submitting the will to him. Imitating him. Sacrificing for him and with him. Remaining with him. Belonging to him.

The Year of Faith is for anyone and everyone, the weekday Mass-goer and the only-Easter-Mass-goer and the non-denominational Christian and the agnostic and anyone else. This is because it is a time to strive for the encounter with Christ; for the knowing of him. It is a time when we live as those who are loved, and those who love in return. Much like a "honeymoon phase" of a married couple, this Year is a time of rekindling the fire of love that is meant to burn in our beings when we are near the King.

The ways we accomplish this may vary, and for some it may be much more outward than others. Yet, whether we join a mission or volunteer at a soup kitchen or simply take more time every night in meditative prayer over Scripture, we are challenged here and now to discover what it is to be Christian.

In a special way the Holy Father calls us to return to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, to read them to strive to digest their wisdom. This is important, as we must understand that the Holy Spirit has dwelt with and guided the Church, the Bride of Christ, since her birth, and he remains still with those Apostolic successors, the Pope and the bishops with him, who lead and guide the Church today. Therefore, the documents of Vatican II are to be understood as part of the great and rich deposit of faith which has been handed on to us throughout Sacred Tradition. These words have a special emphasis and place within our modern culture. Therefore, they call for our attention and understanding, that we might be reignited in our love for Christ and his Church.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Not Always What They Seem

The other morning as I was driving into work and heard an advertisement that truly alarmed me. The ad was the exciting news that some company was now offering “pre-implantation genetic pre-screening of babies - so if you’ve always wanted a boy or a girl, now you can make that happen (for the low sum of $18,000).”

Let me explain why this is very sadly false advertising. The advertisement leaves the parents feeling as if doctors now have the technology to give them a boy or a girl. For one who is not aware of the science behind this, it would be assumed that a doctor can change the genetic code - essentially, choose which chromosome the baby will have, to give you a boy or a girl.

This, however, is absolutely not the case.

Every human begins as one single cell, dividing. That single cell has a unique genetic code that has never existed before, and cannot exist again. This is because that single cell is the fusion of the two cells from the parents, the mother and the father. That same egg cell from the mother, and that same sperm cell from the father, will not exist again. This is why the new cell, the fusion of the two parents’ cells, is unique and a new person. That cell then begins to divide, and this is precisely how we all begin to grow. That cell division goes on throughout our lives… our hair, our finger nails, our skin… we continue to divide and create new cells, and therefore continue growing.

This means that the genetic code that belongs to this unique individual, whether male or female, cannot be tampered with, without putting the life of the tiny person in great danger. The result is, sadly, the death of the person. Scientists cannot simply extract a Y chromosome or add a Y chromosome to affect the gender.

This leaves a question hanging in the air – how does this advertisement propose to offer genetic pre-screening, if it is not possible?

Now, I should clarify that there are different types of “pre-screening” and while many may be called “genetic,” this might be applicable to anything from checking for illness or disease to discovering information such as the gender of the child. So it is necessary for the parents to be aware of what type of “pre-screening” is intended. In this advertisement, it is a screening for the gender of the child.

To understand what “pre-implantation genetic pre-screening” is, one has to first understand two simple things: 1) the way each and every human life first begins, and 2) the process of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

First, how we begin: the two parents’ cells fuse, creating a new cell, with its very own DNA, and this cell begins to divide and grow. While the new person is in the early stages of cell division, he or she is moving through the mother’s body (in the fallopian tube) toward the uterus. The mother’s uterus has one purpose – to house, feed and care for a new baby. The walls of the uterus build up a thick layer on the inside, which is what would feed and protect the baby, if a baby were to be conceived. This is the same wall that is shed every month in her cycle, if she does not conceive.

For the baby, the little cell in the process of dividing, the uterus is the place that sustains his or her life. The baby essentially eats into the thickened wall of the uterus, where he or she receives the necessary blood and nutrients to stay alive. Over time, the amniotic sac forms around the baby, and as the baby’s cells continue to divide and the baby continues to grow, the uterus expands to house and support the child.

This is the basic process for each and every one of us.

What about in-vitro fertilization, then? In this instance, the baby is not conceived within the mother. The two cells from the parents normally meet inside the mother’s body, and it is there in the fallopian tube that they fuse and the new person is created with his or her unique genetic code. In IVF, the two cells meet outside of the mother’s body, in a petri dish in a lab. The doctors or technicians will have harvested some egg cells from the mother’s body, and the father will have provided sperm cells. The doctors will ensure that a number of the mother’s eggs and the father’s sperm meet and fuse. Rather than only one new life formed, there will be three, four or sometimes more. This is because of the lessened success rate of the new child implanting into the mother’s uterus since the new child has been conceived outside of her body. The doctors understand that the parents desire to carry a baby all the way to term, and that they have not yet been successful in the natural format. Therefore, to strengthen the odds of success, the doctors will create a number of new lives, newly formed babies in their most early stage of development, and they will place more than one into the mother’s body with the hope that at least one is able to implant.
In general, if a couple is having trouble conceiving, there are many factors to be considered. Sometimes it is the timing of the mother’s fertility, which can be as small of a window as only a day, and perhaps she has not been intimate with her husband consistently during that small window, and therefore has not been able to get pregnant. Women can find out about their individual fertility (because every woman’s is different) through learning about their cycles. This is easiest through what is called Natural Family Planning (NFP). A popular version of NFP is called NaPro Technology. I suggest looking it up!

