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Shouldn’t churches stay open in times of crisis?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 21, March 2020 Categories: Church History
Church door
The church building as place of refuge and safety is contradicted in times of contagious disease.

In periods of social upheaval, the church has always been there for those who seek her. The idea of sanctuary is rooted in the idea that sacred spaces are universal safe houses for those in trouble. They’re also havens for sinners, the poor, and seekers of divine Presence. For these reasons, a Catholic church is consecrated territory, generally open to all comers and a welcome refuge in difficult times especially.

The church building as place of refuge and safety is contradicted in times of contagious disease, however. Where contagion is present, gathering is a dangerous thing to do. Not just for the individual, but for society altogether. This wasn’t understood in the Middle Ages during the era of plague, nor even in more recent centuries when waves of yellow fever or leprosy spread through port cities. While germ theory was proposed as early as the 11th century, and reintroduced periodically, it was largely dismissed until 1850 when Louis Pasteur did his research. Viruses were discovered in the 1890s. This better understanding of how disease spreads gives us many new tools with which to contain and defeat it.

The church isn’t exempt from the science of a pandemic. We exercise charity in acknowledging that, while Catholics are spiritually hardwired to seek the sacraments, especially in anxious times, what serves the common good is to consider the welfare of the whole community. Yes, I want access to sacraments; and I want the support of the community in faith. But there are other ways to do this besides gathering in a church building in these weeks when special caution benefits the world that God so loves.

Charity recommends we do what the saints did: enjoy “spiritual communion” until we have the privilege of the real thing. Mother Francis Cabrini took 37 sea voyages back and forth across the Atlantic during her missionary years. During those voyages, she and her sisters were without Mass or the sacraments for weeks or even months. She wrote often about this deprivation: “We believed we would arrive in time to celebrate the Feast of the Patronage of Saint Joseph; instead we have to spend it at sea, without Mass, without Communion…. Meanwhile, the view continually before our eyes, the work of the One whom we so much desire to receive into the small sanctuary of our souls, serves as preparation for a worthy Communion.”

Perhaps this time of austere fasting from even the consolation of the sacraments will prepare us for a more worthy communion soon.

Scripture: Matthew 10:27-32; 12:1-8; John 14:1-6; 15:1-5; 17:1-19

Books: To the Ends of the Earth: The Missionary Travels, by Francis X. Cabrini (Center for Migration Studies, 2001)

The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, by Monika Hellwig (Sheed & Ward, 1992)

Who are the Fourteen Holy Helpers?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 13, October 2019 Categories: Church History,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints
The Holy Helpers became an established set during the Black Plague epidemic of Europe.

You see them in art, though you may not know their names. The Helpers were a collection of saints from antiquity popularly invoked in 14th century Germany. These individuals weren’t linked by history or geography; like, say, Saint Charles Lwanga and companions, martyred together in Uganda. The Holy Helpers became an established set during the Black Plague epidemic of Europe—since, presumably, the more intercessors you have against plague, the better.

Alphabetically, the Fourteen Holy Helpers are: Achatius, Barbara, Blaise, Catherine of Alexandria, Christopher, Cyriacus, Denis, Erasmus, Eustachius, George, Giles, Margaret of Antioch, Pantaleone, and Vitus. Only half the saints on this list are passably familiar today.

The symptoms of plague influenced the selections for this club. A plague victim could expect the following: blackened tongue, parched throat, violent headache, fever, and boils on the abdomen. Victims became delusional and died within hours. The furious onset of plague made it unlikely the afflicted would have final sacraments. Just another reason to have the Holy Helpers in your corner.

The chaos that plague evoked was comprehensive. Animals died, whole towns perished, the social order collapsed. So why not invoke Saint Blaise, still acclaimed for his work on ills of the throat; or Saints Achatius and Denis, both patrons of headache sufferers? Saint George protected domestic animals, and Saint Erasmus guarded abdominal health. Saint Eustachius was good for family trouble, and Saint Giles the go-to guy for plague and a good confession. Saints Barbara, Catherine, and Christopher were patrons in instances of sudden death. In addition Christopher, the traveler’s saint, also warded off plague. 

Just for good measure, Saint Pantaleone protected physicians, and Saint Margaret promised safe childbirth. Since Saint Vitus is the patron of epileptics, it appears plague victims’ eventual irrationality was lumped in with the symptoms of another disorder poorly understood. The most curious name on the Helpers list is Cyriacus, invoked against temptation. In times of epidemic, looting was rampant and desertion by family members common. One might well be tempted under such conditions.

While the Fourteen Holy Helpers still have a following in Europe, only one parish in the United States is named for their contribution today. We might wonder: if we were to choose a pack of saints as guardians for our times, who would those helpers be?

Scriptures: Psalm 27; Romans 8:18-27; Hebrews 5:7; 7:25; Ephesians 6:18; James 5:13-18

Books: The Fourteen Holy Helpers, by Bonaventure Hammer, OFM (TAN Books, 2009)

Fearless: Stories of the American Saints, by Paul Boudreau and Alice Camille (Franciscan Media, 2014)

Are parishes necessary?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 13, October 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History
While the gathering was essential to becoming the Body of Christ, registering for membership and weekly envelopes wasn’t the point.

Christianity existed well before the present parish system. Before there was a church building on the corner—with its Mass schedule, programs, pastor, and support staff—the followers of Jesus still managed to preach the gospel and share Eucharist. So technically, the answer is no: the parish structure as we know it is not essential. But if by parish you mean a defined and stable community that assembles for worship and embraces a certain responsibility for one another, the answer is yes: such a community is vital to the fabric of Christian life. 

It’s helpful to distinguish Christian faith from an individual spiritual practice. The goal of Christianity isn’t personal enlightenment, getting your act together, or building a satisfying moral ethos. From the beginning, Jesus chose to gather a community of disciples to live with him, share resources in common, and learn his teachings. There was never a time when Christian life was envisioned as a set of principles to live by that could be adopted and practiced on your own terms. From the first generation of the church, believers met in each other’s homes, prayed together, and shared what they had with those in need.

The gospel teaches how to live responsively with others. Loving our neighbors and enemies too, forgiving offenses, welcoming strangers, caring for the unfortunate—we engage these actions in service of others. Our faith is proven out by how we treat others. “Faith without works is dead,” says the Letter of James. Onlookers of the early community could rightfully say: “See how these Christians love one another.” No one was ever quoted as saying: “See how these Christians go to church.” While the gathering was essential to becoming the Body of Christ, registering for membership and weekly envelopes wasn’t the point.

The pre-parish house churches were more intimate, and perhaps more attractive, than today’s sprawling parishes which can feel alienating especially to newcomers. Meeting in homes was also necessary for a community that was vaguely suspect—and that dove into the catacombs when later judged to be outright criminal. Public worship, in buildings established for this purpose, was the gift (and in some ways the curse) of Christianity’s legality under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. As the nature of community in our media age is transformed, how we are church tomorrow will doubtless evolve too.

Scriptures: Matthew 4:18-22; 25:31-45; 26:26-28; Luke 24:13-35; John 15:11-17; 18:20-26; Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 1 Corinthians 12:1—13:13; Ephesians 3:14-22; 4:1-16; James 2:14-18; 1 Peter 2:4-5

Books: We Are All One: Unity, Community and Commitment to Each Other, by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. (Twenty-Third Publications, 2018)

A New Way to Be Church: Parish Renewal from the Outside In, by Jack Jezreel (Orbis Books, 2018)

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What exactly is the Easter duty?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 15, June 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Sacraments

The Easter duty

The Easter duty is again viewed properly as a minimal requirement rather than a recommendation.

The Easter duty has seen some flux in church tradition. The Eucharistic Precept, as it’s formally called in the list of Church Precepts, was conceived in the 6th century as a way to ensure that the Sacrament of Holy Communion wouldn’t be neglected by the faithful. Early church councils enforced regional versions of the precept, which in one form mandated receiving communion three times annually: at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reduced the mandate to once annually at Easter time, widening its application to the whole church. The Council of Trent and the Code of Canon Law restated this obligation. Ironically, the attempt to safeguard reception of the Eucharist by insisting on minimal participation had the opposite effect. Clergy preached on the evils of taking communion in a sinful state a little too effectively. Churchgoers developed a fear of receiving the Eucharist “unworthily.” Many were convinced they could never be in the proper state of grace to merit the privilege. Add to that the phenomenon of what we might call “mortal-sin creep”: in the hands of a number of confessors, venial sins got an automatic upgrade to fatal status.

It wasn’t until the 20th-century arrival of Pope Pius X, “the pope of frequent communion,” that Catholics returned to the sacrament more regularly. The Easter duty is again viewed properly as a minimal requirement rather than a recommendation.

What hasn’t always been clear in the Easter duty is the definition of Easter. Technically Easter is not a day on the church calendar so much as an Octave (eight-days-long feast) contained within a seven-week celebration. The latest Code of Canon Law (1983) defines the fulfillment of the Easter duty to the time from Palm Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. This period, from Holy Week through the Easter Season, offers an eight-week window to meet the obligation.

However, in the United States, the Eucharistic Precept can be fulfilled from the First Sunday of Lent until Trinity Sunday. Lent adds an additional five weeks; the time from Pentecost to Trinity Sunday, another week. Altogether, this opens 14 weeks of the church year to fulfillment of the Easter duty.

Many Catholics are under the impression that the Easter duty also requires going to Confession. While receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation annually is certainly a good idea, it’s not part of the requirement.

Scripture: Psalm 119 (In praise of precepts and instructions); Proverbs 1:2-7; 4:13; 8:33; 10:17; 23:23; Mark 14:22-24; Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:14-20; John 6:27, 34- 35, 48-59; Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 11:23-27; 14:26; 1 Timothy 1:5

Books: 101 Questions & Answers on the Eucharist, by Giles Dimock, OP (Paulist Press, 2006)

The General Councils: A History of the Twenty-One Church Councils from Nicaea to Vatican II, by Christopher Bellitto (Paulist Press, 2002)

Whoever came up with a feast called “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe” to end the church year?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 17, May 2019 Categories: Church History
Christ the King
As long as Christ reigns, princes of the world are assured no more than a season of power.

The short answer is Pope Pius XI in 1925. The long answer concerns why he did it. It helps to know the situation of his time. Before Italy became a sovereign nation in the late 1800s, popes had ruled over actual geographical territory for centuries. The papal states were erased permanently with the fall of Rome in 1870, leaving then-Pope Pius IX a prisoner of the Vatican. Four popes later, the so-called “Italian Question” was still unresolved. What tangible territory, if any, could the Roman Church claim?

At the time of Pius XI’s election, Mussolini was in power. The new pope surprised the world by emerging on the balcony of St. Peter’s to offer his first blessing urbi et orbi: “to the church and to the world.” No pope had done this since 1870. It signaled his papacy’s willingness to engage as a force in world affairs. Pius XI was convinced the church had to possess some clearly defined temporal power to operate effectively.

