The Damascus Road

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (1600)

Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), by Caravaggio. (WikiPaintings.org)

My wandering had come to running and rebellion. My soul was crying out — I was lost, and could not find my way — but I was hurt, angry, fighting, and unwilling to humble myself before God, to lay down myself and seek in Him the guidance I needed.

Thank God for a praying mother — God’s messenger in my life, who would not let me go. She harped on (so I called it then) my need to get back in church and to get right with God — and I resisted. I said some cruel and terrible things to my dear mother during this time. But I remember one moment in particular when I retorted, not so much in annoyance as in desperation, “If God wants me to turn my life around, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul.” If only I had the certainty of such a direct encounter, I thought.

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
Acts 9:1-8
Accident scene overhead

A satellite view of the accident scene. (Google Maps)

In August 2006, I set out on a misguided errand of mercy, one with good intentions but ultimately selfish, sinful motives. The insane plan was to involve a major road trip and multiple hops by plane, flying out of Cleveland, Ohio — only I never made it to Cleveland. A few miles north of Columbus, while attempting to make a U-turn in the middle of a two-lane highway, my car was broadsided on the driver’s side by a dump truck loaded with concrete going some 50 miles per hour.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

The damage area diagram from the accident report. My car (bottom) versus the dump truck.

I have no memory of the accident. I don’t know by what mercy — whether angels, or saints, or gifted safety engineers — my body was spared being crushed with the rest of the driver’s side of my car. I was airlifted from the scene to Ohio State University Medical Center with severe head trauma. Arriving in the emergency room, I was completely unresponsive — I bottomed out with a 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale, indicating deep coma or death. “A brick or a piece of wood has a Glasgow Coma Score of 3. It’s dead,” says a recent report.

It was August 15 — the feast of the Assumption.

When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Matthew 8:5–9
Accident report: Crash diagram

From the accident report, the accident reconstruction.

I know that there were dozens if not hundreds of dear people praying for me from the moment of the crash — many even whom I did not know, thanks to prayer chains in half a dozen different churches. But most of all my beloved family — my parents and brother and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins — were standing with me in prayer. And I have no doubt that my family in heaven, all my dearest saints, were praying for me, too. My parents came to my side as quickly as they could, and didn’t leave until I was home.

Wrecked Honda Civic

The remains of my car.

Somehow, I was still alive, but I remained insensible. The doctors offered no immediate prognosis. Given the elasticity and unpredictability of the brain, the best they could offer was “wait and see.” The only other injuries I suffered, incredibly, were a few broken ribs; a cracked sacrum; a nasty, black-and-blue bruise on my left hip, where the imploding car door had hit me; a sprained left wrist, which I tend by habit to thread through the handle of the steering wheel; and just a few deep cuts on my forearms and the left side of my face where I had been struck by flying window glass. My car, a 1998 Honda Civic (may she rest in pieces), had no side curtain airbag, but the driver’s side frontal airbag did deploy.

When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
Matthew 8:10, 13
El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind (1578)

Christ Healing the Blind (1578), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

I remained out of my senses for about a week. Then, gradually, I began to return. My memories from this time are very foggy, like a half-remembered dream fading in the light, or like my earliest memories of childhood. Just as my brain was still forming as a child, my brain then was snapping back from a major traumatic injury. The world seemed so unreal; it was another few days before I could admit that this had really happened.

Even after I regained consciousness, my prognosis remained doubtful. It would be a long road to recovery, the doctors said. I would most likely suffer long-term deficits. I was little aware of this at the time. I have little memory of my time in the hospital now at all.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:4–6
The Assumption (Murillo)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (WikiPaintings.org)

Some week and a half after the accident, I was released from the main hospital, but was still in no shape for travel. I was moved to the Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital on the OSU campus. After a week and a half there — with time spent with physical, occupational, and speech therapists — I was released to go home. Against medical advice, I returned to school, to the semester whose start I’d just missed, to hobble through a course I wanted to take, whose professor was about to retire. Within three months, I was back to driving and getting around on my own. The only lingering effects of the accident were a slight and occasional stutter or slurring of words, a minor impairment of my short-term memory, and an inability to process alcohol.

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
Brain scan MRI

An MRI scan of the brain (not mine).

Medical professionals are reluctant to label miracles; the most anyone would say was that I made a remarkable recovery. But over the next months, seeing rehab doctors for periodic checkups and reading literature online, it dawned on me just how remarkable it was. Only some 20 percent of patients with initial scores of 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale survive. Of these, less than half have what is termed a “good outcome” (a 4 or 5 on the Glasgow Outcome Scale); the gross majority remain in a persistent vegetative state or have permanent, severe disabilities. Even of those who do well, most face years of painful and difficult recovery, and never regain full function. A recovery as complete as mine, in the brief time in which I made it, is virtually unheard of.

As I was leaving the hospital, I signed up for a long-term medical study of traumatic brain injury outcomes. Every year or two, someone from Dodd calls me to ask how many hours a day I’m able to be out of the house, how much assistance I require getting dressed or using the bathroom or walking, if I’m able to drive a car or operate heavy machinery, etc. I think my answers — that I suffer no functional impairment at all — are entirely anomalous to their expectations and probably skewing their results. And I’m reminded just how blessed I have been.

