08 December 2012

Confused about the Immaculate Conception

I've been somewhat surprised this weekend by the reaction to my homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Every response I've heard has been some form of "I've never heard that before, Father."  This is exceedingly disappointing and sad. 

Why haven't Catholics been taught this dogma?

Speculating here. . .

1). The dogma's definition is an exercise in papal infallibility. . .not the most popular of notions these last forty-odd years. Could the I.C. have been ignored b/c our Ecclesial Betters want to avoid discussing infallibility. . .especially since the dogma's definition was an exercise of papal infallibility before the charism was defined by VC1 in 1870?

2). Pius IX's infallible declaration also defines the I.C. in de fide terms, meaning that Catholics must accept the truth of the dogma as essential to the faith. This sort of language--common before VC2--is decidedly frowned up in the Best Catholic Circles.  So, maybe the I.C. has been ignored in order to avoid support for de fide type definitions.

3). I had a classmate in seminary--an OP sister--who proudly told me more than once that she didn't believe in the I.C. or the Assumption.  When I inquired about her reasons for rejecting these two dogmas, she couldn't give me a coherent answer.  Basically, it boiled down to some sort of feminist objection to putting Mary "on a pedestal" as a way of oppressing women in the Church.

4). Theological objections to the I.C. were common in the Middle Ages. Controversy broke out between Dominicans (contra) and Franciscans (pro). The modern definition addresses most the Dominican objections from the Middle Ages, so I doubt Aquinas would object to Pius IX's definition.  And even if he did object on theological grounds, he would submit to the magisterium of the Church.  

5). The definition of the I.C. contains one philosophically difficult proposition:  Mary was given the gift of sanctifying grace from the merits of her Son's sacrifice for all mankind. Mary was conceived before Jesus was crucified, so how did his sacrifice on the cross "save" his Mother?  The salvific effects of Christ's death and resurrection apply eternally, that is, "from all time."  Though Jesus was crucified on a specific day in history, the salvation he accomplished is eternal.  This isn't a simple idea to convey, so maybe that's part of the reason we've ignored the I.C.

Can you think of any others?

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07 December 2012

By singular grace and privilege: Immaculate!

NB. About a dozen people told me after Mass that this homily was the first time in their Catholic lives that they'd ever heard the Immaculate Conception explained from the pulpit. That's downright scandalous! 

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA

I have heard the dogma of the Blessed Mother’s immaculate conception called everything from “unnecessary political propaganda” to “Mary’s crowning as the fourth Person of the Blessed Trinity.” Our Marian dogmas tend to get folks a little overexcited: Mary is a Catholic goddess. Catholics believe that Mary is equal to Christ as our Redeemer. Since Mary is the Mother of God, it is actually her flesh and blood we consume at the Mass. No doubt some of these errors are the products of overeager amateur theologians. Some are intentional misrepresentations made for scoring points against the Church. Others are half-heard, misheard, or re-heard rumors and poorly memorized fifth grade catechesis! So, let's set the record straight on the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. 

We are here this evening to celebrate one of those oft-misheard, misunderstood Marian dogmas: the Immaculate Conception. On this day in 1854, Pope Pius IX issued an encyclical titled, Ineffabilis Deus (“Ineffable God”). In this letter our Holy Father writes: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” Let’s look at what this statement says and then look at what it means. Here’s what we need to notice: 

1). The phrase “we declare, pronounce, and define that…” establishes Ineffabilis Deus as an infallible papal pronouncement. Not the first nor the last. Please note that papal infallibility wasn’t officially defined (i.e. “limited”) until 1870 at the First Vatican Council some sixteen years later. 

2). The Holy Father is pronouncing infallibly on an existing doctrine. In other words, Pope Pius IX did not “invent” the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Our modern solemnity developed rather circuitously over the centuries from the second century oriental feast of The Conception of St John the Baptist. This feast and the feast of The Conception of St. Anne, Mary’s mother, carried the tradition in the East until we find in the eleventh century liturgical books the Feast of the Conception of Virgin Mary. The first Feast of the Immaculate Conception was celebrated by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476. 