Negotiations with Mussolini’s government took place in back channels, resulting in the Lateran pacts of 1929. These defined the Holy See’s independence from Italy, creating the tiny state of Vatican City as a political entity. The pacts included a small financial concession from the Italian government for the loss of the papal states. It defined relations between Vatican City and Italy for the future.

Mussolini had imagined the agreements left him with the upper hand over a subordinated church to which he’d thrown a modest bone. When Pius later attacked fascism in a bold encyclical, Mussolini was caught off guard. That a librarian-cleric-turned-pope could be a public force to be reckoned with hadn’t figured in the dictator’s plans. He might have paid more attention to Pius’ urbi et orbi blessing. And to the institution of the Feast of Christ the King early in his papacy.

Proclaiming Christ as King was, to Pope Pius XI, a clarification of the relationship between the church and temporal affairs. Though men like Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler ascended to seats of worldly domination in Pius’ generation, the throne of Christ superseded their grasp. As long as Christ reigns, princes of the world are assured no more than a season of power. We as church continue to affirm this truth on the last Sunday of every church year.

Scripture: Pss. 93, 95-99; Isaiah 9:5-6; 43:15; Zephaniah 3:15; Matthew 2:1-6; 4:17; 27:37; Luke 23:42: John 18:33-37; Timothy 4:1; 2 Peter 1:11; Revelation 1:5

Books: The Liturgical Year, Vol. 3: Sundays Two to Thirty-Four in Ordinary Time, Adrien Nocent (Liturgical Press, 2013)

The Popes: Histories and Secrets, by Claudio Rendina (Seven Locks Press, 2002)

Why do we have Knights of Columbus?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 12, April 2018 Categories: Church History
Knights of Columbus
Over a million Knights worldwide put their nearly $100 million in annual contributions toward papal charities and projects. Tens of millions of service hours annually are donated by members to their local communities.

The first time you see those guys with the swords and feathered caps march up the aisle of a church, you might well wonder: what does this have to do with Catholicism? The Knights’ history begins in 1882 with Father Michael McGivney, a diocesan priest in New Haven, Connecticut. McGivney had two concerns: the strong attraction of local youth to secret societies like the Masons, and the number of families struggling with the loss of their breadwinner. The Knights of Columbus were created to address both needs: a Catholic fraternal society offering an insurance policy to support families in times of loss.

McGivney chose Christopher Columbus as the society’s patron, a strong symbol of the Catholic contribution to our national story. This was a calculated choice in an era when Catholic immigrants were far from welcome, and Protestant societies like the American Protective Association questioned Catholic patriotism. By 1905, the Knights could be found in every state of the union and beyond. A powerful sense of ritual enabled its immigrant members to assimilate a new identity, avoid shrinking into ethnic particularity, relinquish old world ties, and affiliate with the story of America. The K of C soon became and remains the largest organization of Catholic laity in the world.

The Knights’ activities evolved along with the nation’s needs. In generations when the church faced prejudice, the Knights studied bias in the press and politics. When U.S. troops needed respite that was safe and wholesome, the K of C provided “Huts” where every soldier was welcome, and everything was free. After the First World War, the Knights sponsored college scholarships and night schools for veterans. In 1922, a K of C Racial Contribution Series published monographs by W.E.B. DuBois, George Cohen, and Frederick Franklin Schrader about the respective contributions of Black, Jewish, and German citizens to the United States.

After the Second Vatican Council, the Knights reorganized with a strong social justice component. Over a million Knights worldwide put their nearly $100 million in annual contributions toward papal charities and projects. Tens of millions of service hours annually are donated by members to their local communities. The K of C still run a well-respected insurance company. All this, and swords too.


Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 14:28-29; 16:11-12; 24:17-22; 27:19; Isaiah 10:1-2; Malachi 3:5; Acts of the Apostles 6:1


Patriotism and Fraternalism in the Knights of Columbus, by Christopher Kauffman (Crossroad Publishing Co., 2001) 

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism, by Douglas Brinkley and Julie Fenster (Harper Perennial, 2007)

Why do older folks keep quoting the Baltimore Catechism?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 12, April 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History
Baltimore Catechism
The revised Baltimore Catechism of 1941, which is the one folks of a certain age love to quote, arrived on the scene in three versions: for very young children, those receiving First Communion, and adults.

U.S. Catholics brought up between 1885 and the Second Vatican Council in 1964 learned their religion lessons from this ubiquitous text. The concept of a catechism—in Q&A format reviewing doctrine and belief—is attributed to Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther’s invention worked so well for the Reformation that the Catholic Church embraced the catechism as an educational tool for the next four centuries. Two Jesuits, Dutchman Peter Canisius and Italian Robert Bellarmine, wrote influential catechisms in the following century. These were joined by French, Spanish, English, and Irish versions. The proliferation of national catechisms ignited debates on the need for a universal text. Until the 20th century, no such document was attempted.

As the U.S. church coalesced under Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore in the late 18th century, the need for an American catechism became apparent. Immigrant Catholics were learning their faith from a multiplicity of foreign texts. “The Carroll Catechism” (sponsored but not written by the Bishop) was based largely on catechisms from England, embracing the introductory questions familiar to anyone who remembers the final text: “Who made you?” and “Why did God make you?” In use through the 19th century, the Carroll Catechism was never mandatory; it merely joined the European texts preferred by local bishops.

American bishops argued for a catechism until the Third Plenary Council, which finally produced a serviceable version in 1885 under Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore. Known by the unwieldy title A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Prepared and Enjoined by the Order of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, it ran 72 pages, included 421 questions and answers, and was organized in groupings covering the Creed, Sacraments, and Commandments.

Almost immediately, this effort was labeled an educational and theological failure, incomprehensible to children, dull, and monotonous. Among its problems was the lack of priority assigned to beliefs. (Incongruously, a single question addressed the Resurrection, central to our faith, and that weakly: “On what day did Christ rise from the dead?”) Yet for fifty years it endured, before receiving a considerable revision. The revised Baltimore Catechism of 1941, which is the one folks of a certain age love to quote, arrived on the scene in three versions: for very young children, those receiving First Communion, and adults. After the Second Vatican Council, faith formation took another direction, and the Baltimore Catechism became a footnote of history.


Exodus 24:12; Proverbs 1:1-7; Wisdom 3:11; Isaiah 2:3; Mark 4:2; Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 14:6; Ephesians 6:4; 1 Timothy 1:5


Pride of Place: The Role of the Bishops in the Development of Catechesis in the United States, by Mary Charles Bryce (The Catholic University of America, 1984)

The Catechism Yesterday and Today: The Evolution of a Genre, by Bernard L. Marthaler, O.F.M.Conv. (Liturgical Press, 1995)

Why is prejudice against Catholics called “the deepest bias in the history of the American people”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 04, May 2017 Categories: Church History
Anti-Catholic prejudice
The spirit of nativism arose in some Protestant enclaves, as migrating waves from historically Catholic countries arrived on “their” shores.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.—not a Catholic—made the oft-quoted assertion. It acknowledges that England rallied to Protestantism with the establishment of its national church, and British mistrust of Rome was imported to the New World. So few Catholics came to the colonies (35,000, or 1% of the population by 1790) that no threat seemed apparent. Catholics kept to themselves in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The 1800s, however, saw a century of massive immigration. The spirit of nativism arose in some Protestant enclaves, as migrating waves from historically Catholic countries arrived on “their” shores. Catholicism gained an official foothold with the appointment of John Carroll as Bishop of the new See of Baltimore. Carroll put an emphasis on opening seminaries and schools, to create a homegrown, educated leadership and laity capable of engaging the national conversation. The schools attracted religious orders from Europe to staff them, and as convent schools sprung up in the Northeast and Midwest, nativist alarms grew louder. 

A church was burned in Charlestown, Massachusetts, followed by two more in Philadelphia. Convents and rectories were likewise visited with arson. A visiting papal nuncio was burned in effigy in many cities. In Indiana, Mother Theodore Guerin’s sisters were spat upon in the streets and denied the customary store credit. Wherever Katharine Drexel purchased land for schools, she typically worked through agents so the sellers didn’t know the buyer was Catholic.

Nativist groups assumed names such as the “United Sons of America” in 1844 and “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in 1849. The latter became known as the “Know-Nothings” for their secrecy about their membership. Future U.S. saints including Guerin, Drexel, Philippine Duchesne, John Neumann, Marianne Cope, and Frances Cabrini all reported dealings with Know-Nothings and their offshoots. Finally, the most aspiring opposition group, the American Protective Association, was founded in 1887. APA members swore not to hire Catholics, enter into business with them, or elect them to public office. They sought to curtail immigration to stanch the Catholic population, and falsified scandalous documents from the pope or bishops to perpetuate fear of Rome. At its height in 1894, a million Americans were on the rolls of the APA, and the group controlled local governments in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Kansas City.

The APA fizzled by 1911; by 1915, a reconstituted Ku Klux Klan added anti-Catholicism to its principles. The story of U.S. bias has hardly reached its end.

Books: Documents of American Catholic History – John Tracy Ellis (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987)

The Party of Fear – David Bennett (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988)

Why does going to Mass on Saturday night “count” to fulfill the Sunday obligation?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 04, May 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Liturgy
Saturday evening Mass
The Hebrew definition of a day is measured from one desert sundown to the next.

Plenty of folks, including my Dad, have viewed the “Saturday Five” Mass as an unwelcome innovation. It’s been decried as one more Vatican II accommodation to flabby Catholicism: dumbing down our vigorous commitment to the Precepts of the Church. Most decriers would be surprised to hear that a prior evening anticipatory Mass was recommended and defended by 4th-century heavyweights including Augustine and Jerome. Where does the idea come from?

The fifth verse in the Bible declares: “Evening came, and morning followed—the first day.” The phrase is repeated after each of the first six days of creation, giving rise to the Hebrew definition of a day as measured from one desert sundown to the next. Examples in both Testaments testify that time makes a significant shift at sundown: the Temple is closed as shadows lengthen, or crowds bring their sick to Jesus as night falls. Even Easter is counted as “the third day” when the women approach the tomb under cover of darkness.

To be on the safe side in observing erev (Hebrew “evening”), rabbis say wait for three stars to appear in the sky. When you think about it, the concept that the a.m. (ante meridiem, Latin for “before noon”) period begins at midnight is not much more than a decision. The day has to start somewhere.

Jewish practice carries over in the anticipatory Mass for Sunday, or the Vigil Mass of a feast. In 1969, Paul VI wrote that ''the observance of Sunday and solemnities begins with the evening of the preceding day.” Although this was a moto proprio (personal papal initiative), it built on formal teaching issued two years earlier granting permission for the anticipatory Mass. It also acknowledged what the Liturgy of the Hours had promoted for centuries: a Sunday celebration lasting from Evening Prayer on Saturday night until Evening Prayer on Sunday.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law notes that “assist[ing] at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass." (no.1248) The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass. The precept … is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.” (no.2180)

Scriptures: Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; Leviticus 23:5, 32; Nehemiah 13:19; Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 4:40; 2 Peter 1:19

Books: Celebrating the Easter Vigil – Rupert Berger, Hans Hollerweger, eds. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1983)

Let Us Pray: A Guide to the Rubrics of Sunday Mass – Paul Turner (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012)

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With the recent opposition to Muslim immigrants, I wonder: Were Catholics always welcomed here?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 01, April 2017 Categories: Church History
The intention of the Know-Nothing Party was to curb the Catholic population—which required keeping the Irish, Polish, Italians, and half the Germans from emigrating. Image: New York Times.

