Friday, November 30, 2007

The Birth of Christ

Last night I stumbled across a new piece of music called The Birth of Christ. It's a Christmas cantata by Seattle composer Andrew T. Miller. It was recorded by Anglican and Catholic choirs in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and it's narrated by Liam Neeson. It's being aired around the US during the weeks leading up to Christmas (here's the schedule). You can check out a video preview of the piece here.

It sounds like an exciting piece, and I'm looking forward to watching it in its entirety. The story of Christmas is just so fascinating -- I know that no matter how long I contemplate it, I'll never do more than scratch the surface of its beauty and mystery. So I take every chance I can get to experience someone else's take on the incredible night that changed the world forever. Here's what the composer has to say about his rationale for writing The Birth of Christ (from his website):

"The biblical chronicle of the Christmas story has always moved me. It is the tale of how God sent His son to us as a child. Most Christians know the rest of the gospels as the foundation of their faith—Christ ultimately grew to adulthood, lived a human life not unlike ours, performed miracles, gathered followers, was the example of how to live, endured many of the trials we do on earth, gave himself freely for our sins in the most selfless way and finally rose from the dead after three days, opening the gates of heaven for all who believe. The story is powerful, and has converted many just in its telling. But it has always been important for me to remember that Christ came to us as a little child, a helpless and defenseless tiny little baby. He was not born to nobility. He did not come to the throng of cheering crowds. He did not come as a conquering hero. He was born to a young and vulnerable woman and a carpenter who both said 'yes' to God’s call. He came in the manner He did, with the aid of the people He called so that all might know, as I’ve written in the conclusion of the cantata, He came for each and every one of us.

"I have likened The Birth of Christ to 'Mr. Andy’s Opus.' It has been many years in the making, but it is a story I’ve always wanted to tell through music. I have examined the scriptures and have juxtaposed them to what I feel must have been the human reaction by these very lowly and humble people to these amazing events. Bottom line, they must have been in awe and probably even a bit terrified: to encounter an angel in a dream, to receive instructions that you would conceive out of wedlock (a stoning offense in that time), seeing not just one angel, but a multitude in your field, or to encounter a few kings led by a star showing up to pay homage to an infant. These unbelievable events unfolded in this incredible tale and occurred to ordinary work-a-day folk who just responded to God’s call and said 'yes' in some way. It has been my desire to express, through the most powerful medium I know, a testament to God’s divine wisdom and power, and to share the reverence I hold for the holy people of this grand story.

"It is my great honor to have our special guest narrator, Liam Neeson, share this powerful scripture, have Catholic and Anglican choirs assembled en masse singing their hearts out, and enjoy six of the most talented soloists I know, sharing this new work with you. May it inspire you and usher in this Christmas season with a renewed sense of awe and wonder."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

World AIDS Day

December 1 is World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic. According to the latest estimates from the UN, there are 33.2 million people living with HIV worldwide, and 2.1 million people have died of AIDS this year.

To help raise a little bit of awareness about this tragic problem and the ways that ordinary people can help, I've written an article for The Catholic Northwest Progress about a recent college grad who's volunteering in Tanzania serving AIDS orphans. You can check it out here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Advent is coming

This Sunday, December 2, is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year. Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation, as we wait for the celebration of Jesus' birth on Christmas, as well as for His second coming. I've never observed Advent very seriously in the past, but I'm hoping it will be a season of growth and reflection for me this year. It looks like has some decent ideas for the Advent season. Anyway, here are a few paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that are relevant to Advent:

"The coming of God's Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for it over centuries. He makes everything converge on Christ: all the rituals and sacrifices, figures and symbols of the 'First Covenant'. He announces him through the mouths of the prophets who succeeded one another in Israel. Moreover, he awakens in the hearts of the pagans a dim expectation of this coming.

"St. John the Baptist is the Lord's immediate precursor or forerunner, sent to prepare his way. 'Prophet of the Most High', John surpasses all the prophets, of whom he is the last. He inaugurates the Gospel, already from his mother's womb welcomes the coming of Christ, and rejoices in being 'the friend of the bridegroom', whom he points out as 'the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world'. Going before Jesus 'in the spirit and power of Elijah', John bears witness to Christ in his preaching, by his Baptism of conversion, and through his martyrdom.