Saints Damian and Cosmas, icon

Icon of Saints Damian and Cosmas, physicians used by God and martyrs to the Christian faith. (Wikipedia)

The fact that I even survived the impact of the accident; the fact that I sustained such a severe injury to my brain and lived; the fact that I recovered as completely as I have, in such a time as I did — convinces me with certainty that my survival was a divine miracle. I believe that God, more often than through extravagant or ostentatious wonders, works His healing and mercy through the mundane, through natural processes, through the hands of physicians and through medicine (Sirach 38:1–15). I know that my healing was for me, and that my testimony will not convince anyone else; but as a pivotal juncture in my road to Rome — as the turning point of my life — I am compelled to share it.

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD—how long?
Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?
Psalm 6:1–5
1998 Ford Louisville dump truck

A 1998 Ford Louisville (L-Series) dump truck, the make and model of my fateful messenger.

Since my childhood, I’ve felt a close affinity with the Apostle Paul. I asked for his lot — and that, I believe, is what I got. I don’t know what I saw in the road that day — whether there was a literal flash of light, or whether a big blue dump truck was the message meant for me — but I was halted in my reckless path. I believe St. Paul was interceding for me even then.

Looking back today, I can only give all the glory to God. I have no doubt that I am here today as a testimony to His overpowering mercy and healing. I did not deserve this, by any merit of my own or due to any faith of my own. I am not even sure that if I’d died that day, I could have been saved. But the Catechism teaches that God heals the body when it is conducive to the healing and salvation of the soul: I was certainly in need of such healing. I can only credit the faith of the many who prayed for me — my parents who would not let me go — and the overabundant mercy of my God.

In the days and months that followed, as I fully grasped what had happened, the question began to eat at me: Why? Why had I survived when so many people die? Why had I been healed, when so many others are not? Why should God be so faithful to me, when I had all but abandoned Him? Who was I to deserve such a gift? My parents insisted that I owed my life to God — but rather than grateful, I was confused, even troubled. I did not have a true grasp of His grace and love and mercy. As I recovered, and yet continued my stubborn refusal to turn my life to God, my mother grew frustrated — and I grew angry. The accident had brought me to my knees, but I had not yet laid down the fight. There was yet one more showdown.

The Sacrament of Confirmation in Scripture and the Church Fathers

Confirmation (c.1712), Giuseppe Maria Crespi

Confirmation (c.1712) by Giuseppe Maria Crespi.

I’ve given an introduction to the Sacrament of Confirmation — the Sacrament that brings to perfection the grace begun at Baptism, gives to the believer an even deeper outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and seals him or her by His anointing. In this post I will take a closer look at the Sacrament of Confirmation in Scripture and in the Church Fathers.

In Scripture

I have heard sola scriptura Protestants scoff that the Sacraments cannot be found in Scripture. They can. Though it is never referred to as “confirmation” in the Bible, the practice is clearly there:

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction [διδαχὴν] about washings [βαπτισμῶν, lit. baptisms], the laying on of hands [ἐπιθέσεώς τε χειρῶν], the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:1–2).

Note in the Greek the enclitic particle τε: it is unfortunately often not translated in modern Bible translations, as is the case here. It is a strong copulative, most simply translated and, but denoting a close, intrinsic, inseparable connection between the words or ideas it joins: in this case, βαπτισμῶν διδαχὴν ἐπιθέσεώς τε χειρῶν (baptismōn didachēn epitheseōs te cheirōn) should translate as “teaching of baptisms and laying on of hands” — with these two things sharing an inner bond as if part of the same action or idea. This verse is a reference to the Early Church’s “dual sacrament” of Baptism and Confirmation.

Confirmation from Seven Sacraments Altarpiee (der Weyden)

Confirmation. Detail from Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden.

Also note the clear progression of ideas here: since the author is about to move from the “milk” of Christianity to “solid food” (Hebrews 5:12–14), he sums up the essential ideas: repentance from sins; faith in God; Baptism; Confirmation; Resurrection of the Dead; and Final Judgment. This is the path of the Christian life, the stages from Christian birth to Christian eternity.

There are at least two episodes in the Acts of the Apostles of the Early Church administering Confirmation to new converts. In the first, St. Philip the Evangelist (not St. Philip the Apostle; this Philip is one of the Seven Deacons ordained in Acts 6:1–6) has been down to proclaim the Gospel in Samaria (Acts 8:4–8). Philip baptized the new converts there — since any Christian may administer the Sacrament of Baptism (CCC 1256). The new Christians received baptismal grace, and in some measure, the Holy Spirit. But because only an Apostle could carry out the Sacrament of Confirmation (and thus today only a bishop, or a priest to whom he explicitly delegates the authority), the Samarians did not receive this immediately. And so:

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14–17).

Here, by the laying on of hands, the new Samarian Christians are confirmed in God’s grace and receive the fuller measure of the Holy Spirit. Since, at the time St. Luke penned the Book of Acts, the Early Church was still fleshing out its theology and working to grasp fully the outpourings of grace that Christians were receiving, Luke’s theological terminology was still somewhat uncertain. We know that Christians receive the grace of the Holy Spirit at Baptism — so apparently these Christians had been baptized but not confirmed.

Another episode occurs later, when St. Paul ministers in Ephesus:

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all (Acts 19:1–7).

