Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas! Of the Father's Love Begotten

Coreggio's "Nativity"
Merry Christmas!
There are many wonderful, joyful, exuberant Christmas songs, and more than a few will appear in this space over the course of the Christmas Season.  Today, however, on the Feast of the Nativity itself, I'm sharing something quieter, a little more contemplative, but something that beautifully expresses the power of the Eternal Word that came among us in the form of a little baby lying in a stable.

"Of The Father's Love Begotten" is one of the oldest Christmas songs, in fact one of the most ancient Christian hymns of any sort.  The words were written in the 5th Century by Aurelius Prudentius, and the melody dates back to the 10th century.  The wonder it expresses, however, is as fresh as it was the day Prudentius first put the words down on parchment . . . as fresh, in fact, as it was two thousand years ago, when The Word became Flesh.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Christmas Conversion of St.Thérèse

(An earlier version of this Thursday Throwback was first published 16 December 2014)

The future St.Thérèse (r) and her sister Pauline
 In the lives of the Saints we can find some amazing stories of conversion: the Risen Lord literally knocking his persecutor Saul to ground and blinding him, in order to raise him up as St. Paul; the rich and spoiled son of an Italian cloth merchant who needed a year in a dungeon as a POW followed by a near fatal illness before he cast off self-indulgence to become St. Francis of Assissi; the vain and vainglorious Spanish nobleman who had his leg nearly shot off with a cannonball, and then went through months of excruciating recovery, before he could begin to see God in All Things as St. Ignatius of Loyola.  How startlingly different, and yet how strikingly the same is the conversion of the little French girl Thérèse Martin, now St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, as she tells it her autobiographical Story of A Soul

     I had a constant and ardent desire to advance in virtue, but often my actions were spoilt by imperfections. My extreme sensitiveness made me almost unbearable. All arguments were useless. I simply could not correct myself of this miserable fault. . .  A miracle on a small scale was needed to give me strength of character all at once, and God worked this long-desired miracle on Christmas Day, 1886. . . 
     Now I will tell you, dear Mother, how I received this inestimable grace of complete conversion. I knew that when we reached home after Midnight Mass I should find my shoes in the chimney-corner, filled with presents, just as when I was a little child, which proves that my sisters still treated me as a baby. Papa, too, liked to watch my enjoyment and hear my cries of delight at each fresh surprise that came from the magic shoes, and his pleasure added to mine. But the time had come when Our Lord wished to free me from childhood's failings, and even withdraw me from its innocent pleasures. On this occasion, instead of indulging me as he generally did, Papa seemed vexed, and on my way upstairs I heard him say: "Really all this is too babyish for a big girl like Thérèse, and I hope it is the last year it will happen." His words cut me to the quick. Céline, knowing how sensitive I was, whispered: "Don't go downstairs just yet—wait a little, you would cry too much if you looked at your presents before Papa." But Thérèse was no longer the same—Jesus had changed her heart.
     Choking back my tears, I ran down to the dining-room, and, though my heart beat fast, I picked up my shoes, and gaily pulled out all the things, looking as happy as a queen. Papa laughed, and did not show any trace of displeasure, and Céline thought she must be dreaming. But happily it was a reality; little Thérèse had regained, once for all, the strength of mind which she had lost at the age of four and a half.
     On this night of grace, the third period of my life began—the most beautiful of all, the one most filled with heavenly favours. In an instant Our Lord, satisfied with my good will, accomplished the work I had not been able to do during all these years. Like the Apostle I could say: "Master, we have laboured all night, and have taken nothing."
     More merciful to me even than to His beloved disciples, Our Lord Himself took the net, cast it, and drew it out full of fishes. He made me a fisher of men. Love and a spirit of self-forgetfulness took possession of me, and from that time I was perfectly happy.