"When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor's birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: 'He must increase, but I must decrease.'" (CCC 522-524)

P.S. I am the king of inadvertent plays on words. The word Advent basically means "coming," but I did not have that in mind when I titled this post. I've never been a fan of puns and such, so maybe my subconscious makes me use them without realizing it sometimes just to mess with me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Praying to Saints

Note: Before I get started, I'm just going to clarify that when Catholics pray to Saints, we are not worshiping them. Worship is reserved for God alone, as the Catholic Church has always taught and will always teach. And Saints are certainly not God. They are simply people -- real, sinful people -- who sought to live lives of faith and holiness and who are now in Heaven with God.

Moving on: Jeanette asked me tonight what the point of praying to Saints is. I told her that was something I'd often wondered about myself. I tried to give her a decent answer at the time, and maybe this post will help clarify things a little more.

Many non-Catholic Christians have a big problem with the idea of praying to Saints, largely based on 1 Timothy 2:5, which says, "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." By praying to a Saint, Catholics are putting a mediator other than Christ between themselves and God, these Christians argue.

I guess now would be a good time to talk about what Catholics do when we pray to a Saint. I've already said it's not worship, but what is it? Basically, it's asking the Saint to intercede for you, to pray to God on your behalf.

If you think about it, that's really not so different from something that many Christians do all the time. We all go through difficult times in our lives, and during those times of trial it's very common to ask our friends and relatives to pray for us. Now, I've never heard anyone make the objection, based on 1 Timothy 2:5, that this practice is unbiblical. And yet it is practically identical with the practice of praying to the Saints. In both cases you are asking someone other than Christ to pray to God for you.

Of course, the reason you never hear anyone worrying about circumventing or usurping the unique mediation of Christ by asking their friends to pray for them is that asking others to pray for you is a perfectly biblical practice. It's true that Jesus is the one mediator between God and men, but He can effect that mediation however He pleases, and He allows us to participate in His mediation. Jesus has not arranged things such that we cannot intercede or mediate for one another. This is clear enough from moving just a few verses back from 1 Timothy 2:5 to 2:1, where Paul writes, "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men." Indeed, in Romans 15:30, Paul specifically asks others to pray for him: "I appeal to you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf." James is more explicit still when he tells his readers to "pray for one another" (James 5:16).

So it seems pretty clear to me -- since God inspired Paul to write both that Christ is the one mediator and that we should pray for each other -- that asking a friend to pray for you is not in conflict with 1 Timothy 2:5. And if we can ask our friends to pray for us, why not the Saints? The Saints are our friends in Heaven. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us. They're not dead -- they're more alive than us, and more closely united to God. And since "nothing unclean shall enter" (Revelation 21:27) Heaven, we know that God has made the Saints in Heaven fully righteous. Now, James 5:16 tells us that "the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects," so it seems like the Saints would be good people to have praying for you.

Praying to the Saints is not about circumventing Christ or avoiding Him or replacing Him -- it's about enlisting others who love Him and who know Him far better than we do to pray to Him along with us.

Now, when it comes to how prayer in general works, that is a mystery whose depths I have barely begun to plumb, so you'll have to give me some time if you'd ever like me to speak to that with any kind of clarity. For the time being, since I do not understand it, I must walk by faith in the amazing promises of Christ.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King

Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King, a feast that, in the current Church calendar, falls on the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quas Primas. Pope Pius XI was concerned with the many problems of the world, which he saw as stemming largely from man's rejection of the sovereignty of Christ and the fact that "the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives." He wanted to see a "restoration of the Empire of Our Lord," as he explained:

"15. This kingdom is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things. That this is so the above quotations from Scripture amply prove, and Christ by his own action confirms it. On many occasions, when the Jews and even the Apostles wrongly supposed that the Messiah would restore the liberties and the kingdom of Israel, he repelled and denied such a suggestion. When the populace thronged around him in admiration and would have acclaimed him King, he shrank from the honor and sought safety in flight. Before the Roman magistrate he declared that his kingdom was not of this world. The gospels present this kingdom as one which men prepare to enter by penance, and cannot actually enter except by faith and by baptism, which, though an external rite, signifies and produces an interior regeneration. This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.