After Paul baptized these men in the name of Jesus, he laid hands on them — and they received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, as it had fallen at Pentecost. This is another clear example of what the Church came to call Confirmation.

In the Church Fathers

This is running a bit long. There are a lot of patristic quotations I could share concerning Confirmation. I will choose a few of the earliest and clearest.

Tertullian, writing ca. A.D. 200, demonstrates:

Tertullian

Tertullian

Then having gone up from the bath we are anointed with a blessed anointing of ancient discipline, by which people were accustomed to be anointed for priesthood, by oil from a horn from which Aaron was anointed by Moses [Exodus 30:22–30]. For this reason we were called “christs” (“anointed ones”) from “chrism,” which is the ointment which lends its name to the Lord. It was made spiritual because the Lord was anointed with the Spirit by God the Father, as it says in Acts: ‘For they were gathered together in that city against your holy Son whom you have anointed [Acts 4:27].’ Thus also the anointing flows on us physically, but benefits spiritually, as the physical act of baptism (that we are immersed in water) has a spiritual effect (that we are free from transgressions). Next, calling and inviting the Holy Spirit, the hand is imposed for the blessing (On Baptism 7–8).

St. Hippolytus of Rome, writing ca. A.D. 215, documents:

St. Hippolytus of Rome

St. Hippolytus of Rome

The bishop, imposing his hand on them, shall make an invocation, saying, ‘O Lord God, who made them worthy of the remission of sins through the Holy Spirit’s washing unto rebirth, send into them your grace so that they may serve you according to your will, for there is glory to you, to the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit, in the holy Church, both now and through the ages of ages. Amen.’ Then, pouring the consecrated oil into his hand and imposing it on the head of the baptized, he shall say, ‘I anoint you with holy oil in the Lord, the Father Almighty, and Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.’ Signing them on the forehead, he shall kiss them and say, ‘The Lord be with you.’ He that has been signed shall say, ‘And with your spirit.’ Thus shall he do to each (Apostolic Tradition 21–22).

Finally, St. Cyprian, writing A.D. 253, exposits the passage from Acts 8 I quoted above, and connects the episode to the Church’s understanding of Confirmation:

St. Cyprian of Carthage

St. Cyprian of Carthage

Some say in regard to those who were baptized in Samaria that when the apostles Peter and John came there only hands were imposed on them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit, and that they were not re-baptized. But we see, dearest brother, that this situation in no way pertains to the present case. Those in Samaria who had believed had believed in the true faith, and it was by the deacon Philip, whom those same apostles had sent there, that they had been baptized inside—in the Church. . . . Since, then, they had already received a legitimate and ecclesiastical baptism, it was not necessary to baptize them again. Rather, that only which was lacking was done by Peter and John. The prayer having been made over them and hands having been imposed upon them, the Holy Spirit was invoked and was poured out upon them. This is even now the practice among us, so that those who are baptized in the Church then are brought to the prelates of the Church; through our prayer and the imposition of hands, they receive the Holy Spirit and are perfected with the seal of the Lord (Epistulae 73[72]:9).

And so we see that the Church has practiced the Sacrament of Confirmation since the days of the Apostles. We reached the full understanding of it that we have today no later than the early third century.

The Sacrament of Confirmation: Sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit

Poussin, The Confirmation (1649)

The Confirmation (1649) by Nicolas Poussin (from series on The Seven Sacraments). (SightsWithin.com)

I’ve written about the Sacrament of Baptism, by which the new believer’s sins are washed away, his or her old life is buried and raised again in a new life in Christ, and he or she receives the Holy Spirit. It is the first act of a believer’s initiation into the Church and into Christ. It is not a “work” by which we “save ourselves” — we are only brought to Baptism by God’s gift of grace — it is the means by which we receive God’s sanctifying grace.

A believer having been baptized has received the Holy Spirit and been washed in His grace; but we believe God has even greater things in store — an even greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. In the Catholic Church, baptismal grace — the process begun with Baptism — is completed and strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation. The Rituale Romanum (Roman Ritual) describes:

In baptism the Blessed Trinity comes to inhabit the soul; in confirmation the Father and the Son send to it the Holy Spirit in pentecostal mission to consecrate anew the edifice which the first sacrament has established. The one is the sacrament of birth; the other the sacrament of manhood. Baptism incorporates a man [or woman] in Christ and His Church; confirmation elevates his being in Christ through the anointing which brings more abundant grace. The former fashions; the latter strengthens. The former initiates; the latter seals.

In the Early Church, Baptism and Confirmation were generally celebrated at the same time, as part of a “double sacrament.” This practice has continued in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. In the West, however, the two Sacraments have been separated from an early date, out of a desire that the bishop of each church should celebrate the completion of Baptism — since, with the initiation of so many new Christians, through both natural birth and spiritual rebirth, he could not be present at every rite of Baptism.

Poussin, Confirmation (1645)

Confirmation (1645), by Nicolas Poussin (from series on The Seven Sacraments). The artist produced two separate series of seven paintings on the Sacraments (for different patrons). (WikiPaintings.org)

Confirmation, like Baptism, is a free, unmerited gift of God’s grace, and thus is open to all baptized Christians. By custom in the West, children of the Church receive Confirmation after they reach the “age of discretion,” have learned about their faith, and have freely chosen a deeper and more intimate union with Christ. At what age children receive Confirmation is at the discretion of each bishop and diocese, but the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has declared that the age for Confirmation should be between the age of discretion (“about the age of seven”) and sixteen. If a younger child is gravely ill and in danger of death, the Church extends Confirmation to them.