Definitely not. The original American Dream didn’t include “Romish” or “Popish” adherents. In pre-colonial times, of course, a strong Catholic presence seemed likely. Of the three powers claiming New World territory, Spain was officially Catholic, with church and state operating in unison. Spanish regions such as Florida, Texas, the Southwest, and California were colonized by soldiers and missionized by priests almost seamlessly. France also exported Catholicism by means of Jesuit missionaries throughout the Louisiana Territory. 

However, the English presence in the Northeast assumed control of the American narrative in generations leading up to the Revolution. The Mayflower and subsequent ships brought all manner of Christian sects seeking freedom from the Catholic influence. Except for Maryland, the colonies were decidedly Protestant.

British law left its mark on the colonies. Public Mass was forbidden. So were Catholic schools. Catholics in Maryland were obliged to send their children to Europe for an education, since local schools were predominantly run by ministers whose biases were expressed in classroom worship and the curriculum. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington had to request special permission to permit Lafayette and his men access to priestly ministry. After independence was declared, only one Catholic signature was affixed to the document: Charles Carroll, whose brother John would become the first U.S. bishop.

Opposition didn’t disappear after the new country was launched. The Know-Nothing Party was a secret society established a half-century later. Adherents received their peculiar name for their refusal to admit any knowledge of their organization. Their intention was to curb the Catholic population—which required keeping the Irish, Polish, Italians, and half the Germans from emigrating. They lobbied for a 21-year ban on immigration. Members were responsible for church, rectory, and convent burnings, and published scandalous accusations against church leaders. They also launched a presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, in 1856. The Know-Nothing Party was replaced by the American Protective Association, which pledged to keep Catholics out of elected office, to curtail immigration, and to lengthen the period before naturalization. At its height, the APA had more than a million members and was influential until 1911.

Scriptures: Leviticus 33-34; Exodus 15:15; Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Job 31:19-22; Jeremiah 7:5-7; Malachi 3:5; Matthew 25:31-46

Books: The American Catholic Experience – Jay P. Dolan (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985)

American Catholicism – John Tracy Ellis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)

How did the veneration of relics get started?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 29, November 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Prayer and Spirituality
Mother Teresa relic
A relic of Saint Teresa of Calcuttaa drop of her bloodat St. Ita Catholic Church in Chicago.

A relic is an object kept in tribute to a holy person. Some relics are body parts such as bone chips or teeth. Others are items once belonging to the person, most often snips of clothing. Catholics aren’t alone in collecting relics. Other religions like Buddhism employ them. People of faith backgrounds that permit it keep cremains of loved ones in an urn on the mantle (See here for Vatican instruction on Catholic burial, cremation). I have a shirt that belonged to my dad, which I still wear. Relics are a traditional way of keeping in touch with someone special.

Catholic relics are as old as the church. Martyrdom was a frequent if not typical cause of Christian death. The faithful collected the martyrs’ remains, often in pieces, for secret burial in places like catacombs. When available, the instrument of death was spirited off as well. Think: relics from the True Cross. Christians gathered at martyrs’ tombs to celebrate Eucharist. When the persecutions finally ceased, churches were erected on the gravesites. Christians considered burial near a martyr a privilege. A tug-of-war over these bodies became typical; some were exhumed and re-interred on the properties of those who could afford it. In the Middle Ages, Crusaders pilfered lots of relics and carried them to Europe.

Relics were catechetically useful. They spurred interest in the saint whose virtues might be imitated. In 410, a council in Carthage ruled that saints’ shrines had to contain authentic relics or be destroyed. In 767, a Nicaean council determined that every altar must contain a relic or Mass could not be celebrated on it. This decree echoes the original practice of celebrating Mass on the graves of martyrs and is upheld in current canon law (no.1237). Exceptions are made today for portable altars such as those used in wartime.

Selling relics has always been forbidden. Church law says significant relics can’t even be moved around without express permission from the Vatican (no. 1190).

Attributing magical powers to such items is considered an abuse, but the tendency to be superstitious about holy objects is not unknown in the modern church. From the Holy Grail to the Shroud of Turin, the curious and the credulous will always find a less than edifying fascination with such objects. Church teaching draws a distinction between proper and improper veneration. Worship belongs to God alone. Even if a saint should appear suddenly in an apparition, human honor is the limit of our tribute.

Scripture: The Bible regards holiness as a divine attribute communicable to people, places, and things (e.g. Moses’ shining face, the Ark and its sacred utensils, the Temple’s Holy of Holies.) The topic of relics, specifically, is not treated. But see 2 Kings 13:20-21; Mark 5:25-34; Acts 5:12-15

Books: Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics – Thomas Craughwell (New York: Image Books, 2011)

Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe – Charles Freeman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)

What can we expect from the Vatican Commission on women deacons?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 11, September 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Clergy
Women of the early church
What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were.

The Commission was formed to address a question Pope Francis frankly admits he doesn’t have the answer to: can women be deacons? What the Commission will do is study the history of female deacons in the church. What it won’t do is determine what the Pope will do with the information. As some will recall from 20th-century study commissions on birth control and women’s ordination to the priesthood, popes are free to reject the findings of such commissions and go their own way. The guy in Peter’s Chair gets to make the call.

Which is not to say the appointment of this commission is unimportant. Earlier popes, including most recently John Paul II, not only rejected ordained ministry for women at any level: John Paul emphatically said the church has no authority to ordain women. By calling a commission together, Francis suggests that the church may find such authority buried in historical precedent.

What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were. The record is clear, from Paul’s letters to church history, that the church employed female deacons as early as the year 55. Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (not deaconess) in Romans 16:1. In 1 Timothy 3:8-12, after a description of what makes for a good male candidate for diaconate, the letter states: “Women, similarly, should be dignified ... temperate and faithful … .” The next sentence continues the description of the ideal deacon. It’s evident both male and female candidates made viable deacons.

What the Commission will seek to determine is whether women deacons were “ordained” or “installed” to their office. It makes a difference to the sacramental character, if any, of their service. Here, lines are drawn in the sand. Some scholars insist the rites of diaconate for men and women were identical as evidenced by existing materials. Others disagree. Still others say it doesn’t matter whether the rites were the same; what matters is how they were understood. The differences in service rendered by male and female deacons are less clear to some scholars. Others question whether past practice must dictate present needs. A bishop was once required to be “the husband of one wife,” according to 1 Timothy 3:2. That’s no longer true. The church evolves. For the moment, it’s up to Francis: is it time for the church to restore the women’s diaconate? And how?

Scriptures: Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:2, 8-12

Books: A New Phoebe: Perspectives on Roman Catholic Women and the Permanent Diaconate – ed. Virginia K. Ratigan and Arlene A. Swidler (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1990)

Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate – Phyllis Zagano (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)

Women Deacons? Essays With Answers – Yves Congar, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

Who were the women at the cross?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History

Who were the women at the cross?

The women who were present at the crucifixion of Jesus are an intriguing mystery. Several were named Mary. In the shared tradition of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the women don’t approach the cross. They stand "at a distance," probably for the usual reasons: Women tried to be invisible in public. And they would have reason to fear their treatment by Roman soldiers.

Mark, who writes first, doesn’t give us a precise number of how many women looked on from a distance. He names only three: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. While not an original disciple, Mark offers an account reputed to be from Peter. Only John's late gospel records specifically the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus. All the women there, according to Mark, had been with Jesus since Galilee.

The names James and Joses provide a clue about one of the Marys at the cross. These men are mentioned elsewhere in Mark among four "brothers of Jesus"—possibly cousins of some degree. This makes their mother an “aunt” of Jesus, present to comfort his mother. Mary may have been a family name, the way I have four relatives named Paul. John’s account lists a Mary identified by her husband Clopas rather than by sons. Both Marys could be the same person.

Like Mark, Matthew references four brothers/cousins of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. In Hebrew, "Joseph" and "Joses" are the same name. At the crucifixion, Matthew mentions James and Joseph as sons of a certain Mary. Matthew verifies the presence of Mary Magdalene and also the mother of Zebedee’s sons James and John. To harmonize Mark and Matthew’s narratives, Mark’s Salome is often identified as Zebedee’s wife.

In Luke’s crucifixion story, the Galilean women are described among "acquaintances" of Jesus standing at a distance. None are named. 

John locates the women directly at the foot of the cross. His list includes the mother of Jesus, his mother's sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Without punctuation in the Greek, however, it’s not clear whether Mary wife of Clopas IS the sister of Jesus' mother, or two separate women. John says Jesus gives his mother into the care of a beloved disciple. Tradition claims this is John, making him the lone male disciple present. Other scholars identify Mary Magdalene as the beloved disciple who took Mary home, since only women are known to have remained near the cross.

Scripture: Mark 6:3; 15:40-41; 16:1; Matthew 13:55; 27:55-56; 28:1; Luke 23:48-49, 55-56; 24:1-11; John 19:25-27; 20:1

Sources: The Characters of the Crucifixion – Joseph Fichtner, OSC (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000); The Passion and Death of Jesus (DVD and audio CDs)– Raymond Brown (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press/ Ewloe Clwyd, Wales: Welcome Recordings, 2015)

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I've been told Catholic devotion to saints contradicts what the Bible says about graven images.

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 15, June 2016 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Golden calf

Let's talk about that. Someone knocks on your door and presents you with some Bible passages: Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10. They advise you to take down your Madonna and Child statue and to stop wearing your St. Anthony medal. Does the Bible view these objects as dangerous or even blasphemous?

In the first of the Ten Commandments, the passage reads: "You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them." This command has been interpreted in Orthodox Judaism as a complete ban on image-making, even in art. Muslims also ban images of any living creatures, although the Qur'an does not. Protestant founders John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli forbade the use of religious images specifically. Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists view religious statues, stained glass images, and icons as blasphemous. This battle has been actively engaged at many points in church history. Churches have been destroyed, windows smashed, art burned because some saw such images as contradicting the First Commandment.

Iconoclasm, as image-busting is called, is not just a religious phenomenon. In the ancient world, smashing the statues of a previous ruler was often a political maneuver more than a religious reform. When modern terrorist groups destroy religious artifacts that are also culturally significant sites, it's unclear whether the destruction is about restoring religious purity or asserting control.

Biblically, Moses did destroy the Golden Calf permitted by his priest brother because it imitated religious practices that predated the religious movement Moses was attempting to establish. But later, Moses commands that a bronze serpent be made to heal the people—a beneficial image, but still an image. Still later, King Hezekiah will have the bronze serpent destroyed because the people have begun to worship it. The message is clear: it's not art that God doesn't like. It's the use of idols that limit the idea of divinity or divert a believer's fidelity away from the one God of Israel.

