Pray for the World

A woman carrying flowers cries in front of the Carillon cafe and the Petit Cambodge restaurant in Paris Saturday Nov. 14, 2015, a day after more than 120 people were killed in a series of attacks in Paris. French President Francois Hollande said at least 127 people died that Friday night when at least eight attackers launched gun attacks at Paris cafes, detonated suicide bombs near France's national stadium and killed hostages inside a concert hall during a rock show. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

A woman with flowers cries in front of the Carillon cafe and the Petit Cambodge restaurant in Paris Saturday Nov. 14, 2015, a day after more than 120 people were killed in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

What can we say about France? The image above says more than any words can.

What horrors, what unspeakable terror; these words seem to lack meaning.

And it’s not just France, it’s the world really. Tragedy everywhere. Broken hearts.

Even for the Christian, who claims a future hope, there is no escape from weeping.

Pray for Paris. Pray for France. Pray for the world.

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Pope Francis, Yves Congar, & True Reform: An Interview with Austen Ivereigh

Ivereigh offers some perspective on what Pope Francis is doing and why.

Yves Congar is a fascinating figure in twentieth century Catholic theology and thought. His ideas were censured and censored at one time by the Church, but then became accepted and were highly influential at Vatican II (perhaps the single most informative influence at the council).

I am inclined to think that many of the issues that some Catholics are having with the pope, namely regarding his apparently confusion-sowing manner and way of speaking, are in fact a kind of cover for deeper fears. In other words, it seems there is a protective strain within Catholicism, particularly from conservatives (but not only), that actually has problems with the three approaches to reform that Ivereigh identifies. If true, then it would follow that their frustration is actually masking a fear of reform, and the natural processes of reform as identified by Congar. (Keep in mind I say this as a recent convert from Protestantism — which may skew my perspective.)

Although I tend to identify with many aspects of conservative Catholicism (and many aspects of liberal Catholicism), I worry about a kind of Phariseeism that seems to lie just beneath much of the anti-Francis rhetoric — and I’m speaking of the even-handed stuff, not even the foaming-at-the-mouth stuff.

I too see the confusion with Pope Francis, but I can’t judge. I don’t really know what he is up to, and I believe the Church, like all of us, is always in need of reform.

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The Perfect Role Model of Faith

The perfect role model of faith is a sinner who has faith, not a non-sinner who has faith. It is not the perfectly moral person who is our role model for this side of eternity. It is the imperfectly moral, struggling, sinning and repenting and sinning again person who, while in the midst of all that, still has faith.

We should not so quickly judge our Christian leaders, saints, paragons of one sort or another, based finally on objective moral standards which can be so easily be faked and turned to pride and pharisaical haughtiness. And we should not judge each other so quickly for the same reasons. Rather, we should look for faith which, ironically, shows itself most often in response to moral failings than successes.

Humbleness arises from the realization that being sure of faith in oneself is, at best, a difficult and long project, and a near impossibility to be sure of in others. Abraham, sinner though he was, is the father of our faith; King David, sinner though he was, was a man after God’s own heart; St. Peter, denier of Christ himself, was martyred finally for his love of our Savior. We should remind ourselves that faith is a miracle, and act accordingly.

The perfect role model of faith is, in the end, the one who truly has faith — and it takes time to know who that is, often until the end of their lives.

Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio.

Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio.

Keep in mind that faith is related, but still something different, than the moral life or the devout life. Some may be very good at being moral examples, living exemplary lives of good conduct and right living. And they are examples of holiness. Hopefully they also have faith. But it is the one who, when faced with their own moral failings or profound sufferings, still cling to God — “Where would we go, you have the words of eternal life.” “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

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The Fear of Mercy

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (The Gospel of St. Luke 6:36)

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“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van Rijn, oil on canvas, c. 1668, in the Hermitage

We will soon enter the Year of Mercy. For some Christians the word “mercy” elicits deep concerns. I find Christians tend to fear mercy for at least three reasons:

  1. We fear mercy because we feel the “world” will get the wrong message and find in mercy the permission to sin. The problem here is that the world has already found the permission to sin, even believes it needs none. It may be true that some define mercy as mere acceptance and thus want “mercy” without repentance, but growing (sometimes slowly and painfully) in one’s understanding of mercy is part of the journey of faith and a risk that Christians must be willing to take. None of us come to Christ fully formed, free of sin, having fully repented, ready now for the mercy that we no longer need. Who of us is not still learning about the great mercy offered to us? The world already has the wrong message. Mercy is a key part of the right message. Offering mercy is integral to the Christian life.
  2. We fear mercy because we fear the Church will crumble if we let mercy too quickly out of the bag. This is related to fear #1. We fear people will get the wrong idea about sin if we offer mercy, even Christians will get the wrong idea, and next thing you know the Church is filled with folks reveling in their mercy by glorifying sin (or reveling in their sin by glorifying mercy). This comes from seeing mercy as analogous to no-strings-attached freedom. But that, of course, is not true. Mercy is love’s response to sin. Mercy, by definition, takes into account sin, acknowledges it, calls it out. But mercy also, and in spite of sin, extends the hand, welcomes the sinner. Mercy requires faith, which is to say offering mercy begins with trusting God. The truth is, the Church will crumble if we don’t offer mercy. Lack of mercy points to lack of trusting God. Perhaps we fear offering mercy because we believe we understand mercy more than we do.
  3. We fear mercy because we demand justice (meted out on others). Justice is a good thing. We look to God to bring about justice. But if all we have is justice then we’re all sunk — the upstanding deacon is just as sunk as the suspected gay choir leader, as is the marxist activist, as is the little old lady praying her rosary, as is the pope himself. None of us wants justice if it includes ourselves. But we fear mercy if it means that others will not get the justice we know they deserve. We are desperate for justice in this world. Sin makes us hate others, and demanding justice can too easily be the blessing we bestow on our own hate. What we must recognize is that we, all of us, are still desperate for mercy for ourselves — and not merely at an emotional level, for without mercy there is no salvation. The saints have all known this.

Consider these stories:

  • The Pharisee and tax collector: Who shows mercy? Who does not? God shows mercy. The Pharisee does not.
  • The prodigal son: Who shows mercy? Who does not? The father shows mercy. The eldest son does not.
  • The woman caught in adultery: Who shows mercy? Who does not? Christ shows mercy. The Pharisees do not.

Will we show mercy? Showing mercy requires faith in God. Do we trust in faith, in God’s mercy, in God’s sovereignty? Are we willing to let God fight our battles?

God will fight our battles. That is the story of the Old Testament, reiterated in the new. We claim faith, hope, love… and God fights our battles. Remember faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Let God have the big picture as well as the small, let Him fight the battles, and let us show mercy — for God will also show mercy.

Mercy is love’s response to sin. God is love. We are His children.

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Bishop Robert Barron on the Family

Here is a great talk given by Bishop Robert Barron on the family.

I like just everything about this talk. Among many interesting and profound things he says, and he says a lot, I found one thing that really jumped out at me at 47:15. He says that if the “great figures of Vatican II” (Henri de Lubac, Romano Guardini, Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar) could see that today 75 percent of Catholics do not go to mass regularly they would view their project (Vatican II and all that it anticipated and was meant to accomplish) as a failure. Bishop Barron says Vatican II was meant to revive the Church, in essence to bring more life into the Church. He seems to be saying, however, the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction.

The possible implication is that if all had happened as they thought it would, then our church buildings would be bursting on Sundays, and filled with many faithful throughout the week. It would have been the Catholic Church that defined the idea of Evangelical, and taken that spirit to the world. Instead Catholics left the Church for the Evangelicalism of the Protestants, or just stopped going to Church altogether. This was happening prior to the council, but it exploded since then. The Catholic Church was run over by the steamroller of late modernity and many Catholics were happy to be run over.

I do not think Vatican II caused any of this in the way that some claim, but it played a part. Exactly how is debatable, but one thing seems certain, though the great figures of  the council were noble in their desires, they thought the Church wanted one thing (get closer to God) when, in fact, it wanted something else (push God away, at least away from their sexuality, definitions of marriage, contraception, etc.). They thought Catholics in large part wanted more freedom to be fully alive in Christ, but what Catholics wanted was freedom from the strictures of the Church (from the perceived tyranny of tradition, the un-coolness of the old, from the barriers that demarcated the Catholic subculture from the popular world). In other words they thought Catholics were interested in becoming more Catholic when, in fact, they wanted to become culturally, socially, even theologically Protestant.

