Sunday, June 30, 2013

Gospel For Today


We modern day Americans feel like we have a good grip on what freedom means.  After all, we live in the "Land of the Free."  In a few days, on July 4, we will be celebrating our freedom from English overrule with displays of fireworks, hotdogs and hamburgers, the national anthem and plenty of red, white and blue.

But freedom is not something we can take for granted.  Turn on the news, and more and more you hear that our freedom is under attack.  And I do not mean by foreign terrorists or enemy soldiers.  People are worried about losing our freedom from within.

We are in the middle of a special "Fortnight for Freedom" instituted by our US Bishops, to pray for and defend religious liberty.  This observance is to last from June 21 to July 4, and is meant to  address many current challenges to religious freedom, including the looming August 1 deadline for religious organizations to comply with the HHS contraception mandate, as well as the real possibility that recent same-sex marriage rulings will impact religious organizations and individuals.  (If you haven't heard of the "Fortnight for Freedom" before, click here).  

On the other side of the coin you have those on the political left claiming an affront to their freedom any time the absolute right to abortion is challenged.  Many claim to personally believe abortion is wrong, but in the name of freedom will not allow anyone to dictate what they can and cannot do.  It is all about choice.

Our modern understanding of freedom too often equates it with "choice."  But not all choices are good ones.  We can choose things that enslave us.

I love my Netflix account.  It allows me to choose from a huge selection of movies and television shows to keep myself and my family entertained.  But if it included an X-rated channel which streamed smut into my home, I would not allow it; I would not want my children exposed to that "choice."  I want to protect them from becoming addicted to pornography.

Likewise I appreciate all the choices offered at my local supermarket.  In addition to local produce I can get food from all over the world, any time of the year.  But I would never shop at a grocer that had a "narcotics aisle."  We recognize how addictive drugs can be, and that addiction reduces our choices down to one.  We choose to feed our addiction, even if it causes irreparable harm to other aspects of our lives.  Even if it kills us.

Sin can be just as addictive as heroine.  It can enslave us.  In today's second reading from Galatians, St. Paul tells us, "For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit to the yoke of slavery."  

What does St. Paul mean by submitting to the yoke of slavery?  He's talking about sin.  He continues, "Do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh," and, "the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want."

You can use your freedom to sin.  You can choose to do evil.  You can choose hate and selfishness.  You can choose indulgence and excess.  You can choose to slowly kill your soul.  Yes, you can even choose damnation.  I have heard it said that God condemns no one to hell, but He allows those who have freely chosen it to go there.  I believe this is true.  We may ask, "Who would choose hell?"  But people do, sadly, every day.  They freely reject God.  They reject love.  They turn inward.  And they do it all thinking it is their choice, their right.

People look upon the moral law of the Church -- a morality based on the natural law, which is to say it is based on the human person and so applicable to all -- as a restriction on their freedom.  It is a series of "thou shalt nots."  Thou shalt not lie.  Thou shalt not steal.  Thou shalt not commit adultery.  Thou shalt not covet your neighbor's goods.  Thou shalt not have any gods before me...  No, no, no.  Not, not, not.  How can this be freedom when you have the Church constantly telling you what not to do?

A wise person once quipped that the reason the Ten Commandments are negative statements is because it was more efficient for God to spell out the few things we can't do rather than list the infinite number of good things we can do. 

Another way of looking at it is to imagine the moral life as an island in the middle of a turbulent, shark infested ocean.  There are children on the island, huddled at the center for fear of stepping too close to the shore and being swept off to sea.  They have no rules to follow, no restrictions.  But are they truly "free?"  

Then someone comes along and builds a fence around the perimeter of their island.  Fences are built either to keep people out or keep them in.  Fences restrict freedom in our way of thinking.  But with the fence in place, the children are now able to run around and play, enjoying the whole island.  They know as long as they stay within the fence, they will be safe from the sea.  They are more free with the fence than without it.

The moral law is like that fence.  We may choose to look upon it as restrictive, but in truth the only thing it restricts us from is our own peril.  As long as we stay within the fence, we need not worry.  We are in fact more free, because we know where the danger lies and how to avoid it.

Many of you no doubt use GPS devices to navigate on the road.  We happily subject our "freedom" to this little electronic gadget that tells us where to go.  Why do we do this?  Because we know if we follow that path, we will arrive at our destination.  Otherwise we would be lost.  Submission in this case makes us more free.

Likewise we are made free by submitting to the law of God.  He's laid out the path for us.  He has erected the safety fences.  This is why, of all people, the Christian is the most free.  We know where we are going and how to get there.