I've rarely met a Catholic in danger of idolatry in relationship to images of the Sacred Heart or devotion to a patron saint. If religious images assist you in prayer or widen your appreciation of divine mysteries, then use them. If they interfere with or narrowly define your sense of wonder, let them go.

Scriptures: Exodus 20:4-6; 32:1-35; Leviticus 26:1; Numbers 21:9; Deuteronomy 4:15-24; 5:6-10; 1 Kings 12:26-31; 2 Kings 18:4; Isaiah 40:18-20; 44:9-20;  Jeremiah 10:1-15

Books: The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law - William J. Doorly  (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002)

Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction - Lawrence Boadt  (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)

Where in the Bible does it say Jesus' birthday is December 25th?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 02, June 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

You won't find a biblical text verifying the date of the birth of Jesus. December 25th has a 1-in-365 chance of being the historical date. It's simply the liturgical date the church settled on to celebrate Incarnation, the mystery of God-made-flesh, officially called the Nativity. We have no idea what time of year Jesus was born. There are debates about what the actual year may have been. Because of calendar anomalies like leap years and other early errors made in the Gregorian calculations that established the Western calendar, the year Zero isn't an accurate starting point for the life of Jesus. Scholarly speculations generally include a range between what we call 7 B.C. to 4 B.C.

December 25th wasn't immediately selected for the celebration of the Nativity. Early Christian observances had strong Jewish roots. For example, they utilized the Jewish calendar in Sabbath observance, shifting allegiance early from the last day of the week to the first to honor the resurrection day. The original Christian feast was therefore Sunday, when Eucharist was celebrated. Easter became the first annual Christian liturgical season to be put in place universally, fixed as it was to the Jewish observance of Passover. It soon grew to a constellation of before-and-after observances, including an entire preparatory season (Lent).

 As the church expanded into the Hellenistic world, feast days were added, typically wedded to whatever local civil calendars were in operation at the time. The Nativity was the second universally popular observance, developing its own preparatory season (Advent), but the length of the season varied and even the date wasn't uniform.  The Western Church chose December 25th to coordinate with the already popular secular celebration of the Winter Solstice, when days began to lengthen with the sun's annual return and winter darkness was conquered by light. The solstice made a useful pairing and natural catechetical tool in declaring the arrival of Jesus, the light of the world, vanquishing the darkness of sin and death.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Church celebrated the Nativity on January 6th, now the feast of Epiphany in the Western Church. These dates were never intended to imply historical accuracy, but rather a theological reality to be recalled and honored. The liturgical calendar focuses on uniting the universal church in commemorating the birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as cosmic realities, not past occurrences.

Scriptures: Isaiah 9:1; John 1:3-5, 9; 3:19-21: 8:12; 9:5; 12:35-36, 46

Books: The Origins of Christmas - Joseph F. Kelly(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014)

The Feast of Christmas - Joseph F. Kelly (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press,  2010)

Is Jesus truly the Son of God or is it just a story?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 15, May 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

This question hinges on the term "Son of God," which sounds simple but is actually theologically dense. "Just a story," of course, implies the alternative to claiming Jesus as God's Son is to admit it's a false identification. I should probably say up front that, for Christians, Jesus is truly the Son of God. It's fundamental to our faith that Jesus is the divine Son. But we further embrace that Jesus enjoys a dual nature: born of a woman and therefore truly human; yet with origins in God and therefore truly divine. Fully human, AND fully divine. Jesus is both, Christians say. To claim him as one or the other—as merely an exemplary mortal, or a divinity who presents a brief human mirage—is to express any number of heresies recorded in church history.

If you accept Jesus is the Son of God, what are you saying? In the Old Testament, son of God was a title used to describe heavenly beings altogether: angels or superhuman creatures sent to enact the divine will. In ancient Hebrew idiom, the word "son" implied membership in a species: so "son of God" suggested a being of a celestial subset none too specifically parsed. Please note: the nation Israel was also identified as God's son. The covenant bond made Israel an adopted child of God. Israel's identity as son of God was not, however, equivalent to other nation's identification of their leaders as divine sons, as the Pharaoh of Egypt was considered to be. For Israel, it was a designation of relationship, not substance or essence.

In the New Testament, Son of God is applied to Jesus 31 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke's gospels, and 23 times in John's, where it is the preferred title.  The NT letters employ the term 42 times. Clearly the first generations of the church found this title key to their understanding of Jesus' identity. They didn't limit it to the definition implied by OT usage, nor to the title's meaning in Greek culture: that of a hero, king, or demigod. For early Christians, "Son of God" became a unique category for Jesus. While we are all "children of God," Jesus is "Son of God" in a way no one has been or will be. More than a statement of relationship or location with the celestial ranks, Jesus shares God's very substance (is "consubstantial," in the Creed) and cannot be known apart from this essential unity.

Scriptures: Genesis 6:2; Pss 29:1, 89:7; Job 1:6; 38:7; Exodus 4:22-23;Deuteronomy 14:1-2; 32:19; Isaiah 1:2; 43:6; Jeremiah 31:9, 20; Hosea 2:1;     11:1; Mathew 3:17; 16:16; John 1:34; 11:27; Romans 5:10; Galatians 4:4-7
Books: God: Three Who Are One - Joseph Bracken, SJ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008)
What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus? - David Gowler (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007)

What's a halo, really?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 11, April 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Virgen de Gudalupe

Technically, it's a visible depiction of an otherwise intangible characteristic: glory. In biblical stories, glory describes the "shine" of God, an emanation of light so powerful, it "afflicts" Moses, who's the one human being routinely standing close to God in the Old Testament. When Moses enters the Tent of the Presence, he comes out with an unbearable brightness in his face that requires him to veil himself. Either Moses is protecting the vestige of God's glory from being viewed by profane onlookers, or protecting the unprepared onlooker from a potentially dangerous contact with divinity's afterglow. As we know from other stories, unworthy contact with holy things can kill you. The tribe of Levi was dedicated to God as the only Israelites allowed to touch, tend, or transport utensils and objects used in ritual sacrifices for this reason. They made a living out of keeping themselves pure enough to perform their duties.

The Greeks also imagined sunbursts emanating from Helios, their sun god. Pharaohs of Egypt wear a crown of light in some depictions. It makes sense that Christians would employ the halo when portraying Christ, later extending the usage to angels and finally to saints. Jesus and Mary alone are honored with full body haloes, called aureoles—the most familiar of which surrounds the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Most saints are portrayed with round haloes in the West, which can be thin circlets of gold or full discs of yellow. The circle is a perfect form, which hints at heavenly perfection. Some artistic renderings utilized a square halo when depicting a still living person who is revered: the square is an earthly, less perfect geometric form recalling the four elements, winds, or directions. A triangular halo is reserved for the less common depiction of God the Father, to recall the Triune nature of the divine. Very occasionally, Jesus will wear the triangular halo for the same reason. Jesus is the only icon who is permitted to be defined by the cruciform halo.

Sometimes anthropomorphic images of the Virtues—theological virtues like Faith, Hope, and Love, or the cardinal virtues Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance—will wear hexagonal haloes, to remind us they are attributes of God. So altogether, we conclude that the "shine" on a person or thing speaks to us of their nearness to God or their out-and-out resemblance to the divine. We should all be working on our shine!

Scriptures: Exodus 33:7-23; 34:27-35; Numbers 1:49-54; 1 Samuel chs. 4—6; 2    Samuel 6:1-19; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 1 Chronicles 23:25-32

Books: The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art - Sally Fisher (New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., 1995).

Saints and the Symbols: Recognizing Saints in Art and in Popular Images -Fernando and Giolia Lanzi (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004).

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Is the parish expected to give the pastor and secretary a bonus at Christmas?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 14, March 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

Full disclosure: I was a parish secretary, so I have a personal investment in this question. "Expected" is a telling word in your query. Since a bonus is a gift, and a gift is not obligatory, the short answer is no. The parish isn't obliged to offer a gift to anyone at Christmas or at other times.

But does that absolve the parish from considering doing so? Canonically speaking, church law says this: "The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for apostolic works and works of charity, and for the decent sustenance of ministers." (Canon 222—my emphasis. See also c. 231 and 1286 regarding the same for lay workers.) Unless things have changed drastically since I sat at the front desk, I can assure you parish staff members are not lavishly compensated for their labor. Many are glorified volunteers, work part-time without benefits, or accept modest salaries for the privilege of serving the parish. While service is its own reward in many ways, justice requires that folks can make a livelihood and provide for their families. 

Many dioceses have a recommended pay scale as a standard for positions across their parishes. Such a rate can be modest according to the means of a wealthy parish and still entirely out of the question in a poorer one. To make up for the lack of parity, many pastors offer other forms of compensation to make a parish position more appealing: say, more personal time off, or flexible hours. A bonus at Christmas or after a special assignment is another way to let your staff know they're appreciated. I remember spending a month redrawing the map of the parish cemetery, locating graves long obscured or lost. I received a bonus for this, since the cemetery beat wasn't normally a part of my job description. I would have done it anyway when asked.  But it was nice to go home with that extra check.

Most of us in parish work appreciate this isn't Wall Street. We're not here to make a killing. The diocesan priest salary is measly compared to any other professional career scale. While I'd look twice if the pastor gives himself bonuses without oversight, once the finance council clears it, that's enough for me. As for most parish secretaries, who are the backbone of parish life, I'd say give them a bonus. And flowers on Valentine's Day. And take them to dinner on their birthdays....

Scripture: Deuteronomy 25:4; 1 Corinthians 9:9-12; Matt 10:9-10; Luke 10:7;  1 Timothy 5:17-18

Books: The Laborer is Worthy of His Hire: A Survey of Priestly Compensation in the Roman Catholic Dioceses of the United States - William P. Daley (National Federation of Priests' Councils, 1999)

Catholic Parish Administration: A Handbook - Paul F. Peri (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)


Is it necessary to attend Mass on Sunday? I can't go to church because of my job. What should I do?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 13, February 2016 Categories: Liturgy,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Priest with parish

Attendance at Sunday Eucharist is one of the most solemn commitments in the life of a Catholic Christian. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” (canon 1247)

This obligation is naturally suspended in time of illness, or when there is no means of satisfying the obligation, as when traveling through territory in which there is no opportunity to attend Mass.

It should be noted that "Sunday Mass" also includes the celebration of Eucharist on Saturday evening. "Sunday" in secular culture follows a morning-to-evening definition of the day. The biblical day is counted from one evening to the next. (See the repeated usage starting in Genesis 1: 5— "Evening came, and morning followed: the first day.") This liturgical appreciation of a day makes possible the fulfillment of the Sunday obligation by attending Mass on Saturday evening. In most dioceses, opportunities to attend Sunday Mass extend from around 4:00 pm on Saturday until 5:00 pm on Sunday—even later in contexts like a campus Newman Center where students keep late hours and might more likely attend a 9 or 10 pm liturgy.

It would be rare for a person to have a regular work schedule that extends for 24 hours from Saturday evening to Sunday evening.

Canon law does provide for circumstances in which Eucharist is simply unavailable, as in the absence of ordained clergy. Canon 1248 says: “If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.”

