Friday, August 28, 2015

Maturity in Faith

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Something odd seems to be going on with this Sunday's readings.  In our first reading, Moses says to observe the decrees he is about to proclaim carefully, and "not add to what I command you nor subtract from it" (Dt 4:2).  But in our gospel reading, Jesus appears to do just that.  He argues that His followers do not need to observe the ritual purity laws Moses commanded.  "Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person" our Lord says, "but the things that come out from within are what defile" (Mk 7:15).

Is Jesus contradicting Moses?  Is there a conflict in our faith here?  What is going on?

Understanding the context of the readings helps to shed light on the seeming contradiction.  Our first reading is from the book of Deuteronomy.  The word deuteronomy literally means "second law."  That rather begs the question, "what is the first law?"  To answer that question we must look to Exodus and the story of the Golden Calf.  Picture the scene: Moses has ascended to the top of Mt. Sinai where he is receiving the law of God (primarily expressed in the Ten Commandments).  Meanwhile the people of Israel encamped at the bottom of the mountain construct a golden calf and begin to worship it instead of God.

Rather than smite out the Israelites for idolatry, God instead imposed another, stricter law upon the Jewish people.  This second law was not in conflict with the first law, but was meant to discipline the unruly children of Israel and help them to understand and live out that first law.  Think of it in terms of a parent/child relationship.  Children who understand the need to respect their parents and their siblings won't need a lot of additional household rules.  But the parents of unruly children will utilize strict rules to impose discipline in the home; curfews, mandatory chores, limits on phone or game time, etc.  The rules are not imposed for their own sake.  The purpose of the rules is to help the children learn to respect their parents, their siblings, and themselves.  At a certain point it is hoped that the rules would no longer be needed because the children understand the principles behind the rules and will conduct themselves according to those principles.

This is the problem that Jesus had with the Pharisees.  They followed the rules but cared little for the principles behind them.  "This people honors me with their lips," Jesus quotes from Isaiah, "but their hearts are far from me" (Mk 7:6, cf Is 29:13).

The Pharisees in today's reading are concerned with the laws dealing with ritual purity. Jesus reminds them (and us) of the true meaning of purity.  Nothing coming from the outside can make us impure, but only things that come from within such as unchastity, evil thoughts, greed, malice, envy and arrogance.  These are the things we need to be on guard against. The ritual purity laws exist to remind us of the need to keep our souls pure against corrupting sins.

Christians are no longer bound by the laws of Moses.  (Check out this article for more on that).  But the Ten Commandments are still in effect.  There are certain behaviors (sins) which we must not do because they are incompatible with our human dignity.  The Church also has disciplinary laws regarding when we should fast, how we are to marry, and so forth.  One may be tempted to look upon the rules of the Church today as "outdated" or even Pharisaical.  Isn't loving Jesus enough?

The answer, of course, is yes.  Loving Jesus is enough.  But what sort of love is it that pays no heed to the will of the beloved.  Jesus desires our good.  Moreover, He knows us perfectly and so He knows what is truly good for us.  He knows that we can only ever be truly happy if we have purity of heart.  How we behave and what we believe has everything to do with keeping our hearts pure.  The Pharisees' chief sin was that of hypocrisy.  Jesus desires us to be authentic believers, exhibiting union of heart, mind and body.

The Catechism teaches us that "there is a connection between purity of heart, body, and of faith" (CCC 2518). St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrate on Aug. 28, wrote of the interconnection between what we believe, how we live, and the purity of our hearts.  Faithful Christians need to believe in the Church's doctrine "so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe" (De fide et symbolo 10, 25).  

One of the most quoted quotes from this quotable saint comes from the introduction to his Confessions.  "You made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You."  There is a fabulous painting of St. Augustine by Flemish painter Phillipe de Champaigne.  In this painting, Augustine is portrayed gazing at Veritas (Truth).  On his other side, Augustine is holding his heart, which is on fire.  The flames from his heart are being drawn toward the light emanating from the Truth, and directly between them is Augustine's head, aglow with holiness.  It illustrates the unity between what we know, how we live, and what we love.

The moral law is written on our very hearts by God, for our own good.  The moral precepts of the Church are likewise taught for our benefit, so that we may know better the moral law of God and know how we ought to live.  Knowing God's truth -- and living God's truth -- leads to purity of heart, which leads to our eternal joy.  