In truth, the only thing we need to fear -- the only way we can lose the path -- is if we choose to stray.  Pray today that we will never use our freedom for that purpose.  Let us never use our freedom to choose the yoke of slavery to sin.  This is not why Christ set us free.  He freed us to become saints.  He freed us to be joyful people.  He freed us to love.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Monday, June 24, 2013

Jimmy Carter and Women's Ordination

Apparently no less of an historian than Jimmy Carter has been claiming that the Catholic Church has only been restricting the priesthood to males since the third century, and that for the first 200 years of the Christian era, women could be priests, as well.  

Is there any historical truth to this claim?  I want to thank President Carter for giving me the opportunity to repost an article I wrote and had published in Envoy magazine in 2002, entitled "When Women Were What?  Women's Ordination and the Early Church."

A woman stands before you, dressed in clerical garb. Her eyes cast towards the heavens, her arms are outstretched in the orans, a posture signifying the dignity of the priesthood. Is this a scene from an Anglican liturgy, presided over by a female priest, approved since 1992? Or is this a Mass held by a dissident feminist Catholic group, flaunting Church authority and tradition? No, this priestess appears on the cover of the video documentary, The Hidden Tradition, and she represents what the makers of that film would have us believe was once commonplace in the early Church – women priests.

Many special interest groups, advocating women’s ordination, attempt to use history as an argument in their favor. To the unwary, these claims can look credible. One of the dangers of this kind of pseudo-history is that it exposes Catholics and non-Catholics alike to misinformation. It is not uncommon to find people with no real motivation regarding the women’s ordination issue who simply believe, matter of fact, that the early Church used to ordain women. In reality, it is anything but matter of fact. It is fringe history, and should be challenged wherever it is found.

Whenever the topic of women in the priesthood comes up, one should remember the words of John Paul II, who proclaimed in 1994 that “the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the magisterium . . . in order that all doubt may be removed . . . I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful" (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4). 

If people want to discuss the possibility of ordaining women in the Church today, they should realize before they begin that it’s already a settled issue. If people want to discuss the possibility that women were ordained in the early church, the evidence must be looked at objectively, in the context of the times, and without our modern day notions of feminism and disregard for spiritual authority.

When people claim that there were women priests in the early Church, ask for their references. Most likely they will mention books such as When Women Were Priests or videos such as Hidden Tradition. The titles alone should send up red flags that these may be biased sources.

Most (if not all) of the groups that claim the early church ordained women have an obvious agenda. The Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) is a prime example. On their web site ( they use the history argument to advance their agenda of present day women’s ordination. They begin with a thesis and then search for historical evidence to back up their position. This is poor history. What we should do is examine all available evidence first, then come to a conclusion that the evidence supports.

When you have a widely accepted version of history and a new theory that refutes it, the burden of proof lies with the one challenging accepted history. Their evidence needs to be looked at critically and with skepticism. 

The evidence produced to support the historic ordination of women usually falls into three categories: documents instructing a particular priest or church to stop having women assist at the altar, early references to “priestesses” and “bishopesses,” and early evidence of women in the diaconate. To begin with, we will look at various surviving documents instructing churches not to allow women to adopt priestly roles.

We will use as our first example evidence given on the WOC web site. They cite a letter of Pope Gelasius I (492-96) to bishops in three regions of southern Italy. The part they quote reads:

Nevertheless we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong.

Obviously this pope is not condoning women’s ordination. In fact, he is speaking harshly against it! But the opinion expressed by the WOC is that he would not be condemning it if it were not already happening.

While there is some logic in this, they are reading too much into the letter. Does it say that women were being ordained? No. It says that women are being encouraged to officiate at the altar. That’s all. It does not say that women are actively seeking out these duties, and most importantly, it says nothing about the conveyance of Holy Orders.

All that this letter proves is that in southern Italy at that time, women were being encouraged to take clerical roles, and the Pope’s reaction tells us that this most definitely was not an acceptable practice.

It helps if we put these writings into a modern context. The Catholic Church today obviously doesn't ordain women. If the priest in your home parish were to encourage a lay woman to stand with him at the altar and co-consecrate the host, he would likely get a stern letter from his bishop instructing him to cease and desist (just like the papal letter quoted above). If someone a thousand years from now were to find that letter and use it as proof that the Catholic Church in the 21st century ordained women, would that be accurate? No, of course not.

Many cite the writings of early Church Fathers that make mention of women priests. Giorgio Otranto, in his article, “Notes on the Female Priesthood in Antiquity” (Journal of Feminist Studies 7, 1991, no 1, pp 73-94), cites Ireneaus’ Against Heresies (189 AD) as giving evidence of women’s ordination. Let’s look at what Ireneaus actually wrote.

