07 January 2009

Questions, questions, questions

Even more questions!

1). How is a "personal relationship with Jesus" really achieved in prayer and daily life? I am particularly confused about the "personal" part.

Boy, have you ask the right priest about this! Having spent most of my life in the deep, fundamentalist Protestant South, I am intimately acquainted with the notion of a "personal relationship with Jesus." This phrase has a simple semantic meaning and a rhetorical use. The simple meaning is that we are all as individuals invited by God to encounter Jesus as a person. Now, this is rather difficult since Jesus lived over 2,000 year ago. . .afternoon tea with Lord is temporally impossible. Fortunately for us, Jesus arranged for us to meet him personally in the sacrament of the Church, most intimately in the Eucharist. We meet the person of Jesus in the Eucharist as persons ourselves--person to person, as it were. This means that the entire liturgy of the Eucharist is our chance to encounter the Risen Lord by offering ourselves through him and with him as "acceptable sacrifices." At once, with him, we are priests, victims, and the thankful beneficiaries of his "once for all" sacrifice on the cross.

Now, in my neck of the woods, the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" has a number of rhetorical uses. Most broadly, the phrase is used to indicate that you have "been saved" by "accepting Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior." This is a pithy slogan that captures the fundamentalist Protestant idea that what matters to MY salvation is MY encounter with MY Lord. The emphasis is on ME and Jesus. This is a reaction to the Catholic teaching that we encounter the Lord most fully in the sacrament of the Church: all of US come together as one Body in Christ. What upsets our Protestant friends is the notion that we are saved as a Body rather than saved as individuals. Worried that we might come to think that membership in a denomination (Baptist, Methodist, etc.) is what saves us from Hell, Protestants emphasize the necessity of each of us coming to know Christ individually. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church is not a denomination. She is the Church, the Body; so, belonging to the Catholic Church is what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ that will be taken to Heaven. I am not saved; WE are.

The phrase is also used rhetorically to emphasize MY authority in religious matters over and against the authority of any ecclesial body. My denomination can teach and preach and make whatever rules it wants to. What matters for ME and MY salvation is MY personal relationship with Jesus. Obviously, this is a particularly American development that introduces a completely alien philosophy into the Christian tradition: democracy. In Protestant denominations almost everything can be put up for a vote to determine its truth, goodness, and beauty. Nothing is spared the scrutiny of a majority vote, including the applicability of the authority of scripture and tradition to our contemporary circumstances. The dangers here are legion. Fueled by a desire to appear "relevant" and up-to-date, one denomination after another has abandoned the classical catholic tradition in favor of modernist fads. Against centuries-old teachings, they have approved by majority vote abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, sexual activity outside of marriage, divorce, female clergy, historical-critical-linguistic criticism of the Bible, syncretistic liturgies and on and on. Without the Church, the teachings of the apostolic faith, the interpretative magisterium, and the sacraments, Christians in a group become little more than a theological debating club.

For Catholics, there is only one way to establish a personal relationship with Jesus: establish a personal relationship with his Body on earth, the Church. . .more specially, the Catholic Church.

2). You post political stuff sometimes and I wonder why you think priests have a right to talk politics. Shouldn't you just stick to religion?

No, I shouldn't nor should anyone else. The idea that our faith-lives and our political-lives should exist separated by a giant wall is a particuarly insidious philosophy that deprives us of our chance and our duty to bring the whole person into our citizenship. We cannot exist as multiple personalities: a faith personality, a political personality, an academic personality, etc. This is a mental disorder that privileges secular worldviews by supressing religious ones. You will rarely find someone who holds this idea who at the same time believes that religion is beneficial to our society. The American notion of separation of church and state was articulated and written into the US Constitution as a way of preventing the state from creating an established church on the model of the Church of England. Without the establishment clause we would have an official American church, probably the Episcopal Church! The establishment clause is meant to free the church from state interference. It is not meant to free the state from church influence. Secularists have been extraordinarily successful in persuading successive Supreme Courts that the establishment clause prevents churches from "meddling in politics" or even having a legitimate say in civil discourse. If you are crippled as an indiviudal when you adopt the multiple-personality approach to politics and religion, how much more crippled are we when we adopt this approach as a nation!