Monday, August 24, 2015

Using Latin in the Latin Rite

There are many different Rites within the Catholic Church.  A Rite is a particular way of celebrating the liturgies and sacraments.  The great majority of Catholics in the West belong to the Roman Rite, also known as the Latin Rite.  In the East there are other Rites, including Coptic, Maronite, and Byzantine.  The greatest number of Eastern Catholics practice the Byzantine Rite.

We were fortunate in our parish of St. Mary's to recently have visiting clergy from the Greek-Ukrainian Catholic Mission of St. Basil in Charlotte celebrate the Divine Liturgy (Mass) in the Byzantine Rite for us.  Because the Byzantine Rite is quite different from what western Christians are used to, the celebration was prefaced with a brief talk by one of the Greek-Ukrainian deacons.

At one point he mentioned the fact that the entire liturgy would be celebrated in English.  I'm sure that many were relieved to hear that because it meant that they would be able to follow along with the prayers.  But there was a sense of disappointment among some.  There was an expectation that a Greek-Ukrainian liturgy would involve some Greek or Ukrainian prayers.  People were anticipating something different and particular to that culture.

Of course it makes sense that the Greek-Ukrainian Catholic Church would celebrate their liturgies in the vernacular.  After all, use of the vernacular is the norm in the Western Church.  Why should the East to be any different?  I like the vernacular.  I like being able to pray in my own language.  And as a former English major who has studied the works of Shakespeare and Milton, I know just how beautiful the English language can be.  The current translation of the Roman Missal which has been in effect since 2011 especially has some very beautiful English language prayers.

But I also understand the disappointment of those who were hoping to hear a little Ukrainian during the Byzantine Liturgy.  There is something about language which is essential to the identity of a particular culture.  This is true both inside and outside of the Church.  If you drive down the road to Cherokee, for example, you will notice all the road signs are in both English and Cherokee.  This is not because there are Cherokee who do not read English.  It is to help them preserve their culture, which is also why the Cherokee language is taught in all their schools.

I'm a big Scotophile and I like to keep up with current events there if I can.  Currently only about 1% of Scottish residents speak Gaelic.  This statistic troubles many in Scotland today, because it means a major part of their heritage is in danger of dying out.  And so, as in Cherokee, there are major efforts underway to promote the use of the Gaelic language.  The same is true for many minority language groups all over the globe.

Hebrew was chosen as the national language of Israel as a means of promoting national unity and cultural identity after the modern state of Israel was created.  This was done even though none of the Jewish people who immigrated into Israel spoke Hebrew as their native language.  The modern revival of the Hebrew language was made possible because of this concentrated effort to preserve a cultural identity.

I know several students from immigrant families from Central or South America.  A few of them are fluent in Spanish but most are not.  Their parents are fluent, but they barely know any Spanish at all.  Many of them end up taking Spanish classes in school to help them retain this important aspect of their heritage.

In all the above examples, the use of language as a cultural identifier is very important.  The same holds true when it comes to our culture within the Church.  We are Catholics of the Latin Rite.  What does it mean to be a Latin Rite Catholic who does not know a single Latin prayer?  It means part of our heritage is missing.

Second Vatican Council
The Second Vatican Council authorized the use of vernacular in the liturgy, but the same council also took great pains to make sure the use of Latin was preserved in the Latin Rite. The constitution on the liturgy which was promulgated by that council plainly states, "The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin Rite" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 36).  While recognizing that it would be beneficial for people to use their mother tongue during the readings and common prayers at Mass, this same document states, "Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them" (54).

The parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to the people would include the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Angus Dei, and even the Creed and the Lord's Prayer.  In other words, these are the parts of the Mass which the people say Sunday after Sunday and which are unchanging (except for the Gloria being omitted during penitential times of the year).  If there are any parts of the Mass that would be both easy and useful to learn in Latin, it would be these.

In 1974, Pope Paul VI sent copies of a document to every bishop in the world entitled Jubilate Deo, which contained a small selection of the Church's repertoire of Gregorian chant for the Ordinary of the Mass, chosen for its simplicity.  His hope was that every Catholic, no matter their native tongue, would know at least a minimum repertoire of Latin chant.  This would enable us to pray in unison not only with our fellow Catholics around the world who speak different languages, but also in unison with all those generations of Catholics who came before us in the past.

Today, in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the text that gives instructions on how the Mass is to be celebrated), we are reminded that, “Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin... set to the simpler melodies” (GIRM 41).

