Wisdom and the Deuterocanon

I’ve never read much of the Deuterocanon (also called the Apocrypha by Protestants) before — just the occasional Mass readings from those books. I’ve been unsure of their role in the canon. Catholics attest to their canonicity and divine inspiration; but then, why did Protestants exclude them? (I know, for one thing, that the Deuterocanon contains the scriptural foundation for the Catholic beliefs in prayer for the dead and Purgatory. Were the Reformers so petty as to exclude books because they didn’t like what they said?)

This passage came up in Mass reading last week — and it bowled me over:

“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
Wisdom 2:12-20 (NRSV)

Can anyone really read this and maintain that this book doesn’t belong in the Bible? This is clearly a Messianic prophecy. The ever-academic New Oxford Annotated Bible doesn’t comment on that, but points out that it is similar to Isaiah 52-53. But this passage goes further than any other Old Testament Messianic prophecy that I’ve seen:

  1. The “righteous man” would oppose the actions of the ungodly, reproach them for “sins against the law,” and accuse them of “sins against their training.”
  2. He would “profess to have knowledge of God” and “boast that God is his father.” (I don’t think the Messiah’s claim to be the Son of God is made this explicit in other prophecies.)
  3. He would be “insulted,” “tortured,” and “tested”: “For if the righteous man is God’s child, He will help him, / and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries” (cf. Matthew 27:39-40, Mark 15:29-32, Luke 23:35-37, for exact parallels).

Community and Communion

In the year or so before I moved to University, I began making an earnest, systematic effort to find and join a church. I wrote a lot of lists to myself about what I was looking for in a church (I am a maker of lists). And always near the top of the list was community: people in the church with whom I had something in common; people with whom I could have fellowship and share my faith; a vibrant, living, growing community. The primary reason for the church, I reasoned — for having us hang out in groups, and not sit at home doing it sola scriptura — was community: to provide a structure for the support of the fellowship of believers.

The first time I visited the Catholic Church here, I was decidedly unimpressed. Nobody greeted me warmly, introduced themselves, or even spoke to me. I had to track down someone after Mass to even get a visitor’s card. I didn’t feel particularly welcome, and felt more than a little put off. It wasn’t until six months or so later that I visited again with my friend Audrey. At least then I didn’t feel entirely alone and foreign, but I remained unimpressed. Where were the Sunday school classes and fellowship groups? Where, besides Audrey, were the people of my age and situation? Where was the community?

It wasn’t until I had been attending Mass for a month or more that I found it. It’s in the Eucharist, I realized one Sunday with an epiphany. Community is in Communion. Kneeling there during the Eucharistic Prayer, focusing intently on Christ’s sacrifice, I was enveloped by the sensation that I was not alone: that all of us there in that room; all of the faithful throughout the world praying that same prayer; all of the believers through all the ages who had prayed it — were united there in that moment in one Spirit, with Christ himself. It was the feeling of a whole and complete sharing, an absolute universality; I felt I would never have to feel lonely again. It’s a feeling I’ve felt many times since. And I had never even taken the Sacrament, and still haven’t — merely been in its presence. It was a feeling, yes: and I have striven not to build my faith on feelings. But it was a feeling supported by everything that Catholics believe about the Eucharist. Truths that I was only nascently beginning to understand were speaking to me. I had found community: not the kind I had thought I was looking for, but the kind I most desperately needed.

Catholics are often not very good at building the other types of community. I read an interesting piece in the National Catholic Register that underscores everything I’ve experienced in the Catholic Church. Protestants do, as I had been thinking, go to church with fellowship in mind. Salvation itself is assured; Scripture and faith are enough; so the reason for going the extra step and being a part of a faith community is largely social. But for Catholics, participation in the Sacraments is obligatory, a necessary part of salvation. Because it’s an obligation, many people — even those who genuinely and deeply love the Lord — naturally tend to slip into habit or complacency, and do what they have to do, and then leave. Salvation is the prime motive for going to Mass, not fellowship — and so it tends to slip away.

Our parish is much better about community than many others. We are comparatively small, with a large contingent of students, so an active campus ministry and fellowship among the college-aged come easily. We have weekly spaghetti suppers that involve everyone, not just students; Friday fish fries during Lent; the St. Joseph’s Day celebration; and other important community events. There are adult faith formation groups, and a youth ministry, and service groups like the Knights of Columbus, and really much more active a community than I recognized at first. We do seem to be more laid back about it than most Protestants, though.

