Monday, January 25, 2016

Exploring Indulgences with "Pat in the Pew"

Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"

Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy has clearly struck a chord in the hearts of Catholics around the world.  Since nobody’s perfect, everybody intuitively knows the need for Divine Mercy.

Yet, like a crazy uncle at a family party, Papa Franchesco has included a potentially confounding twist in announcing the Jubilee festivities: Indulgences.  If you are already walking with the Holy Father on this and are up to speed on the Catechism’s explanation (n. 1471ff.), keep on hitting those holy doors and don’t waste any more time reading on!  

However, if you have never really heard about or understood indulgences, you might be more like "Pat in the Pew." Pat is a regular attendee of Sunday Mass, a Catholic who understands Jesus’ gift in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, someone who is happy to self-identify as Catholic, even without having easy answers to every question that might arise about the faith. To Pat, indulgences might seem like a combination of a Medieval board game and a Harry Potter incantation; they could sound like obtuse rules to a game no one remembers, which allege to deliver a solution for a problem we didn’t know we had.

And yet, Pope Francis has placed a premium on indulgences during the Jubilee year. In Misericordiae Vultus ("The Face of Mercy"), he writes that “A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences,” adding that “This practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy” (MV, n. 22).

Here are four principles that might help "Pat" (re)consider the gift of indulgences during the Year of Mercy:

      1) It’s about relationships, not rules.  Sure, the idea of going to a specific church, walking through the designated holy doors, offering prayers for the pope, receiving Holy Communion, and making a sacramental Confession within a week could sound like some kind of religious business deal.  However, as usual Pope Francis does not obsess about the details.  Rather, he describes the process as “indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin, enabling him to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin” (MV, n. 22).

Monday, January 18, 2016

Why Questions about Contraception Still Matter

Robin: "Did the Pope just...?" (
If you are among the vast number of Catholics who understand the gravity of the respect life issue, but don't get the Church's ongoing concerns about contraception, here are four reasons why you should keep an open mind on the topic:
  1. Because fifty years of a failed social experiment is enough. Perhaps you think contraception has been good for your marriage and has helped you lead a more virtuous, Christ-centered life. My personal experience is that the Church's beautiful teaching on natural family planning offers a path for husbands and wives to embrace the Beatitudes and to explore God's vision for a holy marriage (using the best science of our day, since NFP is not your grandmother's "rhythm method"!). So this could be a great conversation for friends to enter into.

    However, on a social level, objective observers should recognize that the almost ubiquitous  use of contraception has failed to deliver on the very promises its advocates once championed: out of wedlock births have skyrocketed; abortions have continued in their appalling seven-digit pace, year after year; sexually transmitted diseases continue to mutate even as infection rates spiral out of control; then there is the pandemic of marital infidelity and divorce.

    Thirty or forty years ago, perhaps we could say that we didn't know any better.  But now that we have seen the "fruits" of this failed experiment, why would we want to continue imposing this way of life on the next generation? Isn't the more Christian response to hope that we are capable of something better--given that we now have a better understanding of the alternatives?
  2. Because we should be merciful toward Holy Mother Church (after all, it's the Year of Mercy!).  Let's face it, most people have not heard compelling reasons why they should resist the world's contraceptive mentality. God's revelation about the meaning and purpose of human sexuality have not magically "trickled down" to the people in the pews.

    Indeed most pastoral leaders have given up trying to show how Christians could be liberated from current versions of secular "sexolotry" (although in "Create in me a Clean Heart" the U.S. Bishops have recently addressed the widespread addiction to pornography, so closely predicated on the separation of sex from procreation and/or even a loving relationship of husband and wife). And most people are afraid to question the myth of overpopulation, even as we watch the "demographic winter" hit western Europe and the birth rates in the U.S. fall below replacement levels (without the influx of new immigrants).

    Nonetheless, from Bl. Paul VI's prophetic teaching in Humanae Vitae (check out paragraph #17's predictions, written almost 50 years ago!), through St. John Paul II's inspired insights regarding a "theology of the body," to Pope Francis' current concern about an integral human ecology in his environmental encyclical, there is a wealth of philosophical and theological insights that support the "green sex" movement the new pro-life generation.

Monday, January 11, 2016

What it Would Mean to Come Out as Baptized in '16

To come out as baptized would be
to affirm and actualize my deepest identity.

More valuable than perfectly matched powerball numbers, Baptism confers upon each and every Christian an inheritance of infinite worth.

Just as no one chooses to be born, so no one chooses to be baptized.  Baptism is first and foremost a gift from the Lord Jesus himself; it is the prior and primary grace to which we respond throughout the course of our Christian lives.  It is a new beginning to which each of us is carried--one way or another--by the love of those around us. 

To come out as baptized would be
to transform all other dimensions of my life in light of this gift.

Grafted onto the Mystical Body of Christ, our baptismal dignity should elevate all of our other interests and allegiances, casting them in a supernatural light.  The ethnic, cultural, and familial ties that bind; the political, economic, and sexual dimensions of our lives--all should be in-formed and re-formed by our new life in Christ. 

To live our baptismal call is to experience a synthesis and integration of our very selves into a new and irrevocable identity, as brothers and sisters in the Son.

To come out as baptized would be
to embrace a real communion with two billion followers of Jesus around the world.

Authentic diversity always affirms a deeper unity; individuality flourishes not in isolation but in various networks of interrelation.  We exist as a communion of persons here and now, and so we aspire not to impose a way of life on others, but to invite all people to know the eternal Communion of Persons.

To come out as baptized would be
to live a lifestyle centered on imitation of Christ

Baptism confers a unique mission on each person claimed by Christ, and the Lord delivers with it the appropriate charisms of the Holy Spirit.  Baptism creates a living and breathing bond of connection with the mystery of Trinitarian Love. 

The mission of the baptized consists in transforming the world with and through this Love.  It means willing the good of the Other before self.  It means letting Christ live in us, so that others might have life more abundantly through Him.

To come out as baptized would be
to hear the Father call us beloved sons and daughters "with whom I am well pleased."

Monday, January 4, 2016

Identifying our Everyday Epiphanies

Mighty manifestations.  
Surprising guests.  

Mysterious gifts. 

Celestial signs.

Awesome apparitions.

Perhaps it is natural to wish for great epiphanies, as confirmation of our Christian faith--"the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1).

But what if the more suitable  stance toward the Supernatural is to pray for the wisdom to discern these real-time revelations in the small ways that they occur each day?  To see God in the present moment, without clinging too tightly; to glimpse the Lord in a brief personal encounter, without demanding it at every turn.

What if the only way to see the traces of God's activity in my daily life is to watch for it, to attend to the traces of the Spirit at work each day?

The not-so-new atheism or the ever-old agnosticism would have us believe (as an act of faith!?!) that there is no deeper meaning to events in our lives.  Everything is randomness, chance, accidents of history--unguided and unraveling aimlessly down through the millennia.

And yet a theological reflection on life itself opens our eyes to a whole range of other possibilities:  In retrospect, I realize that someone's offhanded comment, spoken unwittingly, still rattles around in my mind and touches a strange nerve somewhere deep inside. ("Behold, the Lamb of God..." [Jn 1:36b])  In life's rear-view mirror, I notice how a certain person who happened into my life on a given day ended up redirecting my personal history.  ("It was about four in the afternoon..." [Jn 1:39b])