A local pastor has the authority to judge particular cases and grant dispensation from the obligation of participating in Sunday Mass (canon 1245). When there is truly no opportunity to participate, there is no obligation. At the same time, a faithful Catholic might seriously consider a vocational or geographic context in which he or she never has the opportunity to participate in Sunday Mass.

Scripture: Exod 16:22-30; 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15; 1 Cor 11:23-26

Books: Sunday Mass: Our Role and Why It Matters - Anne Y. Koester (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007)

Mass on Sunday: And Other Ways of Being Catholic - Charles E. Miller (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004

Petra is the coolest historical site in Jordan. Is it biblically significant?

Posted by: Jennifer Tomshack   🕔 Wednesday 21, October 2015 Categories: Church History
Petra, Jordan
Petra’s most famous ruin, Al Khazneh (“the Treasury”). The Hellenistic facade is carved into sandstone.
Of course Petra is cool—just ask Indiana Jones! The climactic scene in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—in which the main character goes on a quest for the Holy Grail (which is, according to legend, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper)—was filmed in Petra.
That in itself does not qualify it as a biblically significant site (sorry, Harrison Ford!). In fact, the ancient Nabataean city of Petra, located in the modern country of Jordan about 50 miles south of the Dead Sea, is not specifically named in the Bible—although it’s possible that Petra is mentioned in the Old Testament under other names, including Sela and Joktheel. But it was indisputably a significant trade center in the region during biblical times. Today, the stunningly dramatic archaeological site is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction.
Enclosed by cliffs, Petra is accessed through a natural split in the rock, called the Siq (“shaft”), which winds for about a mile. At the end of this narrow crevice is Petra’s most famous ruin, Al Khazneh (“the Treasury”), whose Hellenistic facade is carved into the sandstone.
Petra is in what was once the land of the Edomites, who were descendants of Esau, the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the brother of Jacob. Moses and the Israelites passed near Petra, and it is believed that the spring at Wadi Musa (“Valley of Moses”), just outside Petra, is where Moses struck the rock and brought forth water. Moses’ brother Aaron was buried in Petra at Mount Hor, or Jabal Harun (“Mount Aaron”), where a Byzantine church and an Islamic shrine were built.
The Edomites were eventually supplanted by the Nabataeans. Petra flourished as the wealthy capital of the Nabataean kingdom from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. The three kings who traveled to Bethlehem to honor the infant Jesus likely got their gifts in Petra, from which the Nabataeans controlled the Incense Route that connected the Mediterranean world with Eastern sources of incense, including Arabian frankincense and myrrh. One of the three kings is believed to have been Aretas, the Nabataean ruler of Petra.
The city was eventually abandoned by all but local tribes. Petra was unknown to the Western world for centuries, until it was visited by a European explorer in 1812.

Scripture: 2 Kings 14:7; Isaiah 16:1; Numbers 20:10-11; Matthew 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 11:32

Settle an argument for me. Was Jesus baptized in Jordan?

Posted by: Jennifer Tomshack   🕔 Monday 19, October 2015 Categories: Sacraments,Church History
Pope Francis visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan in 2014.
Pope Francis visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan in 2014.

Fittingly, there is quite a backstory to the location of Jesus’ baptism.

The Jordan River runs along the border between Jordan and Israel. (The width of the river, the distance between the two countries, is about 20 feet.) On the Jordan side of the Jordan River is a place called, then and now, Bethany Beyond the Jordan. There is strong biblical and archaeological evidence, as well as support from Byzantine and medieval texts, that this is where John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth in the river.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan has two distinct areas. The first is Tell Mar Elias (“Elijah’s Hill”), and the second is a cluster of remains of churches dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, a monastery, caves used by hermits, and baptismal pools. It has been a place of Christian pilgrimage for millennia.

According to 2 Kings, Elijah parted the waters of the Jordan River and crossed over, and then ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire, it is believed, at Tell Mar Elias.

Elijah and John the Baptist shared many similarities. Both were fiery men, who preached repentance and announced the coming of the Messiah. In fact, some believed John was Elijah, which John specifically denied. Still, it makes sense that John would conduct his ministry from a place associated with Elijah. Also, John’s preaching wasn’t popular with authorities and doing it on the other side of the river was probably more prudent.

When Jesus went to John for baptism, John initially objected, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” (Matthew 3:14). But when Jesus insisted, John complied. And so began Jesus’ public ministry. He gathered his first disciples there: Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael. Multiple times, Jesus went to Jordan, and specifically Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where he taught and healed.

In keeping with the solemnity of the site, it has been restored to look much like it probably did 2,000 years ago. There are no signs marking the dirt path that leads to the rock and stone steps down to the water’s edge.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan is considered a national treasure by Jordanians. Its restoration and preservation is funded by the Jordanian government. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Jordan.

Pope John Paul II visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan during his 2000 pilgrimage to Jordan and the Holy Land, and it was designated as a Jubilee Year 2000 pilgrimage site by the Catholic Church, along with Mount Nebo, where Moses viewed the Promised Land before dying. Pope Francis visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan in 2014.

Scripture: 2 Kings 2; John 1:21, 28, 35-51, 10:40; Matthew 3:5-6, 13-17; Luke 3:21-22

Where is Moses buried?

Posted by: Jennifer Tomshack   🕔 Tuesday 20, October 2015 Categories: Scripture,Church History
Serpentine Cross on Mount Nebo in Jordan
The Serpentine Cross on Mount Nebo in Jordan.

According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land ended just short of him entering it—on Mount Nebo in what was then called Moab and what is today modern Jordan. The Israelites—so close to their final destination—camped “in the valley near Beth-peor” (Deuteronomy 3:29), a small lush area northeast of Mount Nebo that is known today as Ayun Musa (“Springs of Moses”).

God told Moses that he would not cross the Jordan with his people and commanded him to go to the top of Mount Nebo—which overlooks the Dead Sea, the Jordan River valley, and Jericho—to view the land of Israel. (Today, on a clear day, Jerusalem is visible from Mount Nebo’s promontory.) Moses died and was buried in the vicinity, but even at the time of the writing of Deuteronomy, the exact place of his tomb was unknown.

Joshua was anointed by Moses to be his successor. After Moses died, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. The crossing point has been identified as the ford directly opposite Jericho known as Bethabara, or Beit ‘Abarah (“House of the Crossing”).

Centuries later, according to 2 Maccabees, just before the Babylonian invasion of Israel, Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written) at Mount Nebo in a cave and sealed the entrance. The location of the lost Ark is, of course, a matter of great conjecture.

In the 4th century, Christians built a church at Mount Nebo that has been expanded into the large basilica there today, which houses a collection of Byzantine mosaics. Outside the sanctuary is the Serpentine Cross, which commemorates Christ’s crucifixion and the bronze serpent God instructed Moses to erect to stop a plague (all who looked upon the serpent were spared death).

Ancient Moab was the home of the Ammonites. Known as the Plains of Moab in the Old Testament and Peraea in the New Testament, it includes the lands east of the Jordan River and along the Dead Sea in the western part of modern Jordan, where today more than 100 biblical sites important to Jews and Christians have been identified and protected. Moab is where Jacob wrestled with an angel, where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, where Job suffered and was rewarded for his faith, and where Elijah ascended to heaven. And it is where Jesus was baptized by John.

In the 20th century, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. prophetically referenced Moses gazing from Mount Nebo at the Promised Land he would never reach in King’s last speech before he was assassinated. The speech is popularly called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

Scripture: Deuteronomy 3:27-29, 34:1-6; Joshua 1, 3; 2 Maccabees 2:4-8; Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14

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Was there ever such a thing as a deaconness?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 18, May 2015 Categories: Church History
Saint Phoebe icon

Yes. Some early writers preferred the term deaconness, and others called them deacons as with the men. Still others implied that these women were simply wives of deacons. The existence of the female office of deacon is not in question, however. What the responsibilities of the office were is less certain: whether or not female deacons carried out the same ministries as their male counterparts.

The scriptural basis of the office depends on Paul's reference in Romans to "Phoebe our sister, who is a minister (diakonos) of the church." Another passage in 1 Timothy describes the qualifications of a deacon and continues, "Women, similarly, should be dignified, not slanderers, but temperate and faithful in everything." The passage continues to delineate qualities of deacons, and it is fair to assume that the women in question were also deacons. Early in the 2nd century, Pliny the Younger notes the presence of women deacons, and documents from the church of the East mention them, including the Council of Chalcedon (451) which makes note of their ordination.

What did female deacons do? Acts of the Apostles describes the first seven male deacons as preaching, teaching, baptizing, healing the sick, casting out demons, serving the poor of the community, and being martyred for their faith. Paul adds the job of fundraising to that resume. Luke describes women as the financial patrons of Jesus' ministry in chapter 8: they might fit Paul's concept of the deacon role. Paul's coworkers Pricilla, Chloe, and Lydia also served, taught, and led the community in various ways, although the term deacon was not scripturally applied to what they do.

In the 3rd-century Syrian church, deaconesses assisted at the baptism of women, and visited the sick and elderly. The Apostolic Constitutions of the 4th century describe deaconesses as virgins or widows, subordinate to male deacons, who served their communities based on current pastoral needs. This document also includes the ordination ritual for deaconesses, who received laying on of hands from the bishop. Like her male counterpart, the deaconess did have a liturgical role, but was not eligible to preach. For the first six centuries, the office of the female deacon was well established in the East.

Early evidence in the Western church shows opposition to an ordained office for women deacons, although their service to the church is uncontested. As late as the sixth century, places like Gaul still utilized widow-deaconesses.

Scripture: Luke 8:1-3; Acts of the Apostles 6:1—7:60; 8:4-40; 16:14-15, 40; 18:1-3, 18-28; Romans 16:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:8-13

Books: A New Phoebe: Perspectives on Roman Catholic Women and the Diaconate - ed. Virginia Ratigan (Kansas City: Sheed  & Ward, 1990)

Women of Bible Lands - Martha Ann Kirk (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004)

Who was Origen?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 10, May 2015 Categories: Church History

Few church leaders in Origen's generation (ca. 185-254) were as influential and colorful as this theologian-commentator-teacher-priest. From a wealthy family in Alexandria, Egypt, Origen enjoyed a superior education. His father's martyrdom during the persecution of Severus in 202, however, powerfully impacted Origen's teen years. He gave himself to fasting, nights of prayer, poverty, and self-castration, according to 4th-century historian Eusebius. While still in his teens, Origen was appointed a catechist by the bishop of Alexandria. His most promising students shared his ascetical life and lived under the possibility of martyrdom as did all Christians of those times.

Origen's dedication to understanding Scripture compelled him to visit Palestine, where because of his great learning he was invited to preach—though still a layman at the time. His bishop in Alexandria objected and ordered him home. In 230 the bishops of Caesarea and Jerusalem convinced Origen to be ordained, which may have led to his formal break with Alexandria. He established a school of theology in Palestine and proceeded to the most influential work of his career. 