It wasn’t until I started attending daily Mass last summer that I truly found my community — the kind I initially thought I was looking for, and which I still very much needed. Attending every day, I gradually began meeting, one or two at a time, the others of the much smaller group of faithful that attends every day. And I’ve made some very dear friends, of the kind I’ve always longed to have, fulfilling friendships that are slowly building and growing, built on love and shared faith — the "super friends" of the article above. I’ve met a number of fellow graduate students of my age and situation. I met the dear man who will be my RCIA sponsor, and his lovely wife. I spent a blessed evening a few nights ago having dinner in their home, an authentic Italian dinner and a conversation that went late into the night.

They, cradle Catholics who’d spent their whole lives in the Church, with little contact with the evangelical world, and I, having journeyed far from there but still with so far to go in understanding the Catholic faith, found a common ground in the middle on which to share and learn from each other. The Protestant concepts I take for granted, they knew little about, and I tried to explain; and the Catholic concepts with which I am still struggling, they explained so easily as if they were the most natural ideas in the world. I saw, through their eyes and Catholic understanding, how far-fetched some Protestant ideas seem to be; but also how much Catholics and Protestants really have in common.

And I feel loved. For the first time in my whole life, I truly feel I have a church home, where I am loved and embraced and accepted; where I can have fellowship and community with beloved people of like mind and like faith, and Communion in the Eucharist with all the Church and with my Lord Jesus Christ.

The Onus of Reunification

One of the biggest questions in my Catholic journey has been this: How does God view the Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant churches, and their schism with one another? God desires unity in His Church. St. Paul writes to us, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV). The very fact of our disunity attests to our sinfulness: We have all fallen short. We have all failed to preserve the unity of His Church. We all share part in the blame — even those of us alive today, we who perpetuate the division and fail to ardently seek reunification.

I’ve come to believe, in my journey, that the Catholic Church holds the treasury of apostolic faith, the fullness of truth having been passed down; that it is the One (unus, single, undivided) Holy and Apostolic Church founded by Christ and the Apostles. Studying the history of the Church, I have come to see that the traditions of the Church are not accretions or inventions as I once thought, but have persisted through the great men of faith of the Middle Ages, through the great Church Fathers, all the way since the beginning, the faith of the Apostles. I believe that the Catholic Church represents an unbroken continuity of belief and tradition, from the Apostles to the present day.

Unbroken, that is, except for those who have broken away.* Being raised a Protestant, I always admired and celebrated the great Protestant Reformers. I still do — they were courageous men passionate about God and willing to stand up for what they believed. I cannot, even as a Catholic, paint the Reformers or the Reformation black. The Catholic Church certainly needed to be reformed in many ways — and in fighting back against that reform, she must share a part of the blame for the schism that ensued. I now consider that schism one of the most heart-wrenching and tragic events in all of history — the rending of Christ’s Holy Church, his Spotless Bride.

(* I am not abandoning Eastern Orthodoxy, either. I am only leaving it out of this discussion for simplicity’s sake, because the majority of us Christians in the West are Catholic or Protestant, and because I know comparatively little about the Orthodox churches.)

Protestant churches have borne much good fruit. Christ continues to be active in them, in teaching, love, service, and salvation. There have been many great Protestant thinkers and theologians — and I do consider their thought and theology great; they are worthy and useful ways for thinking about God and our life in Him. There have been many good and holy Protestant servants of Christ, who have fed the hungry, clothed the poor, bound up the wounds of the hurting, and won many souls for His kingdom. God, without a doubt, uses, ministers, and saves through Protestant churches.

So God is merciful and forgives us of our sins — even the great sin of breaking His Church into fragments. But is that enough? Is it enough to accept His forgiveness, accept the fact of our division as final and irrevocable — that what’s been done is done, and we can’t go back? That this is the way things are now? That our churches can’t break bread together, and that’s okay? To most Protestants (to me as well, not that long ago), the thought of rejoining with the Catholic Church is unthinkable. To many, it is outright offensive. To them, the Catholic Church had sinned and been corrupted; it needed to be re-created. But even supposing that were true — the fact remains that the Christian Church — the Body of Christ — is fragmented. Are we going to allow this to persist?