The Lord didn’t need to knock Thérèse down, beat her up, or have her shot in order to get her full attention; all he needed was to allow her to overhear a couple of stray comments from the father she loved so dearly.  That wounded her deeply enough to reveal to her the reality of her own selfishness, and to open her up completely to Christ’s Grace.  The meaning of conversion, after all, is to “turn around”, away from a way of life dictated by our own desires to one truly centered on God.
     Now, most of us need a wake-up more like the one which was granted to St. Paul or St. Francis; perhaps not quite as dramatic, but most of us, I suspect, are much more wrapped up in our sin than was little Thérèse Martin.  But that is precisely why the Little Flower’s conversion stands out: even someone who seems to be doing just about everything right is still in need of conversion, and not just in one instant, but continuously over a lifetime (and of course she did experience much greater suffering later in her short life). Sin will always be trying to turn us back. 
     St. Thérèse’s conversion story reminds us of something else.  There will always be opportunities for conversion.  We don’t need to go out looking for trouble, because we will all have ample opportunity to experience The Fall in our lives.  The more enmeshed we are in sin, however, and the higher the walls between ourselves and God, the harder our fall must be.  Wouldn’t it be better to come to Christ like Thérèse did, without too much collateral damage to ourselves and to others?
     Finally, St. Thérèse learned to turn her hurt and disappointment into generosity of spirit, her selfishness to selflessness.  When I think back on her Christmas of 1886 I am reminded that I need to ask my Lord for the Grace to do the same. O come, O come Emmanuel!

(See Also: A song that captures the spirit of Advent: “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” )


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Still Small Voice & The Lord Of Creation

(This Worth Revisiting Post was originally part of the Sunday Snippets post from the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 21st, 2014. To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

     Today, Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Advent, we anticipate the Nativity of Our Lord in a few short days.  The (seemingly) unexpected appearance of the Lord of Creation in the form of a human infant in a stable reminds me of the following passage from the Old Testament, in which God comes to the prophet Elijah as he hides in a cave:

And he [the Lord] said, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD." And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice; And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"  (1 Kings: 11-13)

This, in its way, is as clear a foretaste of the Messiah as the "messianic" passages we read in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel throughout advent.  Most of us have probably heard that, before the coming of Christ, people lived in fear of divine power.  Encountering God was something to be avoided: the point of praying and offering sacrifice, even sacrificing one’s own flesh and blood, was so that God (more often understood as “the gods”) would leave you alone.  We can detect echoes of this ancient attitude in the account of Abraham as he brought his beloved son Isaac up Mount Moriah, prepared to offer him up (Genesis 22).  The story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God reverses expectations and provides the lamb in place of Isaac, shows us the end of Christ’s earthly ministry; the story of Elijah in the cave shows us its surprising beginning. God doesn’t show himself in any of the terrifying guises one would expect (wind, earthquake, fire), but as a “still, small, voice” (in some translations a “whisper”).  In just the same way, the second person of the Trinity comes among us in the least threatening way imaginable: a helpless little baby, cradled in a feeding trough.  No wonder, when the Angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, he first tells them not to be afraid; and then he says:

For behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people: for to you is born this day in the city of Davis a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12).

Good News , indeed.  It is, in fact, a Great Joy, and not at all a bad thing when God is in our midst, for “God is Love”(1 John 4:8); and the Infinite Creator of the Universe makes himself finite, small and vulnerable . . . for us.

As we wait in joyful hope for the coming of Our Savior at Christmas, at the End of Time, and to each one of us in our own lives, here’s a beautiful song, "Mary Did You Know?" performed by the lovely HayleyWestenra:

Monday, December 21, 2015

Never Underestimate The Power Of Prayer

The Dalai Lama, anti-prayer warrior

I was powerfully reminded recently of the old saying, “Never underestimate the power of prayer”. I had just been reading about the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has been urging people not to pray for France or for the victims of the recent Islamic terror attacks in Paris (a theme that has been taken up, much less gracefully, by more secular sources after the terror attack in San Bernadino California).

            Bemused by the apparent incongruity of a renowned religious leader discouraging prayer, I tracked down this news article, which quotes the Dalai Lama as saying:

We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It    is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place . . . We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.