Put very simply, if you are a Latin Rite Catholic (which if you are a Catholic in the West, you probably are), then the Latin language is a part of your heritage.  It is a part of your heritage that has been neglected for the past 50 years.  But there are many signs that Latin is making a revival in the Latin Rite.  Since Pope Benedict XVI issued the letter Summorum Pontificum in 2007, there are now two recognized forms of the Mass in the Latin Rite: the Extraordinary Form, which can only be celebrated in Latin, and the Ordinary Form, which may be celebrated in the vernacular, but for which Latin is still the official liturgical language.  The more widespread use of the Extraordinary Form has helped to remind us of the Latin heritage of the Ordinary Form.

Sadly, and for reasons which we need not go into here, in the decades following Vatican II, the use of Latin became something of a shibboleth among Catholics.  Either you belonged to one group that wanted only Latin in the liturgy and preferred an exclusive use of the Latin Mass; or you belonged to another group that wanted only English and that had no use for Latin whatsoever.  Your love or disdain for Latin identified you as either a traditionalist or a progressive.  Try to sneak a bit of Latin into the Mass and you'd be accused of being a closet sedevacantist.

And here is where I am very glad to be working and worshiping with college students.  Happily, those of college age today seem to have gotten past this rather unfortunate division.  Preference for Latin or English is seen as just that -- a preference.  In my experience, most college-age Catholics have a general preference for English, as it is the language they know, but think a certain amount of Latin is interesting and even beneficial in creating a sense of piety and reverence in the liturgy.  The use of a language we don't speak or hear every day helps to differentiate our prayer time at Mass as something special and distinctive.  The fact that our student choir has on their own chosen to sing parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin (using the Gregorian melodies from Jubilate Deo) is testimony to this shift in attitude.

One other aspect of working with college students is that they arrive at campus from a variety of different places and parishes.  Their home parish may use Latin always, sometimes or never.  As a general rule, people like what they are familiar with and are uncomfortable with change.  (That is certainly true of myself!)  Some of our students may have never heard Latin at Mass before, even though they have been worshiping according to the Latin Rite their entire lives.

I have known adults Latin Rite Catholics in their 40s and 50s who have never heard Latin at Mass. To me that is a shame; like the son or daughter of an immigrant who no longer speaks the mother tongue.  It means a part of our cultural heritage as Catholics has been lost; a part of our cultural formation has been neglected.  I don't want my students to enter adulthood as Latin Rite Catholics with no experience of praying in Latin.  It it is important for Catholics to have at least some passing familiarity with basic Latin prayers and chants.  And this is why I am happy to see so many college students participating in its revival in our liturgies.

For those who are interested, here is a run-down of how our Masses on campus are generally celebrated:

  • Entrance Antiphon/Hymn: English
  • Opening Prayer: English
  • Kyrie: Greek
  • Gloria: Latin or English
  • Collect Prayer: English
  • Readings & Psalm: English
  • Homily: English
  • Creed: English
  • General Intercessions: English
  • Offertory Hymn: English
  • Prayer over the Offerings: English
  • Eucharistic Prayer: English
  • Sanctus (Holy, Holy): Latin
  • Consecration: English
  • Mystery of Faith: English
  • Lord's Prayer: English
  • Sign of Peace: English
  • Agnus Dei (Lamb of God): Latin
  • Communion Antiphon: English
  • Communion & Post-Communion Hymn: Generally English, sometimes Latin
  • Prayer after Communion: English
  • Concluding Rites: English
  • Recessional Hymn: English
In other words, only about three parts of the Mass are sung in Latin (just two during Advent and Lent, when the Gloria is omitted).  I encourage all students to familiarize themselves with these basic Latin prayers.  The text (in both Latin and English) is provided in our Order of the Mass booklets in the chapel.  Learn them, learn what they mean, and make these timeless prayers your own.  You are a Latin Rite Catholic.  These prayers are your prayers.  They are part of the great and rich heritage of the Catholic Church, a heritage which belongs to you.

Friday, August 21, 2015

To Whom Shall We Go?

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I think it would be rather nifty to have my own coat of arms.  Below those arms would be an escroll emblazoned with my motto: Domine ad quem ibimus?  That is the Latin for "Lord, to whom shall we go?"

It may seem strange to want to have a question for a motto.  Most of the time we think of heraldic mottos as something aggressive or affirming.  My grandmother's family were Armstrongs, and the motto of that Scottish border clan is Invictus Maneo, or "I remain unvanquished!"  It is typical for a motto to be a strong, affirmative statement.  So why a question?

