Sunday, September 27, 2009

St. Epiphanius of Salamis on the Eucharist

In his work, The Man Well-Anchored (374 A.D.), St. Epiphanius of Salamis wrote about the Eucharist:

We see that the Savior took [something] in His hands, as it is in the Gospel, when He was reclining at supper; and He took this, and giving thanks, He said: "This is really Me." And He gave to His disciples and said: "This is really Me." And we see that it is not equal nor similar, not to the incarnate image, not to the invisible divinity, not to the outline of His limbs. For It is round of shape, and devoid of feeling. As to Its power, He means to say even of Its grace, "This is really Me"; and none disbelieves His word. For anyone who does not believe the truth in what He says is deprived of grace and of Savior. (The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 2, by William A. Jurgens, p. 69.)

I love so many things about this passage. First, Epiphanius' title, The Man Well-Anchored, is a good reminder to us to be conscious of what we make our anchor in life: is it God, or is it some idol, some created thing, such as money, fame, power, lust, sports, TV, control, etc.? Second, Epiphanius uses the phrase "This is really Me" to make immediate and penetrating the Lord's "This is my body" and "This is my blood" as we try to grapple with how what appears to be bread and wine can "really" be the body and blood of Christ. But we are called to believe that Jesus cannot lie to us; we are called to trust that he is as good as his word.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is Perception Reality?

I have always disliked the saying, "Perception is reality." If taken literally, this saying indicates that one's perception is equal to objective reality. While that is a false claim, too many people believe it. "That's your truth, not my truth" kind of stuff. What people should mean by the saying, "Perception is reality," and what I would agree with, is "One's perception can have a real impact." Hitler's perception of Jewish people was clearly not in accord with objective reality, but his perception had a devastating impact on the European Jewish community.

St. John Chrysostom in his Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, 370 A.D. (Homily 82, section 4), talks about the Eucharist in a way that reminds us that perception is often not reality:

Let us therefore in all respects put our faith in God and contradict Him in nothing, even if what is said seems to be contrary to our reasonings and to what we see. Let His word be of superior authority to reason and sight. This too be our practice in respect to the Mysteries [i.e., the Eucharist], not looking only upon what is laid out before us, but taking heed also of His words. For His word cannot deceive; but our senses are easily cheated. His word has never failed; our senses err most of the time.

When the word says, "This is My Body," be convinced of it and believe it, and look at it with the eyes of the mind. For Christ did not give us something tangible, but even in His tangible things all is intellectual. So too with Baptism: the gift is bestowed through what is a tangible thing, water; but what is accomplished is intellectually perceived: the rebirth and the renewal. If you were incorporeal He would have given you those incorporeal gifts naked; but since the soul is intertwined with the body, He hands over to you in tangible things that which is perceived intellectually. How many now say, "I wish I could see His shape, His appearance, His garments, His sandals." Only look! You see Him! You touch Him! You eat Him! (The Faith of the Early Fathers by William A. Jurgens, Vol. 2, p. 112)

So let us remember that reality is reality, whether we accept it or not, whether we perceive it or not. And let us also remember that saying that the unreal is true has very real, very detrimental effects.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Murderers and Redemption

I've been reading St. Therese's The Story of a Soul. It is important for me to read it because I tend to thrive on abstract, academic, rational kinds of reading, and this is true of my spiritual reading. Recently in a conversation with one of the deacons at our parish, I realized that I need to tap into a more emotional and deeper spiritual relationship with God. St. Therese is a great start for that pilgrimage. (And my son's football game was at St. Therese the Little Flower parish today, which is a nice reminder to stay on this track for a while.)

St. Therese wrote something that has a great deal of applicability to today's headlines. Romell Broom raped and killed a fourteen-year-old girl in 1984. His recent execution at the Lucasville prison in Ohio by lethal injection was halted because the executioner could not get a vein. On a local radio talk show both the host and a caller referred to Broom as an "animal" without any second thoughts on that viewpoint.

What Broom did was an horrendous evil. He caused a tremendously painful, humiliating death to an innocent teenage girl, Tryna Middleton, as well as the on-going agony of her mother, Betsy. Broom's attorney made the outrageous statement: "There's still a state that wants to execute Romell Broom even though he's been through this horrific, tortuous two-and-a-half hour battle with the executioners on Tuesday, and it's our hope that we can convince the courts that once the state has tried once to execute this man and has failed, that they can't try again." The attorney seems to be conveniently forgetting the horrific, torturous battle Tryna Middleton faced at the hands of Broom.

However, it is important to remember what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the death penalty:

2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.NT

We should focus on this line:

...rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself...

This is the dance of justice and mercy. People must take responsibility for their actions, society must be protected from dangerous people, but criminals must also be urged toward redemption. Broom is created in the image and likeness of God, no matter how deformed, how defiled, that image has become.