Another reason the mother may not be able to conceive is a problem with her uterine wall lining. Hormones control the thickening of that inside wall of the uterus. If the wall is too thin, it may be that the mother has conceived a child, or even repeatedly conceived children, but that each time the new life reaches the uterus, it cannot stay alive. If there is not enough oxygen and nutrients for the baby, it will die. The mother would probably not know that she had conceived or that her child had not survived, because the uterine wall will shed in her monthly cycle just like always, and she will assume she was never pregnant. This is because only when a child does implant into the thickened wall of the uterus will hormones signal to the body that the normal cycle must stop. This is why the uterine wall won’t shed, once a mother does conceive, under normal circumstances. The baby’s presence there triggers hormones that signal to the body that the monthly cycle should not happen, and allow the baby to continue to live and grow.

With this in mind, it is more easy to understand why in IVF doctors conceive multiple children outside of the womb for the parents, because it is very likely and possible that the little persons will not be able to make it to the uterine wall and implant. So they “up the odds” by placing three or four of the tiny babies into the mother, in the hopes that one will be able to implant in the uterus. Occasionally, parents will end up conceiving twins or even more babies at once, because the doctors have put in a number of living human beings, and more than one implants.

Perhaps the obvious question is – what happens to the other little lives? If the doctors had brought four of the mother’s egg cells together with four of the father’s sperm, and now there are four unique and new human beings formed, what happens if only one of them does implant in the uterus? Unfortunately, the others will perish. The risk of removing the act of conception from the inside of the mother’s body is that it almost always guarantees that at least one of the children will die. If the doctors discuss with the parents ahead of time that they will put three of the little babies into the mother, with the hopes that one will implant in the uterus, than the other two will be lost. The mother will not be aware of them passing, because as they are so tiny, they will simply come out either with her next menstruation (if none of the babies implant) or in some other form of mucus (if at least one baby implants).

Further, what if the doctors brought five of the mother’s eggs with the father’s sperm, and there are five little lives created, but they only want to implant three, to avoid the risk of carrying quadruplets? What then happens to the other two? Unfortunately, again, these children die. Typically, the doctors will say that the “excess” babies (they will probably refer to them as embryos, which is the scientific term for a human life at that stage in its development), will be discarded. Discarded does mean “thrown-away.” Sometimes parents are given the option of “freezing” the babies that have been conceived – this would mean that they are preserved in the lab until a year, two or three later, when the couple may want to try getting pregnant again with the help of IVF. Sadly, freezing often leads to the death of the baby as well, as the human person cannot always sustain life in that environment, or because when the babies are “thawed” after the freezing, the cells are not able to sustain themselves and the child perishes.

This is a great risk for a mother and father to consider, as the “side-effect” of wanting to conceive a child and bring it to the world after about nine months of growing in the womb is that other children will be killed in the process.

How does “pre-implantation genetic pre-screening” fit in? This term should begin to be much more easily understood after all that has been discussed above. “Pre-implantation” means, “before the doctors put the newly formed human lives into the mother, in hopes that at least one will implant in the uterus.” In other words, while the newly formed babies are still in the petri dish. “Genetic pre-screening” is at least honest in what it is called – the doctors are not changing the genetic code or tampering with the newly formed DNA, but screening it. In this case, the doctors are checking the new DNA of the new person to see if that person does or does not have the Y chromosome (which determines if the person is male or female).

So what is this advertisement actually saying? It is saying that if parents desire to conceive a child and they want to pay a fee to conceive only a boy or only a girl, the doctors can screen all of the children who have been conceived in the petri dish and determine which are male and which are female. Then the doctors can implant only the male or female embryos into the mother. Therefore, should any of the babies be able to implant and begin to grow inside the mother, the baby can only be the gender that the parents desired.

What does the mean? It means that parents, in a harsh light, are being offered a form of “gendercide.” Gender-selective killing. Certainly, many do not know that this is what is happening. It is perhaps more innocent to think that doctor’s can genetically manipulate a child to make him or her the gender that is desired, although this too calls into question the ethics of the situation. But certainly, there is no other way to paint the “pre-implantation genetic pre-screening for gender” than to clarify that if parents want a boy, the doctors will make sure the females are discarded (killed). Likewise, if the parents want a girl, the doctors will eliminate the males.

This kind of practice is sadly very active concerning disabilities or handicaps (another form of genetic pre-screening that is offered). Statistics from 2009 show that 90% of mothers with confirmed diagnosis of down syndrome chose to abort their babies, and in 2011,that number was raised to 92%. This is only one example, but it is certainly chilling. It is something that should make us pause when we consider that in-vitro fertilization is presented as a form of help or assistance for conceiving life, and yet it also facilitates a large amount of death. If so many lives are ended because of a possible disability (as no diagnosis can be 100% accurate), is it really shocking that the next step is a gender selection? Is it hard to imagine that in ten years it could easily become an even more substantive form of selection, perhaps considering eye color or hair color as means for ending a life if the color is not desired?

This is the reason that I was so affronted by the advertisement; it is one evil to decide that lives can be played with to appease a desire. It is another thing to attract men and women to participate in this kind of violence by falsifying the work being done. Parents do not need to be lied to – should not be lied to – especially when so many are hurting from their struggles with infertility or miscarriages already. Men and women need to be aware of the dangers involved with IVF, and the sad “side effects” that are included when one pursues conception in a pertri dish. It is a tragedy that parents are losing the lives of their children in the attempt of giving birth to one.

For more information, please follow the included links, or do some further research (I recommend this article for some fast facts: