Category Archives: Catholic Church

“Pray, Which Leg Comes After Which?”

A centipede was happy quite
Until a frog in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

When I was a child, my mother gave me a A Child’s Book of Poems.  I still have it and use it occasionally with my own children. The poem quoted above puzzled me for a very long time. In fact, it wasn’t until I was much older that I resolved my confusion.

I could not figure out why the frog wanted the centipede to talk to God about her legs. It almost seemed that the frog expected the poor bug to ask God in which order she should lose her legs as she was being eaten. What a strange poem. I didn’t get it.

It was the word “pray” that threw me off. I only understood the word in the modern sense. I had not yet read any Shakespeare or Old English and “pray” could only mean “talk to God” or “worship God” in my mind. The day I realized that “pray” could also mean “I ask you,” it all fell into place. The frog was teasing the centipede by asking her to explain how she walked with so many legs. “I ask you, when you walk, which leg comes after which?” Aha!

I had a similar epiphany during my reversion from Protestantism back to Catholicism. I had been told by well-meaning Protestants for over 20 years that it was wrong to pray to Mary and the saints because it was idolatrous to worship them. When I finally remembered that “pray” can also mean “I ask you,” it all fell into place. Asking a saint for intercession is not the same as worship. Not even close. If asking someone to pray for me was worship, then why ask my friends, my family, my pastor or anyone else to pray for me? Shouldn’t I go “straight to God” with everything?

Actually, it’s even possible to ask God something without worshiping him. An atheist could ask God, “If you really do exist, would you please give me a sign?” but that would not be the same as worshiping God. “Prayer” and “worship” are not synonyms.

“But, the saints are dead people,” I was told. “They can’t hear you or respond to you. How could they hear all the prayers of everyone? They would have to be divine!” No, they would not have to be divine, but they would need divine assistance. With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible. The saints are certainly “with God!” In fact, except for Jesus, the saints are the most perfect part of the Body of Christ.

Physical death does not amputate people from the Body of Christ. They become more perfect than you or I. They are perfectly righteous. “The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16) Why would I not want to ask Mary and the saints to pray for me!? (I need all the help I can get!)

Jesus is the “one mediator between God and man,” but, as part of his body, we get to share in that one mediation by praying for each other, sacrificing for each other and loving each other. This doesn’t change when we die and go to Heaven. It only gets better. Through him, with him and in him we live and move and have our being.

Now I see the beauty of praying to the saints. I ask them for their prayers. Together, we go straight to God with our requests. Together, we worship God. Best prayer partners I ever had.

Pray, will you not also pray to the saints?

 

Incidentally, while the A Centipede poem confused me, the W poem on the same page immediately became one of my favorites:

The king sent for his wise men all
To find a rhyme for W.
When they had thought a good long time
But could not think of a single rhyme,
“I’m sorry,” said he, “to trouble you.”

–James Reeves

God’s Relationship Rules

Every relationship comes with certain expectations, boundaries, dos and don’ts, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, etc. In other words, rules. The rules might be spoken or unspoken, but they are there. Even saying, “Our relationship has no rules” becomes the rule! Examples of relationships include:

  • Parent/child
  • Spouse/spouse
  • Sibling/sibling
  • Friend/friend
  • Boss/employee
  • Coworker/coworker
  • Coach/player
  • Police officer/citizen
  • Pet/pet owner
  • Neighbor/neighbor
  • God/believer
  • The list goes on and on.

Every relationship comes with rules and boundaries that help to define it. This is why, for example, a dating relationship, an engaged relationship and a married relationship are different, even though the same man and woman are involved. Different words are used for different types of relationships.

The relationship between God and humanity also has certain expectations, boundaries, dos and don’ts, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, etc. In other words, rules. The word that describes this relationship is “religion.” This is why it makes no sense to claim that Christianity is “relationship not religion.”

The fact that there are different religions with different rules simply means that we must discern which set of rules is legitimate. Ultimately, we will either settle on a religion that meets our own terms, or one that meets God’s terms. Jesus (God) said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In other words, in order to be in right relationship with God, we must follow the expectations, boundaries, dos and don’ts, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, etc. established by Jesus. In other words, the rules, the religion of Christ.

The religion of Christ cannot be fully discerned by reading the Bible alone. This fact is evident when we observe the multitude of Christian denominations that have conflicting rules and ideas about how to be in right relationship with Christ. While these many denominations all possess some truth, they can’t all possess the fullness of truth Christ intends for his Church. Christ promised to lead his Church into all truth, not into a plethora of conflicting interpretations of scripture.

Christ established a visible Church with a visible hierarchy possessing his own authority (Jesus told his apostles, “He who hears you hears me).” Without that authority, believers end up following rules of their own making based on their own interpretations of what a relationship with God should look like. In other words, religion on human terms, not on God’s terms. We lose sight of God’s terms when we abandon the authority of God’s Church. Hence, the ultimate result of the Protestant reformation has been confusion and fragmentation rather than true reform and unity.

Christianity cannot possibly be a “relationship without religion.” On the contrary, in order to fully realize the relationship, we must choose the right Christian religion. Anything else is less than what God desires us to have, even if it does contain elements of God’s truth. After all, God came to us, we did not ascend to God. It behooves us to heed and embrace his terms for the relationship.

Can a non-Catholic Christian have a relationship with Jesus? Yes. Will that relationship include everything God intends for a relationship with him? No. It will not be the fullness of the Faith. Much of it will be based on human interpretations of scripture which followed the rejection of Church authority. This is the reverse of the process in which Jesus first establishes an authoritative, teaching Church from which scripture emerged. To take those same scriptures and attempt to build churches apart from the original authority results in the confusion and disunity we see today.

Due to all the confusion and conflicting doctrine, people have largely given up on trying to resolve discrepancies and concluded, “Oh well, I guess it doesn’t matter which church you go to as long as you love Jesus.” The popular meme “it’s a relationship, not a religion” makes it easier to swallow the idea that any set of Christian rules will do since we really can’t agree on the rules anyway. In some cases, it results in outright hostility towards legitimate practices of a “religious” nature (the definition of which depends on the opinion of the observer). Catholics, for example, are often accused of not being Christian at all because they do “religious” things. The irony is that all Christians do “religious” things.

Christians, of course, do have much to agree on. This can be a starting point, but it is not the unity Jesus and the apostles demanded and prayed for. Catholics and Protestants are united (albeit imperfectly) in Christ through baptism. However, the reality still exists that the thousands of Christian denominations with their conflicting doctrines and practices cannot all be correct. The Holy Spirit does not lead God’s people into conflicting “truths.” Only one Christian Church has claim to the historical, apostolic authority given by Christ. Like it or not, Catholicism is the only historically credible choice.

Catholicism is the fullness of the Faith. This does not mean that all Catholics have a good relationship with Christ (many do not). It does not mean that non-Catholic Christians have no relationship with Christ (many do). It means that, to have the fullest relationship with Christ as Christ intends, being Catholic is the way to go. Catholicism is the religion of Christ. It’s where we meet Christ on his terms and learn the rules for the relationship.

Catholicism Predates Constantine

You may hear people claim that the Catholic Church was started by the emperor Constantine in 313. Constantine’s Edict of Milan simply made legal the Christianity that already existed. Here are some facts about those early Christians you probably are not being told by non-Catholic sources:

The early Christians venerated saints and relics, which is a biblical principle. For example, contact with the bones of Elijah brought a dead person back to life. In Acts we read how people were healed by touching Peter’s handkerchief and even his shadow. Pagans took issue with early Christians keeping the bones of dead people close at hand. The usual practice was to keep dead people at a distance. Christians in all parts of the world have venerated saints and relics throughout history. Constantine did not invent these practices. They were already in practice from antiquity.

Interestingly, although churches were built above the relics of important saints, no one built a church above the bones of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She has no grave to visit. There was no corpse to be found. Surely, her dead body would have been venerated by these early Christians if it was still on Earth.

The early Christians were accused of cannibalism due to their liturgical practices. The Catholic Church is the only church still accused of cannibalism, primarily by non-Catholic Christians seeking to disprove the authenticity of Catholicism.

The early Christians relied primarily on the oral tradition and the successive authority of the apostles, not on scripture alone as their final authority. Not until the late 300s was the canon of scripture compiled and authorized by the bishops of the Catholic Church. Neither Constantine nor the Christians had ever heard of Sola Scriptura. Oral Tradition continued to be the primary means of Christian teaching until the Protestant Reformers asserted the novel idea of Sola Scriptura and used the invention of the printing press to promote it. Ironically, Sola Scriptura became a foundational, Protestant tradition which cannot be affirmed by scripture alone.

The early Christians already referred to themselves as “catholic” well before Constantine came along and legalized Christianity. The early Christians saw themselves as one body, not as separate ecclesial communities with conflicting doctrines. This can be observed in the works of the early church fathers.

Ignatius, the first century bishop of Antioch, is known for his use of the Greek word katholikos (καθολικός), meaning “universal”, “complete” and “whole” to describe the church, writing:

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.

— Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8

Early Christianity was distinctly Catholic before and after Constantine came along. Constantine’s Edict of Milan didn’t start Catholicism; it simply let it out of its cage. As Saint Cardinal Newman, a convert to Catholicism once said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

“It’s Not A Religion, It’s A Relationship:” Actually, It’s Both

You can follow a religion without knowing Christ, but you can’t know Christ without following a religion. Jesus said, “Follow me,” and “Keep my commandments.” This involves taking certain steps. In other words, following Christ’s religion as taught by him and his apostles.

The teaching that says, “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” is itself a novel religious tradition not taught by Jesus, his apostles, the Church or Scripture. They never condemned religion, only hypocritical or false religion. Never did they teach believers to dump religion and only have a relationship with Jesus. Never did they teach that “it doesn’t matter what church you belong to as long as you love Jesus” (Jesus only established one Church, which, by the way, was visible because believers could go to it to have disputes settled). On the contrary, Jesus and his apostles provided very specific dos and don’ts for believers to follow.

Religion is a human universal. It is found in every culture of every age because God built that desire into our hearts. Embracing the religion of Jesus (the fullness of the Faith) is the best way to know Jesus. It’s how we learn his terms for the relationship and how to come to the Father through him. It’s not a way to “earn salvation by following rules.” It’s a participation in salvation “through him, with him and in him.” One Lord, one Faith, one baptism. One holy, catholic, apostolic Church.

The Confused Champions of Love and Choice

Although it may involve all sorts of positive and negative feelings, love itself is not a feeling. Love is a choice; a decision. Love is an act of the will. However, we live in a world where people are guided primarily by impulse and feeling rather than by will and reason. Feelings tend to be rather fickle and impulses self-serving.

Our world (particularly since the so-called sexual revolution) has become saturated with the distorted thinking pattern sometimes referred to in psychological literature as “feelings are facts.” Consequently, the “facts of life” have become distorted along with the thinking processes. Therefore, it is prudent to maintain a healthy skepticism when words such as “love” or “choice” are used to champion any cause or movement having to do with the “facts of life,” as it were. The likelihood of distortion is quite high.

But, That Teaching Doesn’t Make Me Happy.

There is a common misconception that, if a teaching of the Church makes one uncomfortable, or somehow interferes with what one desires to do, it must be wrong. This is when many people turn on the Church and declare their right to “think for themselves.” How dare the Church “tell me what to do!” This is particularly true regarding sexual morality since the “sexual revolution.”

Partly, this behavior stems from a Western, individualistic mentality, but it also comes from the mistaken notion that being Christian is supposed to magically make one’s life “feel good.” Christianity certainly does bring joy. However, joy must not be confused with “happiness” or “always feeling good.” Joy is an abiding confidence that things will ultimately work out in this life or the next. “Happiness” depends on “happenings” and transient “feelings.” Happiness is a mood. Joy is a state of being.

Of course, there is much happiness to be found in living a genuine Christian life. But happiness is never guaranteed by Jesus. In fact, Jesus told his disciples that they would face persecution, even to the point of death. That does not sound very comfortable.

Jesus also said that unless we take up our cross and follow him, we cannot be his disciples. A cross is not a happy, comfortable thing. Just take a good, long look at a crucifix. That’s one reason we Catholics have crucifixes in our churches and in our homes. It reminds us of what Christ did for us, but it also reminds us of what Christ expects of us.