There have many efforts over the years at ecumenism. Mostly in recent times, this has consisted of getting some members of the various churches together to share and discuss what they have in common and worship together. I applaud this, and think there needs to be more of it: the more we all talk to each other, the more we’ll realize that we all share the same Christ, and that He doesn’t want us to be divided. Others, however, continue to attack our differences, and decry any ecumenical efforts. How can this be what Christ wants? Can any of these people really sit down with faithful Catholics and continue to believe that Catholics are not Christians? How can anyone believe that our God is so small as to exclude large bodies of believers from His Kingdom because of minor doctrinal differences?

I feel that the onus is on us to seek not just dialogue, but reunification of Christ’s Church. As we ever approach the end of the age, we will need each other — we will need to be One and whole as a faith — more than ever. Recognizing this need for reunion is one of the many reasons for my decision to join the Catholic Church. History has failed to prove to me that the Catholic Church has ever been “wrong” or “corrupt” to the point of justifying a break (everyone sins; but she has never departed from the Truth); and so, if she was not “wrong,” then she must still be “right.” And the onus is on me to do what I can to make reparation for my ancestors' mistakes (this probably applies to my ancestors other mistakes as well). I am just one lonely pilgrim, but in returning to Rome, I am doing what I can. And I am a part of an ever-growing wave. And I believe as this wave gains momentum, it will sweep up more than only individuals. I truly have hope to see whole churches, even whole denominations, return to communion with Rome. I truly have hope to see, in my lifetime, a reunification of all Christians.

Just as the blame for our division is shared among all Christians, I believe that in reunification, some ground must be given by all. I’m not an expert on this — more learned people than I have written whole books on the problem of reunification — but the baseline for communion with Rome would have to be, I think, accepting the authority of the Pope and Magisterium, and belief in the Sacraments. I think the idea of accepting an institutional church authority at all will be most difficult for many Protestants — but I’ve come to see that it’s necessary. From Rome’s position, I think there is plenty of ground to yield regarding practice: just as Rome is embracing many Anglicans and allowing them to preserve their Anglican identity and heritage, and just as the Eastern Catholic Churches are embraced in all their differences, even a “Baptist rite” or a “Presbyterian rite” could be accommodated. I can quite easily imagine the liturgy of a Baptist church that embraced Rome and the Sacraments, while still remaining essentially Baptist.

We are all Christians, after all. We all worship the same Triune God. We all believe the same things about Christ. We all adhere to the same creeds†, whether we proclaim them or not. Regarding the Sacraments, our differences of opinion are more minor than most people recognize. Unity is within reach — if only we are willing to reach out. The onus is on every one of us.

† Obviously, I am excluding those who don’t — Sorry. Y’all come on back now, too.

Hey oh mary

The Hail Mary, as interpreted by my phone’s voice-to-text transcription feature. Alternate readings of the same phrase are in parentheses (after I tried several times, enunciating more clearly):

hell mary (hey oh mary) full of grace the lord is with me
blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of the loom jesus
Holy mary mother of god, pray for a center snow in a few orders.
(Pray for us sinners now if your order.)
(... No and a happy hour or dinner.)
(... Now I get the hours for gas.)
(... Now and at the hour of lard ass.)

Apparently it refuses to recognize the word “death” in this context; no matter how clearly I enunciate the word, it always gets “gas” or “ass” or “dick”. It does, however, know “sola scriptura”, and understands “death” in other contexts. Is Android anti-Catholic much?

The Eternal City

In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel to Italy with Dr. G and a small class of students, most of them members of the Society (and so passionate nerds for Latin and antiquity like me). It was a course on the history of the city of Rome, and in two weeks, we covered some 3,000 years of Roman history, from Romulus to Mussolini. In the mornings, Dr. G lectured us, and in the afternoons, we went out into the city to tour the sites that pertained to that day’s period of history. The whole expanse of history is right there before you in Rome, to see and experience. It was magical.

This was the culmination of three years of tutelage under Dr. G. But all was not well. I had just run aground of two of the unhealthiest, most disastrous semesters in my entire college career, one after the other. My academic future stood precariously on the rocks, and even amid the wonder and joy of being in Rome, I struggled against despair and hopelessness. In a minor coup, I forced out a research paper in the week before I left — on the Christian Catacombs of Rome — and handed it to Dr. G as I was boarding the plane. And I tried to leave my catastrophe behind me.