Adult converts to the faith receive Confirmation at the same time as their Baptism; or if they have already received Baptism, as in my case, Confirmation is itself the rite of initiation into the Catholic Church, together with partaking of the Eucharist.

Confirmation from Seven Sacraments Altarpiee (der Weyden)

Confirmation. Detail from Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden.

As with the other Sacraments, Confirmation accomplishes an inward, spiritual grace by means of an outward, visible action. Confirmation has several outward manifestations. The most basic, ancient, and biblical sign of Confirmation is the laying on of hands (Hebrews 6:2), to impart the gift of the Holy Spirit. Very early in the Church, to better signify this gift of the Spirit, the anointing with perfumed oil, the oil of chrism, was added to the rite. As Christ is the Anointed One, Christians thus are anointed to mark the fullness of their communion with Him. The anointing with oil represents, as it does in the Old Testament, a spiritual cleansing, a healing, an outpouring of joy, the commissioning to a divine vocation — the Sacrament of Confirmation reflects each of these dimensions. From this anointing, Confirmation is known in the East as Chrismation.

The anointing with oil — the tracing in oil of the sign of the Cross on the forehead of the believer — also marks the believer, places on him or her the seal of the Holy Spirit. Just as a document bears the seal of its Author and Judge, or a sheep bears the mark of its Master, the believer is marked with the indelible seal of belonging to Christ, of bearing His Spirit and carrying out His mission. In the Latin rite, the minister of the Sacrament, with the laying on of hands and the anointing with chrism, speaks, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Accipe signaculum doni Spiritus Sancti).

For as much as I have striven in my life as a Christian to avoid the emotionalism of my Pentecostal youth, my Confirmation and First Communion were among the most joyful, most deeply felt moments of my life. I felt more intimately joined with Christ than I ever had before. I felt the mark on my forehead even after I had washed it. Since that day my life of faith and my Christian walk have been changed and deepened radically. I am Christ’s! I am sealed with His Spirit! I am united with His Holy Church! This ancient Sacrament of the Church has been such a profound outpouring of grace in my life, such a precious gift of love — I feel that it in itself, in its moment, is an incomparable prize that all should seek after. Thanks be to God that it will be followed by a lifetime of the most intimate Communion!

(For a fuller treatment of Confirmation, see §§1285–1321 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Coming up next:

  • A biblical study of the Sacrament of Confirmation in Scripture
  • A consideration of Confirmation and Protestantism

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Witness of the Early Church, and Three Important Lessons He Can Teach Us

Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr. St. Ignatius was born in Syria ca. 50, and is believed to have been a disciple of the Apostle St. John. He became the third Bishop of Antioch, following St. Peter and St. Evodius, in ca. 69. In about 108, on the authority of the emperor Trajan, St. Ignatius was arrested and condemned to die for his faith before a Roman audience.

It is at this point that he becomes for us one of the greatest μάρτυρες (martyrs) of the Early Church. A martyr in Greek literally is a witness, one who gives testimony — and in his death, St. Ignatius not only bore great testimony for his faith in Christ, but he bears great testimony to us in this day of the faith, beliefs, and practices of the Early Church. For on his way to Rome, he wrote seven letters to the Churches of Asia Minor, exhorting them to remain firm in their faith, and to the Church at Rome, admonishing the believers there not to intervene and prevent him from giving his ultimate witness.

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

A.D. 108 — this is scarcely two generations from the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, at the very closing of the Apostolic Age: the Apostle John is believed to have died as late as ca. 100. Ignatius of Antioch lived early enough to have known several of the Apostles and heard their teachings. He was held in high esteem by the entire Church, a well-known, respected, and authoritative bishop and teacher. He was notorious enough even outside the Church for Trajan to have made an example of him. So we have every reason to trust Ignatius’s testimony regarding the faith of the Christian Church of his day — the faith received from the Apostles.

What Ignatius can teach us

The Authority of the Bishop

Bishops' Croziers

The crozier, one of the symbols of the episcopate.

There has been considerable debate among historians about the development of the episcopacy and at what point in the growth of the Church the office of bishop came to mean what it means to the Church today. Bishops (or overseers — the Greek is ἐπίσκοποι* [episkopoi]) are described in the New Testament (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:7), but it appears that in the earliest days of the Church, the offices of bishop and presbyter (πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], or elder — the presbyters of the Church became what we call priests) may have been to some extent synonymous. (For example, in 1 Peter 5:1, St. Peter refers to himself as a fellow presbyter†; in the above passage in 1 Timothy 3, St. Paul describes the offices of bishop and deacon but not presbyter.) The governance of the local church by only one monarchical bishop, as came to be the model and continues to be the model, is known to historians as the monoepiscopacy — with some liberal scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, suggesting that it was not established until well into the second century. This has particular bearing on the claims of the Church of Rome — for its bishop is also known as the pope, and as the successor of St. Peter, claims primacy over the whole Church.

* See “Bishops and Priests” for a lengthier discussion of the Greek for this terms.

† In the Church to this day, however, all bishops are presbyters (priests), but not all priests are bishops.

St. Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Clement), dated ca. 95, does not give explicit evidence of the monoepiscopacy (neither does it contradict it). But St. Ignatius’s letters, dated ca. 107, give absolute and undeniable evidence of the monoepiscopacy, and he asserts it as a known and established fact, not as a recent institution:

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery [i.e. the priests] as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8)

Not only does the bishop have absolute authority in the local church, but neither baptisms nor the Eucharist are valid without the ministry or approval of the bishop. This establishes definitely the monoepiscopacy, the subordinate roles of presbyters and deacons, and the authority of the bishop over the Sacraments of the Church. Ignatius compares the office of the bishop in every community of believers to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist — Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (This is also the earliest known description of the Church as Catholic, or universal.)

The Belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

Eucharistic adoration

The Catholic Church believes that in the Eucharist, the elements of bread and wine become in reality the Body and Blood of Christ. Many Protestant detractors argue that this doctrine is a later development and not a true apostolic teaching (despite clear statements in Scripture, e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29). St. Ignatius, however, attests firmly to the Church’s belief in the Real Presence in the first decade of the second century — a much earlier time than Protestants would like to admit, and too soon after the Apostles for such a doctrine to have been “invented”:

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh (σάρξ) of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6–7)

The Compilation of the New Testament

Codex Vaticanus

A leaf from Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

Third and finally, Ignatius’s writings demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the New Testament Scriptures, and he quotes from them as if from memory — it is unlikely that he would have been traveling to his death with a full church library. Working from the citations labeled by the editors of the texts at New Advent, I find:

  • Matthew
  • John
  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 1 John

Considering the contemporaneous Martyrdom of Ignatius, believed to have been written by eyewitnesses to Ignatius’s death — probably the believers who accompanied him to Rome — adds Acts and 2 Corinthians to the list above.

NOTE (2013/10/30): I may have to review this argument. It seems the editors of the Ante-Nicene Fathers may have been a little overzealous in their citations, and marked as Scripture references passages and phrases that were not explicitly Scripture references. I withhold a verdict at this time, until I can study the problem more deeply.

That makes for a fairly comprehensive collection of New Testament documents. Ignatius was familiar with the writings of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, and St. James, as well as the Gospel of Matthew — the citations ascribed to which, I suppose, might include references to the other Synoptic Gospels also. For a date mere decades after these documents were written — and these documents having been written in diverse parts of the Christian world — the Church seems to have very quickly assembled the collection known as the New Testament nearly in its entirety. And what’s more, Ignatius quotes from the New Testament with the same authority as he quotes from Old Testament Scripture — certainly the Church in Ignatius’s day considered the Gospels and apostolic letters holy, inspired writings. By the first decade of the second century, the Church had nearly (if not fully) assembled intact the body of Scripture that has been handed down to the Church today.

The Audacity of Pope: Everything I’ve ever tried to say about Church Authority

Pope

When I get busy and enfrazzled, I get behind on my blog-reading. So forgive me for reposting an entry that’s now a month and a half old. But Called to Communion, ever one of my favorite blogs, has offered a brilliant piece by Neal Judisch, a Catholic convert from the Reformed tradition, that says everything I’ve ever tried to say about church authoritytoward sola scriptura, toward the Magisterium, most of all toward the epistemological trap that Protestants fall into regarding scriptural interpretation — only in a clearer, more robust, more comprehensive way than I ever could; every argument, tied neatly and powerfully together. And most important and thought-provoking of all — Judisch demonstrates how the Catholic Church’s position, seeming from the outside to place so much authority in the hands of men, is actually the far more humble and self-effacing position than sola scriptura, which places ultimate authority in one’s own individual interpretation and conscience.

Similar remarks apply, as we’ve also seen, to the question of “Tradition” and “Magisterium.” The idea of an authoritative tradition and ecclesial teaching organ had sounded uncomfortable to my Protestant ears, since it sounded as though Catholics didn’t think the Bible was enough, that the words of mere men had to be added so as to round off and complete what was apparently lacking in the very Word of God. Here again, I thought, the Catholics were detracting from Scripture and its Author by putting mere men on some sort of par with them, and the human element was being unduly exalted once more.

Yet from a Catholic perspective this gets things upside down. For the Protestant alternative is to say that since Scripture alone is infallible, that means the Church cannot claim such authority when it comes to Scriptural interpretation. At the same time, we know we cannot simply leave this task to each individual Christian, for neither the individual Christian nor the tradition to which he belongs can claim to possess some sort of authority that he refuses to attribute to the Church. So, we are left with the question of how we can know, how we can decide with confidence, which of the endlessly diverse and contradictory Christian traditions has things right – hardly a trivial matter, if it might mean heresy on the one hand or fidelity to the Faith on the other.

And such sums up the conflict over authority that brought me to Catholicism in the first place.

Read the rest: The Audacity of Pope

This article, as CtC always is, is meaty, lengthy, and will stretch your theological muscles — but I encourage everyone to read it, as I encourage anyone of a Reformed background to examine CtC and consider its arguments. I pray every day for the reunion of Christ’s Church, and CtC is the most powerful voice of Christian unity I know.

Off the map

(It’s been months since I last posted an entry in my personal story. That’s because this next chapter is one of the most painful, and most personal. I was nearly inclined to skip over it — but it’s an important prelude to the events that followed. I’ve written three or four entries and discarded each as insufficient. Yesterday I wrote another one, what I thought was the final one — but it still felt too distant, too detached. So last night I read about a year of my journal entries from that period, and remembered the agony. I think now I’m ready.)