16. Christ as our Redeemer purchased the Church at the price of his own blood; as priest he offered himself, and continues to offer himself as a victim for our sins. Is it not evident, then, that his kingly dignity partakes in a manner of both these offices?

"17. It would be a grave error, on the other hand, to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power. Nevertheless, during his life on earth he refrained from the exercise of such authority, and although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them."

The questions I think we have to keep asking ourselves are, "Is Christ true?" and "If so, what does that mean for me?" Because if Christ is true, if He died and rose again, if He is the Son of God, then He is the King, whether we like it or not. He either is or He isn't. And if He is, then He is the Standard by which all else is measured, He is our Savior, He is the Source and Sustainer of our very being.

It's hard to believe that, and it will take eternity to understand it, but the most difficult part is to submit to it. It takes great humility to submit to the sovereignty of Christ, and we can't do it without His grace. Even with His grace, none of us can do it perfectly. We will all inevitably stumble, and often. Yet we are still called to submit ourselves to Christ, to continually strive to surrender our own desires to His perfect will.

It sounds scary, and it sometimes is, but this submission to Christ is ultimately liberating. Because Christ the King is not a tyrannical dictator, but an extravagantly loving Good Shepherd Who desires nothing but the best for all of us.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI's second encyclical

Pope Benedict XVI is going to be releasing his second encyclical (kind of official letter) next Friday, and it's going to be about hope. Here's an announcement from

"Benedict XVI's second encyclical, 'Spe Salvi,' will be signed and released to the public Nov. 30, the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. The Pope's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said Thursday that the Holy Father would sign the document next Friday. The Vatican further confirmed today that the encyclical will also be released that day in eight languages, including English.

"The Holy See said 'Saved In Hope' will be presented by Cardinal Georges Cottier, retired theologian of the Pontifical Household, and Cardinal Albert Vanhoye, retired professor of New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

"As the Church prepares for the Year of St. Paul, the title, 'Spe Salvi,' refers to Paul's Letter to the Romans, 8:24: 'For in hope we were saved.'

"Hope has been an important theme in this pontificate. For example, in the homily the Pope delivered in Naples last Oct. 21 at the inauguration of the interreligious meeting for peace, he spoke of hope 11 times.

"Benedict XVI's second encyclical continues with a reflection on the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. His 2005 encyclical, 'Deus Caritas Est,' considered charity."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

. . . to everyone. I'm tired.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving is coming

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.
--Psalm 118:29

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, which means that I should take some extra time to give thanks to God for all the ways that He has blessed me. It also means that I've got two football games to play and a whole lot of food to eat. Those are great blessings in themselves.

More immediately, it means that I'm back in my hometown of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and that I'll probably see most of the people I've ever known in my life at Curly's tonight.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Gnostic Gospels

I've been reading a rather well-known book called The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, who is a professor of religion at Princeton University. The book is based on a large batch of so-called "gnostic gospels" that were discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945. The writings include texts from groups that were considered heretical by the orthodox Christian Church during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In her book, Pagels explores the theological differences between the orthodox and "gnostic" groups and the apparent reasons for them.

The book has been interesting so far. I do disagree, however, with some of Pagels's argumentation. For example, she believes that ulterior political motives were behind the development of much of orthodox Christian doctrine. Though she does not seem to base this conclusion on anything more than speculation and coincidence, she asserts it as plain fact.

Though this assumption of bad faith is irritating, The Gnostic Gospels is valuable for -- if nothing else (which is not the case) -- the window it occasionally provides into the breathtaking world of early Christianity. An excerpt from "The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp" brought tears to my eyes. Polycarp, a 2nd-century bishop, was faced with certain execution unless he renounced Christianity and honored the Roman gods:

"The governor persisted and said, 'Swear and I will let you go. Curse Christ!' But Polycarp answered, 'For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong . . . If you delude yourself into think that I will swear by the emperor's genius, as you say, and if you pretend not to know who I am, listen and I will tell you plainly: I am a Christian.'"

"Polycarp was burned alive in the public arena," Pagels adds.