            To be fair, the concept of an omnipotent Creator God who really hears our prayers appears to be foreign to the tradition in which the Dalai Lama was formed; we should not expect him to embrace a Christian concept of prayer. At the same time, St. Peter tells us to “to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), and therefore it is proper to point out several false assumptions implicit in the Buddhist leader’s remarks, which are amplified in their cruder expression on the front page of the New York Daily News (picture below).
            First of all, the detractors of prayer seem to be suggesting that praying will somehow keep us from taking whatever concrete actions might be appropriate in a given situation, as if “Pray for Paris” means “Pray, and don’t do anything else.” Perhaps they’ve never heard the expression “Pray like everything depends on God, but work like everything depends on you.” In any case, nobody I know is proposing prayer as a substitute for action, so this is a (not very sophisticated) straw man argument. In the case of the people at the Daily News, it seems mostly an excuse to slam politicians they don’t like for not supporting gun control laws the newspaper promotes (one might point out that these policies were already in place in both France and California, and did nothing to hinder either attack).
            There also seems to be a misunderstanding, whether genuine or disingenuous, as to what such prayers are intended to do. Nobody is suggesting that God will restore the earthly lives of the innocent people murdered in Paris or San Bernadino in response to our prayers, or is expecting a deus ex machine whereby God simply steps in and solves our problems for us, as the Dalai Lama suggests. That is not to say that we discount the possibility of miraculous intervention (see below), but our prayers in response to human tragedies, for the most part, address things that are beyond the reach of any laws or “systematic approaches” we can enact in this world: prayers for the souls of the dead, and prayers that God bring healing and peace to the hearts of those among the living who are suffering from the tragedy (and in the case of suffering caused by evil-minded people, we pray for the conversion of the perpetrators hearts). Beyond that, we ask for the gift of God’s Grace, his divine assistance to give us the wisdom to know what we ourselves should do . . . and the strength and courage to do it. If the conclusion of that prayerful deliberation is that, for example, the application of armed force is advisable, we are happy to pray for the salvation in the next world of those on whom we are waging war in this one (we Christians are a Both/And People).
            Not that any of those things are likely to deter those pushing the “For God’s Sake, Don’t Pray!” meme, because their real (but generally unspoken) argument is that prayer is futile, that it can accomplish nothing, except maybe to give the people offering the prayers the excuse that they have done their part and can leave the real work to others. This assumption most of all we should not allow to go unchallenged; we should not underestimate the efficacy of personal witness to the power of prayer, particularly when we have seen for ourselves that prayer can have powerful, and, yes,  on occasion even miraculous results.
      Here’s a true story, for instance, something that happened to me recently. When I first came across the Dalai Lama’s anti-prayer pronouncement, and was considering how I might respond, I ran into a colleague in the hallway who wanted to talk about another person on the staff who was being treated for cancer.   That led to a discussion about a close family member of his who had been suffering from late stage cancer, and had been given less than two weeks to live. He described how he prayed for his relative, and with her, and over her as she slept. His suffering relative was still alive after two weeks; shortly after that she was cancer-free, and she is still alive and healthy today more than a dozen years after the the doctors told her she had barely enough time to get her will notarized and say good-bye. Interesting that this man, who had no idea what I had just read, and with whom I had never before discussed prayer or religion at all, should choose to share with me this personal testimony to the miraculous power of prayer just as I was formulating a response to a public attack on the practice (Coincidence? Maybe . . . but who can say for sure?). 
      Another example from my personal experience is Benedicta McCarthy, a young woman with whom, and with whose family, I was acquainted some years ago. 

Benedicta McCarthy at St. Theresa Benedicta's canonization mass

Benedicta swallowed an entire bottle of Tylenol when she was a toddler, destroying her liver. Her father, a Byzantine Rite Catholic Priest, organized a prayer campaign for her as she lay in the hospital, where the doctors who had observed a hopelessly damaged liver in the morning found a perfectly sound and healthy organ that same evening. The Vatican’s Congregation for Saints attributed Benedicta’s inexplicable (to non-believers) recovery as a miracle attributable to St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (formerly Edith Stein), for whose intercession Fr. McCarthy and his family and friends had been praying; this miracle was cited at the Saint’s canonization in 1999.
            If we want an example more relevant to the threat of jihadists, we can look to the unlikely victories of Christian armies fortified by prayer over powerful Muslim aggressors at Lepanto in 1571 or Vienna in 1683. Let the Dalai Lama and the Daily News take note: Don Juan of Austria and Jan Sobieski did not stay home, secure in the expectation that God would smite the foe in their absence. Rather, they went forth to battle knowing that the Lord would answer their prayers only if they did their own part as well.
            Prayer works: we have seen it happen. Really, aren’t the people putting their faith in fantasies those who are relying on purely human “systematic approaches” and laws to do what such things have never done and perfect human nature? So by all means, let’s pray. Let’s pray for Paris, pray for San Bernadino, pray for healing for the people suffering from the ugly crimes committed there and for the conversion of those who seek to commit such crimes. Finally, let us pray for all of us, and all humanity, that we may be willing to turn to our Lord and let our actions be informed by his grace and guided by his will.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

O Magnum Mysterium : Westminster Cathedral Choir

     "O Magnum Mysterium" is an ancient responsorial expressing our wonder that the Savior of the Universe should come into our world in a stable, with animals as his witnesses.   For a long time it was part of the Christmas Office of Matins, today more often a hymn at Midnight Mass (as in the clip below).  It has been set to music many time over the centuries, from Byrd and Palestrina through modern day composers such as Lauridsen and Gjielo.
     As it happens, a couple nights ago I heard Lauridsen's lovely version of  "O Magnum Mysterium" (published a mere 21 years ago) sung by a vocal group from a local public high school.  They did a beautiful job.  Here is the same piece, recorded at Westminster Cathedral's 2009 Christmas celebration.