As a priest, I am duty-bound to teach and preach the Catholic faith as the Church's magisterium interprets it. When political matters impinge on religious and moral questions, I am free to teach and preach that faith. Ninety-nine percent of the time this happens, all I can offer is guidelines and advice. I am no more qualified or empowered to order Cathlics to vote for or against Candidate X than I am to order a nuclear strike on the Itailian postal service. I try as hard as I can to follow the social teachings of the Church in my politics. This means that I am a registered Independent who usually votes Republican. However, the GOP fails on any number of counts to capture the Catholic social ethic. President Bush's approval and use of torture in the war on terror is an abomination to human dignity. The Democratic Party's worship of the god of abortion is beyond reprehensible and reaches well into the demonic.

In so far as politics is about the use and abuse of civil power, the Church is always obligated to defend the poor, the oppressed, "the least" of the Lord's people. This means standing up for those who often find their innate dignity as creatures of God violated by the powerful. Old Testament prophets regularly and frequently condemned whole cities and nations for failing to take care of widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor--all those who have no family or friends readily available to help them. Whether it's the government's job to do this is a political question open to public debate. Religious people cannot be excluded from the debate on the grounds that faith and politics are best kept lcoked in separare rooms.

3). You've mentioned many times your conversion from being a radical to being a conservative. Catholic. How did that happen?

First, I am not a conservative Catholic. I am an orthodox Catholic. One can be a perfectly faithful liberal Catholic. Being a faithful liberal Catholic is the US in 2009 is extraordinarily difficult because what it means to be liberal these days often means opposing most of the Church's moral teaching. However, it's possible. Being a conservative Catholic is easier because political conservatives usually embrace the core of Catholic moral teaching. Being an orthodox Catholic is a huge headache in our current political climate. Witness the recent presidential election and mourn.

If I had to put a date on my conversion from being a secular liberal to an orthodox Catholic, I would have to say that it happened in my first semester of seminary in 2000. One of my doctoral areas of speciality is critical literary theory. I was steeped in the postmodernist ethic of relativism, social constructivism, and identity politics. I began to notice in my novitiate that those in the religious life who held to these notions were often the ones who caused us the most trouble in terms of living out our vows. At the time, this disturbed me, but I managed marshalled my philosophical leanings and invoked the gods of subjectivism. Once I was in seminary, I saw these leanings being invoked by professors of Catholic theology against the tradition of the Church and wondered why those espousing these ideas remained in the Church. This disconnect roused my deeply engrained sense of justice, and I started asking questions. . .not always so politely, mind you. The reaction my questions received from some of these liberal professors sounded exactly like the right-wing facists I battled against in college. The hypocrisy of liberals suppressing legitimate academic inquiry shocked me. Then I did some soul-searching and remembered that I myself often used oppressive rhetoric and tactics (contra my professed liberalism) to silence anyone who failed to applaud my radical leftist agenda. That realization of personal hypocrisy and inconsistency broke open Pandora's Box, and here I am.

4). Any luck finding a publisher?

Yes! Well, I should say that I have been contacted by an acquisitions editor of a large Catholic publishing house and asked to submit proposals for books. Right now, all I can manage is a proposal for a book of contemporary Catholic devotions like the Litany of the Holy Name posted below. We'll see where it all goes. . .

5). From my Facebook account: is it OK for the priest to sit in the congregation during Mass rather than in the presider's chair? Is it OK for the priest to preach away from the pulpit ,like walking around the church?

No and no. Sitting in the congregation rather than the presider's chair was one of those liturgical innovations that was supposed to show the folks at Mass that Father is just one of the guys. It's the liturgical equivalent of 65 year old's using "dude" and "wasup?" with teenagers in order to make the teenagers think that the geezers are hip. Very embarrassing. . .for the teenagers. More than anything it is a form of what I call "liberal clericalism," that is, the use of clerical power against Church authority in an effort to undermine that authority. You see examples of this all the time when priests alter the wording of the Mass in order to be "inclusive" or to show that the priest isn't really the priest but a regular Catholic just like you. The irony of abusing clerical power to usurp the abusive use of clerical power usually escapes the abuser. What these gestures really demonstrate to the people at Mass is that Father is the priest and has the power (though not the authority) to alter rubrics at his whim. Just try talking to a priest when he does this sort thing. . .you'll get a face full of clericalism right quick!