“Desert Road” (2008) by Matt Hintsa. (Flickr, CC-licensed)

My experiences in Rome had woken me from my spiritual apathy, and reminded me that there was a God who loved me. I knew in my mind that I needed Him. I set about, in my own striving, to seek Him. But I was still too caught up in myself — my life, my needs, my pain, my wounds — to truly embrace Christ’s.

I believed I was seeking God, but I was looking for fulfillment, for salvation, in the wrong places: in friends, in girls, in acceptance, in personal satisfaction. I bounced from one infatuation to the next with beautiful, godly women who weren’t the least bit interested in me. Time and time again I dashed my own heart against the rocks of heartbreak. All the while I was striving so desperately for love, when I didn’t even know what love was; I only knew selfishness. All the while I was seeking completion, the missing piece to my heart, when that could only be found in God.

Near New Market

“Near New Market,” by author. Taken on one of these wanderings.

It was a time of increasing restlessness. Some deep discontent was always boiling just beneath my skin. Most of the time I couldn’t put a finger on why — was I worried about money? about school? about my singleness? about the future? So often I would just get in the car and drive, not knowing where I was going — I just needed to get away.

This was the Baptist leg of my wandering road, almost by accident. I knew I needed to get back in church, but I couldn’t make up my mind where to start, or move myself to visit someplace where I didn’t know anybody. And then, thinking it might be a chance to get closer to some or another girl, I found myself in the Baptist church.

The Southern Baptist faith is the most deeply and essentially southern flavor of Christianity there is. It is the archetypical church in the southern mind, the kind of religion most people think of if you don’t specify otherwise. And so it was comfortable and safe. I liked the pastor and his preaching, and I liked the worship. But over the months I was in that church, I increasingly felt alone and out of place. Being about twenty-six years old, I was a part of the “adult singles” ministry; but I was the youngest person there by easily ten years. Every other “adult single” was older, divorced or widowed, with kids and a career. I, too old for the “college” ministry but still in school, never married, without a job or family of my own — had none of the concerns of these other people. In fact, there were few people in that church my age at all. It dawned on me more and more that they had no real place for me there. I felt disheartened and trapped.

Meanwhile, I had a blog in which I had come to invest an unhealthy degree of my self-worth. I posted every day, hoping someone would read me and validate me.* It was the golden age of LiveJournal, and I was one of those people. I had discovered a circle of blogfriends who were young (younger than me), educated, intellectual Christians who’d grown up with an evangelical persuasion but were searching for something deeper. The looming question for each of them was whether to convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy — and I believe every one of these people eventually did become one or the other. I admired them all a great deal — I longed for an intellectual faith like theirs more than anything — but having no foundation in theology or doctrine, I couldn’t follow their arguments or post anything intelligent in response. I felt like the lonely little kid chasing after the gang, eagerly wanting to play with the big kids, but left behind and left out every time. Oh, how I tried so hard to impress them — to be noticed; to be accepted — but just as I had always felt in my youth group growing up — for entirely the opposite reason — I felt an outsider.

* Now you see why I’ve been so concerned with blogging humbly.

There was one blogfriend in particular whom I considered an especially close friend — and then one day, she was gone. She dropped me from her friends list (ah, LJ drama!) and stopped answering my messages. In retrospect, I was entirely too dependent on my blogfriends for my self-esteem and emotional support, and letting go was the best thing for me in the long run; but at the time, I was fairly devastated. I searched and searched for reasons for this rejection, and the unfortunate conclusion I drew was that intellectual Christians, especially those inclined toward Catholicism and Orthodoxy, were arrogant, condescending snobs with whom I wanted nothing more to do.† I allowed the trauma to turn me away from Catholicism, from several favorite TV shows and books this friend and I had shared, even from C. S. Lewis, whom I associated with thinking Christians and this friend in particular. I didn’t take up any of those things again for a good four or five years. And so I came to associate Catholicism, even more than I had before, with coldness, rigor, and emptiness.

† In fact, as I later learned, the reason was that she had realized how unhealthy this sort of thing was for both of us.

Already unhappy and disillusioned with the church I was attending, I turned away from God in anger. My nascent search for a church that “fit me” — my first attempts to delve into Christian theology and thought — had brought me nothing but pain. I felt utterly rejected, utterly alone, even though my true friends were with me all along. My faith had been shallow, selfish, immature, and poorly rooted: I was the seed sown on stony ground that sprang up vividly, but met with affliction, withered away. If church had failed me yet again — what else was out there? Shaking off what I thought were shackles, I aimed to find out.

That was six, nearly seven years ago. For the first time in my life, I entered truly uncharted territory — a world not constrained by my Christian faith, which I left in tatters, flapping helplessly in the wind. Over the next months, I charged further and further away, deeper and deeper into the unknown. I hope I never go the places I went again.

But God was always there. By my Baptism, I was a Christian: one with the Body of Christ. And He still had plans for me. He wasn’t going to let me go so easily.

Mein liebster Leser: My dearest readers

Today I’m struggling with a difficult post, so I thought I would give you something light.