Can you be a Catholic Christian and also be happy? Of course! But, you also must be willing to accept your crosses. Doing so might not make you “feel happy.” The ultimate goal of Christianity is not to acquire happiness in this life. The goal of Christianity is getting to Heaven and bringing as many souls as possible along with you.

The teachings of the Church are there to serve the ultimate goal of Christianity. They are not designed just to make us feel good all the time. So, the next time you find yourself struggling with how difficult or “unfair” a certain Church teaching is, take a good, long look at a crucifix. Then, ask Jesus for the strength to pick up your cross and follow him. As wonderful as this life can often be, it can’t compare to where Jesus will ultimately take you. To follow his Church is to follow Jesus.

Why Confess To A Priest?

Since many second graders will soon be receiving their first Sacrament of Reconciliation, it seems like a good time to reflect on this awesome gift that Christ has given to his Church.

Jesus said to the apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). Jesus has the authority to forgive sins because he is God. So, why did he empower the apostles (and their successors) with this authority? Why would God want people to tell their sins to men? God hears us. Why put some man in the middle?

In the Old Testament, people were supposed to tell their sins to a priest. However, the priests could only offer up animal sacrifices, which could never completely take away sin. In the New Testament, Jesus offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice which fully takes away sin. He fulfilled the Old Testament. “Fulfilling” does not mean “destroying.” Jesus did not abolish the Old Testament. Jesus completed the Old Testament. So, now when we confess to a priest, it is a complete, fulfilled sacramental cleansing of sin because it is based on the sacrifice of Christ, not the blood of bulls and goats.

That still doesn’t explain why God insists on having a man in the middle. People often ask, “Why not confess directly to God? Why go to a priest? Here are a few reasons:

  1. When we sin, we sin against God, the Church and our fellow human beings. So, it makes sense to apologize not only to God, but also to the Church and to a fellow human being. Confessing to a priest includes all three of these elements. Making amends with individuals we have wronged is, of course, important whenever possible. The priest will likely encourage such actions.

 

  1. Most people will admit that it is usually easier to apologize to God in the silence of one’s heart than it is to apologize out loud to another human being. Let’s face it; it’s very humbling to speak your sins out loud to another person and hear your own voice admitting what you did wrong. I see this frequently in counseling sessions with couples. It can be very difficult to say out loud to someone, “I’m sorry!” This is because apologizing is an act of vulnerability. Vulnerability is essential to intimacy. The Sacrament of Reconciliation helps us to be truly humble, vulnerable and intimately connected to God in our relationship with him. It’s harder to go to confession because it “keeps the relationship real” so to speak. You have to “put it all out there.” You can’t hide within the silence of your own thoughts.

 

  1. Can God hear you speak to him without a priest? Sure. But, can you hear God speak back to you? Of course, God can “speak to your heart” in many ways. However, God did not create you as only a “heart.” He also gave you a physical body with five senses. Assuming that all five senses are working properly, God expects you to use those senses in your relationship with him (as we do with each other). That’s why the sacraments incorporate the five senses. Through the priest, you get to use the ears God gave you to actually hear the words, “I absolve you of your sins.” Your spirit AND your body are involved as God intended. Jesus ascended to Heaven, but he still has a voice for us to hear. What a blessing!

 

  1. Imagine having a disease that is difficult to diagnose and treat. Your prayer to God may be, “Lord, please heal me of this disease!” Now, imagine that circumstances place you under the care of a doctor that just happens to have obscure knowledge and understanding of what ails you. The doctor performs a procedure that cures the disease. You are overjoyed and proclaim, “Thank you, Lord, for sending that doctor to me!”

Now, who cured your disease? Was it God, or was it the doctor? The answer is BOTH! So often, we see things from an either/or perspective when we should be looking at the both/and perspective. God cured the disease by sending a doctor that had the curative power. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is similar. We go to God for forgiveness. God provides a person to whom he has given the power to be his instrument (the priest). God and the priest work together because God wills it.

Rejecting the role of the priest in God’s forgiveness is similar to rejecting the role of a doctor in curing a disease. Because we are created as spiritual AND physical beings, it makes perfect sense to include both aspects of our being in a relationship with God. This is why Jesus gave us the sacraments. They are outward, physical connections to spiritual realities. God knows we need the sacraments because he created us!

 

For further reading on this topic:

https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/is-confession-in-scripture