What a badass. What a faith.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Chesterton's Orthodoxy and Jesus' secret

I finished reading G. K. Chesterton's book Orthodoxy today. I thought it was a great book, and one that will bear repeat readings in years to come. Chesterton is a big-picture thinker. He is sometimes given to over-generalization, but more often than not, his insights ring true. One of Chesterton's great gifts is his ability to take the assumptions and beliefs of the modern world and turn them on their heads, usually by their own logic. His reasoning is utterly rational, his sense completely common.

Anyway, I found the conclusion of Orthodoxy particularly interesting, so I've included it below. I'd heard people remark before about the phenomenon Chesterton here considers, but I'd never heard such an intriguing and appealing explanation for it proposed. Anyway, here it is:

"Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The value of work

Brothers and sisters: You know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you. Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us. In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.
--2 Thessalonians 3:7-12

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pope's personal preacher, gave a commentary on today's Mass readings that I found interesting. (It was translated and posted on I've often struggled with the question of whether there would be any real meaning in a lot of the things I could do with my life, work-wise, and it was good for me to read his perspective. Here's an excerpt:

"This Sunday's Gospel [Luke 21:5-19] is one of the famous discourses on the end of the world, which are characteristic of the end of the liturgical year.

"It seems that in one of the first Christian communities, that of Thessalonica, there were believers who drew mistaken conclusions from these discourses of Christ. They thought that it was useless to weary themselves, to work or do anything since everything was about to come to an end. They thought it better to take each day as it came and not commit themselves to long-term projects and only to do the minimum to get by.

"St. Paul responds to them in the second reading: 'We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.' At the beginning of the passage, St. Paul recalls the rule that he had given to the Christians in Thessalonica: 'If anyone will not work, let him not eat.'

"This was a novelty for the men of that time. The culture to which they belonged looked down upon manual labor; it was regarded as degrading and as something to be left to slaves and the uneducated. But the Bible has a different vision. From the very first page it presents God as working for six days and resting on the seventh day. And all of this happens in the Bible before sin is spoken of. Work, therefore, is part of man's original nature and is not something that results from guilt and punishment. Manual labor is just as dignified as intellectual and spiritual labor. Jesus himself dedicates 17 years to the former -- supposing he began to work around 13 -- and only a few years to the latter.

"A layman has written: 'What sense and what value does our ordinary work as laypeople have before God? It is true that we laypeople also do a lot of charity work, engage in the apostolate, and volunteer work; but we must give most of our time and energies to ordinary jobs. If this sort of work has no value for heaven, we will have very little for eternity. No one we have asked about this has been able to give us satisfactory answers. They say: "Offer it all to God!" but is this enough?'

"My reply: No, the value of our work is not only conferred on it by the 'good intention' we put into it or the morning offering we make to God; it also has a value in itself, as a participation in God's creative and redemptive work and as service to our brothers. We read in one of the Vatican II documents, in 'Gaudium et Spes,' that it is by 'his labor [that] a man ordinarily supports himself and his family, is joined to his fellow men and serves them, and can exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing divine creation to perfection. Indeed, we hold that through labor offered to God man is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ' (No. 67)."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Planet Earth

Over the next few weeks, the Discovery Channel is going to be showing an "encore presentation" of Planet Earth, a documentary miniseries that BBC spent an exorbitant amount of time and money to shoot and produce.

I saw several of the episodes on DVD this summer, and I thought they were wonderful. The technology, technique, and obvious care that went into making them resulted in some absolutely breathtaking results, and I don't say that lightly. The series reveals things in nature that no one had ever seen before, and I found myself appreciating God's creativity and creation more and more as I watched. The episode lineup is:

1. "From Pole to Pole"
2. "Mountains"
3. "Fresh Water"
4. "Caves"
5. "Deserts"
6. "Ice Worlds"
7. "Great Plains"
8. "Jungles"
9. "Shallow Seas"
10. "Seasonal Forests"
11. "Ocean Deep"

Anyway, do yourself a favor, check out the schedule, and watch Planet Earth.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Man for All Seasons

Jeanette and I just watched A Man for All Seasons, a 1966 film about St. Thomas More that won six Academy Awards, including best screenplay, best director, best actor, and best picture. Here's the synopsis from the box:

"In 16th-century England, the corrupt King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) betrays the Roman Catholic Church to divorce his wife and marry his latest conquest Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave). Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is then forced to choose between his principles and duty to his heretical king, who has begun executing the treasonous with increasing frequency. The historically profound battle of ideals also involves Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles), Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern), and More's valiant wife (Wendy Hiller)."