The trip was too full and too vivid and too wonderful to cover here in any great detail. I kept extensive journals while I was in Italy, striving to capture every moment. Because of this, most blessedly, I am able to re-create my thoughts and feelings at the time of my experiences, unclouded by the years. More than any other fruit of this journey — though I had no notion of it at the time, and only now, seven years later, am realizing it — it laid the paving stones of my journey to the Church.

The Basilica of St. John Lateran

The Basilica of St. John Lateran.

We arrived in Rome on a Saturday. The next day, Sunday, we collectively decided to go to Mass — when in Rome, do as the Romans do. We picked the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, which wasn’t on our itinerary otherwise. It was only two days after Pope Benedict XVI had had formally taken possession of it as pope and bishop of Rome. It was a glorious choice for my first Roman church and my first Roman Mass. The account from my Roman journal:

We arrived at the church just as the ten o’clock Mass was ending. Outside it was impressive, but that was nothing compared to what I saw inside. Immediately upon walking through the doors, I was so awed by the size, beauty, and magnificence that I began to weep. The ceilings were high and vaulted, and everywhere was ornate work in gold. Splendid paintings and mosaics covered the walls. In alcoves along the walls were Baroque statuary of the twelve Apostles that looked as if the Apostles were about to come alive and walk among us. High above the altar rested the relics of St. Peter and St. Paul. I felt I was in the presence of God.

By this time, I had been drifting spiritually for about seven years. I always called myself a Christian, always thought of God from time to time; but I hadn’t been going to church regularly, praying, or reading my Bible for a very long time. I felt that God had forsaken me, when in truth I had forsaken Him, choosing instead idols and sins and spiritual oblivion. But in Rome, from this very first moment, I was awakened to His presence. If there was anywhere where I could encounter God, I thought, it was in these ancient churches in this eternal city, where saints and martyrs had walked.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls.

A couple of days later, we took a trip down to the EUR, Mussolini’s planned city district. Our plan was to visit the Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Civilization), with its scale model of ancient Rome — but when we got down there, it was closed. The rest of our day was now open; what else would we do? Hibernius, my Catholic convert friend, and I made the case for us to take the subway back up a couple of stops to St. Paul outside the Walls.

The high altar of St. Paul outside the Walls

The high altar of St. Paul outside the Walls.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls is one of the four major basilicas of Rome. It is also the traditional burial place of St. Paul, over which the Emperor Constantine built the original basilica in the early fourth century. Only months earlier, I had read the first whisperings of a remarkable discovery there: Vatican archaeologists had discovered Paul’s sarcophagus. The plaque over it read, “Apostle Paul, Martyr.”

I went to the church with this on my mind. We entered the church through the apse end, so I didn’t get the impact of the façade; but I was immediately impressed with the church’s size and grandeur. That’s not what really moved me, though. I made my way to the high altar. There I saw the representation of a tomb (not the ancient sarcophagus, I realized) at the foot of it. Being generally unfamiliar with Catholic churches and relics, I wasn’t sure if this was where Paul’s tomb had been discovered or not. I anxiously queried Hibernius, and he found a priest who spoke English and asked him. It was.

When I found out, I was overwhelmed. I knelt down at the altar, and tears began streaming down my face, as the words of St. Paul, which have always meant so much to me, echoed in my head, and I thought of the road to Damascus. ‘Thank you, Lord, for sending your servant Paul,’ I prayed.

St. Paul's sarcophagus revealed

Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, Archpriest of Rome's Basilica of St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls, shows the passageway through which one side of St. Paul's stone coffin is visible. (National Geographic)

I’m not sure how long I knelt there praying — ten, fifteen, thirty minutes? — but when I looked up, I saw my friends and classmates standing there looking concerned. They were ready to leave, but wanted to give me my time. As we left, several of them thanked me for bringing them there. Several people told me later that it was their favorite place to visit. It was certainly the highlight of my trip.

I had a touch from God that day, and I knew it — my first true religious experience in a number of years. From then on, my time in Rome became a pilgrimage. Visiting churches was what I most looked forward to; and I was acutely aware of God’s presence in them and my experience of Him. I remember commenting, thinking little of it at the time, that it was hard to stand in those churches and not want to be Catholic.

Before I left St. Paul’s, I bought a small statue of the Apostle. Even at the time I bought it, I was conscious of it being more than just a souvenir: it was an object of devotion. That statue has stood on my bookshelf ever since, watching over me; as I believe St. Paul himself has watched over me, and guided me home to Rome. I wasn’t aware of it then, but God was working, slowly but deliberately, to bring about my redemption.