 3). Mary’s immaculate conception in her mother’s womb was achieved “by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God…” This was a unique gift to Mary, an individual dispensation made especially for her. 

4). Mary’s preservation from O.S. was made possible by “the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race…” Mary did not save herself nor preserve herself from original sin. Like the rest of humanity, our Mother, very much a human woman, was “saved” by Christ. 

5). Pius IX defines “immaculate” as “preserved free from all stain of original sin…” In other words, Mary was spared the effects of the Fall and was thus perfect in her humanity while living among us, remaining sinless her entire life, leading to her bodily assumption into heaven. 

6). As already noted, the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception has always been believed by the Church. Pius IX’s 1854 declaration simply elevates the doctrine to the rank of dogma, teaching us that Mary’s sinless state at the instant of her conception “is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” Believing firmly and constantly in the truth of the Immaculate Conception is not optional for Roman Catholics; it is definitive of the faith, i.e. de fide

That’s what the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception teaches. What does it mean? Think about what Mary the virgin girl was asked to do by the angel Gabriel. She was asked to assent to conceiving, carrying, and giving birth to the Word of God, His only Son. Gabriel greets Mary with, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!” Mary is scared nearly speechless by this and “ponders what sort of greeting this might be.” Gabriel, seeing her distress, says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Mary assents to the angel’s request to be the Mother of the Word among us, saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Not only does the I.C. explain how the Son of God becomes the Son of Man w/o the stain of Original Sin, the dogma also foreshadows for us the conception of the Church. 

Follow me here: 

Mary gives the Christ his flesh and bone. The Church is the Body of Christ on earth, making Mary our Mother. 

Mary gives birth to the Word made flesh. The Church in the flesh –that's all of us—preaches and teaches the Word to the world. 

Mary, the deathless Mother of the Church, is raised bodily to heaven. The Church, our deathless Mother, will be raised bodily on the Last Day. 

As members of the Body of Christ, we are given the dogma of the I.C. as more than a theological explanation, as more than an infallible definition of Catholic truth. The I.C. is for us a way of knowing our Father and the strength of His fidelity to His promises. Paul teaches us that God chose the Church, as he chose Mary “before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.” Immaculate. Like Mary, “we were also chosen…so that we might exist for the praise of His glory…” Mary is the exemplary church, the ideal body of believers assenting to the will of God; conceiving, carrying, giving birth to the Word daily, hourly before the world, for the world. And for this purpose, Mary and the Church were themselves conceived, carried, and birthed without the stain, the burden of sin. This solemnity is a singular grace, a gifted moment where we glimpse not in passing but in perpetuity the overwhelming power of our Father to accomplish through Christ the promises He made to our ancestors long ago: a virgin will conceive a son and he will be called “Emmanuel,” God-with-us, Jesus the Christ! 

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Today marks the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

And my first anniversary as parochial vicar of St Dominic, NOLA.

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06 December 2012

Consecration of the U.S. to the Immaculate Heart of Mary


Most Holy Trinity: Our Father in Heaven, Who chose Mary as the fairest of Your daughters; Holy Spirit, Who chose Mary as Your spouse; God the Son, Who chose Mary as Your Mother; in union with Mary, we adore Your majesty and acknowledge Your Supreme Eternal dominion and authority. 

Most Holy Trinity, we put the United States of America into the hands of Mary Immaculate in order that she may present the country to You. Through her we thank You for the great resources of this land and for the freedom which has been its heritage. Through the intercession of Mary, have mercy on the Catholic Church in America. Grant us peace. Have mercy on the President and on all officers of our government. Grant us a fruitful economy born of justice and charity. Protect the family life of the nation. Guard the innocence of our children. Grant the precious gift of many religious vocations. Through the intercession of our Mother, have mercy on the sick, the poor, and the tempted, sinners, on all who have need. 

Mary, Immaculate Virgin, Our Mother, Patroness of our land, we praise and honor you and give ourselves to you. Protect us from every harm. Pray for us, that acting always according to your will and the Will of your Divine Son, we may live and die pleasing to God.