I thought it was a great movie, and it gave Jeanette and me a lot to think and talk about. If you haven't seen it, you should see it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Identity crisis in Catholic higher education

My first freelance story appeared today in The Catholic Northwest Progress, a newspaper serving the archdiocese of Seattle. It's about a lecture given recently at Seattle University about how Catholic colleges and universities can maintain or recover their distinctively Catholic identities. You can check out the article here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

More on Peter J. Gomes

Perhaps the highlight of my college career was the time when, during a Wednesday afternoon tea (yes, tea), Peter J. Gomes, Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, said to me, in reference to my thirty-plus-year-old pastel striped necktie, "I like your tie."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus

Peter J. Gomes, Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, has a new book out entitled The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good About the Good News? I haven't read it yet, but I can tell you already what the book's main weakness is -- that you can't hear Gomes speak it.

Gomes was one of my favorite professors at Harvard, largely because he was just such a joy to listen to. The best way I can explain his speaking skill is that my parents went to hear him give a talk during a parents' weekend at Harvard, after which my dad told me, "He talked for an hour and a half, and it felt like five minutes!"

I enjoyed Gomes's lectures so much that, after taking a course of his during the fall semester of my junior year, I audited his spring term course despite the fact that I had no interest in the subject matter. (The name of the course, just to give you an idea of how disgusting Harvard can be, was -- I'm not kidding -- The History of Harvard and Its Presidents.) Gomes is an old-school lecturer, and he speaks in what I've often called an affected (and inimitable) pseudo-British accent.

Now, I don't agree with all of Gomes's theology, but I have a great deal of respect for him, so I was very interested when I saw his new book the other day. Here's what the dust jacket had to say:

"Jesus came preaching, but the church wound up preaching Jesus. Why does the church insist upon making Jesus the object of its attention rather than heeding his message? Esteemed Harvard minister Peter J. Gomes believes that excessive focus on the Bible and doctrines about Jesus have led the Christian church astray. 'What did Jesus preach?' asks Gomes. To recover the transformative power of the gospel—'the good news'—Gomes says we must go beyond the Bible and rediscover how to live out Jesus' original revolutionary message of hope:

"'Dietrich Bonhoeffer once warned against cheap grace, and I warn now against cheap hope. Hope is not merely the optimistic view that somehow everything will turn out all right in the end if everyone just does as we do. Hope is the more rugged, the more muscular view that even if things don't turn out all right and aren't all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.'

"This gospel is offensive and always overturns the status quo, Gomes tells us. It's not good news for those who wish not to be disturbed, and today our churches resound with shrill speeches of fear and exclusivity or tepid retellings of a health-and-wealth gospel. With his unique blend of eloquence and insight, Gomes invites us to hear anew the radical nature of Jesus' message of hope and change. Using examples from ancient times as well as from modern pop culture, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus shows us why the good news is every bit as relevant today as when it was first preached."

Obviously, I can't extrapolate the whole message of Gomes's book from this brief summary, but I have a few thoughts on what this blurb suggests (keeping in mind that the blurb may just reflect the publisher's over-sensationalized spin). It's true that many Christians would do well to pay more attention to the radical nature of Jesus' teachings. We should always be trying to better understand and live out all that Jesus taught. But I don't like the suggestion that there must be some trade-off between focus on Jesus' message and Jesus Himself. Because Jesus was more than a teacher; He was God incarnate. He didn't come just to teach us the way; He is the way, and the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. That's a pretty important aspect of Jesus' message, if you ask me.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Coming to America

Pope Benedict XVI is making a visit to the United States next April, according to an article on Here are the logistical details from the article:

"The dates for Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to the United States were confirmed today; the Pope's visit is scheduled for April 15-20.

"Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, confirmed the dates for the six-day trip when he participated in the opening of the U.S. episcopal conference's fall meeting under way in Baltimore.

"Ban Ki-moon, U.N. secretary-general, last April officially asked the Pope to visit the United Nations.

"The Holy Father will arrive in Washington on April 15. The next day, his 81st birthday, he will receive an official welcome at the White House. Later that afternoon, he will address the U.S. bishops' conference.