Saint Joseph’s Day

Today is Saint Joseph’s day, my name day. But now is probably the time to note how completely out to sea I feel in many aspects of Catholic culture.

I don’t entirely understand how “patron saints” work, for churches and institutions, but particularly for individuals. Is there some formal process by which a patron saint is declared? Or is someone a “patron” just because I declare it so, because I ask them in particular to look out for me and pray for me? Are they exclusive? Can I have only one, special patron? Or can I fill my bucket with all my favorite saints I would like to have covering my back, and call them all my patrons? Do they have any particular say in the matter? Is it like choosing an academic advisor; in which case they might decide that their docket is full, and that they can’t afford to take any more advisees? Or do saints in heaven literally have all the time in the world, being outside our understanding of time? Is it, as I’ve heard many people say, a matter of the saint choosing us — much as “the wand chooses the wizard” in the world of Harry Potter?

In many cultures and many times over history, I know, children were often named for the saint on whose feast day they were born — joining their name day and their birthday. For children who are born Catholic, is their patron saint generally the saint for whom they are named? (In that case, what about children given more modern, non-saintly names?) Or do they, as I will, choose their own patron saint at their confirmation? Are there any particular customs attached to the celebration of the feast day of an individual’s patron saint?

Magnificant, March 2012

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus, on the cover of this month's Magnificat.

St. Joseph. He is a saint held in especially high regard in the Catholic Church, being the adoptive father of Our Lord, the spouse of Our Lady, and the head of the Holy Family. I learned only today that he is the patron of the Catholic Church. I was gratified when it occurred to me, some months into this process, that my pastor, my bishop, and my pope all share my birth name. I noticed, on Rome Reports, that today is “the pope’s feast day.” Is this by virtue of his name being Joseph, of St. Joseph being his personal patron saint, or of his being pope? Or all of the above?

I really struggled, some months ago, with accepting many of the Marian beliefs. And conjoined to this was the idea of St. Joseph as Mary’s “most chaste spouse” — a notion, like Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, that is very foreign to the Protestant mind. For Protestants especially, Joseph becomes an everyman — just an average joe who received a very special calling from God. He becomes the typical dad and family man. For Catholics, too, he is held up as the exemplary family man, the patron of both fathers and workers; but Catholics ascribe a very atypical degree of righteousness and virtue to this man. Because the Holy Family is in no way a typical family. Not only is the wife the Most Blessed Virgin and Mother of God, and the son Our Lord and Savior, the Eternal Son of God — but St. Joseph has to be an incredible sort of man to put up with all this.

For Protestants, it is much simpler, because Mary, too, is just an average girl who was incredibly used of God. Joseph and Mary become the typical married couple, sharing a typical marriage with each other, which includes a sexual union and other children. To Catholics, the Holy Family models the relationships of Father and Mother to Son and Church; but beyond that, it little resembles any one of our earthly families. It has no sexual component. Two of its three members are most holy and without sin. Joseph becomes the “most chaste spouse” who, after a betrothal to a girl he desired to marry, never experiences sexual union with her at all.

The image of St. Joseph as a man changes considerably for Catholics. He is a much older man, already advanced in years, possibly a widower with other children. I have heard various interpretations and explanations of the “brothers and sisters” or “brethren” of the Lord — that they were Joseph’s children by his prior marriage, or that they were Jesus’s cousins or other close relatives — but the agreement for Catholics is that they were not the children of Mary. As an older man, Joseph wouldn’t have experienced particular hardship in forgoing sexual union. He becomes the guardian and protector of both Jesus and the young Blessed Virgin, taking Jesus as his adoptive son and Mary effectively as his ward. He is willing to do these things because he is a righteous man willing to lay down himself to serve God. He truly earns his sainthood; for the kind of man he was, not merely for the unique position he was in.

And so, St. Joseph is somebody I’m having to get to know all over again, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose place in my life I am still trying to find. I find myself having a difficult time relating to him; but he is certainly someone I must admire and venerate.

Peace

As Kristen said, I am now in the “Countdown to Catholic.” 21 days to Easter…

Something major that I intended to write about as I set out, but have thus far neglected to, is the “affinities” — those beautiful and glorious aspects of Catholicism that have drawn me. Tonight I thought I would begin with the first one that comes to mind when I explain my reasons for becoming Catholic: peace.