Leaving the pulpit/ambo to preach is not in and of itself an abuse. If the priest leaves the pulpit to preach it should be for no other reason than to help the congregation hear and understand the homily. In other words, if the priest is preaching away from the pulpit, it should be for the sole benefit of the congregation. If the homily is delivered in this way so that Father might be even more the center of attention, or to give Father a thrill, then it should be avoided. I attended Mass once where the priest was The Star of the Show. He grabbed a Mr. Micorphone and spent an hour walking around the church warbling cheesy hymns about love. This told me several things about this priest: 1) he couldn't be bothered to prepare a real homily; 2) he sees himself and his ministry as a stage act to be applauded (the congregation obliged); 3) he has no idea what a homily is or is supposed to be; 4) he couldn't give a damn if his people went another week without hearing the Word preached. Sad, very sad. At this same Mass, the priest consecrated Eggo waffles. Literally, they were Eggo Waffles right out of the box. Breakfast, ya know. This same priest went outside to smoke during communion, leaving the distribution to several lay women. Communion was presented to the people in large aluminum bowls where we were invited to "chip and dip" the sacrament. He also kept the congregation well past time to go singing "Happy Birthday" and "Happy Anniversary" to several parishioners. I know another priest who makes a special effort to approach members of the parish who have complained about the chaotic nature of the peace and picks them out for his special attention. He does it, as he told me "to piss them off." As my novice master used to say when he heard about these kind of abuses: "It's all about ME! It's all about MMMEEEEE!"

6). My parish priest told me and my fiancee that we couldn't use a unity candle during the wedding. Is this right?

Yes. And good for him! The unity candle is an invention of the Catholic religious good industry. (like blue vestments and over-the-chasuble stoles). Its use is not part of the liturgy of the Sacrament of Matrimony. I've been very, very lucky with the few weddings I performed in Texas that the couples I worked with understood the liturgy and never demanded that we do anything outside the liturgy. A couple's wedding day is most certainly "their day," but this doesn't mean that they get to shape a sacrament of the Church anyway they like. Brides are particularly bad about asserting their preferences for music and liturgical color for a wedding. I know a priest who refused to preside at a couple's wedding because the bride wanted him to wear matching teal vestments! She simply could not understand why he was being so hateful on "her day." There are legends among priests about brides demanding inappropriate kinds of music, that flowers be placed on the altar, that the vows be changed to reflect feminist ideology, that the father or mother of the bride be allowed to preach the homily, that the moms and dads be allowed to renew their vows during the liturgy, that non-biblical readings be used. . .and on and no.

The only thing I have ever had to get nasty about is the use of flash photography during the sacrament. For some reason, family and friends think that it is appropriate to spend the liturgy snapping pictures. This is an affront to the solemnity of the occasion and should be absolutely forbidden. The bride and groom are just folks, not celebrities. You are guests at a Catholic sacrament, not paparazzi at a move premiere! I know a priest who was asked to "redo" the consecration of the bread and wine b/c a guest missed "the shot."


  1. Here's a question for you either here or email....

    Do catecumens who have already been baptized need to go to Confession prior to Confirmation & Eucharist?

    I was told no at RCIA last night..hubby thinks different.

  2. Mom,

    Hubby is right. Confession is part of the process before Conformation.

  3. #5: You can't make this stuff up. Wow. My gosh.

  4. MightyMom, as an RCIA teacher who actually teaches the lessons on the Sacrament of Penance, yes, candidates must complete the Sacrament of Penance prior to completing the Sacraments of Initiation. I'm surprised your RCIA group isn't having a communal penance service with individual confessions for the candidates.

    (Technically, catechumens are those who are not baptized. Candidates are those who have been.)

  5. A follow-up to "the priest sitting in the congregation":

    Isn't it written in one of the governing documents on liturgy that a priest who is NOT the presider is NOT to sit with the congregation but is to concelebrate, subject to obvious and reasonable limitations (such as an absence of adequate vestments)?

