Sometimes, when I look in my bag, I wonder if I’m in the wrong field:
Some years ago, for an English history course as an undergrad, I wrote a paper on the Protestant Reformer and early translator of the Bible into English, William Tyndale. Now, I’ve always had a tendency to become absorbed with the subjects of my papers, and to find in them great heroes. Tyndale was no exception. I still admire the man for his erudition as a scholar, his creativity as a wordsmith, and his zeal for the Word of God. According to his most recent biographer David Daniell, at the time he translated the Bible in the early sixteenth century, he was perhaps one of the only men in all of England who knew the Hebrew language (Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, 287). I was convinced at the time I wrote the paper that the Catholic Church had become corrupted, and my paper reflects an anti-Catholic sentiment (my word, I didn’t realize how anti-Catholic until re-reading it just now). In retrospect, I realize I had absorbed a lot of that bias from Daniell, and from the indignation of Tyndale himself. Certainly, elements of the Church then were corrupt; the Church, without a doubt, needed to be reformed. I maintain that the Church was wrong to oppose the translation of the Bible, and wrong to persecute Tyndale, who first sought the Church’s permission to translate, for the sake of humanistic learning and ecclesiastical reform, and only violently opposed the Church after his work was rejected and condemned.
Already, in the five years since I wrote this paper, I can see how much my historical consciousness has deepened; how simplistic and one-sided my interpretations were. There was so much intricacy of ecclesiastical and state politics, personal zeal and personal fears, involved in the Reformation, and a lot of decisions handled very badly by a lot of people. I am so tempted to pursue more research into this. (::sigh:: I have far too many interests.) But all of this reminiscence is meant to preface the topic I really wanted to talk about: the Greek New Testament, and specifically the words ἐπίσκοπος, πρεσβύτερος, and διάκονος (bishop, elder, and deacon).
I was recently struck by a Mass reading of 1 Timothy 3, which gives requirements for church offices, in which ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) was translated “bishop”: “A bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money” (1 Tim 3:2-3, New American Bible). I don’t know why I should have been surprised. Most recent evangelical Bible translations — the ones with which I’m most familiar in my personal study, the New International Version and recently the English Standard Version — translate ἐπίσκοπος “overseer”; but now I realize, in studying for this post, that the ubiquitous King James Version, John Wycliffe’s translation, and even Tyndale himself all translated the word “bishop.” Literally the Greek word is ἐπι + σκοπος — epi (upon, over) + skopos (looker, watcher; see the cognate “scope”) — one who watches over the church; an overseer — which is exactly what the bishop did, and does. By way of the Latin episcopus, it is the origin of our word bishop (still visible in our word episcopal). Anyway, if I were more literate in the tradition of early Protestant translation, I shouldn’t have been taken aback by the Catholic rendering. The ESV still gives “bishop” as an alternate reading in a footnote. The word “bishop” is so closely tied to the concept of “overseeing” that even Tyndale had no problem with it.
Where Tyndale got himself into hotter water was in the translation of πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) as “senior.” Here, too, I needed to do more studying, for I’ve learned some things tonight. Traditionally, I argued in my Tyndale paper, the Catholic Church translated the word “priest.” At the time, I considered this quite scandalous, for I knew very well that the Greek word conveys nothing resembling priesthood, but merely an “elder” or “senior”; an older person. But I was perplexed to find, when I checked tonight, that the Douay-Rheims Bible, the first English translation of the Bible authorized by the Catholic Church (the New Testament was published 1582), also translates several instances of πρεσβύτερος in Greek as “ancient” (see 1 Pet 5:1, 2 John 1); so did Wycliffe. Both the Douay-Rheims translators and Wycliffe translated from the Latin Vulgate. So I went back to it. It seems the New Testament of the Vulgate is inconsistent in its translation of πρεσβύτερος into Latin — sometimes, such as the instances I just mentioned, it’s rendered senior (hence “elder” or “ancient”); other times, such as Titus 1:5 and James 5:14, it’s rendered presbyter. Perhaps this is evidence of the seams in St. Jerome’s translation. I’ve read that he didn’t actually spend much time in translating the New Testament, but simply revised an Old Latin translation. I would guess that senior is Jerome’s rendering, being the erudite Greek scholar that he was. Anyway, it’s in translating πρεσβύτερος as “elder” in all of these places (among other translation choices that seemed to call the sacraments into doubt) that Tyndale earned the disapprobation of the Church.