Latin text
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum.
English translation
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, And Ecumenism?

(This post was first published December 6th, 2014)

“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 20:16-27)

     It seems clear from the scripture passage above that Christ does not want his body (i.e., the Church) to be divided, and that the failure of “those who believe” in Him to be one is an impediment to evangelization. And yet the division of His Mystical Body into numerous different churches and communities is an ongoing scandal.  We might well wonder whether any sort of unity is really possible.  How could it come about?  What would it look like?

     As it happens, Pope Benedict XVI gave a talk on just this topic to a gathering of Protestant and Orthodox Christians in Cologne, Germany, nine years ago (story and full text here), drawing in part on St. John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint [text here], in part on his own reflections.  Benedict warns his listeners (and us) that unity is something that we ourselves can’t make happen, but that “it it is the Lord who gives unity, that we do not create it, that it is he who gives it but that we must go to meet him.”  He does suggest that part of the answer lies in Christians of different communities uniting against common adversaries in the wider world:

Our divisions are contrary to the will of Jesus and they disappoint peoples' expectations. I think that we must work with new energy and dedication to bring a common witness into the context of these great ethical challenges of our time.  

     At the same time Benedict recognizes that there are real differences between different Christian traditions: he points out that, from the Catholic perspective, “This unity, we are convinced, indeed subsists in the Catholic Church, without the possibility of ever being lost”. Real unity can only be achieved within the Church established by Jesus Christ, and in accordance with the Truth handed on by Christ. At the same time, he recognizes that we Catholics cannot reasonably demand that Protestants, for instance, simply jettison their entire  experience of faith:

On the other hand, this unity does not mean what could be called ecumenism of the return: that is, to deny and to reject one's own faith history. Absolutely not! It does not mean uniformity in all expressions of theology and spirituality, in liturgical forms and in discipline.

This looks like something of an impasse: how can we do both of these things?  Well, we can’t. Pope Benedict goes on to say:

It is obvious that this dialogue can develop only in a context of sincere and committed spirituality. We cannot "bring about" unity by our powers alone. We can only obtain unity as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, spiritual ecumenism – prayer, conversion and the sanctification of life – constitutes the heart of the meeting and of the ecumenical movement (cf. “Unitatis Redintegratio”, n. 8; “Ut Unum Sint”, 15ff., 21, etc.). It could be said that the best form of ecumenism consists in living in accordance with the Gospel.    [my bold]

Unity, then, will only come as a form of Grace, which we cannot create, but with which we must cooperate if is to be fruitful.  Our cooperation here, as in the rest of the Christian life, takes the form of fidelity, that is, “living in accordance with the Gospel.”      
     In his closing, Pope Benedict describes what fidelity of this sort looks like:

I see good reason in this context for optimism in the fact that today a kind of "network" of spiritual links is developing between Catholics and Christians from the different Churches and Ecclesial Communities: each individual commits himself to prayer, to the examination of his own life, to the purification of memory, to the openness of charity.  

Prayer, first of all, which is calling upon God’s help and submitting to his will; examination of life and purification of memory, in order to remove obstacles emanating from pride, resentment, or decisive emotional attachments, and third, as a sort of summation (just where St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13:13), charity, love.  All must be done in a spirit of love toward our separated brethren in Christ.
Russell Moore

     I was reminded of this decade-old talk by the now Pope Emeritus when I ran across an interview the other day that Kathryn Lopez conducted with Russell Moore [here], president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  Moore had just returned from the Vatican where he had spoken at a conference on men, women, family, complementarity and various other related unfashionable topics.  There are some interesting connections between his comments and some of the points Benedict made in his talk.
     First of all, when Lopez asks “What was the ecumenical dynamic like”, Moore answers: “Well, this wasn’t one of those ‘let’s pretend we all agree on everything’ ecumenical gatherings, and that’s one of the reasons it was so productive.” He goes on to explain that

Jewish leaders  . . .  Mormons and Taoists and Buddhists spoke from their perspective, without pretending to be part of some generic “faith-based community.” The pope was Catholic. This was one of the few such gatherings I’ve attended where theology was taken seriously, both in our agreements and in our differences. Probably more important than the actual sessions, though, were the coffee breaks and the meals, where we had deep conversations about things that mattered. By the end of the week, I think many of us learned to love one another more.