Origen invented the first Bible parallel: the Hexapla, a six-column comparison of texts that attempted to validate the Septuagint translation in wide use in Alexandria. Thanks to his patron Ambrose, Origen also authored hundreds of commentaries and homilies on possibly every book of the Bible—though much of his work would later be suppressed or destroyed, a fraction surviving only in translations by Jerome and others. What did survive of the commentaries became a blueprint for biblical scholars: looking beyond the literal stories to the moral, dogmatic, or spiritual layers of meaning.

His treatise On First Principles outlined Origen's fundamental theology: centrally Trinitarian, with a focus on the twin poles of creation and salvation. It was Origen's interest in speculative theology that became most controversial. He was passionate about describing how the problem of evil entered into the human picture, how it made angels of some of us and demons of others, and how God was going to resolve it all in the end.

During the Decian persecution of 250, Origen was imprisoned and tortured. His health broken, he died after his release. Church historians were not always kind to Origen's theology. But his analysis of Scripture is still quoted relentlessly.

Scriptures: 1 Timothy 3:14-16; 4:1-16; 6:2b-16; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 4:6-8

Books: History and Spirit: the Understanding of Scripture According to Origen - Henri de Lubac (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007)

When the Church Was Young - Marcellino D'Amboriso (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2014) 

What's important about the Avignon papacy and the Great Schism?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 17, March 2015 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Pope Gregory XI returns Catholic Church headquarters to Rome.


This story includes enough drama for a mini-series. Apostolic succession presumes a direct line of authority proceeding from Peter the Apostle to Pope Francis I. That line got blurred during the Western Schism, which inadvertently sprung from the Avignon papacy.

In the 14th century, Rome was in a state of political anarchy and became too dangerous to contain the pope. One pope was imprisoned, and a later one elected under military pressure. In 1309, Clement V moved to Avignon, France, for safety and stability. Six more popes remained at Avignon, and the papal office became increasingly worldly in what was described as "the Babylonian captivity of the papacy". Saint Brigitta of Sweden pleaded with Avignon Pope #6 to return to Rome, but it took Saint Catherine of Siena's relentless spiritual clout to convince Pope Gregory XI (Avignon Pope #7) to comply in 1377.

Not long after returning to Rome, Gregory XI died. The next papal election was influenced by rioting Italians who called for a native successor, and cardinals still behind in Avignon didn't get to vote. The mentally unstable Urban VI was the result. The French cardinals rejected Urban and held their own conclave, electing Clement VII. England and most of Italy sided with Rome; France, Sicily, Scotland, Naples, and Spain preferred the French pope. This led to a 39-year schism that confounded rulers and bishops. Double appointees were obliged to duke out the details in monasteries, religious houses, even parishes.

Urban returned to Avignon and was probably poisoned. Roman cardinals elected Boniface IX, who was promptly excommunicated by the French Clement VII. Boniface reciprocated. Clement died and was replaced with Benedict XIII by the French. The Roman Pope Boniface died, followed by Innocent VII and then Gregory XII. While several popes on both sides had wanted to end the Schism, Gregory and his counterpart Benedict agreed to sponsor the Council of Pisa in 1409 to resolve the problem. The Council deposed both popes and elected another, Alexander V. The other two popes refused this solution. Now there were three popes. Alexander soon died—probably poisoned.

 The Pisa Council replaced him with John XXIII who was hardly better than a pirate. Another Council was held in Constance in 1414 and it elected Pope Martin V. All other contenders lost their supporters and the Petrine successors were thereafter traced through the Roman line of popes.

Mark 3:16; Matthew 16:18; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17; Acts chs. 1–15

Authority in the Church - David J. Stagaman, SJ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999)

The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile - Edwin Mullins (Ketonah, NY:BlueBridge Books, 2011)

What do I need to know about the Crusades?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 12, March 2015 Categories: Church History

All of us in the modern world need to know more about the Crusades! These events have done much to shape East-West relations to the present time. There were nine altogether, from the 11th through the end of the 13th centuries: armed expeditions of western medieval Christians against "infidels" in general, and Muslims occupying the Holy Land in particular. Many Crusades were disasters, and few achieved the goals set for them.

Crusades were holy wars with a biblical pedigree, as historian Joseph Kelly puts it. Their rationale was pasted together from the books of  Joshua through Revelation to support the idea that fighting to secure the Promised Land of Israel is a divinely ordained mission. Since the 7th century, Muslim Arabs had taken charge of Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and northern Africa by means of jihad or their own version of holy war. Specifically they attacked both the Persian and Byzantine Empires on the threshold of their desert territories, incidentally cutting off access to Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria from the West. The Arabs and Byzantines eventually found a way to co-exist, and pilgrim access to the Holy Land was restored.

By the late 11th century the Byzantine emperor wanted to be rid of his enemies and appealed to Western leaders for help. Pope Urban II couldn't drum up support for the Byzantine cause but knew that Catholics would fight to liberate the Holy Land, sweetened with the offer of indulgences. The Crusades invited the religiously fervent, the adventurous, the greedy, and especially landless younger sons who were assured of getting a plot of their own in the bargain. The First Crusade actually did manage to recapture Antioch and Jerusalem, but at the cost of mass slaughtering of Muslims, Jews, and indistinguishable local Christians.

After that, the holy places of the Near East would exchange hands many more times. Crusades were launched to retake them, or to achieve whatever political aims the kings and popes of the West had in mind. Wholesale slaughters, rape, looting, and destruction became programmatic. While some of these wars restored the holy places to Western control, it would be hard to describe the military actions that accompanied them as holy.

holy war theology in
Book of Joshua; Deuteronomy 20:4; the campaigns of King David in 1 and 2 Samuel; Joel 3:10; Book of Revelations

101 Questions and Answers on the Crusades and the Inquisition
- John    Vidmar, OP (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2013)

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes - Amin Maalouf (New York: Schocken/Knopf Doubleday, 1989)


What's an abbess, and what power does she wield?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 10, March 2015 Categories: Consecrated Life,Church History
 Hildegard of Bingen
 Famous abbesses of the past include Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century visionary,
theologian, composer, artist, and healer.

An abbess is the female counterpart of an abbot. This title derives from abba, "father" in Aramaic and Syriac, which makes the abbess the mother of her community. Hers is an elected office over a group of twelve or more nuns in an abbey. (Abbey and monastery are interchangeable words.)  The term abbess has been used since the sixth century within the Benedictine order, though now it's generally applied among religious cloisters of women. The abbess was originally a woman of noble rank as recognized within the structures of feudal society. She had the capacity to sit on councils, and in some situations governed double monasteries of both monks and nuns.

Was she powerful? You bet. In the feudal period, an abbess wielded temporal, spiritual, and ecclesial authority that bordered on the episcopal: that is, she held a rank similar to a bishop within the borders of her cloister and associated territories, and was answerable to no authority under the pope. Today's abbesses hold a more limited authority over their communities in spiritual and temporal matters.

Famous abbesses of the past include Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century visionary, theologian, composer, artist, and healer. She ran into conflicts with clerical leaders and eventually moved her community to Bingen in order to govern without interference. Her power was so strong and she inspired such devotion in her nuns and priest spiritual directors that it's no wonder she filled some clergy with alarm. Her canonization was delayed for centuries, and only in 2012 did Pope Benedict XVI recognize her as a Doctor of the Church.

Teresa of Avila in the 16th century was a remarkably capable abbess who reformed the Carmelite order and encouraged John of the Cross to do the same with the monks under his charge. Teresa is another Doctor of the Church named belatedly in 1970, and at the time of her death the Spanish Inquisition was investigating her for possible heresy. Eleventh-century Abbess Heloise of the Paraclete community was considered a brilliant scholar and governor of her community. Heloise is remembered mostly for her tragic love for Peter Abelard. Finally, Scholastica, twin sister of Benedict, was co-founder of the Benedictines with her brother. While the term abbess was not used in the 5th century to describe her, Scholastica fulfilled that role admirably for her nuns. As Gregory the Great said of her: "She could do more, because she loved more."

Films: "Hildegard" (Gateway/Vision Video 1994) "Teresa de Jesús" miniseries (Televisión Espanola, 1984)

Books: The Life of Teresa of Jesus: the Autobiography of St, Teresa of Avila  - transl. E. Allison Peers (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960)

The Life of the Holy Hildegard - The Monks Gottfried and Theodoric (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995)

Do the Eastern churches have popes?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 27, January 2015 Categories: Ecumenism,Church History
Pope Francis meeting Patriarch Bartholomew in Turkey Dec. 2014
Pope Francis meeting Patriarch Bartholomew in Turkey Dec. 2014

Not popes, but patriarchs. This answer is embedded in history which is where things always get interesting and make more sense. There were five ancient patriarchates: basically self-governing territories under a chief bishop and his synod. Those five were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Remember that distances were greater when the whole world operated without technology and on foot or horseback. It was hardly practical for a centralized office to handle every local decision about the universal church, especially as languages and cultural contexts of each diocese were quite different. The law of the church (canon law) wasn't even informally standardized until the Middle Ages. Bishops came together for universal councils in places like Ephesus and Chalcedon for rulings on controversial questions and to resolve major conflicts. But for the most part, the patriarchates ran their dioceses effectively.

The papacy's profile soared after Pope Leo I's reign in the fifth century. Two hundred years earlier, Irenaeus had affirmed Rome as a "more powerful principality" rooted in the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul in that city. Popes before Leo I had also seen the Roman bishop as holding "pastoral care of all the churches." But Pope Leo was the first to declare that the Bishop of Rome assumed the fullness of power conferred on Peter by Christ. To be in communion with Rome, therefore, is to be in communion with all bishops and churches who confess now, have confessed, or will confess the Catholic faith.

Tensions gradually arose between the Eastern patriarchs and Rome over matters of theology, liturgy, and church practice. Authority and governance became a flashpoint, culminating in the Great Schism between East and West in 1054. The Eastern church claimed the name Orthodox, viewing the See of Rome as a "papal church." Eastern and Western leaders excommunicated each other and their constituencies, a ban that wasn't lifted until the time of Pope Paul VI in the twentieth century. Nationhood advanced as a preferred political identity, and increased nationalization of the churches proliferated. Some Eastern patriarchs remained loyal to the Pope including the Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite, and West Syrian patriarchates. Over twenty unique Catholic rites exist in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church today. The rest allied with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox patriarchs. They have not been in communion with Rome for almost a thousand years. The dialogue of East and West continues.


101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches - Edward Faulk (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007)

You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian's Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy - Olivier Clement (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003)

What is papal primacy and where does it come from?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 08, January 2015 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Chair of St. Peter

Primacy means "first." What makes the pope first in the church? The idea goes back to Peter the Rock, upon whom Jesus chooses to build his church. Peter's at the top of every list of the Twelve and the obvious spokesperson for the bunch. He receives the threefold command to feed the Lord's sheep, and he's the one whose faith must strengthen his brothers, according to the prayer of Jesus. Because Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, the bishop of that city was early seen as the one who assumed Peter's leadership. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Dionysius in Corinth, and Tertullian all viewed this authority as the destiny of the one who occupies Peter's Chair in Rome.