It bothered me that the Church translated πρεσβύτερος or presbyter as “priest” without any seeming reason. In fact, I always wondered — where does the office of priest in the Catholic Church even come from? It’s never mentioned in the New Testament, as far as I understood the Greek. It wasn’t until that Mass reading a few weeks ago that it hit me with a start. Presbyter and priest are cognate. The word priest in English in fact has its origin in the Latin presbyter. The OED confirmed this for me. Priest entered the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) language as early as the earliest extant documents in the eighth or ninth century (the Code of King Alfred is cited). The elders of the New Testament Church became what we know in the modern Church as priests.
This is already getting too long — but I’ll just say, in brief, that διάκονος (diakonos) literally means “agent, assistant, servant” — and nobody seems to have ever had any problem translating it “deacon.”
There’s considerable historical debate, however — and admittedly, this is not a historiography I’ve pursued, though I’d like to — over at what point the office of “overseer” in the early Church became the traditional, familiar, Catholic bishop; the single, chief ruler of a local church. The doctrine is referred to as the monarchical episcopacy or the monoepiscopacy. Liberal scholars (e.g. Bart Ehrman) have argued that it didn’t firmly develop until well into the second century. It appears that in the New Testament, the words ἐπίσκοπος (bishop/overseer) and πρεσβύτερος (elder/priest) are used interchangeably. For example, referring back to 1 Timothy 3, St. Paul gives the requirements for bishops and deacons, but makes no mention of elders. St. Peter, in 1 Peter 5:1, refers to himself as one among the elders of the Church, a “fellow elder.” But the Catholic Church holds that St. Peter was the first bishop of the Church in Rome, and by virtue of that, the first pope. What does it mean for that claim, if “bishops” and “elders” in the New Testament Church seem to be the same thing? Personally, I say not a thing. Even if the Church was slow to develop that there only needed to be one “bishop” in a local church, one “overseer” who was in charge — even if there was more than “overseer” in the beginning — and it’s not at all clear that this was the case — then certainly Peter, being the foremost Apostle (and the only Apostle, evidently, active in that office in Rome, since St. Paul never refers to himself as an “elder” or “overseer”), to whom Christ had entrusted the keys to the kingdom and on whom he said he would build his Church, was the foremost bishop, the one to whom everyone deferred, by virtue of his authority. The primacy and supremacy of Peter stands.
In any case, though Bart Ehrman notes that at the time of 1 Clement (the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers), dated ca. A.D. 95-96, the monoepiscopacy wasn’t in place yet, and the terms “bishop” and “elder” continued to be used synonymously (Ehrman, ed., The Apostolic Fathers Vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003, 22, noting 1 Clement 44), the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written just a few years later, between A.D. 98 and 117, firmly argue to the churches that received them that they should submit to their one bishop. By the beginning of the second century, if not before, the monoepiscopacy was coming into being. Presbyters were becoming what we know as priests. And the Church we know has descended from these men.
Last night I attended our Catholic campus ministry’s weekly gathering, to hear a talk by a priest, Father Matthew, who’d been a Protestant convert. He’d spent time as a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and had even applied for a Lutheran seminary. Describing himself, he said that he guessed he “didn’t have much brand loyalty.” He left me with a lot of food for thought. He seemed to have a good foundation in philosophy, and since he had a good view of both sides of the divide, I wished I could have talked to him longer.
He described himself as a skeptic toward the supernatural, especially toward Marian apparitions and other forms of private revelation. And it struck me how different this was from where I’m coming from. Here was a Catholic parish priest, in a small, conservative, Southern town, admitting to a room full of Catholics that there were things in his faith that he had a hard time swallowing; that his faith waxed and waned; that he even struggled sometimes with doubts about the very Mass he was celebrating. And nobody in the room batted an eye. No one criticized him or expressed disappointment or disapproval. Having doubts and questioning seemed perfectly acceptable and understandable, even for a priest. I would never have expected such acceptance or understanding from an evangelical crowd. He said that the great thing about the Catholic Church and its tradition is that every doubt has already been dealt with by somebody. The reality and efficacy of the Eucharist, he said, had nothing to do with his faith or his weakness, and everything to do with Christ.