What stands out for me here (aside from the encouraging endorsement of Pope Francis’s Catholicity: more on that below) is, first of all, the fidelity of all the participants to their own traditions.  Without such fidelity, there can be no authenticity, and without authenticity there can be no love.  And of course as Christians we recognize the importance of personal relationships: do we not come to know and love God through the person of the Man Jesus Christ?  Notice also, for Moore as for Benedict, the key thing is Love, which can only happen between persons, not institutions.
     Moore’s comments on the Catholic Church are of interest as well, particularly in light of Pope Benedict’s talk.  When Lopez asks why “it is important for the Catholic Church to lead on these things”, he answers

For most of our history, English and American Baptist Christians thought the greatest threat to religious liberty would come from the Roman Catholic Church. Now we find that some of our greatest allies on religious freedom are Roman Catholics. The threat to our religious liberties comes from a different papacy than we thought — that of a secularizing statism that seeks to pave over consciences with government power.

This would seem to be an example of what Benedict meant by bringing “common witness into the context of these great ethical challenges of our time.”   Of Pope Francis in particular Moore says:

I was especially cheered by his comments on marriage, especially given the media confusion just weeks earlier over the synod deliberations on the family. Pope Francis made it clear that he believes male/female complementarity is essential to marriage and that this cannot be undone or erased by modern ideologies. He also made clear that he believes that every child has the right to both a mother and a father.

It’s worth noting that the Baptist leader not only welcomes papal leadership in the cultural struggle, but seems as disappointed as many of us Catholics about the confusion emanating from the recent Synod on the Family.
     There is much else that is of interest in Lopez’s interview with Russell Moore, more than I can discuss here, but I’ll look at one last thing.  In response to a question about Christmas, Moore makes the following observations:

. . . the Christmas season ought to drive us to the biblical text, which is not all tinsel and garlands. Instead, the Christmas narrative is set in the context of spiritual warfare, of a light that is shining out of darkness.
For several years, I’ve been convinced that the model we most need in this day is that of Joseph of Nazareth. In a day when fathers are seen as expendable, we should look at Joseph, who sacrificed his own future for his wife and child. In a world filled with orphans in need of families, we should look at the example of this adopting father who poured out himself to become a father to one who was of no biological relation to him.

The Holy Family
It’s refreshing to hear a prominent Baptist speaking of St. Joseph in this way; he sounds almost Catholic (and in fact I have made similar observations myself: here for instance).  
     Of course, I’m not saying that we are seeing the end of the Reformation era divisions in the Church, or even the beginning of the end (to paraphrase Winston Churchill), but such signs of the thawing of emotional barriers, and the working of the Power of Love, are reason for Hope.  I propose that during this Advent, the Season of Hope, we make special intercession to St. Joseph, Foster-father of the Son of God,  Watchful defender of Christ,  Head of the Holy Family (and hence for the entire Christian Family), for the healing of the divisions in his Son’s Mystical Body.

O God, who in Thine ineffable providence didst vouchsafe to choose blessed Joseph to be the spouse of Thy most holy Mother: grant, we beseech Thee, that we may have him for an intercessor in heaven, whom we venerate as our protector on earth. Who livest and reignest world without end. Amen. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It Doesn't Need To Be As Bad As Iran To Be Bad Enough

(As the post-Christian, post-modern insanity escalates on college campuses, it seems a good time to re-publish this Worth Revisiting this post from September, 2014. To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

Submit Or Be Derecognized

      For a long time now elite opinion on college campuses has been trying to shut down speech that doesn’t stick to to a certain script, especially religious speech.  Specifically, Christian speech.  The clampdown has now become a little more overt: the California State University system has “derecognized” the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), an Evangelical group, on all 23 of its campuses, as explained in this article [here] by Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today.  The reason for the derecognition (who even knew that there was such a word?) is that the ICVF refuses to change its rules requiring leaders in the group to be believing Christians.  The state of California has said, in other words, that Christian groups will not be recognized as official groups on campus unless they open up their leadership to people who don’t share, and may even be hostile to, their very reason for existing in the first place.

InterVarsity Students spreading . . . bigotry and intolerance?