As I’ve alluded to once or twice before, I really struggle in my life with depression and anxiety and fear. The older and the more I’ve grown as a Christian, the more and more central has been my longing and need for inner peace. My favorite Scripture for a long time has been in Philippians 4:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7 ESV

When I began attending Mass a little more than a year ago, one of the first things I was struck with was the pervading sense of peace I found there. There is peace in the inherent order of the Mass — in its symmetry — in everything happening that is supposed to happen; in everything being said that’s supposed to be said; in nothing being wasted. There is peace in the church itself. To Catholics, the nave of the church is always a house of prayer, for reverence and worship and contemplation, not a place to socialize or chatter or roughhouse. I had the sense that I had entered a consecrated space.

And peace is central to the Mass itself — to the very Catholic consciousness. I count at least eight or nine times in the liturgy of the Mass when peace is imparted, all of which speak from Scripture:

Gloria

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.

Lord’s Prayer

Priest: Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Sign of Peace

Priest: Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles, Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will. Who live and reign for ever and ever.

All: Amen.

Priest: The Peace of the Lord be with you always.

All: And with your spirit.

Deacon or Priest: Let us offer each other a sign of peace.

This simple act — the act of turning to my fellow parishioners and wishing them peace — “Peace be with you” — is one of the most precious parts of the Mass to me. It is a moment of bonding, of sharing, with people I may not even know, but who are my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom I share in His love. On some days, that bonding makes the difference between feeling lonely and depressed and feeling Christ’s love. I never even realized, until I started coming to Mass, how much Christ Himself talked about peace. “Peace I leave you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27). I had read and heard these words before, but they failed to make an impact until I felt them in action.

Agnus Dei

All: Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace.

Jesus is the Lamb of God, who not only takes away the sins of the world, but grants us peace. These words are power and life to me. And more than in any other church I’ve been a part of, these words and this peace are held forth by the Catholic Church.

Confession and Healing

Today I made my First Confession.

I’ve heard from various friends about the sensations they felt the first time they took part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation — from joy, to peace, to release. For me, it was similar. I was very nervous going in. It was a new experience, and I would be laying my soul and my faults bare. I had written out my confessions beforehand. As I confessed them, I had the sensation of a pouring out of my soul — and in the end, catharsis. I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt clean. I didn’t smile; I didn’t skip away; I cried.

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
Micah 7:18-19 ESV

This has always been one of my favorite Scriptures about God’s forgiveness. Today I truly feel that my sins have been cast into the depths of the sea.

What has moved me the most in approaching Confession is that it’s known as a Sacrament of Healing. I don’t know what I thought it was when I was a Protestant; but I conceived of it more as a burden, a legalistic obligation, than as an administration to the soul. Christ is the physician to our bodies and souls. Confession is the Sacrament of Reconcilation, the Sacrament by which we as sinners are reconciled to the Church, to each other, and to God. It is also called the Sacrament of Conversion, because through it, through Confession and Penance, we actively turn away from our sins and convert (turn towards) God and His path of righteousness (CCC 1423-1424). This whole chapter in the Catechism is powerful and poignant to me; I have quoted sections of it before; but to quote another:

“The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.” Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament. For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation “is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.” Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God (CCC 1468).

One of the key scriptural foundations for Confession is telling to this point:

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
James 5:13-16 ESV

Here, confession of sins is intimately connected with healing, both physical and spiritual. And it is paired essentially with the other Sacrament of Healing, the Anointing of the Sick.

In the Christian tradition from which I’m coming, miraculous healings, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are at the forefront of the Christian experience. When someone is sick, especially gravely sick, there is so much prayerful petition, so much faith and hope that God will work miracles of healing through prayer, anointing, and the laying on of hands — inspired by the healing miracles of Christ and the Apostles, and by this same Scripture that undergirds the Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. There is a genuine belief and an active faith that God heals; but even beyond this, there is ready credence and faith given to faith healers, individuals who profess to have individual, personal gifts of miraculous healing through the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, in the Great Commission of the “Longer Ending” of Mark (Mark 16:14-20), that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” and that “these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues . . . ; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, writes of gifts of healing and other spiritual gifts. While Catholics and cessationists apply these passages only to the Apostles and believers of the Apostolic Age, many Protestants and continuationists apply them to wider Church, to all believers in all ages, and believe that these miraculous, personal gifts of healing continue to this day.