Pretending to consecrate cups mixed with wine, and protracting to great length the word of invocation, [Marcus the Gnostic heretic] contrives to give them a purple and reddish color. . . . [H]anding mixed cups to the women, he bids them consecrate these in his presence. When this has been done, he himself produces another cup of much larger size than that which the deluded woman has consecrated, and pouring from the smaller one consecrated by the woman into that which has been brought forward by himself . . . thus goading on the wretched woman [to madness], he then appears a worker of wonders when the large cup is seen to have been filled out of the small one, so as even to overflow by what has been obtained from it. By accomplishing several other similar things, he has completely deceived many and drawn them away after him.

If we go right to the source, instead of relying on what people like Otranto tell us, we get a different picture. Ireneaus tells us of a heretic who was using slight of hand to deceive women whom he was encouraging to take on priestly roles. Again, no mention is made of women being ordained. And we must remember that this describes the activities of a heretical sect, and in no way represents the teachings or practices of the universal Church. Heretical sects have at various times also denied the divinity of Christ, Original Sin, and the Trinity. Are we to look to them as examples of our faith?

All evidence of this sort proves, at most, is that certain heretical sects encouraged women to take on priestly functions. But the actions of heretics are not at issue. We are looking for authentic Church teaching, and proponents of women’s ordination inevitably want to supplant that with something else.

John Wijngaards, on his web site, (where he claims 90% of Catholic “scholars” support women’s ordination), uses this reasoning. “After serious study and prayer other Christian Churches now ordain women as priests. Though not everything other Churches do can be accepted by the Catholic Church, this converging consensus by believing Christians confirms that ordaining women is according to the mind of Christ.”

In other words, if all (or most) Protestant churches do something, then it must be the will of Christ. The fact is, not all Protestant denominations allow women in the ministry. All of them, on the other hand, flatly reject Papal authority. Most of them also deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Are we to take this as “the mind of Christ,” as well? No, Wijngaards tells us that “not everything other Churches do can be accepted by the Catholic Church.” Apparently we should only accept their teachings when Wijngaards approves them.

Just as modern day Protestant churches cannot be models for Catholic teaching, neither can early heretical sects. Epiphanius of Salamis tells us in Against Heresies (377 AD) that “Certain women there in Arabia . . . In an unlawful and blasphemous ceremony . . . ordain women, through whom they offer up the sacrifice in the name of Mary. This means that the entire proceeding is godless and sacrilegious, a perversion of the message of the Holy Spirit; in fact, the whole thing is diabolical and a teaching of the impure spirit.”

He recounts the Apostolic succession of bishops and priests, in order to show that “never was a women called to these.” He tells us, “If women were to be charged by God with entering the priesthood or with assuming ecclesiastical office, then in the New Covenant it would have devolved upon no one more than Mary to fulfill a priestly function. She was invested with so great an honor as to be allowed to provide a dwelling in her womb for the heavenly God and King of all things, the Son of God. . . . But he did not find this good.”

Now we must consider the second of our three categories—references to “priestesses” and “bishopesses.” Here their case looks strongest. Otranto gives in his article -- and many are repeated on the WOC web site -- several instances of women using these titles. One is an inscription on a sarcophagus in Dalmatia from 425 AD. The inscription mentions a presbytera Flavia Vitalia. Presbytera is the feminine form of presbyter, and therefore is translated as “priestess.”

Another example given is from the ancient church of Santa Praxedis, where four women are depicted in a mosaic. One is identified as Theodora Episcopa, or “Bishopess” Theodora. This church was built by Pope Paschal I, which would date it to the early ninth century. There are several more such examples we could mention, similar in nature.

What are we to make of these references? Certainly actual early inscriptions of the names of priestesses and even bishopesses are hard to refute! But not if we know our Church history, and the context of the times in which these women lived.

Unlike the male priesthood, which is a doctrine of the Church and cannot be changed, clerical celibacy is a discipline. It has been encouraged since the earliest days of the Church, but not always mandated. Local councils as early as the late third century mandated it in certain areas (the first being the Spanish Council of Elvira, c. 295-302), and by the time of Pope Leo the Great it was the norm in the West. But at certain times it was observed with more or less rigor, and it was not finally mandated for all of the Western Church until the First Lateran Council in 1123.

Before that time, when a married man took Holy Orders, certain privileges were allowed to his wife. One of these was the honorary use of the feminine form of her husband’s rank, be it deacon, priest, or bishop. Use of these titles did not confer actual clerical authority and in no way implied ordination. The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that synods in the sixth and seventh centuries laid down strict rules about married clergy, but they continued to allow wives to use the titles of episcopa, presbytera, and diaconissa.

Otranto and the WOC would have us believe that these priestesses and bishopesses were not merely wives of priests and bishops but ordained clergy in their own right. But in order to prove this, they need to show why generations of Catholic historians are wrong, and they are right. So far, evidence for this has been (not surprisingly) lacking.