Consequences of derecognition

     You may be wondering what the consequences of derecognition are.  According to Greg Jao, National Field Director & Campus Access Coordinator, there are three main things that IVCF chapters will lose:

1)      Free access to rooms (they will now have to pay, and will be shut out if a “recognized" group wants the room).
2)      Access to student activities programs “including”, he says, “new student fairs where we meet most students.”
3)      “We also lose standing when we engage faculty, students and administrators.”

He doesn’t explain in detail what that last point entails. Tish Warren led a similar IVCF group at the private Vanderbilt University a few years ago that experienced a similar fate.  In a separate Christianity Today article that Stetzer quotes at length she explains:

Because we were no longer allowed to use Vanderbilt's name, we struggled to convey that we were a community of Vanderbilt students who met near campus.

In other words, as close to invisible as they can be short of being banned altogether.

Is Christianity "Hate Speech"?

     What’s behind it all?  Stetzer says that “The university system has decided that speech with beliefs that undergird it—and shape how it is organized—has to be derecognized.”  I suppose you could put it that way, but not all “speech with beliefs” is really being targeted.  He allows Warren to be somewhat more specific.  She explains that the banned groups had “crossed a line”, one that

was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

This states the case more plainly.  Notice that it is the same in the wider world: support (not simply tolerance) of what used to be considered sexual heterodoxy is the standard by which elite opinion decides who enjoys basic rights and who does not.  Warren and Jao are both being rather too generous when they posit a desire for “democracy” as one of the motives for the anti-Christian people.  No, democracy is not a priority; these same people have no problem with federal judges overturning state laws and constitutional amendments voted in by 60-70% of the electorate, and at the university level you will not see them applying to the vegetarians, Muslims, and certainly not the LGBTQ groups the same unreasonable demands they have imposed upon the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Don't read that, kids - it might be hate speech
    And that connection to the wider world is what most concerns me. Stetzer starts out his article saying “Now, it’s not persecution”, an admonition he repeats at the end, adding: “I hope they won’t call themselves persecuted, since that lessens the persecution in, for example, Iran.”  If only we could lessen the persecution in Iran so easily!  What he means, of course, is that equating the inconveniences experienced by college students in California to the very real suffering, up to and including torture and death, suffered by Christians in the Middle East tends to diminish our proper sense of horror and outrage at the latter. Fair enough, but on the other hand injustices don’t need to rise to the Iran or ISIS level, or anywhere near it, to merit condemnation.  And I don’t think he should be in such a hurry to downplay the significance of what has happened in California.

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Constitution

     First of all, what the State of California is doing is a direct assault on the constitutional rights of  Christian students.  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution starts out as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .

Telling members of a religious group whom they must choose as their leaders is an exceptionally unsubtle trespass on the free exercise of religion – and I know that courts have found all sorts of ingenious ways to make laws and constitutional provisions mean the exact opposite of their clear meaning, but if we’re not willing to fight something this blatant, we might as well run the white flag up the pole and get it over with.  Since the courts have also found that the restrictions the Bill of Rights places upon Congress also apply to all other government organs, including state run schools, this is clearly a constitutional issue (as it is not at a private school like Vanderbilt).
     This potential damage here also extends beyond the walls of the university.  The half-spoken message that California State is sending its students is that Christian belief is bad: “not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus”, as Tish Warren said of the attitude of the authorities at Vanderbilt.  If such a thing is simply a given in the environment where they are formed for four years, how many students are going to be prepared to be open to and tolerant of Christian belief when they get out . . . especially if the outside environment agrees with what they experienced at the university?

Bad Is Bad

     And, as I have noted in these pages many times, there is a conscious and coordinated campaign underway in the United States and the rest of the Western world to “derecognize” Christianity as a whole.  The mainstreaming of anti-Christian bigotry lays the foundation; simply holding traditional beliefs about morality and marriage makes a person fair game for the foulest and most hateful verbal abuse (see here and here).  Somehow the targets of this vileness, and not the spewers of it, are scorned by elite opinion-makers as “haters” and “bigots”.  And who is going to argue when haters and bigots are defamed, or even threatened with loss of their livelihood (hereherehere) if they oppose the dismantling of traditional morality -  or simply decline to participate actively in its destruction?  This harassment, I submit, is in fact persecution, even if not on the level of Iran or Iraq, and it sets the stage for worse: once Christians have been completely driven beyond the pale, what's to prevent harsher forms of persecution?  And in fact serious persecutions almost always start with little things, and with the delegitimizing, the "derecognition", if you will, of the targeted group, 
     Finally, I haven’t discussed the fact that our colleges and universities have, in a very short time (and practically unremarked), undergone a radical change: where formerly they acted in loco parentis ("in the place of the parent"), a role in which they protected their students and enforced moral standards, now they actively promote promiscuity and licentiousness . . . and actually punish students for upholding morality.  How can this possibly turn out well?  
     So, to all you Ed Stetzers out there, hold your head up – we have nothing to apologize for. Nobody is confusing California State University with the Islamic Republic of Iran, but what’s happening at California State is bad enough, and if we allow harassment and injustice to continue, more serious persecution is sure to follow.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rejoice! Gaudete Sunday: 3rd Sunday of Advent 2015