Regarding Mary: When he encountered stories of Marian apparitions, the first thing he asked was, do they improve the life of the person? Someone in the audience asked how he dealt with the Marian dogmata in coming to the Catholic Church. He said that with regard to Mary, and to so much in the Catholic faith, you can’t really appreciate it until you’re in the middle of it. It all came down, for him, to his faith in the Eucharist and in Christ’s Real Presence; and when he believed that and longed for that, there came a point at which he had to take a jump; and then everything else followed. He said if you go deep with a belief and struggle with it, it will often end up being among your favorite things in the Church. And in my journey so far, I can certainly say that that has been my experience with Mary. He said he didn’t really know and understand the humanity of Christ until he got to know his mother.
He said that one of the greatest things that drew him to Catholicism was its appreciation for the material aspects of faith. Evangelical and fundamentalist traditions are mostly concerned with a set of beliefs that will get souls into heaven; but Catholicism values things that will bring us closer to God in the here and now, in the material world — beautiful things, such as art and architecture; intellectual things, such as history, tradition, theology. The Catholic faith is wonderfully broad — there is so much you can “do” in terms of spirituality; so many different traditions — but you can’t do everything, or you’ll never find any depth in anything. He himself has followed the Benedictine tradition. It’s a “convert’s danger,” he said, to want to dabble in so many different traditions; but he recommended that if we found something that bore fruit for us, to stick with it and go deep with it. (I know this will be a problem for me — but for now I’m going to enjoy dabbling.)
Regarding his lack of “brand loyalty”: he said that “cradle Catholics” have a deep, emotional connection to the Church, but that as a convert, he didn’t. He said that above all, his was an intellectual attachment, a conviction that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ, the oldest and first and the bearer of apostolic succession. “I still choose it because it’s the best among alternatives; but it’s not perfect.” For my part, I believe I will feel much more of an emotional attachment — I already do. I’ve felt an orphan for so long, and admired my Mother Church, and passionately defended her to Protestant critics, even long before I dreamed of making this journey.
Above all, he said, he became a priest because he fell in love with the Mass and wanted to enjoy it as often as possible. “Everybody who goes through RCIA wants to be pope,” he said. And I must confess that this has occurred to me.
Today I had lunch with Audrey, and she offered some very helpful and reassuring answers to my questions about Purgatory. And Kristen gave me some very rich and valuable comments to my previous post about it. So tonight I have ample food for thought.
Even before I began this journey to Catholicism, I had been having vague, inchoate doubts about the Protestant conceptions of grace and salvation. As an evangelical, I always believed that all that was necessary for the forgiveness of sins was to confess them to God and repent. I struggled with the repentance part, but told myself that “everybody struggles; you’re human and carnal; Christ understands that and will forgive you.” I stopped feeling so wracked with guilt; I felt I was forgiven. I prayed and prayed for Him to set me free from my sins; to clean me and change me and help me stop doing what I was doing. But I was never getting any better. I seemed to be trapped; unable to rise above my fault. And I was miserable — not from guilt, but from the very temporal, practical wages of my sin. Something clearly was very flawed in what I was doing.
I think it was out of my longing for true repentance, even if that longing wasn’t fully realized, that brought me to attend my first Ash Wednesday Mass the Lent before last. It was the first time I’d been in a Catholic Church in five years (I had visited once with a friend out of curiosity, and to churches in Rome as a tourist) — the first time ever with an inquiring mind. I knew no one, had very little idea what was going on (I was taken aback by all the kneeling and genuflecting), and did my best to be inconspicuous. When I went forward to receive the ashes, the lay worker blessed me with the formula, “Turn from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” For some reason — which I now realize to be the finger of the Holy Spirit — those words struck a very deep chord with me: I was shaken for several weeks. Turn from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel. You mean I can turn from sin? You mean I can be faithful? More than what I’m doing now?