Take Bishopess Theodora for example. According to church officials at Santa Praxedis, Theodora was Pope Paschal’s mother. She was allowed the honorary title Episcopa because her son was a bishop. The WOC site quotes Dorothy Irvin, a theology professor (they do not say at what university), as saying that Theodora could not be the mother of Paschal, because she is pictured wearing a coif, and only unmarried women wore coifs. Her conclusion? Theodora was an actual ordained bishop.

Let’s assume that she is correct in that only unmarried women wore coifs. Could there be any other explanation for this? Was Theodora a widow? Does this mosaic show her in her youth as a maiden? Is there any reason a married woman might wear a coif? Are we certain that what is pictured is a coif? Are we certain that the person pictured is correctly identified as Theodora? All of these questions would need to be answered before anything definite could be proven.

In any case, we must ask what is more likely – that one woman would disregard a custom of headdress or that an entire church would disregard a definite teaching about women’s ordination? In all likelihood, Theodora is just who the good priests at Santa Praxedis have always claimed her to be, the non-ordained mother of Pope Paschal I.

The final category (and the one with the least merit) is that of the female deacon. Evidence for this is not hard to find. The writings of Sts. Paul and Peter mention deaconesses, as do many extra-Biblical sources.

This argument assumes the following logic; if women can be ordained as deacons, they can be ordained as priests. People often view the levels of ordination as progressive steps; deacon, priest, bishop. But it doesn’t always work that way, as evidenced by the class of permanent deacon. We are discussing priestly ordination of women, and simply put, a deacon is not a priest. The argument is flawed from the beginning.

Even so, there is good reason to doubt that these early deaconesses were ordained at all. Contemporary evidence tells us plainly that they were lay women. Canon 19 of the Council of Nicea (425 AD) says, “We have made mention of the deaconesses, who have been enrolled in this position, although, not having been in any way ordained, they are certainly to be numbered among the laity.”

So if these deaconesses were not ordained, as male deacons are, what purpose did they serve? We can find the answer in other contemporary documents. Epiphanius of Salamis wrote in his Against Heresies in 377 AD, “It is true that in the Church there is an order of deaconesses, but not for being a priestess, nor for any kind of work of administration, but for the sake of the dignity of the female sex, either at the time of baptism or of examining the sick or suffering, so that the naked body of a female may not be seen by men administering sacred rites, but by the deaconess.”

Likewise the Apostolic Constitutions of 400 AD confirm, “A deaconess does not bless, but neither does she perform anything else that is done by priests and deacons, but she guards the doors and greatly assists the presbyters, for the sake of decorum, when they are baptizing women.”

In other words, the position of deaconesses was a special one created for use when it would be inappropriate for a man to be alone with a woman. One cannot resist pointing out that if there were indeed female priests in the early church, there would have been no need for this special role.

Yet the women’s ordination lobby persists, continuing blindly ahead despite their invalid historic claims and their constant condemnation by Magisterial authority. They really do think they are right, and that they have a chance.

Today, when asked to explain why the Catholic Church does not allow the ordination of women, many explain that we follow a Scriptural model. The priest, who is called to stand in persona Christi, represents Jesus, who was a man. Christ, from among His disciples (which included many women), chose only men to be His Apostles. And when these Apostles, the first bishops, were called to ordain others, they ordained only men.

To many ears this may sound like modern justification of a 2000 year old institutional bigotry. But it is anything but modern. The Didascalia, an early Christian text written about 225 AD, tells us the same thing. 

For He, God the Lord, Jesus Christ our Teacher, sent us, the twelve [apostles], out to teach the [chosen] people and the pagans. But there were female disciples among us: Mary of Magdala, Mary the daughter of Jacob, and the other Mary; He did not, however, send them out with us to teach the people. For, if it had been necessary that women should teach, then our Teacher would have directed them to instruct along with us.

The evidence for the early Church never ordaining women is great. This has been the constant teaching of the Church for 2000 years, and the constant opinion of serious historians, secular and ecclesial.

Those who believe otherwise have a great burden of proof, a burden that so far they have yet to bear. This isn’t history. It is fringe history. The kind of revisionism being practiced by these groups, if written for a high school history paper, would earn a solid “F.” Let’s not you or I grade them any higher.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Gospel For Today


"Who do you say that I am?"  This is the question Jesus asks in today's gospel reading from Luke 9:18-24.  It is still an important question today, an essential one for any Christian.  

I cannot recall how often I have been asked this question on retreats, in classes, guided prayers, etc.  Unfortunately the emphasis is often put on the wrong word.  "Who do you say that He is?" the questioner asks.  They are interested in our personal thoughts about Jesus.

There is an approach to this question which is helpful, and one that I fear could be harmful to one's faith.  It is, on the one hand, absolutely essential that a Christian know the answer to this question.  A Christian is not one who merely follows the teachings of Christ, but one who follows Christ Himself.  We do not worship Christ because of anything He said or did but because of who He is.  Our faith is a personal faith.  We believe in a Person, and we must believe within our person.  