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, 
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, 
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding 
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philipians 4:4-7)

Happy Gaudete Sunday!  Speaking of which, the gentlemen below do a wonderful version of the ancient hymn "Gaudete, Christus est Natus".  The visual is a little fuzzy (and, truth be told, more formal attire would be nice), but their rendition is absolutely beautiful.

Deus homo factus est
Natura Mirante,
Mundus renovatus est
A Christo regnante!

Gaudete, gaudete!  Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

St. Nicholas: Lover, Fighter . . . or Both?

St. Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocents From Death (Ilya Repin)

     Hang out your stockings: December 6th, is the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra.  Over the last couple of centuries the modern Santa Claus has somehow developed from the figure of this 4th century bishop, but the real Saint has retained a strong devotion in both the Eastern and Western churches.  I say the “real Saint” with the proviso that he is another one of those Saints about whom little is known with historical certainty; as the biography at Catholic Online [here] tells us, “his episcopate at Myra during the fourth century is really all that seems indubitably authentic.”  Nonetheless, I think it’s reasonable to assume that what has come down to us has some basis, at least, in his life and in the sort of person he was. 
     The most well-known story today concerns his generosity.  Having inherited great wealth from his parents, he decided, while still a young man, to give his money to the poor.  He famously rescued three poverty-stricken young women from being sold into prostitution by secretly throwing bags of money in through their windows. This incident is the inspiration for the tradition of leaving gifts in shoes or stockings on St. Nicholas Day.  He is also known as an exemplar of mercy, which fits nicely with generosity (and with the image of Santa Claus).  The best-known story about him in the first millennium tells how he appeared in a dream to the Emperor Constantine on behalf of three men who had been imprisoned unjustly; having learned that the official who was holding the men had a similar dream, and that the men had been praying for Nicholas’s help, the Emperor set them free.
St. Nicholas (R) has a theological discussion with Arius (L)
     Another old story about St. Nicholas, one which has recently enjoyed new popularity, tells of him attending the Council of Nicaea in 325 where, in a fit of anger, he slapped Arius, for whom the Arian Heresy is named.  This story has an irresistible appeal for many Catholics involved in apologetics, particularly when cast as a humorous contrast to affable image of Santa Claus (the Saint’s slap is often upgraded in these accounts to a more manly punch).  One can find numerous reproductions online, for instance, of ancient frescoes depicting the incident with captions like “I came to give kids presents and punch heretics . . . and I just ran out of presents!”  I have to admit, I have chuckled at some of these myself.  At the same time, it would seem that smacking Arius, heresiarch though he was, falls a little short of the Christian Charity test; the council fathers thought so, at least: we are told that they “deprived [Nicholas] of his episcopal insignia and committed him to prison”. We are also told that Jesus frees him from prison and restores him to his bishopric, so we can take that as confirmation that, despite his impulsiveness, his heart was in the right place. In any case, the incident illustrates another important aspect of the Saint: a man who was fiercely dedicated to preserving and defending the Truth.
     There may seem to be an incongruity between the Jolly Old Saint Nick who comes to the aid of poor maidens and innocent prisoners on the one hand, and the righteous crusader who puts a whuppin’ on heretics on the other, but that’s not the case.  The salvation that Jesus lived, suffered and died to bring us is salvation from sin, not from physical hardships.  What could be more generous or merciful than saving a brother from sin, or even more so, preventing him from leading others into it [see here]?  Granted, we are called to do so with love (Ephesians 4:15), so I wouldn’t recommend emulating St. Nicholas’s smackdown of Arius.  Nonetheless, St. Nicholas embodies an important truth: that Generosity and Mercy are not opposed to Justice and Truth, but are, indeed must be, different sides of the same coin, as Scripture attests:

Show us thy steadfast love, O LORD,
and grant us thy salvation.
Let me hear what God the LORD will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.  (Psalm 85:7-11)

That’s not a bad thing to reflect on this weekend as we celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas: Bishop, Lover, and Fighter.