My second Ash Wednesday, after I’d been attending Mass regularly here for about a month, had an even deeper impact. Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return. It wasn’t so much the experience of the ritual that struck me this time — it was what happened afterward; what I can only understand as God speaking to me. I remembered the words of the year before — and suddenly something clicked into place. Christ died for my sins. So I have an obligation to stand against them and to live for him. And I started taking that stand. Father Joe had said in his homily that for the Lenten fast, we should give up the thing that was most standing between us and God. And I did just that: I gave up my complacency in my sin. And Lent this year was a greater time of victory than I had ever before known.
Before, I wasn’t really “struggling”; I was rolling over and letting sin have me, since I believed it was my nature. All those years, I prayed and prayed, “Lord, I’m dying here. I can’t get out of this pit; I’m trapped; won’t you pull me out?” And I felt so frustrated and despondent that he never seemed to help me; that no matter what I did, I couldn’t get out. It was only recently that it occurred to me: all that time, he was saying to me, “I’m offering you a rope for you to climb out; why won’t you take it?”
I’m not a theologian; so it’s only out of my practical, personal experience that I say that the Protestant conception of salvation by faith alone got me nowhere. I had faith in Christ, in his divinity and Resurrection; I had faith that he had saved me from my sins; and yet that faith was doing nothing to set me free. Maybe if I had died, I would have gone to Heaven (or at least to Purgatory); but more pressing, my daily struggle with sin was making my life a living hell. In that moment on Ash Wednesday, it hit me that having faith wasn’t enough; I had to do something. When Protestants pick at the Catholic position of salvation by faith and works, it’s usually presented as if Catholics believe, in a Pharisaical sense, that their “good works,” their observance of rituals, is going to get them into heaven. But that’s not it at all. The “works” just means that I had to do something; that I had to cooperate with Christ in my own salvation; that I had to work at it; that he wasn’t going to just zap me and make me a saint. Instead of just begging him to pull me out of the pit, I had to take the rope.
Tonight I’m struggling with Purgatory.
I guess I haven’t really thought much about it before. Like Mary did, it came upon me rather suddenly. Father Joe mentioned Purgatory briefly at RCIA on Sunday. I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of salvation, and the differences between the Catholic and evangelical Protestant conceptions of it. I’ve been reading Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and today read the chapters on salvation and Purgatory. It’s been a helpful book. It has drawn my attention to Catholic doctrines with which I still have questions and issues, and has helped me through grasping several of them.
The trouble with Keating is that sometimes I’m not sure he understands the fundamentalist position (or evangelical — his “fundamentalists” sound like every Southern evangelical I’ve ever known) any better than fundamentalists understand the Catholic one. For that matter, I’m not sure I understand the evangelical position very well either. I come from a theologically impoverished background; I have my own “feelings” about things, that aren’t always very rational or consistent. I have been saying for years, and still maintain, that theology is only man’s feeble attempt to grasp the mysteries of God that are ultimately beyond his comprehension. Grace and salvation may themselves be mysteries we will never fully understand. Scholasticism (at least, my prejudiced conception of it) deeply bothered me for a long time; I felt that it tried to regiment and reason away even the mysteries of faith. But the further I delve into Catholicism, the more I admire its consistency. The more I study, the more I find that many Protestant doctrines aren’t baked all the way through.
This is an awfully big bear to wrestle with in one post — I know I will be making many — so let me limit myself to the topic at hand: sin and punishment. This, if I’m not careful, multiplies into redemption, justification, salvation, and lots of other things. But what I really want to talk about is Purgatory.
I bought a worship CD a year or two ago, from a band I’d never heard of before called Branch. I bought it specifically because I was looking for a cover of the Gospel hymn “Nothing But the Blood,” and liked theirs. I was struggling with sin and those beautiful, powerful words kept echoing in my head:
O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
I liked the CD. They had some really moving, impassioned songs about redemption and forgiveness. But one day I was listening to one of them, and it struck me in a way I hadn’t anticipated:
This is redemption written in his blood
This is forgiveness, the guilty go free
This is redemption, sinners get heaven
This is a love song for those who believe
The guilty go free? Unexpectedly, these words troubled me deeply. Is that really what my religion espouses? Murderers, rapists, thieves, liars, and con men, getting off scot-free? Is that right? Is that just? Is that really what Christ’s redemption equates to? Criminals walking out of a courtroom unpunished?
