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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:  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Her Simple Way

On this feast of Saint Therese of Lisieux, I have been reflecting on the first reading for today's Mass:

Reading Job 1:6-22

One day, when the angels of God came to present themselves before the LORD,
Satan also came among them.
And the LORD said to Satan, "Whence do you come?"
Then Satan answered the LORD and said,
"From roaming the earth and patrolling it."
And the LORD said to Satan, "Have you noticed my servant Job,
and that there is no one on earth like him,
blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil?"
But Satan answered the LORD and said,
"Is it for nothing that Job is God-fearing?
Have you not surrounded him and his family
and all that he has with your protection?
You have blessed the work of his hands,
and his livestock are spread over the land.
But now put forth your hand and touch anything that he has,
and surely he will blaspheme you to your face."
And the LORD said to Satan,
"Behold, all that he has is in your power;
only do not lay a hand upon his person."
So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

And so one day, while his sons and his daughters

were eating and drinking wine
in the house of their eldest brother,
a messenger came to Job and said,
"The oxen were ploughing and the asses grazing beside them,
and the Sabeans carried them off in a raid.
They put the herdsmen to the sword,
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
While he was yet speaking, another came and said,
"Lightning has fallen from heaven
and struck the sheep and their shepherds and consumed them;
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
While he was yet speaking, another messenger came and said,
"The Chaldeans formed three columns,
seized the camels, carried them off,
and put those tending them to the sword,
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
While he was yet speaking, another came and said,
"Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine
in the house of their eldest brother,
when suddenly a great wind came across the desert
and smote the four corners of the house.
It fell upon the young people and they are dead;
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
Then Job began to tear his cloak and cut off his hair.
He cast himself prostrate upon the ground, and said,

"Naked I came forth from my mother's womb,

and naked shall I go back again.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
blessed be the name of the LORD!"

In all this Job did not sin,

nor did he say anything disrespectful of God.

Saint Therese is well known for her "little way," which emphasized living a very simple life, and being grateful to the Lord in every situation of the day, offering up sufferings as well as good things, no matter how trivial something might seem.

This brought me to consider the words of Job:
"Naked I came forth from my mother's womb,

and naked shall I go back again.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
blessed be the name of the LORD!"

It seems to me that many of us will not know the kind of total "taking away"' that Job experienced. Clearly some of us have lost much, and surely there are some who truly have lost everything, as Job did, but the majority of us have very little experiential knowledge of this kind of suffering.

How then, do we understand the prayer of thanksgiving and of trust that is made here by Job? How do we enter into prayer with this?

Saint Therese had many instances of loss which most of us would consider small or insignificant. A fellow sister blamed her for something that she did not do. Some did not believe her to be prayerful or holy. She herself often felt the failure of her will, when she intended to do something but found it much more challenging to accomplish. These small trials can be both ignored by us or become instances of dejection. However, Saint Therese learned that they could be transformed into instances of gratitude, where humility and purity of heart could be fostered.

We have these opportunities aplenty. A coworker has a higher opinion of herself than of you. A friend fails to ask how you are but has to share all of his burdens. A parent is disappointed in a decision you make. A boss gives a promotion to someone who you know is not a hard worker and does not really deserve it. A friend forgets to invite you out, and you are lonely. Etc, etc...

There are so many small ways that our pride can be vanquished and our hearts purified, if only we have the grace from the Holy Spirit to step back and see the situations for what they are: opportunities to thank the Lord, rather than to "abuse" him, as satan wants. How often we complain instead, and go on about the injustice of the world! How often we wish we could say something cutting back, to feel somewhat vindicated.

We have so many small chances to offer something to God in praise, and how beautiful it is when his children do so in such love. It is perhaps easier to thank God and continue to praise him when larger struggles come our way, for we are so broken in will and spirit that there is no where else to turn. Yet, in these small and mundane times, we can offer so much of ourselves as a sacrifice and prayer, if only we seek the grace to do so.

Let us pray for a greater childlike trust in God's love; a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit; an increase in the virtues of purity, humility and obedience; and a heart like Our Lady's, which praised God in every circumstance, even at the foot of the Cross.