I have no doubt that God heals today — that He intervenes in our lives in miraculous and mysterious ways. If this weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be alive today. But I believe that more often than not, these healings follow the course of the mysterious rather than the miraculous: of God’s infinite love and grace, and not His desire to make a show or spectacle. My own healing was miraculous, but it was a private, personal miracle, more for me than for anyone else. My experience, and the faith it engenders in me, is of little weight to anyone else; and to me, that makes it all the more personal and precious. I believe God works through medicine, through surgery, through the unexplained, through paths that no one sees, that few appreciate but those that receive His graces. When it comes to professed faith healers, to individuals with professed gifts of healing, I tend to be a skeptic. Many of them, I fear, are charlatans and showmen. I certainly don’t believe “word of faith” teaching, that professes that we can “speak” or “declare” God’s blessings and graces into our lives.

Do Catholics believe in divine healing? This was one of the most pressing questions I faced as I made this journey. When someone is terminally ill and dying in the Catholic Church, I have never heard a priest or anyone pray for God’s divine healing. There seems to be a ready acceptance that death is imminent. In many ways I think this is healthy; earthly death is a part of life, as much as being born, and I have seen firsthand the crises of faith faced by those who believed they had “spoken” a healing and “received” it, only to face death in the end. But do Catholics believe in divine healing? Most certainly. Catholicism abounds with stories attributing healings and other miracles to the intercession of saints; even attributing intercession against certain ailments and diseases to particular saints. St. Peregrine Laziosi, for example, is the patron saint against cancer.

And in the Catechism itself, in the mainstream, established doctrine of the Church, there is also hope in God’s healing. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick — the so-called “Last Rites” — is not a sacrament of death or even strictly of preparation for it, but of healing (CCC 1499-1532). Though the emphasis of the Sacrament, as described in the Catechism, is the healing of the soul — on the gift of grace to face sickness; on the forgiveness of sins; on preparation to make life’s final journey — throughout is an acknowledgement that Christ is a physical healer. It affirms that Christ may heal the body to accomplish the salvation of the soul (certainly, this is what happened for me); but accepts that the salvation of the soul is paramount, and that crossing over into the next life is a grace in itself to those who belong to Him.

So do Catholics believe in divine healing? Yes, they do. Sometimes I think that there should be more faith and prayer for physical healing in this life; but what I see, more openly than that, is perhaps even more valuable: a full acceptance of God’s Will and Grace in our lives, that not ours, but His Will be done.

Radical

So, it is thirty days until Easter. Once I enter the Church, will I still be nascens, or will I be novus?

Things have been moving quickly, and I’m sorry I haven’t felt like posting, and haven’t had time. I am always having thoughts I think of sharing, but then they pass before I have a chance to sit down and write them, or my motivation flags. I’ve started and deleted this post three or four times in the past week.

Last week at RCIA, we had a lesson on sacramental marriage and Natural Family Planning with a couple in the parish, and it was amazing and invigorating and worldview-changing. I find that the more Catholic I become, the more and more my worldview changes — the more and more I feel at odds with the rest of the world.

Jesus said that the world would hate us on account of His Name; that we would be reviled and persecuted. Never before in my life as a Christian have I truly felt that pain of rejection. But in this heated political and cultural debate, I feel all of a sudden that I’ve placed myself on the front lines of the culture wars — or sometimes, before a firing squad. Many of my closest friends are very liberal. Always in the past I’ve been able to find common ground with them, and we were able to respect each other’s divergent turf. Never before have I been decried for maintaining my own, private, traditional, conservative views; but now, if I’m not openly in favor of abortion or homosexual marriage (or “women’s rights” and “gender rights”) — then I’m labeled a misogynist and a homophobe.

The Catholic Church stands, self-consciously, against the values of the modern world. Critics charge that the Church is antiquated or “out of step with the times” — but this is how it has to be; we follow Christ and not the times. We are called not to conform, but to be transformed. I’ve heard this rhetoric all my life as a Protestant, but never before have I found myself holding positions — on marriage, on contraception, on the death penalty, on service to the poor, just to name a few — that go against even most Protestants. More than any other brand of Christianity I’ve been a part of, I feel that I’ve stumbled upon radical Christianity.