Last night, Isaiah 53 came up in my Bible reading, entirely by random coincidence (though the older I get, the less I believe there’s any such thing). This is one of my dearest, most cherished passages of Scripture in the Bible. He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. Jesus suffered and died so our sins could be forgiven. I’ve always believed as a Protestant that one drop of His blood was enough to atone for a lifetime of my sins; that no matter what I did, His blood had purchased my forgiveness.
Covering. Keating writes of Luther’s conception of grace as a cloak:
[In the fundamentalist view,] accepting Christ accomplishes one thing and one thing only. It makes God cover one’s sinfulness. It makes him turn a blind eye to it. It is as though he hides the soul under a cloak. Any soul under this cloak is admitted to heaven, no matter how putrescent the reality beneath; no one without the cloak, no matter how pristine, can enter the pearly gates (Catholicism and Fundamentalism, 167).
Is this really what I believed? No, I don’t think it is. I have never accepted that I was “putrescent” or “totally depraved.” I have acknowledged that the sinful nature of my flesh was hopelessly sinful and flawed, that I could never be holy through my own power; but I maintained that there was a lot of good in me, by God’s grace. I never believed that I would go to Heaven as a rotting, putrid mass of sin; I had faith that Christ had cleansed me by His blood. There is power in the blood to wash away sins.
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.
The blood, I believed, had washed me white as snow. Sometimes, after repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness, I would truly feel in a state of grace. But then I would turn right around and sin again. Was I “white as snow”? What part of me had been washed clean?
The guilty go free. On this earth, it’s a great travesty of justice for the guilty to go free. No matter how contrite the person is; no matter if they ask, and are forgiven, by the people they have wronged; crime demands punishment. I’ve never been a great proponent of the death penalty, but it always bothered me when death row convicts would argue that they deserved to be spared because they had found grace through Christ and changed their lives. Perhaps so; but nonetheless, they committed a crime; Christ may have paid their eternal debt, but they still owed one on this earth.
“Having one’s sins forgiven is not the same thing as having the punishment for them wiped out,” writes Keating (195). Certainly in my case above this holds true. It is not just for the guilty to go free. God is a just God; it was for our guilt that Christ had to suffer. But that wasn’t enough? “It is not contrary to the Redemption to say we must suffer for our sins; it is a matter of justice” (194).
I have believed, as do Catholics, and as do the (Protestant) composers of the hymns above, that Christ washes away our sins; that he washes us clean. Maybe it’s not as instantaneous a process as I thought. But nonetheless, I will be washed clean. Perhaps Christ’s Redemption is analogous to him taking my death penalty for me: he died for my sins so I wouldn’t have to die spiritually; so I wouldn’t have to suffer eternal torment; instead, I only have to go to his prison, where daily I’ll bathe in his cathartic blood, until I really am white as snow.
Today at Mass I sat near a man with a thick Southern accent. And it brought a smile to hear him say, “Lord, have mercy.”
One of my favorite things about our parish is the juxtaposition of the Catholic Church, a deeply traditional institution, with the American South, a deeply traditional place and people. I am passionate about my Southern identity and culture. I love to see very Southern, traditional people embracing an even older tradition.
In many ways, Catholicism is still a relative newcomer and an outsider to the uplands of the South I call my home. It is much more prevalent in the older, coastal cities such as New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile, which were settled by the French; it has been slower to penetrate into more rural regions. Of all the states in the U.S., Mississippi and Alabama have the two smallest percentages of Catholic adherents among their populations as a whole (about 7 and 6 percent). The Church is viewed with some skepticism and even hostility by many evangelicals and fundamentalists. Here, the predominant tradition — going back more than two centuries, to the period of settlement in these states, and even beyond — is evangelical.