    One of our assistant pastors comes to daily Mass and sits with the congregation on the days he isn't the presider, even when there are other priests concelebrating (such as priests visiting their families for the holidays). He's obviously ABLE to concelebrate, but just chooses not to.

    Not to mention that our PASTOR never vests with a chasuble during the week, just the alb and stole, when he is presiding.

    Would $50 and a promise that there's more where this came from if he behaves really work?

  6. Terry,

    The governing document here is Redemptionis sacramentum. Paragraph 123 reads, quoting the GIRM: “'The vestment proper to the Priest celebrant at Mass, and in other sacred actions directly connected with Mass unless otherwise indicated, is the chasuble, worn over the alb and stole.' Likewise the Priest, in putting on the chasuble according to the rubrics, is not to omit the stole. All Ordinaries should be vigilant in order that all usage to the contrary be eradicated."

    Concelebration is not strictly required. For example, a priest who has already said two Masses that day, will not usually concelebrate a third. A priest attending a Mass should assist with communion. IOW, Communion Ministers should not replace an attending priest. RS 157 reads: "If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers [ordained] for the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may not be appointed. Indeed, in such circumstances, those who may have already been appointed to this ministry should not exercise it. The practice of those Priests is reprobated who, even though present at the celebration, abstain from distributing Communion and hand this function over to laypersons."

    An attending priest could vest and simply participate, but he should do so from the sanctuary. Bishops attending the solemn professions of religious will often vest for choir but concelebrate. This allows the "ordinary," i.e. the religious provincial, to preside and the other ordained members of the Order to concelebrate.

  7. Anonymous9:30 AM

    Regarding the unity candle ... in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, it is placed in the same category as other extra-liturgical traditions such as the "lazo" and laying flowers at the feet of Mary. See the booklet, "Getting Married in the Catholic Church": http://www.archgh.org/FamilyLife-NEW/pdf/GettingM%20booklet-English.pdf

    "The Church allows cultural adaptations within the ceremony as long as they are in keeping with the nature and spirit of the liturgy. Such adaptations
    should not be overpowering, though. Be careful not to duplicate
    symbols that might have similar meanings; for example, the lazo and the unity candle are both cultural adaptations which emphasize the union of two persons into a new life in Christ."

  8. Re: #6: At the Catholic wedding of a couple I went to college with we heard "a reading from Walt Whitman." The kicker is that the presiding priest taught the Theology of Marriage course. (The couple is now Unitarian.)

    I'm happy to say that at our wedding Mass my wife and I had no secular music (aside from Pachelbel's Canon in D for the wedding procession, which preceded the opening hymn) and no unity candle. It helped that our presiding priest taught the liturgy courses. =)

    Many of my family commented that it was the nicest wedding Mass they had been to in a while.

  9. Father Philip - this is a wonderful post. Thank you.

    The sign of a great teacher is to be able to explain complex issues in a simple, easy to understand way.

  10. Anon, regarding Galveston-Houston:

    The bishop is the chief liturgist in his diocese. Within the limits of universal law, he can approve most anything he wants to.

    My problem is with brides and grooms who demand that the unity be used despite its extra-liturgical status. The bishop's approval for a practice is not the same as the requirement of the practice; in other words, permission is always permissive but not binding.

  11. FT
    thanks for clearing up the catechumens vs candidate question. I specifically asked the team member at my table last Tues this question as I figured there might be a Penance Mass that I was required to go to and therefore needed to know DATE AND TIME cuz I'm already having to sign up for work shifts during Holy Week. The Chrism Mass is on the schedule but no Penance Service...then he tells me some vague answer about there being a Penance service for the whole diocese sometime in Lent. He goes and asks someone else if I (a candidate) needed to go to Confession. I don't know who he asked but he came back and told me it was a good idea if I wanted to, but not required.

    So, now, more questions. At what point in the process is this a good idea?

  12. Anonymous7:59 AM

    Dear Fr.,

    What is your take on Call to Action?



  13. Patrick,

    CTA: dissenting dinosaurs well on their way to extinction.

    Usual dissenting agenda: ordain women, Catholics can be pro-abortion, contraception is OK, elect the bishops, term limits for bishops and the Pope...blahblahblah.

    To their credit: they would make excellent Protestants.