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05 December 2012

Pride, idolatry, injustice

1st Week of Advent (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

If we were to draw a graph representing the history of our collective relationship with God, this graph would be a long undulating line with very high peaks and very low valleys. When we are right with God, things are good, very good. However, when we are on the outs with the Lord, we are really, really out. Few Old Testament prophets articulate this riotous relationship btw Creator and creature better than Isaiah. For example, we heard read this morning Isaiah's description of one of those historical moments where God's blessings are being poured out on His faithful people. Isaiah delivers what has become the Father's cardinal promise: “. . .the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples. . .” What will He provide? Rich food and choice wines to celebrate our restoration to righteousness. And more importantly: “. . .he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples. . .he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces. . .” Not only does the Lord promise to care for the daily needs of His people, He promises to defeat Death and end forever the agony of our grieving. This promise is fulfilled in the advent of Christ Jesus, the food and drink of eternal life. 

If we were to think too long and too hard about the miseries of the human condition, we'd probably spend most of our days in tears, crying out to God for His justice against disease, hunger, and violence. Our supernaturally augmented ability to love one another makes it difficult for us to endure peaceably the savage injustices that nature inflicts on the least of God's children. Add to this misery the human talent to injure and kill, and we are sorely tempted to close our eyes and ears to the suffering that demands justice. The problems are so big, so deep, so vile that we are overwhelmed with their stench. What can we do to put an end to this madness? When we try, our efforts almost always seem small and useless. One reason for our apparent failure is that we often misdiagnosis the disease and apply the wrong remedies. Rather than treat the root cause of the problem, we choose to dabble in treating the presenting symptoms: poverty, social injustice, and ignorance. But what lies rotting at the heart of the disease is not a lack of wealth or racial inequality or inadequate education. The evil men do flows from the sin of pride, the hardening of his heart against God, and needful acts of loving-care and mercy we are commanded to perform.

When God's people in the Old Testament fell from grace, they fell for two reasons: 1) idolatry, a form of adultery committed by worshiping alien gods; and 2) injustice, the oppression of those most in need, a sin produced by idolatry. It should come as no surprise that when we commit adultery with alien gods, we also end up oppressing the least of God's children. What better way is there to express our willful independence from God than to offer praise and thanksgiving to our own creations? So, pride drives us to our knees before the idols of our own making. These gods never tell us anything we do not want to hear. They never demand anything from us that we do already want to give. In fact, they are nothing more than images of our own defective wills: the will to power, to succeed, to accumulate, to dominate, to control. It's just one tiny step from worshiping ourselves to oppressing the least among us. If I must worship me, then so must you. How then do we treat this disease? We come to believe that we are all creatures of a loving God who has commanded us to love one another in the same way that He loves us: sacrificially. He gave us His only Son in death so that death is no longer to be feared. Freed from this awful fear, and knowing that this world is always passing away, we can let go of our pride and receive the Lord's gift of bountiful mercy. This is how He cares for us: by making us like Him, like His Christ, and bringing us—if we will—to the perfection of His love. 

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03 December 2012

Lord, I am not worthy. . .

St. Francis Xavier
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Despite their voracious appetite for military conquest, the Romans of Jesus' day were known for their lenient policy toward the religious practices of their conquered peoples. Most of the time, subject nations and tribes would be required to incorporate the Emperor into their local pantheon of deities. For the polytheistic pagan cultures brought into the empire, this was not a deal-breaker. They tossed a pinch of incense on the imperial altar and got on with their lives. The Jews, however, were different. As the only truly monotheistic religion under Roman rule, God's people were exempted from the imperial cult. Thus, when the centurion requests Jesus' help with a sick servant, he is showing respect for the religious prohibition against Gentiles visiting Jewish homes, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.” What do we mean when we repeat the centurion's words before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in communion? Isn't all this business about being “unworthy” a bunch of junk leftover from the pre-Vatican Two Church? 