St. Therese can help us here:

I'd heard of a criminal who had just been condemned to death for some frightful murders. It seemed that he would die without repenting. I was determined at all costs to save him from hell. I used every means I could. I knew that by myself I could do nothing, so I offered God the infinite merits of Our Lord and the treasures of the Church. I was quite certain that my prayers would be answered, but to give me courage to go on praying for sinners I said to God: "I am sure You will forgive this wretched Pranzini. I shall believe You have done so even if he does not confess or give any other sign of repentance, for I have complete faith in the infinite mercy of Jesus. But I ask You for just one sign of his repentance to encourage me."

This prayer was answered. Daddy never allowed us to read any newspapers, but I thought I was justified in looking at the stories about Pranzini. On the day after his execution I eagerly opened La Croix and I had to rush away to hide my tears at what I read. Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confessing and was ready to thrust his head beneath the guillotine's blade when he suddenly turned, seized the crucifix offered him by the priest, and thrice kissed the Sacred Wounds.

I had been given my sign, and it was typical of the graces Jesus has given me to make me eager to pray for sinners. It was at the sight of the Precious Blood flowing from the Wounds of Jesus that my thirst for souls had been born. I wanted to let them drink of this Immaculate Blood to cleanse them of their sins and the lips of my 'first child' had pressed against the Sacred Wounds! What a wonderful reply to my prayers! After this striking favour my longing for souls grew greater every day. I seemed to hear Jesus say to me what He said to the Samaritan Woman: "Give me to drink." It was a real exchange of love: I gave souls the Blood of Jesus and offered Him these purified souls that His thirst might be quenched. The more I gave Him to drink, the more the thirst of my own poor soul increased, and He gave me this burning thirst to show His love for me. (St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, translated by John Beevers, pp. 53-54)

St. Therese was concerned about Pranzini's soul. But St. Therese was not simply concerned about Pranzini's soul; she thirsted to save his soul. She calls him her "first child." How difficult for me to conceive of doing that. But we should turn to St. Therese to help us to thirst for the salvation of souls -- all souls. This includes the likes even of Romell Broom.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Our Capacity to Harm Others

The Desert Fathers are a wonderful source of inspiration, advice, guidance, and admonition. The following is from Abba Isaiah:

He also said, "When someone wishes to render evil for evil, he can injure his brother's soul even by a single nod of the head." (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward, SLG, p. 70.)

We forget that we can harm others very easily. We forget that harming even those who seem to richly deserve it is wrong. In advice from the priest at my most recent confession, he reminded me that in a situation I had confessed that I had fulfilled justice but that as Christians we are also called to fulfill mercy. The problem is, to quote Clint Eastwood from the movie, Unforgiven, "We all got it comin' to us." The Good News is that if we sincerely seek it, what we will have coming to us is mercy. The bad news is that if we show no mercy, we will receive no mercy:

"...forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6:38).

Saturday, September 5, 2009

St. Augustine - Our Enemy is Vice, Not People

St. Augustine has this wonderful passage from one of his sermons:

So, of course, say to your friend, who wants to make you the enemy of your friend--speak to him and so to say massage his aching spirit with a soothing liniment--say to him: "Why do you want me to be his enemy?" "Because he's my enemy," he answers. "So you want me to be your enemy's enemy? What I ought to be the enemy of is your vice. This one you want to make me the enemy of is a human being. You have another enemy, whose enemy I ought to be if I am your friend." "Who is the other enemy of mine?" he answers. "Your vice." "What's my vice?" he asks. "The hatred you hate your friend with." So be like a doctor. A doctor doesn't love the sick person if he doesn't hate the sickness. To set the sick free, he persecutes the fever. Don't love the vices of your friends if you love your friends." (Sermon 49, Section 6, from The Works of Saint Augustine: Essential Sermons, translated by Edmund Hill, O.P., edited by Boniface Ramsey, p. 60).

Too often today we see people dismiss as false or hypocritical the idea of "hate the sin, love the sinner." We see this attitude lodged against the Church and her followers with regards to the Church's teachings on sexual morality. However, Augustine reminds us that real love desires to bring our loved ones into conformity with the truth, for the benefit of their physical and spiritual health. To condone misdeeds is to make our love for them a superficial and self-serving thing. But we also have to remember that as Christians sometimes we forget to make the vice our enemy, not the human being. We should remember this when we speak of people like the late Senator Edward Kennedy. He worked terrible evil in his promotion of abortion in this country, and we must not fail to speak of it as a terrible evil. But we must also loudly speak of our desire and hope for the salvation of his soul, for he was a child of God. I think of some of the anger some feel about illegal immigration. We can condemn illegal immigration while still acknowledging the humanity of the person. As usual, Augustine challenges us, regardless of our political or religious partisanship.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Health Care Reform