So the "you" in "Who do you say that I am?" is vital.  Jesus wants our personal answer.

But there is an unhelpful way of looking at this, as well.  We can put too much emphasis on "our personal answer" and begin to treat Jesus as a construct of our own thoughts and desires.  What would we want in a savior? 

I have sat in discussion groups and heard people say, "Well, to me, Jesus is a friend, a companion on the journey..."  "To me, Jesus is like an older brother..."  "To me, Jesus is a messenger of God's mercy..."  "To me, Jesus is an example of how to live right."  

Some of these answers may be better than others, but the problem is the emphasis placed on the, "To me, to me, to me."  We can easily fall into the trap of recasting Christ in our own image.  We forget that Jesus did not ask, "What do you say I am like?" but rather "Who do you say that I am?"

So let's take the emphasis off of "you" and put it where it ought to be.  "Who do you say that I am?"  Who is Jesus?  As Jesus is a real Person, this question has a real answer.  

This means there are wrong ways to answer this question. "You are John the Baptist."  "You are Elijah."  "You are a prophet."  No, no, no.  This is what the crowd was saying, and the crowd rarely gets it right.

"The Christ of God," Simon Peter says.  Yes, yes, yes.  Christ means Messiah, the Anointed One.  The one for whom the Jewish people have long awaited.  As Peter puts it in the parallel version from Matthew, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."  

It is this answer which prompted Jesus to change Simon's name to Rock (Peter) and promise, "Upon this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).  

This is Jesus.  This is who He is, regardless of our personal thoughts and opinions on the matter.  So don't be like the crowd, murmuring your own guesses at who this Jesus might be.  "A prophet, a teacher, a holy man, a revolutionary, a friend."  All of those things might describe what He is like.  But when someone asks you who He is, you can do no better than to unite yourself to Peter's faith and proclaim, "He is the Christ of God."

The Catholic Church is the Church founded upon the Rock of Peter by Jesus Christ.  It is the Church which Christ sustains in existence to this day, and will continue to sustain until the end of time.  To know Jesus is to know His Church.  To live the life of the Church is to live a life close to Jesus.  

This means being willing to abandon some of our own perceptions and preconceptions about who we think Jesus might be.  It means learning about Him through the reality of His Church, through which He remains with us today.  We must "deny ourselves" as Christ teaches in this same gospel passage, so that we may better "take up our cross and follow Him."  

In this way we will come to know the real Jesus, as He is.  This is vital.  In the beginning stages of any relationship, we can make the mistake of falling in love with the image we have of the other person in our mind.  This can never be true love.  This is a crush, an infatuation.  Real love requires us to know the real person, as they truly are.

Falling in love with Jesus requires the same.  Come to know Jesus the Christ in all His glory.  Accept no substitutes.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Gift of Faith

I recently read an article entitled "Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity."  The thesis of the article is one well worth considering.  Young people who abandon their Christian faith tend to do so because the Christianity they are exposed to is lukewarm.  The young (college age) atheists interviewed by the author speak admirably of those Christians they know who take their faith seriously.  But they don't represent the norm in their perspective, and this makes Christianity as a whole less attractive.

Point taken.  But there is more to the story here that I believe the article misses.  The author opens by relating the story of Phil, a young man who was very much involved in the youth ministry group at his Methodist church.  The youth pastor, Jim, is described as someone who really "knows the Bible," who led dynamic Bible study sessions, took his faith seriously and attempted to pass that zeal on to the youth in his charge.  

However, the pastor wanted to shift the focus of the youth ministry program to something more lighthearted and fun.  Jim didn't want to go that route.  So Jim was out.  And Savannah was in.  Savannah is described as someone who was great fun, could play games but who "didn't know a thing about the Bible."  While the numbers in the youth program did increase, Phil left.  He became an atheist.  

The moral of the story seems to be that the "fun and games" approach to Christianity is shallow and ultimately unfulfilling.  Fair enough.  But I can't help but feel there is more to what happened.

I sympathize with Phil.  He had an intelligent and engaging youth pastor whom he admired.  That youth pastor was removed (no doubt unjustly in Phil's view) and replaced with someone with a very different approach.  I imagine many young people in Phil's shoes would become less involved in their youth ministry group; maybe they would find a different church to attend with a youth group more in line with their standards; maybe they would step back from active participation in this sort of group and take more of an internal approach to their practice of the faith.  But to become apostate?  To abandon the faith altogether?  To renounce Christ?  To profess that there is no God?

These actions strike me as a rather extreme reaction to not liking your new youth minister.  No doubt something more was going on with Phil; something internal that perhaps he never shared with Jim or anyone else.  Despite his admiration of Jim and active participation in youth Bible studies, Phil suffered from a lack of faith.