It is because I think this just may be one of the most important questions any of us could ever consider.  To me, it ranks up there with the question, "Who do you say that I am?" which Jesus asks the disciples (Mt 16:15).  That is a vitally important question.  Each of us must make up our minds about who we believe Jesus to be.  As I wrote in my reflection last week, Christ is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Divine Son of God.  And if He is the Divine Son of God, then we really ought to be paying close attention to what He has to say.

I think that Peter's question in today's reading is just as important, especially considered in context.  If you recall  the past few Sunday's readings, Jesus has been preaching quite emphatically that to have eternal life we must eat His body and drink His blood.  A gruesome thought!  Jesus persists in reiterating that His flesh is true food and His blood true drink, using words like "Amen, amen," or "verily, verily," or "truly, truly" (depending on the translation you read).  It is painfully clear that Jesus means what He says and wants us to understand how important this teaching is.

But the disciples who heard Jesus preach said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" The gospel tells us that "many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him" (Jn 6:66).  They abandon Jesus because they could not accept what He was telling them.  All but the twelve.  (Or more accurately, the eleven.  Judas decides to betray Jesus at this time (Jn 6:71), though he remains with the Apostles).

Jesus asks the Apostles if they, too, will leave.  But  Peter answers for them all by simply saying, "Lord, to whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God."

I love Peter's answer for how it expresses both the weakness of human understanding and the strength of faith.  You can tell by these words that Peter has no better understanding of what Jesus means by "eat my flesh" and "drink my blood" than any of the other disciples who chose to abandon Christ. But while Peter doesn't understand the meaning of Jesus' words, he knows Jesus.  The difference between him and those who walked away is that Peter trusts Jesus.  He has faith.

The Catechism teaches us that faith is both a gift from God (CCC 153) and also a human act (CCC 154).  Faith can be described as a wonderful cooperation of the human intellect and the Divine will.   But sometimes our intellect and our wills can fail us.  Sometimes we may encounter difficulties in our faith.  Many Christians, especially those of a college age who are starting to come to an adult appreciation of the faith, will experience doubt -- or what they call doubt.

It is helpful to clarify the difference between true doubt and a difficulty in belief.  A difficulty is a question or a struggle to accept something.  The willingness is there, but the understanding is lacking.  A true doubt, however, is a more cynical denial of the faith.  Think of it as the difference between saying, How can this be so? and This cannot be so!  Blessed John Henry Newman once said, "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt."

It is typical to experience difficulties in your faith on occasion.  This can be a good sign that you are examining your faith and taking it seriously.  Even I must admit that from time to time, when I am praying or engaged in spiritual reading, the thought will pop uninvited into my head, "What if none of it is real?

Rather than run away from the question, I prefer to tackle it head on.  What if none of it is real?  What if Jesus was a fraud?  What if the Apostles and martyrs were wrong?  What if the scriptures are just a bunch of ancient folklore?  What if there is no heaven, no hell, no God?  Considering these questions, I can easily imagine the face of Christ looking down at me: Do you also want to leave?

It is then that Peter's question becomes so important.  "Lord, to whom would we go?"  If none of this is real, then what else is there?  If there is no God, no judgment, no heaven or hell, then what does it matter if I am good or evil?  What does it matter if I love or hate?  All that I could hope for would be to wring as much selfish pleasure out of my time on this earth as possible.

What if this physical world is the only world there is?  What if there were no spiritual goods?  No virtues, no vices, no such things as faith, hope or love?  Then what would all of our human struggling amount to?  What would there be left to strive for?  And what sense would it all make?

If Christianity is false, then to whom would we go?  There would be no one.

Christianity teaches us our proper place in the universe -- that we are not the highest beings, but we are created beings, made by an all powerful and transcendent God.  Christianity tells us that that God loves us -- not only as an anonymous whole but each of us personally.  Only Christianity tells us that God loves us so much that He entered into this creation and took on our very nature, so that He might live with us, suffer and die for us, and rise from the dead to bring us to eternal life with Him.

People don't reject Christianity because it is false.  People reject it because it is too good to be true.

Our God loves us so much that He gives us Himself to consume.  The same God who became man becomes food for us at each and every Mass, so that He may be one with us and we with Him.  You have an invitation to this feast.  Do you also want to leave?  Or will you say, with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You are the Holy One of God.  In light of your goodness, there is no one else I can follow.  There is no place else I can be."