I would like to hear more from Bishop Barron on his thoughts about this. Was Vatican II a failure? What would the great figures of Vatican II say?

Just to be clear, Bishop Barron has a generally very positive view of Vatican II. You get a good picture of his understanding here:

…but I’m curious.

Could it be, however/also, that we have too short and too impatient a timeline for a post-council Church revival to rise and flourish? Do reformations take longer? 40 years in the desert, generations dying off? I am increasingly inclined to see the changes brought by the council may still be in their early stages — and that they are leading towards a deeper understanding and celebration of the mysteries of faith, including the depth of tradition, etc. Sometimes one has to move away for a while before returning in order to appreciate one’s homeland. If this is true, then all the troubles that have flowed from the time of Vatican II may actually be step one in the council’s success.

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Catholic Church Architecture with Dr. Denis McNamara

Dr. Denis McNamara, faculty member at The Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois, speaks on church architecture in ten short videos. The first one is here:

The other nine videos can be found at The Liturgical Institute under videos.

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Timeline of the Catholic Church

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There are a number of Church history timelines out there if you want to find them. They all support one argument or another. Of the ones I’ve found (via Google image searching) most seem designed to demonstrate how the more or less connected Eastern Orthodox churches are somehow, truly, the one, consistently intact, non-apostate church, by showing that both the Catholic Church and all the Protestant churches are apostate deviations from Eastern Orthodoxy. I don’t find these timelines or arguments very convincing (though I flirted with becoming Eastern Orthodox before entering the Catholic Church).

Very few timelines I’ve seen are about the histories of Protestant churches from a Protestant perspective for obvious reasons — pick any one and they don’t go back very far, and are rife with so many splits as to make one’s head spin. See this previous post for examples. Rampant disunity and proneness to division makes the Protestant churches visually impossible to establish their continuity with the Apostles (and opens the door to questions most Protestants would like to imagine don’t actually exist or are not important). Better to avoid that embarrassing visual altogether. Anyway, Protestants put their emphasis on other things.

Yet, we get clearly from scripture that Jesus, with His apostles, founded a Church; that that Church is both mystical and visible, is marked by unity, is full of sacraments, and Hell will not prevail against it. Thus we should expect to find a clear line through history that we can call the Church. Given that all human beings are sinners, and that the Church is made up of sinners, then we should also expect an imperfect Church, prone to struggles, run through with sin, and teaming with problems — perhaps even its own periodic “dark ages” and times of great distress. But we should also see the work of the Holy Spirit, working on the hearts of the Church’s members, guiding the Church through the struggles, chastising it, correcting it, disciplining it, but keeping the thread of continuity always visible. If we are willing to entertain such an idea, it doesn’t take long to discover the Catholic Church is the best choice for being that church. All others, except to some degree the Eastern Orthodox churches, pale in comparison.

But it’s not all that easy to find a timeline of Church history from a Catholic perspective. Perhaps that’s because Catholics don’t feel they need to create such a thing.

However, here’s a decent one showing the continuity of the Catholic Church as compared to various Protestant divisions:

Timeline of Catholic Church
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If the visual of this timeline means anything, then we see the Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodists grouped on one side, and all the rest on the other — which implies more or less deviation from the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church — depending on which side one is on. Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodists — the diagram seems to say — are closer to the Catholic Church than those on the right. This is the traditional Catholic perspective, though it has changed in recent years as generally only Evangelicals, Baptists, and some Reformed maintained traditional moral positions (mainly on sexual, gender, and life issues) and the mainline churches have deviated substantially.

My own history began in one of those Baptist strands on the right. I knew nothing about anything of Church history, and especially Baptist history. If Blessed John Henry Newman is right, that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant, then it’s no wonder Protestants (especially of the radical reformation) don’t want to know anything about their church histories — it’s too much of a threat to their way of life. I got the impression that our church had sprung directly from the pages of scripture, which allowed us to blithely disregard most all of Christian history from the death of St. John to the present day. Nearly everything I heard about the history of the Church could have been boiled down to a handful of repeated (and easily refuted) tropes about the Reformation and “those Catholics,” accepted with knowing nods, and never questioned. That was my experience. Of course, we never asked any knowledgeable Catholics about anything.