One of the criticisms leveled at the "fun and games" approach to youth ministry is that it provides nothing of substance for the participants.  It becomes just another social group.  And if you decide you don't like the social group any longer and want to find another one (or none at all), then what's the big deal?  The same criticism is leveled at churches who focus on social justice issues while neglecting doctrinal fidelity, catechesis and liturgical reverence.  If your church is just another volunteer service group, then there are plenty of other organizations that can provide that experience for you without the religious baggage.

What we don't hear talked about as much is the fact that more traditionally minded Christians can fall into this trap as well.  The Christian circles you travel in might be very devout, very orthodox, very pious, heavy on the Bible studies and traditional liturgies and devotions, and all that.  But if you don't bring a personal faith to the table, then it is still just another social group.

We see it happening all the time.  A very orthodox pastor, one who takes great care to teach the unadulterated faith to his flock and celebrates beautiful liturgies, who is a gifted homilist, a good confessor, and all we hope for in a priest, is transferred to a different parish.  The new pastor comes in who is more on the "let's just all get along" end of the spectrum, heavy on the hugs, light on the doctrine.  His liturgies are more casual.  His approach to catechesis more lax.  And the pews grow empty.

Where have all the faithful gone?  Some have decided to attend a different parish the next town over.  But most have just decided to stay home.  They would rather commit a mortal sin by missing their Sunday obligation than sit through a homily from their new pastor.  Why is this?  Were not these the very people attracted to their former pastor's dynamic orthodoxy?

A cult of personality can be just as much a danger with a charismatic orthodox leader as with a charismatic heterodox leader.  If your participation in the faith is about a person or social group, rather than Jesus Christ, then you are in trouble regardless.

This is a very serious concern that I have in campus ministry.  Campus ministry groups tend to be really amazing groups of young people.  Friendships are easy to form.  Students get attached to their campus minister or other students in the group.  They get heavily involved in "church things" through campus ministry and this can look very much like a sincere religious conversion.

The sad reality is that many times the conversion is not truly to God, but to campus ministry.  Some of these same students, a few years after graduation, discover that their faith was centered on the campus ministry group and not on a meaningful relationship to God in Christ.  They  may attend their local parish for a while, but it is not the same.  They believe it is because they are not being fed spiritually.  And so they leave.  They might join another denomination, or stop practicing any faith at all.

You would be surprised at how often it is the "very active" student, one whose faith seems to be on fire, who you find out four or five years down the road is no longer practicing their faith.  It is very hard, if not impossible to judge someone's sincerity in this regard, often because the student does not know themselves.

It is something I think a lot about as campus minister.  What can I do to ensure that a student continues in the faith post college?  The answer, I have determined, is nothing at all.  Because I cannot give them faith.  And that is the key.

Faith is a gift from God.  I am not saying this to imply that God predestines some of us to have faith and others not to, and therefore our efforts to evangelize are moot.  Not at all.  But faith is a gift and a gift must be both given and received.  In that regard, faith is very much between God and the individual soul.

What I can do - what youth ministers and pastors and others in a position to shepherd someone in the faith can do - is to help the person nourish that relationship with God, grow stronger in that relationship, to live out their faith in an authentic and meaningful way in this world.  We can provide them the tools they need to be good Christians.  And God help us, we want never to be an obstacle to their faith.

But we have to realize at some point that we can never give that gift ourselves.  We can be conduits.  We can plant seeds.  But the Holy Spirit is what gives those seeds life.

It is this supernatural element of faith that is the missing piece in this article on atheism.  Phil did not become an atheist because of anything his youth minister did or did not do.  He became an atheist because of a lack of faith.  The change in his youth minister was just the excuse he needed to put that lack of faith into action.

My desire for all of my college students is that they possess a faith strong enough to sustain them through incompetent ministers, bad liturgies, boring homilies, and all the goofy things that we weak and sinful human beings are capable of.  God willing, you will leave college and find a wonderful parish home with a dynamic priest in love with God, a parish that provides you with many opportunities to enrich your faith.  I hope you do.  But you may not.  Will your faith sustain you?  Is your faith dependent upon having a good and strong faith community (whatever your definition of that may be)?  Or is your faith in something higher and transcendent?

If it is, then you are blessed.  For a faith such as that can carry you through anything.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Gospel For Today


The state of the economy continues to be a topic of discussion these days, especially the growing divide between the rich and the poor in this country.  In listening to all this talk, I get the impression that certain people are not so much concerned that the poor are poor, as they are angry that the rich are rich.  

We should be concerned, out of love for our fellow man, that the poor have the basic necessities they need and the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.  If we can decrease the wealth gap by raising up the poor, that is commendable.  But there are those who argue for decreasing the gap by pulling down the rich, and I am not sure what that is meant to accomplish.