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Wisdom or Foolishness?

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This weekend we welcome students back to WCU and begin a new academic semester.  For many students, college is the first opportunity to practice (or not practice) their faith as an adult.  Before college, attending Mass on Sunday was likely a family affair.  You went to Mass with your family because that is what your family did on Sunday.  Here on campus, mom and dad are not here to take you to Mass.  You will only go to Mass if you want to; if you take the time to find out where the chapel is, what time Mass is offered, and put forth the effort to actually go.

This is not only an issue for freshmen.  The truth is that each of us has a fundamental decision to make every day of our lives.  Do I believe that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God?  The Church tells us that He is.  Many in the world today would argue that He is not.  He was a prophet, they may say.  Or He was a good moral teacher.  But He was not divine.  That's something made up by the Church.

The problem is that if Jesus is not God then the one thing He absolutely could not be is a good teacher.  C. S. Lewis and other Christian apologists have successfully made the argument that if Jesus was not God then He must either be a liar or a mad man.  Jesus claimed to be not only the Messiah, but one with God the Father.  He claimed to be God, and a "good teacher" does not do that.  Liars and lunatics might.

But if Jesus truly is who and what the Church proclaims Him to be, that demands a definite response from us.  It means not only did Jesus Christ mean what He said, but also that He has the power and authority to make it happen.  It means everything Jesus teaches us about the Church, sin and forgiveness, repentance and mercy, justice and love, heaven and hell are all very real.

In today's gospel (Jn 6:51-58) Jesus says some very odd and even outrageous things -- things we would not expect a "good teacher" to say.  In fact, they sound more like the ravings of a mad man.  "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life."  And just in case we are tempted to take Him metaphorically, Jesus reiterates, "My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."

On the surface, this not only sounds strange, it sounds horrifying -- unless Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God.  In that case we have only one option, which is to take Him at His word. Indeed, as we shall see next Sunday, many of the disciples left at this point because they could not accept this teaching.  But the Apostles remained, led by Peter, who admittedly did not understand the meaning of Jesus' words, but had faith enough to say, "Lord, to whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68).

Having faith in Jesus Christ requires much of us.  It requires not only acceptance of the "hard sayings" of Jesus but putting them into practice in our lives.  It is not enough to know intellectually that Jesus is truly present, flesh and blood, in the Eucharist.  We must recognize the immense value of the gift He gives us and desire to receive that gift as often as we are able, and receive it worthily.  This is the importance of Sunday Mass -- not just so that we can check it off of our "good Catholic" check list, but so that we can give due worship to our Lord and accept His loving gift of Himself in the Eucharist.

The first reading today (Prv 9:1-6) speaks about Wisdom.  This is a wonderful reading for the first Sunday of a new semester, as wisdom is what every student on campus ought to be seeking.  Wisdom is nothing less that seeing the world as it is, with clarity and understanding, and living your life accordingly.  Foolishness is the opposite.  Foolishness is failure to live your life in accordance with reality.  Wisdom is personified in this reading.  She invites us to "Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!  Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding."

This is what the Church also invites you to do as you begin a new academic year.  Advance in your studies here on campus, but advance also in a deeper and more important way of understanding offered by God through the Church.  Forsake the foolishness of the world and pursue true wisdom.

It is also fitting for the start of a college semester that our second reading (Eph 5:15-20) warns us not to live as "foolish persons," who do things like "get drunk on wine" and "lie in debauchery."  These and many other temptations await you on campus.

We invite you to take a different path.  We invite you to "taste and see the goodness of the Lord," as our psalm today proclaims.

You have a choice to make.  Either Christ was a fool for claiming to be God, or you are a fool for not believing that He is.  There is no third option.

Is Jesus God? Or a liar or a lunatic?  If He is God, as the Church says He is, then He has a marvelous gift for you -- His very flesh and blood become food to nourish our bodies and souls.  "I am the living bread that came down from heaven," says the Lord.  "Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world"  (Jn 6:61).  How could we dare turn away from such a gift?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Welcome Week Events

It's time for a new semester at WCU, and Catholic Campus Ministry is excited to welcome back returning students, as well as new freshmen and transfers.  We hope that Catholic Campus Ministry can be an important part of your time here on campus.

To help you get connected with campus ministry and all we offer, we have a number of Welcome Week activities planned.  We hope to see you at one or more of these!