"On April 17, after celebrating Mass at the Washington Nationals' stadium, the Pope will give an address at the Catholic University of America.

"Benedict XVI will be in New York on April 18, for a visit to the United Nations in the morning and an ecumenical meeting in the afternoon. His time in New York will also include Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral on April 19, the anniversary of his papal election, and a meeting with youth. On April 20, the Holy Father will visit ground zero, where the twin towers stood. That afternoon, the trip will officially end with Mass at Yankee Stadium."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Holy water and sacramentals

So as we were leaving Mass tonight, Jeanette asked me, as she has a few times before, what the deal is with holy water. She asked in reference to the bowl of water at the back of the church that people commonly dip their fingers in before making the sign of the cross as they enter or leave the church building.

I told her, helpfully, that holy water is water that has been blessed by a priest. She asked what does it do? I said holy water is what's known as a sacramental, and that I wasn't entirely clear on what exactly sacramentals do, but that I thought they were supposed to have some symbolic/reminderly value. Anyway, since no one should have to go off of my vague notions and semi-educated guesses, I told Jeanette that I would do some research about sacramentals, and holy water specifically. So here are the fruits of my research.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section on sacramentals which starts off thusly:

"Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy." (CCC 1667, quoting Sacrosanctum concilium)

I didn't quite understand all that, so I kept reading to try to find out exactly what sacramentals are and what they do:

"They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls Baptism)." (CCC 1668)

"Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it. 'For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.'" (CCC 1670, quoting Sacrosanctum concilium)

So, broadly speaking, it sounds like pretty much any material thing can be a sacramental, as long as it helps us to receive God's grace and cooperate with it. But apparently not all sacramentals are material:

"Among sacramentals blessings (of persons, meals, objects, and places) come first. Every blessing praises God and prays for his gifts. In Christ, Christians are blessed by God the Father 'with every spiritual blessing.' This is why the Church imparts blessings by invoking the name of Jesus, usually while making the holy sign of the cross of Christ." (CCC 1671, quoting Ephesians 1:3)

Exorcism is also covered in the section on sacramentals, but now we're a long way from where we started, I think. Here's what the Catechism says "in brief" about sacramentals, and then we'll get back to holy water:

"Sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life." (CCC 1677)

Jimmy Akin, a great Catholic apologist, gives this explanation of sacramentals on his blog:

"Like the other sacramentals, holy water thus serves as a means by which we can to something to signify our desire to consecrate ourselves and our circumstances to God, striking a connection with him in response to his grace and asking him to give us of his grace. They are, if you will, a kind of acted out prayer in which we and the Church implore God's blessings."

So, holy water. As I said, holy water is water that has been blessed by a priest, and it is a sacramental. And the bowl that it is kept in is properly called a font. Holy water is used for baptism (which is itself a sacrament, not to be confused with a sacramental) and, as I said, for making the sign of the cross as one enters a church. Dipping your fingers in holy water and making the sign of the cross is intended to be a reminder of baptism. A priest will also sometimes sprinkle holy water over the congregation at the beginning of Mass. You can even put some holy water from church in a bottle and take it home with you.

Anyway, to close, here is the rite of blessing said by the priest at a baptism to make water into holy water. I think it's wonderful.

"Father, You give us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of Your unseen power.

"In baptism we use Your gift of water, which You have made a rich symbol of the grace You give us in this sacrament.

"At the very dawn of creation, Your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness.

"The waters of the great flood You made a sign of the waters of baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.

"Through the waters of the Red Sea, You led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God's holy people, set free from sin by baptism.

"In the waters of the Jordan, Your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit.

"Your Son willed that water and blood should flow from His side as He hung upon the cross.

"After His resurrection, He told His disciples: 'Go out and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'

"Father, look now with love upon Your Church, and unseal for her the fountain of baptism.

"By the power of the Spirit give to the water of this font the grace of your Son.

"You created man in Your own likeness: cleanse him from sin in a new birth of innocence by water and the Spirit.

"We ask You, Father, with Your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the waters of this font.