What does this have to do with today's gospel reading?  I suggest that a certain amount of jealousy is involved in this mode of thinking, and it is a jealousy that our Lord seems to have little patience with.

Staying with the economic analogy a little longer, I'll use myself as an example.  I am the sole bread winner for a family of seven, and according to our Federal government we live just over the poverty line.  However, when I look around me, I do not feel poor.  We have a nice home, there are two cars in the driveway, my children have never wanted for clothes, there is always food in the fridge, we are able to take the occasional vacation; plus we have all sorts of modern wonders at our disposal such as high speed internet and smart phones. 

I have never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from or whether I would have a bed to sleep in.  Why should I be jealous of those who own yachts or vacation homes?  Is it simply because I don't have those luxuries?  What right have I to be jealous of those with more?

In today's gospel reading from Luke, the Pharisee is upset because Jesus allows a sinful woman to anoint His feet.  He even forgives her sins!  The scandal!  Doesn't he know what sort of woman this is? the Pharisee thinks to himself.  

Why should this Pharisee, who in his life has no doubt received many blessings, be upset over the charity our Lord shows to this sinful woman?  The answer is jealousy.  And jealousy is rooted in pride.  The sinful woman has one thing this Pharisee lacks, and that is humility.  She is humble enough to realize her sinfulness and to come to the Lord for forgiveness.  Whereas the Pharisee presumes that his uprightness should earn him the Lord's favor.

Our second reading today from Galatians reminds us that we can never earn any favor from God.  We are not justified by works of the law.  (Neither are we justified by faith alone, as we are reminded of in the Epistle of James, but that is another topic).  

The Pharisee believes that he is closer to God than the sinful woman.  That's a little like someone standing on the shore at Myrtle Beach and wading four feet out into the surf; someone else wades out eight feet and boasts because he is twice as close to Spain!  

Certainly some in this world strive to live holier lives than others, and that is commendable.  We should all strive to live according to God's moral code, for our own well being and happiness.  But we should not think that doing so can ever earn for us a greater portion of God's love.  For God's love is infinite and boundless and extends even to the greatest sinner.

When such a sinner repents and seeks God's forgiveness, our response should be to rejoice, and not to resent it.  Resentment betrays out own lack of faith and our presumption that somehow we "deserve more."  

Jesus says the one of whom little is forgiven, loves little.  But we all have been forgiven a great deal -- or can be if we but ask for God's mercy.  It does not matter if we wade our four feet, eight feet, or eighty feet into the ocean.  It is still a mighty long way to the other shore.  God's forgiveness bridges that gap and brings us into His bosom.

Our response, in love, should be to show humble gratitude for His mercy.  Harboring jealousy for our neighbors is a sure sign that we have our sights set on the wrong thing.  Jealousy means we are looking at ourselves and what we think we deserve.  Love means looking at God in awe of the goodness that extends such boundless mercy.  When we focus our sights on God and His love for us, we become incapable or jealousy and resentment.  We become emissaries of mercy.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gospel For Today


Our Catholic faith is rich with signs and symbols.  To everything we see in our liturgy, we read in the scriptures, and that is taught in our catechesis there is a deeper meaning.  Our lives are filled with signs of a deeper meaning and richness, if we have the eyes to see them.

Today we hear a reading from 1 Kings where the prophet Elijah heals the son of a widow of a great illness, through his faith in God.  Our gospel reading from Luke this morning is an obvious parallel.  Jesus does more than heal the son of a widow -- He raises the widow's son from the dead, causing the widow to proclaim, "A great prophet has arisen in our midst."

In the first reading, the miracle Elijah performed served as a sign of his status as one of God's prophets.  The widow tells him, after her son is healed through Elijah's prayer, "Now indeed I know that you are a man of God."  Jesus' miracle also served as a sign.  It reminds us of the miracle of Elijah, and so tells us that Jesus, like Elijah, is a man of God.  But where Elijah healed a sick man, Jesus shows us that he is the ultimate healer by bringing a man back from the dead.  More than the power to heal, Jesus has the power to give life.

As one who has power over life and death Christ is signaling to us that He is more than a mere "holy man."  He is the creator of life itself.  This would be confirmed in the greatest of His miracles, His own Resurrection and victory over death.

Some may ask if Jesus really did conquer death, and have the power to heal and even bring the dead back to life, then why didn't He heal all of humanity?  Why do people still get sick?  Why do people still die?  

Death is a great reality.  None of us can escape it.  We must all deal with it in our own lives, when we lose friends and family.  And eventually we all must face our own death.  So how can we say Jesus conquered death?

In truth, Jesus did not raise every dead man He saw, no more than He healed every blind man or leper He came across.  He only chose a few.  Why?  Because these few are signs and symbols.  They point to a greater reality.