CCM will have a table set up at Valley Ballyhoo on the UC Lawn from 4:00-6:00pm.  Come by and say hi, fill out a student info card, and get connected with us.

Join us for Holy Mass as we celebrate our first Mass on campus of the new semester.  Our schedule for this Sunday, and for every Sunday during the semester (except Fall Break) is as follows.

  • 3:30pm - Rosary/Confession
    • We always pray the Rosary together a half an hour before Mass.  Father is also available during this time to hear confessions (Sacrament of Reconciliation).
  • 4:00pm - Mass
    • If you are interested in serving as an altar server, EMHC, or reader for this semester, or joining the choir, please email us at
  • 5:00pm - Credo
    • We have a Q&A discussion about a different aspect of our Catholic faith each Sunday after Mass.  Please come with your questions!  We usually wrap up by 6:30.
While we don't have something specific planned every day of the week, the Catholic Student Center is always open for you to come hang out, grab some prayer time in the chapel, or relax upstairs.

  • Join us for 30 minutes of silent ADORATION in the chapel from 12:00 to 12:30pm.
  • Community Table Service.  We volunteer each Tuesday afternoon at Community Table, a local food ministry in downtown Sylva.  Meet at CCM by 3:15 to ride over.  We finish up at 6:00pm.
  • 5:30pm - NEW STUDENT OPEN HOUSE!  For freshmen and new transfer students only.  Get to know one another, and learn what CCM is all about!  Then stay for...
  • 6:30pm -- SUPPER @ the CENTER.  Every Wednesday from 6:30-7:30 we serve up a free home-cooked meal to students.  Then from 7:30-8:30 one of our student peer ministers will lead you in a program or discussion to help deepen your faith.
  • Join us for 30 minutes of silent ADORATION in the chapel from 12:00 to 12:30pm. 
  • 6:00pm -- SUNSET HIKE & PICNIC.  Meet up at CCM by 6:00.  We'll carpool up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoy a sunset picnic and hike to the top of Waterrock Knob.  Picnic dinner is provided.  Bring good walking shoes and a camera!

  • 12:00-1:00pm - "Cafeteria Catholic."  Join us for lunch in the upstairs Dining Hall.
  • 5:00pm - Byzantine Divine Liturgy.  A group of Ukrainian Catholic clergy are having their annual retreat in our area, and will be celebrating the Divine Liturgy (the Eastern Catholic term for the Mass) at St. Mary's.  Those who wish to attend will leave from CCM at 5:00.  A short talk will be given at St. Mary's at 5:30, with the Divine Liturgy being celebrated at 6:00pm.

 Throughout the semester we offer Mass on campus each Sunday at 4:00pm, followed by our Credo discussion.  We also offer a free fellowship meal every Wednesday at 6:30pm.  Please join us!  In addition, we will have regular and ongoing Bible studies, discussion groups, Adoration services, retreats, and many other opportunities for you to enrich your faith and participate in our Catholic community.  Please see our calendar for a full schedule.  And consider joining our Facebook Group to stay connected.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Food for the journey

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Fans of Lord of the Rings will be familiar with Lembas bread, also known as elven waybread, the special bread given to the Fellowship of the Ring by the elves to sustain them on their journey. It was said to be more strengthening than any food made by man.

J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, steeped in the scriptures and Catholic history, so it is no wonder that the supernatural and life-giving bread he created should have Biblical precedence.  In our first reading from Mass this Sunday (1 Kg 19:4-8) the prophet Elijah journeys but a single day into the desert before he collapses, exhausted.  After he eats bread given to him by an angel of God, however, he regains enough strength not only to travel another day, but forty more days to Mount Horeb.

One of the major characteristics of the Catholic faith is the very physical nature of much of what we do and believe.  We see this in Elijah's story today.  When Elijah is exhausted in the desert, God sends him an angel, not to simply tell him to persist in faith, but to give him bread and water.  In this way both his body and his spirit are sustained.

God made man as both a physical and spiritual being.  Our great hope is that after the resurrection of the dead we may exist as God made us to be, body and soul, in the new heaven and new earth.  Since God made us as both physical and spiritual beings, it should not surprise us that God relates to us in both physical and spiritual ways.

This is the great beauty of the sacraments; that in each one God communicates His grace to us via a physical sign.  With baptism that sign is water; with confirmation it is holy oils; with marriage it is husband and wife, and so forth.  But there is one sacrament where God communicates Himself to us in such a special way that we simply refer to it as the Blessed Sacrament.  I speak of the Eucharist.