I have deep roots in that heritage. I’m proud to have at least half a dozen Baptist and Methodist ministers in my family tree. It troubled me, at first, to consider departing from that. But now, I find it fitting. Catholicism may not be an essential part of the Southern tradition, yet — but one of the key aspects of the Southern identity is that it embraces, incorporates, and celebrates traditions of many forms and origins: our food, drawn so much from slave culture and from a variety of other cuisines; our music, again influenced by African, European, and Caribbean sounds; our customs, such a blending of the Celtic and English and our very own cultivation. The South is a great big cultural melting pot; nothing that enters it stays the same, but takes on a distinctly Southern character. Already, we Southerners are embracing Catholicism and giving it a very Southern flavor. Catholicism joins well with Southern hospitality. And it is fitting that a people who value tradition as much as we do should be a part of the tradition of Christ. Peace be with y’all!
I badly need to get back to my grading. I still have 23 exams to go before tomorrow, and I have RCIA in four hours — but allow me to nerd for a few minutes about liturgy. I don’t know much about liturgy. I had no liturgical background at all where I’m coming from. So I’m fascinated to learn about it and love it oh-so-much.
A few weeks ago, our diocese undertook new musical settings of several sections of the Mass, to begin our transition to the new English translation of the Roman Missal this Advent. I haven’t wanted to criticize it, not wanting to be a complainer, not feeling it was my place (being, as I am, yet a foreigner), wanting to be obedient to my bishop, and being eternally grateful to be a part of the Mass at all — but today I decided to post about it, and came home to google something.
I was looking for the quote from St. Jerome that Scott Hahn refers to in The Lamb’s Supper: “Our ‘Amen!’ here should be resounding; it is traditionally called the ‘The Great Amen.’ In the fourth century, St. Jerome reported that, in Rome, when the Great Amen was proclaimed, all the pagan temples trembled” (54-55).
The “Great Amen” has always been one of my favorite parts of the Mass. We used to chant it simply, but vociferously; it seemed so guttural, so desperate, so hungry — as if this were the moment in the Mass we had all been waiting for; as if we were crying out in our need for Christ, and finally He was arriving. Scott’s quote from St. Jerome underscored everything I was feeling: when we cry our “Amen,” every fortress of the Enemy shakes. It resonated with my evangelical roots: I wanted to shout “Amen!” to the coming of my Lord in the Eucharist.
In the new Mass settings, they have us singing the “Great Amen” — and well, it feels wimpy. Not only do we pause a few seconds after the final doxology for our cantor and organist to get on cue, thus losing the urgency of the moment; but the music itself is neither forceful nor resounding.
Imagine my surprise to learn that there’s apparently no such thing as the “Great Amen” at all.
According to these good folks at the MusicaSacra forum (which is awesome, and I’m glad to have discovered it), the “Great Amen” being sung is a newfangled addition, not prescribed in the GIRM or rubics of the Mass, and is disagreeable to a lot of them (purists, no doubt). And I have to say I agree.
When your priest sings “Through him, with him, in him” to the simple tone, just respond on the same note he used as the reciting tone: “Amen.” If he uses the solemn tone (with the slurs on some syllables), respond according to the pitch he ends on “A-me-” and then move up a whole tone “-en.” It’s all so simple, no one can object to it if it’s done routinely, and it makes SUCH a difference in how the Mass is perceived by the congregation.
And here I learned new terms! Father Joe has always sung, “Through him, with him, in him” so powerfully and stirringly — and I now learn that this is called the “final doxology” of the Mass, and that this style of singing is called “simple tone,” part of the grand tradition of Gregorian chant. “Solemn tone” is something I don’t know if I’ve encountered. ::listens to clips:: Okay, maybe I have. I have been listening to, and loving, liturgical music for a lot longer than I’ve been pretending to be Catholic. The way we used to chant it sounds like the way Gavin describes the “solemn tone” response above.
I have much to learn, and will love learning it. As I commented recently to my dear friend Audrey, there are limitless opportunities in Catholicism to be a nerd; a limitless capacity for nerditude.