This very question was asked in one of the classes I took in seminary. A woman in the class objected rather vigorously to the phrase, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. . .,” arguing that requiring Catholics to repeat this at communion time fostered a “pre-Vatican Two mentality” regarding the human person and served to damage personal self-esteem. She proudly declared that she always changed the phrase to “Lord, I AM worthy to receive you. . .” Being something of a pot-stirrer, I asked, “If you are already worthy to receive communion, why bother receiving?” That earned me a damning glare from both the woman and our professor! I attempted to explain what I thought was the ancient understanding of human worthiness before God, but my explanation was drowned in a storm of indignant accusation of “patriarchal throwback” and “no pastoral sensitivity.” Since then, I've been a little more careful about distinguishing btw “being worthy” and “being made worthy.” Before the majesty of God and His Christ in the sacrament, no human person is worthy by nature; however, b/c of Christ and his sacrifice for us, we are made worthy to stand in the divine presence. To ask for healing while in His presence—imitating the centurion—is a confession of our place before Him: we are servants. 

If confessing our status as servants seems like another bit of “pre-Vatican Two” leftovers, let's remember that we follow Christ, the one who takes himself off the Master's pedestal and serves his students by washing their feet. The same Christ who exhorts his disciples to be servants to the least among his brothers and sisters, and then places first those who place themselves last. Confessing our lack of worthiness to receive Christ in communion and then receiving him in communion is the supreme act of trust for a Christian servant. The centurion confesses his own absolute trust in Christ's power when he says, “. . .only say the word and my servant will be healed.” No need to come to my house, Lord. No need to see or touch my servant. Just say the word. We echo his trust when we repeat his confession; when we repeat his confession, we too confess our trust that though unworthy we are made worthy. If such a confession of faith damages self-esteem, let me suggest that the truth of Christian humility is being deeply misunderstood. Nothing we can do will ever lift us up to worthiness. We are dust and wind. However, as a gift, we are dust and wind loved by Love Himself and made instruments of His mercy for His greater glory. Lord, only say the word and our souls are healed. Only say the word and we worthy to do your will. 

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02 December 2012

It's the End of the World!

1st Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

There are many and various ways to be awakened from a deep sleep. A honking alarm clock. A hungry baby. A ringing phone. A knock at the door. Theses are the usual ways. If you are interested in learning about the more unusual ways we can be awakened, search Youtube for “wake up pranks.” Pranksters use air horns; plastic spiders, snakes, and lizards; flour and syrup; mousetraps and marbles; fireworks, and even Halloween masks to scare the living daylights out of their family members and friends. Asleep and soundly dreaming away, the victims are secure in their beds. Vulnerable, innocent, easy prey. When the assault comes, their reactions—screams of terror, wild jumping about, colorful language—all come together perfectly in a flashing instant of terrifying surprise, a completely unexpected jolt back to the reality of the waking world. . .and the eye-watering laughter of their loved ones. After this dose of terror, how do they ever get back to sleep, waiting, as they surely are, for the next bucket of iced water, or the next fake machine gun blast? They know it's coming. Do they just wait to be surprised again? 

 Speaking to the disciples about his return at the end of this age, Jesus says, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy. . .and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times. . .” Like the victim of a Youtube wake-up prank, are we to live our lives in vigilant fear of being surprised by the trumpet blast, the roaring waves, the moon and stars shaken from the sky? After all, doesn't Jesus also tell the disciples that “people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world”? Ours is a vigilance of hope not fear; of thankful anticipation not fret and worry about disaster and cosmic destruction. Yes, the Day is coming, but it is the Day our Lord fulfills His final promise to us. 

Pay attention: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my promise…” Over the horizon, yet to arrive, are those days ahead of us when the Lord will make good on His promises to bring us back to Him; to rescue us from darkness and make us into children of the Light. He sent His prophets and His Law. We killed the former and violated the latter. And grew no holier for our trouble. And the Lord grew no more patient. He promised Abraham children as crowded as the stars, and He promised those children that He would never abandon them, never exile them, never punish them, never again start from scratch, hoping to replace them. Instead, He promised them a King and a Savior, a Lamb and a High Priest. He promised them a Son of Man and a Son of God, a single rescuer for all creation. One for us who is like us and who will make us like him, one with him, one like him, a single heart and mind, a single path, one goal, one road, two feet, and a promise from the mouth of God Himself: the days are coming when I will fulfill the promise I made. And this world will be ended. 