Annedisa of Life, Christ & Me nominated me for the Liebster Blog Award some time ago. Liebster is German for “dearest.” And today I wanted to dedicate this award to you, mein liebster Leser (my dearest readers).

Liebster Blog Award

The Liebster Blog Award.

The award originated, my Google nosing* has revealed, as an award to honor up-and-coming bloggers with fewer than 200 readers. I honestly don’t really know how many readers I have, but I’m sure it’s fewer than 200. So, thank you, dear Annedisa. I don’t know whether my blog is “up and coming” or not, but I pray that wherever it may go, it speaks the truth in love.

* Thanks to Sopphey for in fact doing said nosing, which my nosing quickly happened upon. A splendid research into the history of the internets.

Annedisa’s blog is a lovely place always full with beauty and inspiration, and I enjoy it a lot. Check it out, if you haven’t!

Now I’m supposed to nominate eleven people — but I don’t really think I know eleven people. According to the original rules, as near as Sopphey could surmise, one was supposed to nominate 3–5 other bloggers with fewer than 3,000 200 readers†. I think I’ll go with that instead.

† Apparently the original specification was 3,000, but I think the change to 200 was a reasonable emendation. We little people need all the help we can get. Gadzooks, I wouldn’t even know what to do with 3,000 readers…

Annedisa also gave me some interview question, which I’ll answer. To add a little jazz, why don’t we do this: I’ll add a question to the list at the end (#12 below will be mine), for the next person to answer. Each person I pass this to will add a question, too — so the interview gets longer and longer, and more and more interesting. (I’ll go ahead and specify that if this really keeps going and the interview reaches 30 or so questions, someone needs to edit it down to a reasonable number again and pick only out the best questions.)

First, before this gets too long, let me nominate a few of my liebster bloggers (I’m not quite sure how to tell how many readers a blog has, but I think it’s safe to assume that most of us in our little Catholic WordPress circle are not Big Wheels):

  • Laura at Catholic Cravings, a dear fellow convert and fellow Medievalist‡, always blesses me with lovely, witty, astute, or thought-provoking observations on the Church and her road to it.

    ‡ I’m only part-Medievalist; but I’m sufficiently drawn in that direction that I claim it.

  • Roy at Becoming a Catholic, a dear candidate I discovered just a few days ago, walking the road of his conversion now, through the path of RCIA. I’m excited to be here to cheer him on!

  • 1CatholicSalmon, who has been “liking” many of my posts lately, and I appreciate the encouragement more than you can know. Your blog is full of passion for the faith and strength in the face of rushing stream of modernity. May you go on rowing against the current!

Here are the instructions for reposting:

  1. Post the award image in a post of your own.
  2. Acknowledge who gave you the award (and link back to them).
  3. Choose 3–5 other bloggers who you think should be noticed more than they are and should have more readers, and pass the award on to them.
  4. Copy the interview questions below and answer them.
  5. Make up a question of your own and add it to the bottom, and answer it for yourself.
  6. Copy these instructions somewhere in the message to pass it on.

All right, without further ado, the questions:

1. A book that changed your life: The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. I’d like to tell that story sometime. But it was the first book that I recall really setting me on fire with a passion for reading and fantasy, when I was about seven years old.

2. Your favourite author/writer: Lloyd Alexander to this day remains one of my favorites; his books are still wonderfully entertaining to me. I recently dusted off my Dickens and I enjoy him a lot. I’ve been reading a lot of Catholic apologetics, etc., lately, especially Karl Keating, Jimmy Akin, Scott Hahn, and others. So I don’t really have a single favorite.

3. Pet and its name: My last pet was a betta fish called Ozymandias (Ozzy for short).

4. Craziest thing you have done: In due time.

5. My best friend: I have several, and they know who they are.

6. A childhood prank: At my tenth birthday party sleepover, one of my friends called the local radio station and pretended to be locked in the bathroom at the mall after hours, and asked if they could send somebody out to help him. Oddly, this was before cell phones were common — so I’m not sure how someone locked in the bathroom at the mall would have called a radio station. Ten-year-old logic. The DJ did mention my friend’s supposed predicament on the air. It was amusing at the time.

7. Favourite music artist: This changes frequently, and can fall into several categories:

  • Favorite classical composers: Josquin des Prez, J.S. Bach, Orlande de Lassus, Tómas Luis de Victoria, Frédéric Chopin, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Guillaume Dufay — This could go on a while.
  • Favorite classical artists: Oxford Camerata, Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, Hillard Ensemble, Wolfgang Rübsam, John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields — To name a few.
  • Favorite contemporary artists: Rich Mullins, Danielle Rose (discovered her very recently and like her a lot), Matt Maher, Audrey Assad, David Crowder Band — To name a few.

So yes, it’s hard to narrow me down.

8. A place you would love to visit: I pine for Rome. I have a grand pilgrimage planned out, if I should ever have the time and money for it: A long time in Rome, then Assisi, then Florence, then Milan, then Pavia, then Turin (with many stops along the way), then up through Geneva to see Calvin’s stomping grounds — then either to France or Germany to see more saints; I haven’t really planned past Italy. But probably France, to pursue St. Bernard. Also, I’d love to go to England, especially London and Oxford and Cambridge, and York and Durham and Lindisfarne — and Scotland and Ireland, too. That sounds like another trip or four.