Under the species of bread and wine, those who receive the Eucharist receive the full Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.  We bring ordinary bread and wine to the altar where it is blessed by the hands of a priest, who repeats the words of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.  "This is my body, which is given up for you," and "This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant."

Writing to the Emperor of Rome in the mid-second century, St. Justin Martyr explains what the Eucharist means to the Christian people.
This food we call the Eucharist, and no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that our doctrines are true, who has been washed with the bath for the remission of sins and rebirth [baptism], and who is living as Christ commanded.  We do not receive these as common bread and drink.  For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation.  Likewise, we have been taught that the food blessed by the prayer of His word -- and from which our own blood and flesh are nourished and changed -- is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology 65-66).
Out of all the sacraments, the Eucharist alone is called The Sacrament because it most perfectly reflects the sacramental nature of Christ Himself.  In Jesus Christ, the Divine Logos became incarnate.  That word -- incarnate -- which we profess in our creed, simply means "enfleshed."  He took on flesh in order to communicate Himself to us.  The Eucharist is the extension of the Incarnation, in which Christ becomes not only flesh and blood, but flesh and blood that we can ourselves consume.

God desires to nourish both our bodies and spirits.  Moreover He desires to commune with us most intimately, to make His dwelling with us.  The Eucharist is how this is achieved.

Lembas Bread
The angelic bread given to Elijah, the manna in the desert; these were but signs of the true bread from heaven Christ offers.  Jesus is blunt about it in our reading today.  "Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died."  It sustained them, but only for a while.  The manna was the shadow.  What Jesus offers is the substance.  "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" (Jn 6:51).

In The Lord of the Rings, Lembas bread was a sign of goodness and holiness.  It was offensive to those who were corrupted by evil (Gollum refuses to eat it).  Likewise, we are taught by the Church to prepare ourselves to receive the Eucharist by remaining in a state of grace, participating in sacramental reconciliation (confession) if we have committed mortal sin, and fasting for at least an hour before we receive.  As St. Justin said above, "we do not receive these as common bread and drink."  St. Justin says the Eucharist not only nourishes us, but changes us.  "You are what you eat," as they say.  When we consume the Eucharist we consume goodness, purity and sanctity.  We consume love.

Like elven waybread, the Eucharist is food for the journey -- in this case, our journey through this life and into the life to come.  Nothing else will do to give us strength into eternity but He Who is the Living Bread.
"There is no surer pledge or dearer sign of this great hope in the new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells, than the Eucharist.  Every time this mystery is celebrated, the work of our redemption is carried on and we break the one bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live forever in Jesus Christ" (CCC 1405).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Chotki Shopping

Since my article on praying with the Eastern Christian prayer rope called a chotki (or komboskini) appeared in last week's Catholic News Herald, I've had a few people ask me where they can obtain one for their own use.  I decided to put together this post to recommend a few places I have found.

I bought my first chotki from  I like them because they are pretty low cost, and ship right away.  They offer a few different lengths, all black wool.
100 knot chotki from

When I wanted to have a chotki made from our own homespun wool, from our flock of sheep, I sent the yarn to the Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery. You don't have to send them your own yarn, though.  They also make and sell prayer ropes from wool spun from the fleece of sheep raised on their own farm.
Wool chotkis from Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery.
Fr. Voitus has told me he buys his chotkis from  They are also pretty affordable and available in black wool.
Black wool chotki from

Fr. Deacon Matthew Hanes, of the St. Basil the Great Greek-Ukrainian Catholic mission in Charlotte, has told me he orders his from St. Paisius Monastery.  They offer both Greek and Russian styles, in wool, satin, wood, semi-precious stones, and do custom work.
Greek style prayer rope, with accents, from St. Paisius
There are lots of other places to order from, however.  I don't have any direct experience with any of the ones listed below, but these are some sites I found that look like they offer some great chotkis.