Oh! More nerditude! I did look up that quote from St. Jerome. It seems Scott Hahn, annoyingly, took it out of context:
Do you wish to know, O Paula and Eustochium, how the Apostle has noted each province with its own particular characteristic? Even till our own day the vestiges of the same virtues or faults may be traced. It is the faith of the Roman people which he praises. And where else can we see so fervid a concourse to the churches and the tombs of the martyrs? Where does the “amen” thus resound like the thunder of heaven, and shake the temples of the idols? Not that the Romans hold another faith than that of all the Churches of Christ, but that they have a greater devotion and simplicity in believing.
—St. Jerome, Commentary on Galatians II, vol. 7, 427 (A.D. 381)
(English translation from John Chapman, O.S.B., “St. Jerome and Rome,” The Dublin Review CXXII: 42-73, at 62)
I also found a really sweet site that apparently has all of the volumes of J.P. Migne’s Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca — the massive collections of the writings of the Latin and Greek Church Fathers — scanned and online! I may never be wanting for a text again! (Our university library does have the PL but not the PG.)
The first and only time I ever had a formal Sunday school lesson curriculum was in my seventh grade Sunday school. For two semesters, we were taught about the journeys and epistles of the Apostle Paul (the first time I learned the word “epistle”). We had a small, intimate group of boys, a nurturing teacher, and truly instructive and edifying lessons — perhaps the only formal Bible instruction I ever received. I do not remember our teacher’s name; only that he was a good man and a good teacher, a leader with the Royal Rangers (the Assemblies of God’s answer to Boy Scouts). He looked an awful lot like the image of Paul on the cover of our lesson booklets — short and bald with a beard and moustache — so to me he will always be Paul. (I will have to inquire about his name; I would like to know.)
I remember being fascinated with the historical Paul and his times. It was the first time I had ever truly conceived of a biblical character as a true, flesh and blood person, or of biblical times in the context of history. This was the same year that I first became enthralled with ancient history in Mr. Reece’s Social Studies class (may he rest in God’s mercy). I remember the maps of Paul’s missionary journeys; I have always loved maps. Every Bible I’ve ever had has included maps of Paul’s three missionary journeys, but I distinctly remember there being a fourth one. Perhaps it was his journey to Rome, as few evangelicals seem to acknowledge anything that took place outside the certainty of Scripture; but I do recall this map taking him to western Europe and to Spain, as he had hoped (Romans 15:24). My ESV Study Bible notes that there is “some historical evidence” that Paul did preach in Spain — among the Church Fathers? This mystery has compelled me for years.
(An aside: Another memory, another song, that’s always dwelt on the edges of my memory, from the Christian conference in Richmond we used to attend when I was a child: In our daytime class, they taught us a song about the twelve disciples. All these years I’ve been trying to remember that song, every time I’ve tried to recall the twelve Apostles — but all I could remember was the last one, “and Bartholomew.” For that reason, Bartholomew has always had a special place in my heart, as the “last one picked.” Anyway, recalling vaguely the tune, “and Bartholomew,” I set out to find that song tonight — and I found it! To the tune of “Bringing in the Sheaves.”)
I remember the first time I ever heard of the Roman Catholic Church — some outlandish rumor from a friend, when I was ten or so, that Roman Catholics drank wine and worshiped naked. Perhaps he had it confused with some pagan ritual?
The next harbinger — the first clear indication that I was longing for the roots of my faith — appeared when I was sixteen or so. At Calvary in those days, we had a zealous, emotional youth pastor named Pastor Pat, who encouraged us to be “on fire” for God. In many ways this was a painful time for me; it was even more painful in its coming to an end. So it is ironic — no, it is the work of God’s hand, bringing all the pieces together — that an experience that came so close to driving me away from God completely should be so instrumental in my discovering my true path so many years later.
A number of Pastor Pat’s sermons left a mark on me — some ridiculous, others thoughtful but overblown — but there was one in particular that I will never forget. Pastor Pat had somehow gotten a hold of a book other than the Bible, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (which he declared to be “the closest thing to inspired literature other than the Bible”), and he passionately preached the martyrdom of St. Peter, crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord, and of St. Polycarp, burned at the stake but miraculously spared from the flames, until pierced by the sword.