9. If you had just 5 minutes left to live what is the one thing I would do?: Ideally, I would be in bed surrounded by my family and my pastor receiving the last rites. But supposing I’m not — I’d fall on my knees and pray and confess whatever sin might be on my heart and throw myself upon the mercy of God.

10. Favourite sport: I agree with Annedisa: Does blogging count? Other than that, I would say American college football.

11. How do you define love?:

  • Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. (1 John 4:7-9)
  • Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:10)
  • Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

12. Who’s your favo(u)rite saint? St. Paul, St. Gregory the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Bede the Venerable, St. Thérèse of Lisieux — So many precious people; you know you can’t nail me down.

Sacraments and “Works”: Where Protestants get it wrong

Theophany Icon

An icon of the Theophany, the Orthodox celebration of the Baptism of Christ, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove.

It occurred to me today, I think, the real reason why Reformed and evangelical Protestants reject the Sacraments and any belief in the idea of sacramentality.

St. Paul writes (Ephesians 2:8-10):

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

In the Protestant mind, Baptism and the other Sacraments are “works.” The idea of sacramentality is incompatible with the doctrine of sola fide because, by the Protestant interpretation of Paul, one’s salvation is accomplished by faith alone. To grant that the act of Baptism itself, a “work,” has any sacramental power at all, that it washes away one’s sins and gives one a new birth in Christ, is to admit that some other action beyond faith alone is necessary for salvation.

Therefore, in order to make sola fide work, they dismiss Paul’s clear testimony elsewhere in Scripture regarding the efficacy, sacramentality, and necessity of Baptism (Titus 3:4-7):

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

How can this be? How can Paul say that God saved us not because of works, and at the same time that He saved us by the washing of regeneration (διὰ λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας)? Clearly, Paul speaks of “works” here in a different way than Protestants suppose.

We are saved not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. Certainly, we are saved only by God’s mercy and grace — no works we do can ever earn our salvation. But that doesn’t mean — and Paul never says — that we are saved by faith alone — that we don’t have to do anything. Baptism, and the other Sacraments, are not “works” by which we try to earn God’s favor or earn our salvation, but the God-given and Christ-instituted means by which we receive His grace.

Missing Information: The Historical Limitations of Sola Scriptura

(This little essay originated as a comment in another blog just now, and I thought it might be worth sharing.)

Bible

As a historian — and this is one of the things that led me to Catholicism — I feel like it’s a fallacy of the doctrine of sola scriptura to presume that we have all the sources and aren’t missing any information. We have to remember that there were twenty, thirty, maybe forty years between the events of Christ’s earthly ministry and the writing of the earliest Gospel. For those decades, the Church wasn’t just sitting around waiting patiently for God to give them the New Testament so they could begin preaching the Gospel. The original mode of transmitting the Gospel was by oral preaching and teaching, by the Apostles going out into the world and spreading it by word of mouth. The churches they established were many and far-flung, but they were in touch with each other, by believers traveling among them, by the Apostles returning to visit the churches like Paul wrote about, bringing news and teaching.

We have to accept that we just don’t have all of that from Scripture. The writers of the New Testament didn’t record absolutely everything that happened or was going on between the churches. The Gospels, by their own admission, aren’t even a full account of everything Jesus said and did (John 21:25) — and such a thing isn’t even possible. No writer can record everything, not even a divine one — because He’s limited by the very earthly medium of paper and pen. The books of the New Testament very frequently refer to events we don’t know about and can only infer, to people we don’t know, even to letters we don’t have (1 Corinthians 5:9, 7:1).

Now, Protestants believe that everything they need for salvation is recorded in the Scriptures — and I like to think that God really did give them enough to get them into heaven, since He surely knew ahead of time that they were going to bolt. But that doesn’t mean that everything is in the Scriptures. On many points, the Bible is silent. That doesn’t mean, however, that there necessarily aren’t answers. The Tradition handed down by the Church — not vague, amorphous “traditions,” but historically documented testimony to the Church’s beliefs from the earliest ages — can shed light in many places, and complete our incomplete picture of the Early Church.

It’s very compelling to me to study the Bible and discover all I can about the people and places in it — but my salvation doesn’t hinge on which Mary was which or whether Jesus’s “brothers” were Apostles or even whether they were His brothers. Not even Tradition offers definite answers to many questions. Since I know I don’t have all the facts — not about the Early Church and certainly not about God — I’m content to just let some things be mysteries, things I wonder about but won’t know until I get to ask. I believe and have faith in the things I know for sure, and that’s that the Gospel is true and Jesus is my Savior.

Read the Catechism in a Year

Year of Faith (small)

Last night I happened upon something nifty I thought I would share: an online gadget someone has set up for the Year of Faith to enable one to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a year. I think this is an amazing and worthy goal for this Year of Faith. Catechesis — the teaching of the faith, to ourselves and others — is at the core of the New Evangelization.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

As a candidate, I started trying to read the Catechism cover-to-cover, but I really didn’t get very far. This time I intend to follow through. The daily chunks don’t seem to be too big — today it was seven paragraphs — so this is doable for just about anyone. Today is just Day 2; so it’s not too late to get on board by any stretch. I want to encourage you all, whether you’re a committed Catholic or a wandering seeker or just a curious observer, to embark on this journey with me. The Year of Faith is the time to delve into and discover the riches of the Catholic faith.