First is the aptly named  They have lots of different options, good prices, sell wholesale and retail, and have some great information about their use in prayer.
100 knot prayer rope from sells them made of traditional wool as well as wooden beads. wool chotki
You can get them from the Hermitage of the Holy Cross.
Hermitage of the Holy Cross
One site I find especially interesting is The Master Beadsman, who is apparently simply a Christian man living in Ohio who really likes making prayer ropes and selling them via his blog site.  He makes Greek and Russian styles, in various lengths, to order.  So if you are looking for something custom, he may be a good person to reach out to.
Russian prayer rope from The Master Beadsman
Many of the monks and nuns at the monastery web sites referenced above (as well as others) would also be willing to make a custom chotki for you, if you don't see what you are looking for on their web site -- just ask.  That's how I got Mother Anna at the Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery to make mine.  

Of course, you can also try to make your own!  I can't tell you how many times I watched this, and other YouTube videos, to learn about the special Angelic Knot used in making these traditional prayer ropes.  I practiced for weeks, and even got to where I could make a successful knot almost half the time.  If nothing else, the learning experience allowed me to appreciate just how reasonably priced most all of these chotkis are, considering the work and prayer that goes into making each one.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Do not work for food that perishes


One difficulty many of us have is that our focus is on things that are too small.  By that I mean we often pay the most attention to things that matter least.  We fixate on the finite and temporal, when our focus should be on the infinite and eternal.

This temptation is understandable.  We are, after all, surrounded by a world which is finite and temporal.  Jesus reminds us of the existence of an eternal reality.  There is nothing in this world that will satisfy us forever; and so Jesus offers us nourishment that is, literally, out of this world.

Our first reading today (Ex 16:2-4, 12-15) opens with grumbling Israelites.  They say they would rather have died as well-fed slaves in Egypt than to be hungry in the desert with Moses.  How quickly the people turn from rejoicing at their freedom to ungrateful complaining about the rumbling in their bellies.  But the Lord hears their grumbling and provides manna from heaven.  Moses tells them, "This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat" (Ex 16:15).

One is reminded of Jesus' exhortation not to worry about the food we shall eat or how we clothe our bodies; God will take care of these needs as He provides for the birds and flowers (Mt 6:25-28).  Jesus also teaches us to ask God for "our daily bread" (Mt 6:11).  The manna was daily bread, raining down from heaven anew each day to sustain the people of God.  Just like those fed by the manna, we too must learn to trust in God for our daily needs.

Jesus was tending to the daily needs of His followers with the miraculous feeding of the five thousand we read about in last week's gospel.  But loaves and fishes can only sustain a person for so long.  The people grew hungry again and so in today's gospel reading they come to Jesus once more.

Rather than offer more to eat, Jesus tells them, "Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life..." (Jn 6:26).  Jesus calls Himself "the true bread from heaven" (Jn 6:32).  Those who ate manna hungered again, just as did those who ate the loaves and fishes.  Each is but a sign of the eternal bread Jesus offers us -- Himself.  "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger" (Jn 6:35).

Food perishes.  Money perishes.  Fame perishes.  Health perishes.  Any pursuit you make in this world is for something which perishes -- except for the pursuit of holiness.  This does not mean that you should quit your job or drop out of school to go live in a cave and eat locusts.  But it is a warning that temporal pursuits can serve to distract us from Christ, and we need to be on guard against that.  We can become so focused on the loaves and fishes that we forget to thank the One who provides them to us.

This is why the Church has always maintained the practice of periodic fasting.  Even Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days.  We fast not because food is bad.  We fast to remind ourselves that it is not the greatest good.  We do not work for food that perishes.

Bl. Alexandrina de Costa 
There have been saints who have endured long periods of fasting, surviving on daily reception of the Eucharist as their only nourishment.  The most recent example is Blessed Alexandrina de Costa (1904-1955) who lived for thirteen years consuming nothing but the Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Fasting is not just about giving up sweets during Lent.  We can fast from Facebook, smart phones, watching TV, or any other luxury we enjoy, to remind ourselves that we don't really need these things because Jesus Christ is our greatest good.  One day a week we are to fast from our labors and enjoy a day of rest, again to remind ourselves that God is our greatest good.  It is a good practice to occasionally take a retreat, to fast from the world for a few days and remind yourself of what is eternal.

When you live your life focused on the greatest good, a marvelous thing happens.  Things won't bother you as much as they used to.  You won't get worked up over little things, or as they say, "sweat the small stuff."  Because suddenly you discover that it's all small stuff in comparison to the grace of Almighty God.  You begin to view the world from the perspective of faith, hope and love.  You begin to view this passing world from the perspective of eternity.

"I am the bread of life," Jesus says.  "Whoever comes to me will never hunger."

"Lord, give us this bread always" (Jn 6:34).