"May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with Him to newness of life. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy

I was at Barnes & Noble today and I found a nice little hardcover edition of G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy with a foreword by one of my favorite Christian writers, Philip Yancey, who calls Chesterton the "Prophet of Mirth." I'd tried reading Orthodoxy in an online once before, but I always find it hard to read things on a computer screen for extended periods (not nearly so easy as writing . . . ) and so I gave it up a couple chapters in.

But I think that Chesterton is just such a funny and fascinating character, and I've never heard a bad thing about his book, so I want to finish reading it. Here is Chesterton's preface to Orthodoxy:

"This book is meant to be a companion to 'Heretics,' and to put the positive side in addition to the negative. Many critics complained of the book called Heretics because it merely criticised current philosophies without offering any alternative philosophy. This book is an attempt to answer the challenge. It is unavoidably affirmative and therefore unavoidably autobiographical. The writer has been driven back upon somewhat the same difficulty as that which beset Newman in writing his Apologia; he has been forced to be egotistical only in order to be sincere. While everything else may be different the motive in both cases is the same. It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it. The book is therefore arranged upon the positive principle of a riddle and its answer. It deals first with all the writer's own solitary and sincere speculations and then with all the startling style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian theology. The writer regards it as amounting to a convincing creed. But if it is not that it is at least a repeated and surprising coincidence."

Friday, November 9, 2007

Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran

I found out at Mass this afternoon that today is the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure who St. John Lateran was, or what he was dedicated to, so I decided to do a little research. Turns out I was on the wrong track. From

"Most Catholics think of St. Peter’s as the pope’s main church, but they are wrong. St. John Lateran is the pope’s church, the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome where the Bishop of Rome presides.

"The first basilica on the site was built in the fourth century when Constantine donated land he had received from the wealthy Lateran family. That structure and its successors suffered fire, earthquake and the ravages of war, but the Lateran remained the church where popes were consecrated until the popes returned from Avignon in the 14th century to find the church and the adjoining palace in ruins.

"Pope Innocent X commissioned the present structure in 1646. One of Rome’s most imposing churches, the Lateran’s towering facade is crowned with 15 colossal statues of Christ, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and 12 doctors of the Church. Beneath its high altar rest the remains of the small wooden table on which tradition holds St. Peter himself celebrated Mass."

Thursday, November 8, 2007


I thought intercessions from this morning's prayers in the liturgy of the hours were beautiful:

Let us joyfully cry out in thanks to God the Father whose love guides and nourishes his people: May you be glorified, Lord, for all ages.
Most merciful Father, we praise you for your love, for you wondrously created us and even more wondrously restored us to grace.
At the beginning of this day fill our hearts with zeal for serving you, so that our thoughts and actions may redound to your glory.
Purify our hearts of every evil desire, make us intent on doing your will.
Open our hearts to the needs of all men, fill us with brotherly love.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

St. Jerome and the Bible

Pope Benedict XVI today gave a brief teaching on the life of St. Jerome, who was born in the 340s and died in the year 420. St. Jerome is best known for translating the Bible into Latin from the original Hebrew and Greek. "To ignore Scripture," he said, "is to ignore Christ." That's a message all Christians would do well to remember. Here's the English portion of the Pope's teaching:

"In our catechesis on the teachers of the early Church, we now turn to Saint Jerome, who was responsible for the Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate. Jerome made the Scriptures the centre of his life, translating the inspired word of God, commenting upon its teaching and, above all, striving to live his life in accordance with its precepts. Born in Dalmatia in the middle of the fourth century and educated in Rome, he embraced the ascetic life and devoted himself to the study of Hebrew and Greek. After a sojourn in the East, he returned to Rome as secretary to Pope Damasus, who encouraged him in his work of translation. He then retired to the Holy Land, where he founded monasteries and a hospice for pilgrims in Bethlehem. Jerome’s entire life, his vast erudition and the spiritual wisdom born of his ascetic lifestyle were devoted to the service of God’s word, the refutation of heresy and the encouragement of Christian culture. Let us take to heart the words which this great master of the spiritual life once addressed to Saint Paulinus of Nola, and 'seek to learn on earth those truths which will remain ever valid in heaven'."