The vivid pictures Pastor Pat painted of these early heroes of faith captured my imagination. Very soon after that, I ventured to the library (I was driving by this time) and checked out a book on the fates of the Apostles after the New Testament. For the first time, I conceived that our Church had a history after the New Testament but before us. I also around this time began to wonder about the New Testament itself, and discovered the New Testament apocrypha. I was deeply fascinated, and more than a little disturbed, that there were writings that the early Church had rejected. I checked out several books of apocryphal writings. I did not study them deeply, but read enough to convince myself that there was a reason they were rejected, and that we have the New Testament we are supposed to have. This was perhaps the early stages of the real period of questioning my faith that I entered my senior year. Reason, with regard to my faith, was awakening.
There have been many things over the years that I feel now, in retrospect, have been drawing me to the Catholic Church. They are the signposts and landmarks on my road of faith, and I thought, as part of taking my bearings and setting my future course, I would recollect the journey so far.
I was born into a godly home, to parents who loved me and loved God. I remember my parents praying with me, and reading to me from a picture book of Bible stories. The images from that book still are recalled to my mind with a good many Bible stories.
I spent my earliest childhood in a nondenominational faith community formed by our family and perhaps about a dozen others. We were there from before my birth; I don’t remember not being a part of a church. We met in the building of a former skating rink, and it still feels like such a familiar place in my memory. We didn’t have a pastor, that I recall; I remember first encountering the word in a Sunday school lesson and asking what it meant. My recollections of faith in these days consist mainly of Jesus on the flannel board, Zacchaeus in the tree, and heroic tales of Amy Carmichael in India. I remember the ubiquitous portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall, that formed my earliest conception of Christ (Warner Sallman’s The Head of Christ). I remember, possibly as early as age three, the joy of the first time I prayed the sinner’s prayer and asked Jesus to come into my heart. A team of young evangelists visited our church; I remember the young man who prayed with me. These were happy times. I remember having friends, and being loved. When I think of my mental concept of Jesus at this time, I think of love.
I remember the first time I encountered death. There was an elderly lady in a wheelchair in our church, named Rosa. I remember one day my mother told me that Rosa had fallen asleep and wouldn’t be waking up. In my mind I remember a rather frightening image of Rosa going to the hospital and the doctors putting her to sleep as for a surgery, or even as a veterinarian putting an animal to sleep. I think I might have understood better if my mom had said that Rosa died. I remember going through a box of Rosa’s things at the church; I got a pocket guide to birds.
We left that church when I was maybe seven or eight, and attended a United Methodist church for several years. These were not such happy times. I didn’t get along well with the other children in Sunday school; I felt rejected and alienated. I remember the worship services; I remember the Apostles’ Creed, and hymns, and the grandiose choir. The ministers seemed like nice men, but I never felt that I knew them and don’t remember their names. The older one would invite all the children to the front of the church to sit when him for a few minutes after worship and before his sermon. It was a beautiful church and service, but it felt cold, and dry. I have no memories of a spiritual life at this time.
When I was about ten, we joined Calvary. Calvary was the church I grew up in. It was affiliated with the Assemblies of God, and especially at that time, was the picture of the Pentecostal movement, with an emphasis on speaking in tongues and spiritual gifts. Calvary was a caring place, full of good people loving God and loving each other. Our worship was taken wholesale from a Don Moen album. (When I bought this CD for myself years later, it brought me back to such a precious place in my heart.)
This was the true birth of my relationship with Christ. I remember crying and praying the sinner’s prayer again with my mother one day, sitting in the car in front of my cousins’ house. I remember the first time I rationally questioned my faith, that horrifying moment, lying in bed one night, when I considered that there might not be a God — the prospect of eternal nothingness. I immediately got out of bed, like a child waking from a nightmare, to talk to my dad about it. I was beginning to discover my mind, and my heart, and my soul.
answer me in your saving faithfulness.
Paper grading this week. This Psalm is what keeps coming to my mind, as I struggle against the rising flood…