Friday, November 20, 2015

Abortion Myth # 5

MYTH: “Most abortions are wrong, but they should be allowed in cases of abnormal fetus.”


-         People with disabilities are human beings, enjoying full human dignity and the same right to exist as the rest of us.

  -Families who are expecting a handicapped child need support, not an abortion!  Studies indicate that women who abort for genetic reasons have a high incidence of suffering grief, guilt, shame, and depression.  The actual incidence of of depression following “selective abortion” for genetic reasons may be as high as 92 percent for mothers and 82 percent for fathers among those studied.  (The Post-Abortion Review, July-Sept. 2003, Elliot Institute, link)

-          -There are lists of families willing to adopt babies with any serious medical condition including spina bifida and down syndrome.

-          -The belief that society is better off without the “genetically inferior” was the credo of  Nazi Germany, where thousands of people were exterminated solely because they had disabilities.

-          -There are numerous support groups for families with special needs children, among them CHASK (Christian Homes and Special Kids) and NATHHAN (National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network); NATHHAN also provides a list of further resources (link)


Essential Pro-Life Resources:

Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments (link)  

The Elliot Institute (link)  

National Right To Life Committee (link)  

Care-Net (link)

The Nurturing Network (link)

To See The Entire Abortion Myths Series Click HERE 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Presentation, Atheism, And The Problem Of Suffering

(This Thursday Throwback was first published on The Feast of the Presentation, February 2nd, 2015)

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed." (Luke 2:33-35)

Girolamo Romanino: The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
     The Presentation of the Lord presents us with a paradox, or maybe a series of paradoxes, which can lead us deeper into the mystery of Christ.  On the one hand, it is our last fleeting look back at the recently concluded Christmas Season, and we experience some of the joy and wonder of that season, particularly in the prophetic utterances of Simeon. Simeon proclaims the infant Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32). His final words, however, foretelling that Christ will be “a sign that is spoken against” and warning the Blessed Mother that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” redirect us toward the quickly approaching Season of Lent and beyond to the sorrow and suffering of the Triduum.  The last thing we see in Luke’s account of the Presentation is the prophetess Anna, who pulls together the apparent contraries in Simeon’s prophecy: she “spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).  In the end, the glory of Christmas and the sword of Good Friday come together on Easter Sunday: Redemption comes only from the light shining through the darkness of suffering, and we catch a glimpse of the entire story in the Feast of Presentation.
     Given the above, I found it interesting that this story [here] appeared just this morning: Englishman Stephen Fry, an “outspoken atheist”, was asked what he would say if he found himself, contrary to his expectation, face to face with his Creator in the afterlife:

 “I’d say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?’” he began.

“’How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault,” Fry continued. “It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I would say.”

"Outspoken Atheist" Stephen Fry

In other words, the old Problem of Suffering (which I spend a lot of time discussing with my adolescent religion students).  For us Christians this problem is resolved in the Mystery of the Cross, as we saw above: it’s a paradox that leads us to a higher understanding, and a greater experience.  For the unbeliever, however, it is a contradiction which, if followed to its logical conclusion, leads to annihilation.  Most atheists believe that all reality is reducible to matter, and that this present world is all there is.  Suffering, therefore, is the worst thing that can possibly happen; hence the righteous indignation of the Steven Frys of the world:

Fry went on to question why the God of the universe would allow pain and suffering and argued that doing away with belief in God makes life “simpler, purer, cleaner, more wroth [sic] living, in my opinion.”

Doing away with belief in God, however, really only makes Fry’s problem worse: instead of leading to redemption, suffering is now simply random and pointless pain.  Not only that, but it is something we all must experience, it’s inescapable.  The only way to eliminate suffering for a Steven Fry is to eliminate not God, but humanity.  Fry’s fellow atheist, the philosopher David Benatar [here] proposes just this solution is his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence
    Small wonder that The Presentation is included in the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, despite Simeon’s ominous (and alarming, no doubt, to Mary and Joseph) utterance.  We are reminded that, through his Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection, Christ has sanctified suffering, that it is no longer a random, meaningless evil, but a path to Heaven.  That is, indeed, Good News.