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


I had high hopes for Robert Zemeckis's "digitally enhanced live-action" film adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, which is set to be released next Friday. I read Seamus Heaney's wonderful verse translation of the poem in high school, and I got to study it in the original Anglo-Saxon at Harvard. Beowulf has a reputation for being unbearably boring -- and it is, at times -- but I found it absolutely fascinating for the most part, mainly because Beowulf is such a captivatingly cocky character, and he's got the goods to back up his numerous boasts. There's also the poem's strange mix of pagan and Christian worldviews, not to mention the pulsing power of Anglo-Saxon poetry itself. The one passage that sticks in my mind whenever I think of Beowulf is the introduction of Beowulf's primary foe, Grendel, in which the monster's biblical genealogy is explained. Here it is in Heaney's translation:

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until he gave them their reward.

Just fascinating, at least to me! I also have to include one of Beowulf's fantastic boasts:

"When it comes to fighting, I count myself
as dangerous any day as Grendel.
So it won't be a cutting edge I'll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.
He has no idea of the arts of war,
of shield or sword-play, although he does possess
a wild strength. No weapons, therefore,
for either this night: unarmed he shall face me
if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit."

Grendel, by the way, had earlier "grabbed thirty men" and dragged their "butchered corpses" back to his lair, just to give you an idea of what Beowulf was up against. What a great story.

So I had high hopes, as I say, for the film adaptation of Beowulf, but I'm a little bit nervous after seeing the trailers, which look, in my opinion, silly. Fidelity to the original text certainly doesn't seem to have been a high priority for the filmmakers. I can't make heads or tails of what many of the plot differences are between the poem and the movie, but I'm fairly certain, for example, that Grendel's mother is not portrayed in the poem as looking anything like Angelina Jolie. I tried to embed one of the TV spot videos here, but it was way too big and it looked silly, so here's a link to the movie trailers and such.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A new short-lived interest

So I've decided that if everything else falls through, I'm going to be a professional ocarinist.

I got an ocarina (a kind of funny little wind instrument that's apparently been around for thousands of years) this week at Pike Place Market in Seattle, and I'm pretty excited about it so far. It's small, it has four holes, it's in the key of F#, and it can play a chromatic scale over a range of one octave. Oh, it's also high-pitched and loud, which means that Jeanette groans every time it makes an appearance.

But I'm not discouraged. So far I've been able to fake my way through "Amazing Grace," "My Song is Love Unknown," "Joy to the World," "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," and a barely recognizable rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

With that kind of encouraging success, I probably won't lose track of my ocarina for at least another week or two.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Here we go . . .

Don't disappoint me, guys.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

If Your Mind Wanders at Mass

Thomas Howard has given the world a wonderful gift in his beautiful little book If Your Mind Wanders at Mass. Even those whose minds never wander at Mass should read it. Howard aptly leads the reader through a step-by-step tour of the Mass, pausing along the way to explain the heavenly significance of each minute detail of the liturgy.

This book would not be particularly appropriate as a primer for someone who had never been to a Catholic church before, but Catholics and non-Catholics alike who have always wondered why Catholics do things the way they do will find their appreciation of the Mass greatly increased by reading this slim volume.

I read this book during the summer and then lent it to my grandma, and it was so good that I'm going to read it again now that I've gotten it back.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The universal call to holiness

There's a brief article on about Pope Benedict's All Saints' Day Angelus address, in which the Pope reminded his audience that all people are called to sainthood. An excerpt:

"Before praying the Angelus on Thursday, All Saints' Day, with those gathered in St. Peter's Square, the Pope clarified the misconception that sainthood is only for the 'chosen few.' In fact, he added, 'to become a saint is the task of every Christian, and what's more, we could even say it's the task of everyone!'

"The Holy Father said that that the Christian is already holy, 'because baptism unites him to Jesus and the paschal mystery, but at the same time he has to become holy, conforming himself to Jesus ever more intimately.'

"He said that God invites everyone to form part of his holy people, and that the path to holiness is through 'Christ, the son, the Holy One of God: No one reaches the Father if not through him.'"

The thing to remember is that no one can become holy on their own. It is only through God's grace that anyone can become holy. God continually offers that grace to all of us, but we are free to refuse it, as most of us usually do. What we have to do, in order to become all that we were created to be, is accept God's grace and cooperate with it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

All Saints' Day

As I mentioned yesterday, today is the Feast of All Saints. I just wanted to share a very nice prayer for today from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.