Of course, the world has been ending since it started. The Last Day of creation set with the First Day's sunrise. Can you count the number of world-ending scenarios you have lived through? For me: Soviet communism, DDT poisoning, acid rain, nuclear winter, HIV/AIDS, the new ice age, global suffocation from deforestation, flu pandemics, “dirty bomb terrorism,” worldwide economic collapse, and global warming—all secular apocalyptic scripts that narrate the reduction of our civilizations to utter ruin. Instinctively, it seems, we understand that as individuals and as a collective whole we will die. There will be an end. I will die. You will die. We might even die together. On a global scale, apocalyptic scenarios represent our individual anxieties about dying. Projected on the world-screen, these End of Days dramas are just one of the ways we humans play out our fear of dying. The trumpets of natural disaster, or nuclear annihilation, or environmental pollution blare from the four corners of the Earth, and we run around screaming, searching for some way—any way—to forestall our end. If the Church can be justly accused of using the bloody prophecies of Armageddon to frighten the vulnerable into submission to her influence, then we can just as rightly accuse the secular powers of using scientific prophecy to scare us into a slavery to fear. Does it matter if the prophets of global destruction are dressed in vestments or lab coats? Whether they use cryptic scriptures or equally cryptic “science”? Neither of these schools of prophecy preach the hope that Christ came give to us. Neither encourages us to wait faithfully in the expectation of the day of promise. Neither points us to the need to live in love with thanksgiving. 

Does the inevitability of The End mean then that we can become complacent in our vigilance for the coming of the Lord? No, of course not. But if we are not to drown in worry and be surprised on the day of promise, we must understand that ours is a vigilance for the coming of Christ not a vigilance against our inevitable demise. As Christians, we have no fear of death. Death is dead. Yes, we will die. But we will not lie dead forever. Jesus is not warning the disciples against the coming end so much as he is telling them to live now as if he had come again already. When secular apocalyptic scenarios splash across the media, we are told that there are solutions, ways of avoiding the coming disasters. We are harangued and shamed into accepting power-grabbing schemes to save the planet. Jesus says no such thing to the disciples. There are no solutions. He says simply, “I will return. And here is how you will know I am coming. . .” The advent of his coming is always upon us. He has come; his is coming; and he will come again. These are not reasons to fear an end, but reasons to hope for Christ's inevitable rule. 

Paul writes to the Thessolonians: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…” Here’s what’s scary about Advent: yes, the Lord is working to fulfill His promises, but the promise He made is the promise of change, of purification; He promises to love us regardless, and we are radically transformed by Love dwelling among us. The advent of transforming Love is frightening. We will not be the same. Ever. And if we will come to Christ as children ready to be transformed, we will strengthen our hearts against the seductions of the culture of death; the opinions of the herd; the temptations of material excess, and spiritual impoverishment. Movies, news media, celebrities; all our things, and empty spiritual junk food will seduce us, reel us in and leave us disheveled, broke, embarrassed, and dirty. Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy! Or the day of the Lord will surprise you like a trap. . .or an air horn, or a bucket of ice water in the middle of the night. 

Christian hope looks beyond anxiety, beyond disaster, beyond the always-already advent of an apocalypse. When we hope as we ought, we are not gambling against cosmic odds, but rather laying claim to the promise made by God to His prophet Jeremiah: “In those days, in that time, I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land.” That's not an angry threat but a divine guarantee. How then do we prepare for the coming of the Lord? Ask yourself as you begin and complete every daily task: how will starting and finishing this job get me closer to God? How does cooking dinner, reading, driving, paying the bills get me closer to God? Be vigilant against joylessness; stand guard against vanity and pride; beware deception, easy compromise, weakened trust, injustice; and beware court prophets and preachers prophesying and preaching what you want to hear. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to endure until the coming of the Lord. And when he does: stand up and raise your head because your redemption is at hand!

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