Papal primacy is in a constant balancing act with the collegiality of all bishops worldwide. Collegiality too dates back to the early church and doesn't contradict primacy, as Vatican II confirmed. (See Lumen Gentium's concluding explanatory  note.) The first Vatican Council addressed primacy with the now-famous doctrine on papal infallibility. We often forget this Council was interrupted by war in 1870 and that clarifications about the role of the other bishops in preaching, teaching, and governance—already on the agenda—had to wait another century for a second Council to treat them.

Papal primacy hasn't always led to the unity it suggests. Papal power is juridical, not political, meant to judge all matters in light of the gospel. Yet the church has certainly wielded its share of temporal power since Constantine gave Christianity a privileged place in his empire. The bishop of Rome was originally an ecclesial referee: addressing controversial theological questions; mediating conflicts to protect the rights of other bishops; and making the call on excommunications when necessary. Papal judgments expressed the communion of local churches and weren't meant to swallow up all ecclesial power in the room. The authority of local bishops, according to Vatican I, is essential to the life of the church and is not reducible to mere capitulation to the Boss in Rome. Each bishop is the Vicar of Christ in his own territory, not the Pope's local representative.

When Pope Francis talks about wanting to hear from his bishops about how best to shape church leadership in the future, he's working from a papal model that has deep roots in church history. Papal primacy makes him the head of the episcopal college, not a supreme private ruler.

Scriptures: Mark 3:16; Matthew 16:18; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17; Acts chs. 1–15

Books: Papal Primacy From Its Origins to the Present - Klaus Schatz, SJ             (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996)

A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist, and Church Unity - Paul McPartlan       (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2013)

What does Jesus have to say about family?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 06, January 2015 Categories: Scripture,Church History
Holy Family icon

Biblical family values sound similar to a 1950s American nuclear household setting. The creation story says that a man and woman leaves their parents in order to form a new unity. Yet "Honor your father and your mother" is the nucleus around which Hebrew tradition positioned its model of family dynamics. There's a certain tension in these ideals: how do we make a clean break with the original family while still living up to the obligation to honor those ties? Every modern marriage struggles to juggle these conflicting priorities.

The Mosaic tradition was built on a system that gave the eldest father, or patriarch, authority over the clan, including the power to bless or curse its members for the future. This gradually led to laws permitting divorce in circumstances of male displeasure with the union. Children had to obey their parents in terms described at length in the wisdom tradition: "Children, pay heed to a father's right; do so that you may live." The mother's influence isn't left out of the equation: "For a father's blessing gives a family firm roots, but a mother's curse uproots the growing plant." (Sir 3:1 and 9) Children had the responsibility to care for aging parents, but parents had the duty to discipline, instruct, and protect their children.

In between Moses and the later sages, the prophets showed less interest in family dynamics and more in social justice and fidelity to Israel's God. When Jesus began his teaching ministry 1200 years after Moses and a century or two after the wisdom sages, his emphasis seems rooted in prophetic concerns: the poor and the sick, the outcast and the sinner. When Jesus speaks of family, it's often to translate it into new terms. Jesus prefers to identify with the child rather than the way of the powerful patriarch. Mother and sister and brother are not primarily ties of blood but of loyalty to the word of God. The goodness parents show to children is a fraction of what God has for us. The teachings of Jesus won't necessarily strengthen families but will serve to tear many apart. In fact, following Jesus may involve choosing his way over the way of family altogether— an idea forcefully expressed as "hating" family. This family of faith is poignantly illustrated at the cross, where the disciple receives a new mother, and the mother a new child. The Jesus family isn't just a contradiction of ancient family patterns. It's a total transfiguration of the ideal.

Scriptures: Gen 2:24; Deut 5:16; Prov 31:10-31; Sir 3:1-16; 7:18-28; 26:1-18; 30:1-13; 42:9-14; Mk 9:36-37; Lk 8:19-21; 11:27-28; 12:49-53; 14:25-26; 18:29-30; Jn 19:26-27

Books: The Gospel of the Family - Cardinal Walter Kaspar (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014)

A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family - Julia Rubio (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003)

Why do we honor martyrs?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 10, November 2014 Categories: Church History
Michelangelo's Final Judgement

The word martyr means witness. To die in testifying to your faith unites the martyr to Christ in death as in life. Martyrdom was a common fate among the first Christians, who early on were victims of mob violence (as in the death accounts of the deacon Stephen and apostle James in Acts), and later executed en masse by order of the Empire in the third century. Documents such as The Martyrdom of Polycarp (157) and The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas (203) give us a good picture of what fidelity to the faith might cost in those generations. Constantine's Edict in 312 made Christianity lawful, after which the number of martyrs in the West precipitously declined.

Early Christians believed that the dead awaited the time of Final Judgment before attaining heaven. Martyrs, however, achieved heaven at once because of their deep communion with the death of Christ. Even if a martyr had not yet been baptized, their blood shed for the faith qualified as a form of baptism. Martyrs' graves became sites of pilgrimage and annual celebrations of Mass on their death anniversaries, including funerary banquets. Churches were built over their tombs. The relics of martyrs were honored and often relocated to other churches and basilicas. Such relics are still placed in altars today.

The idea of martyrdom as the ultimate form of Christian death made it prudent to discourage the provocation of martyrdom in some circumstances. Gradually the ascetic ideal of the monastery came to be viewed as "spiritual martyrdom" that was equally esteemed.

Christian martyrdom did not disappear from history after the fourth century, of course. In times and places where religion becomes politicized— Japan in the 16th century, Uganda in the 19th century, Mexico in the early 20th century, or the Middle East today—martyrdom resurfaces. The period of the Reformation saw both Protestant and Catholic martyrs who died for their doctrinal positions. Missionaries of every era face the possibility of death whenever they enter unfamiliar cultures where their motives are mistrusted.

In the modern era which is highly politicized, identifying martyrs among the faithful dead has become increasingly complicated. While the deaths of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany or Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador were clearly heroic, it's less clear to some whether they died as a result of their politics or their faith. Being declared an official church martyr may be beside the point. If we die with Christ, we are guaranteed to live with him.

Scripture: 2 Macc 6:18—7:42; Acts 6:8—8:1; 12:1-3; 2 Tim 2:11-12; Rev 7:13-17; 17:6

Books: The Big Book of Martyrs - John Wagner (New York: Paradox Press, 1997)

Christian Martyrs for a Muslim People - Martin McGee (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2008)

Why is there a church calendar?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 03, December 2013 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Liturgy,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

Liturgical Calendar
Calendars are about time and the human need to harness it. Starting in the ancient world religions employed calendars, but you didn’t have to be a Mayan priest or a Stonehenge druid to care when the sun and moon were in this phase or that. You just needed to be a farmer—or to depend on one for your survival.

Ancient Israel’s calendar traced the turn of the seasons and celebrated their influence on the natural world. Sowing was an occasion for intercessory prayer and harvesting the time for praise and thanksgiving: “Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy” (Psalm 126:5). The feasts of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles were all originally harvest festivals.

Calendars, however, do more than note predictable, cyclical events. They also commemorate significant past events, such as battles won or important goals achieved. So Passover became the ultimate commemoration, remembering the signature victory over Pharaoh’s armies and captivity itself. Hanukkah, a more minor feast, reminisces about another victory regarding religious liberty. It should be noted that none of these events were considered secular occasions, because God was understood to be the source of all movements in the created order.

Christianity, with its roots in Jewish thought and practice, adopted its sense of the sacred character of time from Israelite history. Jesus grounded the meaning of the first Eucharistic ritual in the liberation event of Passover; as a result the celebration of Easter is configured each year with the Jewish Passover, and the entire liturgical year conforms backwards and forwards from that date. The need to embrace the sacred character of all of life’s seasons, both tearful and joyful, remains evident in the longing of Advent, the penitential nature of Lent, and the alleluias of Easter.

The church continues to acknowledge divine victories won over sin and death in both the Incarnation and the Paschal mysteries celebrated at Christmas and Easter. It honors the harvest of the church reaped at Pentecost and the long season dedicated to growth—both seen and unseen—in Ordinary Time.

Today’s religious calendar commemorates mystical events and spiritual victories rather than agrarian events and military battles, but it still assists in harnessing time and organizing it for optimal use. Liturgical cycles help us remember our story and the identity we bear as heirs to this history. It acknowledges the sacred character of time in witnessing to the goodness and faithfulness of God. Most of all it reminds us of the many reasons we have to give thanks.

Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 16:1-17; Isaiah 9:2; Hosea 8:7; Matthew 13:37-43; John 4:35-38; 1 Corinthians 9:10-11; Revelation 14:15-20

• The Roman Catholic calendar for A.D. 2014

Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross (InterVarsity Press)

What do we know about Saint Joseph?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 12, December 2013 Categories: Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History
ICON of the Holy Family.
Almost nothing; the New Testament pickings are slim. The Gospel of Mark eliminates Joseph from the story, beginning its narration in Jesus’ adulthood. John’s gospel mentions Joseph once in passing. Luke tells the infancy story from Mary’s perspective, making her the principal actor. The Gospel of Matthew alone highlights Joseph’s role in salvation history. It is here we meet Joseph the dreamer who, like his namesake in the Book of Genesis, learns heaven’s purposes for him while he sleeps.

We can fill in some blanks from what’s known about Jewish customs of the 1st century. Marriages were enacted as early as 13 for males, 12 for females. Nothing in the gospels betrays Joseph as an older man, a widower, or theologically better suited to be Mary’s chaste guardian than her husband. That the earliest gospel calls the adult Jesus “son of Mary” rather than Joseph, however, suggests his father was absent, dead, or suspect. This resonates with Mary known to be with child before the marriage, and/or that Joseph was dead by the time Jesus grew up. Luke and John prefer to call Jesus “son of Joseph,” restoring respect to his patrimony. Luke adds pointedly, “As was thought.” When the family of Jesus comes around during his ministry, his father is conspicuously absent.

Jesus is called a carpenter and carpenter’s son, which is how we know his father’s occupation. The last time Joseph makes an appearance in the story is when Jesus is 12 and goes missing in Jerusalem. Mary remains in the company of Jesus until the Crucifixion, when her care is transferred to the beloved disciple, confirming that Joseph is already dead.

In Matthew’s portrait we encounter Joseph the righteous man who, understandably, does not want to marry a woman who turns up pregnant without his participation. Of two possible legal solutions—exposure to violent punishment or quiet divorce by paperwork—Joseph chooses the gentler. Then heaven intervenes and gives him consequential second thoughts. He takes Mary into his home and gives her his full protection. That is an enormous concession to the divine will, especially given the church’s insistence on Mary’s perpetual virginity. We always want more from Joseph. He’s already given quite a lot.

Genesis 37:5-11; Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-23; 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; Luke 1:26-27; ch. 2; 3:23; 4:22; John 6:42

The Life and Prayers of Saint Joseph by Wyatt North (Wyatt North Publishing, e-book)

The Mystery of Joseph
by Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P. (Zaccheus Press)

What is virtue?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 14, April 2014 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
VIRTUES trampling vices from Strasbourg Cathedral.