Now we live at a time when questions of doctrine and dogma, Church history and practice, and the deep divisions among the faithful are shrugged off as being uninteresting. So much of Christian experience seems to reflect our broader societies values (beliefs are only personal and must remain so, faith is private, and choosing a church is more like choosing a new favorite restaurant) that people can’t see any purpose in asking if there is such a thing as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

While growing up Protestant, naturally I was told church history was unimportant — only Jesus and the Bible were important. But if the Church is the bride of Christ, then history matters — like your own history. You are a continuity of God’s grace in your life, and so is the Church. What is particularly troubling with this timeline is that it shows that Christians have been practicing separating (one could say divorcing) from each other for a very long time. As they say, practice makes perfect. What has this done to our souls? How has this spirit invaded our culture at all levels?

We read in John chapter 17, Jesus prayed:

“And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…”

Did Christ intend that they, and we, actually be one — implying visible as well as mystical unity? Can we really, over the long term, have the mystical and not the visible? Can we be divided in practice, in doctrine, in life, and still be okay that somewhere, somehow, we’re all unified in Christ? Like the hardness of heart Christ speaks of when he discusses divorce, is the Church in time and space, in hearts and in actions, an example to the world of the hardness of ours hearts? I think so. This is a profound problem.

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Chrism Mass in Westminster Cathedral, procession at the beginning.

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I have come to believe that once one cares at all about the continuity of the Church down through the ages, it then becomes clear all arrows point to the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ. For all of its problems, and its crazy history, it remains. If one cannot imagine becoming Catholic, then it’s best to forget everything about Church history, grab one’s Bible, and just claim Jesus as Lord. Right? To many this sounds like a good plan, but that very perspective is at the heart of that crazy timeline of disunity, with Christians splitting from each other, with every man a pope, creating havoc among the faithful, and shaming Christ before the world. There is something profoundly broken and wrong-headed about the “me and Jesus” mindset as the foundation for being the Church. There is something profoundly broken and wrong-headed about betting on sola scriptura. The evidence is everywhere.

This timeline shows that Christians have grotesquely failed in unity. Given human nature, original sin, and the incessant work of the Devil, this is no surprise. I have written about this before, but I believe the spirit at the core of the Reformation was the spirit of disunity (shored up by theological arguments that sound a lot like excuses), and that spirit has thrived down the centuries until today, and has affected all of modern culture — we are a culture of divorce on all fronts (we are constantly separating ourselves from others, reveling in our disunity, fighting against those “idiots,” and finding ever new ways to stay apart). But Christians should know that in and through Christ all those distinctions fade, and our human excuses disappear. Non-denominationalism (not caring about denominations any more) has not solved this issue. Evangelicalism has not solved the issue — though it embodies some good things. Cool churches in school gyms have not solved the issue. Gathering “outside” mainstream Christian culture in some small, radical biblicism enclave has not solved the issue. Social media, and our ability to be “connected,” has not solved this issue. Unity in Christ is hard enough, why then seek it and flaunt it?

Because I know that at the individual level there are many, many Christians who passionately love Christ, I have hope for a coming unity once again. That unity will, and must, be both of the heart and visible; of faith and structure; of the mystical Church and the church down the street. May we humbly follow Christ and be “one” again.


Post Script: Most Christians, as far as I can tell, could not care less about these things. This is true for both Protestants and Catholics. There is a happy cluelessness, a shrug and a “who cares?” or “I don’t see how that matters” attitude. I care, in part, because I was Protestant and converted to Catholicism. I had to wrestle with a lot of issues and claims raised by both “sides.” I was drawn by the Holy Spirit to wrestle with these things. I learned that history matters. It can teach us a lot. We each hold many assumptions and presuppositions, and those all have a history to them. I believe these are critical issues because I believe that truth matters, scripture matters, and what & who one has faith in matters. I don’t want to hold dear verses like John 3:16 …reveling in the love of God and feeling great, and forget that the Church, which was established by Christ, is also the body of Christ and the bride of Christ — something visible, living, breathing, acting, unified, in the world, reflecting Christ, and connected year over year through tradition, scripture, and structure. We believe in Christ by being a part of His Body. Belief is not about feelings only, or even mostly. One has to choose.

I have to care, make wise judgements, and then choose. I cannot not care. I cannot not choose.

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Filed under Catholic Church, Church History, Orthodox Church, Protestantism, The Early Church