Let me start with a caveat. I have much to learn about health care in the U.S. and how to reform it. So take my comments as those of one with some definite limits on his knowledge of the subject. That being said, here are my thoughts on the matter.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has done quite a bit in forming a Catholic position on the matter. Their information can be found at:

The bishops are urging us to contact our Congressional Representatives and Senators:

Call your members of Congress (use the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 to contact your Representative or Senators) and tell them health care reform should:

Include health care coverage for all people from conception until natural death, and continue the federal ban on funding for abortions;

Include access for all with a special concern for the poor;

Pursue the common good and preserve pluralism, including freedom of conscience; and

Restrain costs and apply costs equitably among payers.

Here is what my wife and I sent to our Congressional Representative and Senators:

While we do want to see more extensive health care coverage for Americans, such significant legislation should not be rushed and it should not promote certain agendas that expand abortion and restrict religious liberty. We support the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' position on health reform, which includes health care coverage for all people from conception until natural death, and continues the federal ban on funding for abortions; preserves freedom of conscience clauses; and restrains costs and apply costs equitably among payers. Our concerns include not duplicating the experiences of the United Kingdom, Canada, or the Veteran Affairs department in terms of rationed health care, and not duplicating the experiences of Medicare in terms of inadequate cost containment. In addition, we do not want to see more situations such as Belmont Abbey College which is being compelled by the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] to offer contraception as part of their medical insurance package to employees, even though this is explicitly against the college's religious affiliation with the Catholic Church. Please support responsible health care reform. Thank you.

It seems to me that the bishops have it right. My thoughts on their points, and a couple of my own, are below:

  1. How to reform health care is a prudential judgment. Unlike the issues of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, or euthanasia, which are intrinsically evil under all circumstances, health care reform can take one or more of many forms and be consistent with Catholic social teaching. I would argue that expanding coverage is a good thing and should be a primary goal. However, that goal should not be achieved at any cost (either monetarily or morally).
  2. The maintenance of conscience clauses is a non-negotiable for health care reform. We cannot allow even a beneficial expansion of health care coverage at the expense of religious liberty. We must continue to protect health care workers from being forced to participate in activities that are antithetical to their moral and religious convictions. In addition, we must also make sure that religious institutions are not forced to offer medical insurance packages that are contrary to their religious missions. The recent situation where Belmont Abbey College is being pursued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to force the college to include abortion, sterilization, and contraception coverage, is deeply disturbing.
  3. The explicit statement that federal funding of abortion will not be allowed is a non-negotiable for health care reform. We cannot allow for abortion to become part of a federal health care package. If explicit provisions are not in the legislation, abortion will become part of the coverage. If abortion becomes a basic right of health care, there will be tremendous pressure on Catholic hospitals and doctors to become complicit in abortions. It will expand promotion of abortion and use tax-payer dollars from those who know abortion to be intrinsically evil.
  4. Faith and Morals Catholics need to think more about the poor and the uninsured and under-insured, and Peace and Justice Catholics need to think more about intrinsically evil health care issues such as abortion. As one who primarily tends to be more focused on the former set of issues, I need to remember that the Catholic Church is universal in her scope and vision, and that Catholic teaching requires Catholics to promote both faith and orals and peace and justice. We don't get to choose one over the other.
  5. All health care is rationed; the question is what is the least rationed model? As long as there are limited resources, health care will always be rationed. It simply has to be. Under our current health care system, there is significant rationing. If you work and don't qualify for Medicaid but your employer doesn't offer health insurance, then your health care is rationed by what you can afford. If you have an employer with health insurance, it is undoubtedly managed health care, which means there are judgments about what is covered and what is not. But we must be careful not to jump from one form of rationed health care into a more severely rationed form. State run, single payer systems seem to be pretty good for maintenance and preventative health care, and pretty poor for severe, chronic, or catastrophic health problems.
  6. Health care reform must reduce or control costs or it will not help the people its advocates claim to be helping. Medicare and Medicaid are not self-sufficient. Social Security is not self-sufficient. Federal programs have not shown in recent decades an ability to contain costs. We need to see that this process will be different if we are expected to support it. In addition, the demographics of the current U.S. birth rate significantly affects our ability to support such programs when the number of workers is disproportionate to those who are requiring the most health care.
  7. Rushing health care reform will result in bad health care reform. When legislation is pushed through, many, many undesirable things are tucked into the legislation that are not examined by most legislators, let alone most of the public. We need to deliberate and discuss and compromise (but not compromise foundational values). The town hall meetings seem to be mostly for show rather than real exchanges of information, but there have been some exceptions. In addition, the debate cannot go on forever. We need to be committed to real reform, and we need to hold our representatives and senators accountable to such real reform.