The 4th-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa described the aim of the virtuous life as "to become like God." That may sound intimidating as a life goal, but it's certainly moving in the best possible direction. Virtue comes from the Latin word for "force" and you can think of it as the driving force of good behavior. The more we exercise a particular virtue, the more habit-forming it becomes. Because the same is true of vice, choosing to create easy habits of virtue is a better match for the Christian life.

The church speaks of four cardinal ("hinge") virtues upon which a moral lifestyle depends. These are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence is the pilot virtue: It guides you in discerning what the right course of action is. It relies on habits of prayer, reflection, and spiritual counsel. Justice is pro-active in seeing that relationships between individuals, or between society and individuals, are correctly enacted. Justice is especially concerned with the common good—that what emerges from a course of action brings about the best for all concerned.

Fortitude is the strength that enables you to persevere in right actions despite opposition, suffering, and temptation. Temperance is the virtue Saint Paul often calls self-control or modesty. It is the mastery of the self that releases you from slavery to the senses or passions so that you can choose your way with the freedom of the children of God.

Along with the cardinal virtues, the church has identified three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. Saint Paul defines them as the three things that last when the whole world passes away. As the term theological suggests, these three pertain to God because they begin with divine instigation, are motivated by the Spirit, and seek God as their ultimate end. Faith means trusting in God with every life decision—not simply believing doctrinal statements about God. Hope enables you to look beyond your present circumstances, no matter how troubling or limiting, into future "Kingdom" realities confidently. Love, the "greatest" virtue according to Paul, is also the one that binds the rest together. The best definition for the practice of love remains Paul's wonderful passage in 1 Corinthians: "Love is patient, love is kind."

Wisdom 8:7; Romans 5:1-2; 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, 13; Colossians 3:15; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 10:23

The virtues in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Good Life: Where Morality & Spirituality Converge by Father Richard Gula, S.S. (Paulist Press)
Everyday Virtues
by John W. Crossin (Paulist Press)

Is there truth in other religions?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 23, September 2014 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs,Ecumenism

World Religiions1
"In this age of ours, when men (sic) are drawing more closely together and the bonds of friendship between different peoples are being strengthened, the Church examines with greater care the relation which she has to non-Christian religions." So begins a breakthrough document from Vatican II, Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). This statement released a theological revolution in 1965. Catholicism went on record calling the human family one community sharing a common destiny in God.

All religions seek answers to the great human questions about life, meaning, happiness, death, and mystery. To the extent they arrive at a revelation of the true God, they participate in truth known to the Christian faith. Nostra Aetate notes that Hinduism deeply respects meditation and divine mystery, expressed in stories and philosophies that support the ways of love. Buddhism critiques the present world's inadequacies and proposes disciplines to liberate the human spirit through compassion and mindfulness. Other religions of the world present a "program of life" inclusive of doctrines, moral precepts, and sacred rites. All of these assist human beings in the quest for God and truth and are therefore honorable.

 "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions." (no. 2) This is a strong proclamation that deserves to be more widely known. It doesn't absolve the Church of its obligation to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, which it regards as the fullness of truth.

 Muslims have a great affinity with biblical religion as heirs to the faith of Abraham. Islam acknowledges one Creator God, almighty and merciful, who chooses to be revealed to humanity. Muslims honor Jesus as a prophet and Mary as a holy woman, and anticipate final judgment and the resurrection of the dead. They practice prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, all mutually esteemed by the Church.

Judaism is mentioned in Nostra Aetate and a second Council document, "Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews." Both affirm the intimate place of the Jewish people in the designs of God, never forsaken by the covenant which binds them for all time. Linked to Christians by biblical tradition; the Jewish leadership of the early church; liturgy, feasts, and ritual formulas—there is no room for discrimination or prejudice against the Jewish community. New global realities make dialogue and understanding between all who seek God a mandate for the future.

Scripture: Acts 16:26-27; Rom 2:6-8; Gal 3:7; Eph 2:14-18; 1 Tim 2:3-4

Books: No Religion Is an Island: The Nostra Aetate Dialogues - Edward Bristow (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998)

Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue (Rediscovering Vatican II) - Edward Idris Cassidy (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005)

What do Catholics believe about war and peace?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 15, September 2014 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Mission & Evangelization,Church History

Pacem In Terris
Church teaching on international order was first comprehensively presented in 1963, with Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). It declares that peace can only be realized on earth if God's will regarding social obligations are established first. This document treats the imperative for observing human rights to food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care and other necessary services, linking these rights to duties. Pacem in Terris also obliges governments to serve the common good of their people, and asserts that nations have rights and duties that must be respected by other nations. Relationships among nations must operate in the spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and liberty.

Recognizing that problems between nations can surpass the ability of the nations in question to resolve them, Pacem in Terris calls for a collaborative worldwide authority to assist in finding effective solutions. The outline for peace on earth is therefore four-fold: between individuals, within nations, between nations, and across the planet altogether. Each has both rights and responsibilities to observe.

When war becomes a reality nonetheless, how are Catholics to respond? Until the time of Constantine in the 4th century, Christians did not take part in war. Origin took a dim few of soldiering and a brighter view of the contribution Christians made to society through prayer. Augustine introduced just war theory: that the use of force could be a legitimate response to evil if other means failed. In the Middle Ages, Franciscans and Protestant Waldenses started movements of nonparticipation in war craft. Later "peace churches" like Anabaptists, Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren emerged from these roots. When Pope Paul VI became the first pope to speak to the United Nations, his declaration—"No more war! War never again!"—reflected his experiences in the two devastating wars of Europe. It also reflected a growing emphasis in church teaching that the morality of war in the modern military age often nullifies the old criteria for just war, since the waging of such war creates as much evil as it seeks to curtail.

Church teaching since Vatican II doesn't forbid Catholics military involvement. It does praise all who renounce violent means. It recommends thoughtful consideration of just war principles in the decision to take up arms. Catholic organizations like Pax Christi are dedicated to the peaceful resolution of world conflicts. But the discernment of the individual remains an open question.

Scriptures: Hos 2:14-23Ps 85:10-11Isa 9:6; Lk 1:79; Matt 2:13-145:5-9Jn 14:27Eph 2:13-22

Books: After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice - Mark Allman and Tobias Winright (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010)

Christian Peace and Non-Violence: A Documentary History - Michael Long, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000)

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Why do some buildings have feast days?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 11, August 2014 Categories: Liturgy,Church History

St. John Lateran Basilica                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               To be exact, three days on the liturgical calendar honor buildings—and another celebrates a chair. Since most Catholics think of feast days as memorials of saints and martyrs, the notion of venerating places and furniture can sound more than a little odd.

The church calendar also recalls important revelatory events in the life of Jesus like Epiphany, the Ascension, or his Baptism; a theological "feast" celebrating God as Trinity; sacramental celebrations like the Body and Blood of Christ; and birthdays like the Nativity of John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus. Marian days include title feasts for names under which we honor Mary, including Our Lady of the Rosary and the acknowledgment of her Queenship.

So not all feast days honor saints, and not all focus specifically on people. Back to celebrations of "things." The three buildings plus chair annually honored are as follows: the Dedications of the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Aug 5), Basilica of St. John Lateran (Nov 9), the Basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles (Nov 18), and the Chair of Peter (Feb 22).

The four patriarchal basilicas are ancient in origin, and are all in Rome. The Lateran is important as the episcopal seat of the bishop of Rome, a.k.a. the Pope's cathedral, and is the highest-ranking Catholic church. Originally the property of the Laterani family, it was called the Church of the Savior after being donated to the Church by Constantine in the 4th century. The pope's official residence was on the grounds of this basilica until 1309 when papal offices moved to Avignon. The Lateran was damaged by earthquakes (in 443 and 896), barbarian invasions (455 and the 700s), and fires (1308 and 1360). It was rededicated to St. John the Baptist after the rebuild of 905, and for its many resurrections is symbolic of the Church's resilience through history.

St. Mary Major was built in the 4th century, according to legend, after snow fell on the site in August. It was formerly known as Our Lady of the Snows. St. Peter's Basilica was built over the crypt where Peter is believed to be buried. Over 130 popes also rest there. St. Paul's Outside the Walls honors the relics of Paul. The Chair of Peter, housed at the Vatican, is a wooden throne gifted to the pope in 875. It represents the fullness of papal authority derived from "sitting in Peter's seat."

Scriptures: Isa 2:1-5; Matt 21:12-13; 1 Cor 3:9-17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22

Books: The Jubilee Guide to Rome: The Four Basilicas, the Great Pilgrimage - Andrea Braghin et. al. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998)

The Major Basilicas of Rome - Roberta Vicchi (New York: Scala Press, 1999)

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Is it possible to prove the existence of God?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 06, May 2014 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Thomas Aquinas
by Fra Bartolomeo

This modern question has a medieval backwater through which we must wade to consider a coherent response. Ancient peoples rarely questioned the existence of a divine being (or beings), although they often wondered whether the Deity was rooting for or against humanity in any given circumstance. Even as late as the Middle Ages, the theologians who posited arguments for God's existence didn't personally question the matter: They were merely tying up loose philosophical ends. Eleventh-century Saint Anselm was first, offering an ontological proof—that is, a proof based on the meaning of the term "God": If we can imagine the greatest reality which is God, and a real thing is greater than an imaginary thing, then God must be that real and not only imaginary greatness.

Two centuries later Saint Thomas Aquinas raised five proofs for God's existence— motion, causality, possibility and necessity, gradations, and governance—each of which follows a similar argument. Take motion, for example: When something moves, there is a mover that causes the motion. God is the First Mover that set everything in motion. Or consider causation: Actions have consequences, but somewhere there is a Cause which originally caused everything else. Or gradation: A good thing points to a better, which presumes a best. God is that which is Best.
Arguments like these are philosophically neat, but they didn't withstand the keen rational edge of the 18th-century Enlightenment gang. In Philosophy 101 courses every student learns how David Hume and Immanuel Kant discovered flaws in the medieval proofs. Kant, at least, saw the idea of God as necessary for morality to be possible. In the same period William Paley argued for God's existence from the intricate design of the world, which presumes a grand Designer the way a watch found on a beach presumes that someone left it there because it didn't just spring from the sand. This proof isn't really much distinct from the Aquinas approach.

The Bible offers no proofs for God's existence. As a product of revelation, it seeks to tell us about God's nature, not to prove that God is real. Revelation is abundantly useful for people of faith and quite problematic to people without it. So when the church says that the Creator can be known from creation, that is a statement of how God can be understood by those who seeking understanding. It doesn't suggest how God can be rationally proven to those who are skeptical of the religious enterprise altogether.

Mark 10:51-52; 11:22-24; Luke 11:9-13; 2 Corinthians 5:7

Thomas Aquinas, "Reasons in Proof of the Existence of God" from the Summa Theologia

An Introduction to Catholic Theology by Richard Lennan (Paulist Press)
Spirituality Seeking Theology by Roger Haight (Orbis Books, 2014)


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