Eternal life in this world is unattainable and would be a curse if it were possible.  No one expects to live forever except for a handful of kooks who think by taking the right combination of vitamins, or merging their consciousness into a supercomputer they can achieve immortality.  These scenarios are the provenance of science fiction, not the real world.  And in science fiction stories, it never ends well.  The supercomputer with human intellect invariably seeks to dominate us lesser mortals.  In Gulliver's Travels, the explorer finds a land where the inhabitants live forever in their physical bodies, which have aged beyond human recognition.  For them eternal life is hell.

We cannot live forever in this world. Even the man Jesus brought back from the dead in today's gospel is no longer with us.  He died again, and this time there was no resurrection.  At least not yet...

For this is what the miracles of Jesus, including his own Resurrection from the tomb which we commemorate every Sunday, are meant to tell us.  Death is not the end.  There will be a resurrection of the dead.  But not in this world.  For this world is fallen.  It simply cannot hold all the glory that is to come.  For this we need a new creation -- a new heaven and a new earth.  And this is what Jesus has promised.

Pope Paul VI says, "We believe that the souls of all who die in Christ's grace... are the People of God beyond death.  On the day of resurrection, death will be definitively conquered, when these souls will be reunited with their bodies" (qtd. in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1052).  

This new creation is described for us in the Scriptures.  God will make His dwelling among men.  "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4).

Our current world, fallen and troubled as it is, is a sign of this new world to come.  All the good and joyful things about our existence in this life are but shadows of the glory of our life in eternity.  Enjoy them in this life when you can, and enjoy them all the more for you know they are mere teasers for the happiness of the new earth.  

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Gospel For Today


Today is the great solemnity of Corpus Christi, the day set aside by the Church to honor and celebrate Christ's true presence in the Eucharist.  Though Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist (and the priesthood necessary to celebrate it), the commemoration of our Lord's passion suppresses the rejoicing otherwise proper to the occasion.  And so Corpus Christi accents the joyous aspect of Holy Thursday.

This great feast was instituted by Pope Urban IV in 1264, and it was St. Thomas Aquinas himself who composed the Mass.  The Tantam Ergo that is still sung on Holy Thursday and other Eucharistic processions was composed by St. Thomas for this feast.  

The Second Vatican Council called the Eucharist "the source and summit of our faith."  That means our faith truly begins and ends with this Sacrament.  Through it, Christ comes to us and ministers to us in the depths of our human despair and sorrow.  Yet, the holiest of saints will never reach any pinnacle of adoration higher on this earth than Christ in the Eucharist.  

Our Holy Father Emeritus, Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote, "If we want to understand the meaning of Corpus Christi, the best thing to do is simply to look at the liturgical form in which the Church celebrates and expounds the significance of this feast... First there is what we are doing right now, meeting together around the Lord, standing before the Lord, and thus standing side by side together.  Next there is walking with the Lord, the procession.  And finally there is the heart and the climax of it, kneeling before the Lord, the adoration, glorifying Him and rejoicing in His presence" (God Is Near Us).

Our Gospel today relates the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Christ fed five thousand from a mere five loaves of bread and two fish, from which there were enough left overs to fill twelve baskets.  Modernists like to recast this story as a lesson about sharing -- suggesting that the five thousand had enough food in their pockets to feed everyone and Jesus merely taught them to be generous.  But surely this was a true miracle, with Christ showing us how He can take a seemingly small and finite amount of food and with it nourish the multitudes.  

And it is precisely because of this miracle that the crowd returned the next day.  They wished to be fed (some spiritually, most physically).  Rather than hand out another free meal, our Lord spoke to them about "true bread from heaven," which "gives life to the world."  The crowd said, "Lord, give us this bread always."  

Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6:32-35).  Thus begins the great Bread of Life discourse of John chapter 6 where Jesus insists over and over again that to gain eternal life one must eat his flesh and drink his blood.

How could this be?  How could a man give his very flesh to eat?  How could a man feed five thousand people from five loaves and two fish?  A mere man could do neither.  God can.  The same God who could become Incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary can also transform the bread and wine we bring to the altar into His very Body and Blood.  Is one miracle any more impossible for the Almighty than the other?  Is either more or less dignified?

God, in His divine plan for our salvation, desires to commune with us most intimately.  He desires to dwell within us, make His home in us, both in spirit and in body.  And so He presents Himself to us in a form which we can take into ourselves, which can nourish us, and transform us.

Is there any greater humility to be found in the universe?  Is there a greater gift He could have given us than Himself?

Lord Jesus Christ, you gave us the Eucharist as the memorial of your suffering and death. May our worship of this sacrament of your body and blood help us to experience the salvation you won for us and the peace of the kingdom where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723